Posted on Sunday, September 21, 2014
by Paul in Uncategorized
The X-books have, for a while now, given the impression of being made – or at least commissioned – by people wrestling with the commercial challenge of how to have as many X-Men titles as humanly possible, while still trying to make them all at least somewhat creatively distinct. Part of the answer to that problem has come in a wave of solo titles for characters who would not previously have been thought natural candidates – Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler.
Some characters lend themselves fairly easily to solo titles. Most of the Avengers were designed to function as solo heroes in the first place, and only added to teams after the fact. But most of the X-Men weren’t, which means that the answer to the question “what does so-and-so do when he isn’t having adventures with the X-Men” doesn’t always give the answer that writers of a solo title might be hoping for. Wolverine and Gambit? Sure, they’re easy to imagine spending their down time on heists and bar fights. But for much of X-Men history, Cyclops has given the impression of a character who spends his free evenings balancing his chequebook. This is fine in the context of a team book, where he’s the rock of stability, but not so great if you’re trying to put him in a solo title. (And we’ll come to how his book solves the problem in due course.)
Nightcrawler sits somewhere in between these poles. It’s not too hard to imagine him stumbling into swashbuckling adventures of his own, but it is kind of hard to imagine him choosing to fight evil as a solo act when he could just call the X-Men for reinforcements. He’s a team player by nature; even back in the 70s and 80s, there weren’t actually that many stories where he was the focus. The flip side is that, for a character who’s been in the X-books since 1975, Nightcrawler actually has a remarkably uncluttered back story (Azazel may be a dreadful idea, but at least he’s not a complicated one). And a Nightcrawler solo has been tried before, with a wonky attempt to take a supernatural angle. But it didn’t really work.
This series in fact started life as the next incarnation of X-Men Legacy, with Nightcrawler taking his turn as the focal character. That makes a certain degree of sense; it’s possible to imagine a series similar to Christos Gage’s Rogue-centred run, which wasn’t so much a solo title as a series specifically about how Rogue fitted into the X-Men.
In fact, under Chris Claremont and Todd Nauck, a central theme turns out to be Nightcrawler trying to fit back into a school, and a version of the X-Men, that has changed dramatically from what he remembered. The parallels here are abundantly obvious, of course. Claremont himself is a writer associated overwhelmingly with a past era of the X-Men, one that raised the book into Marvel’s top franchise, but which is also now a quarter century in the past. That fact inevitably casts a shadow over proceedings whenever he returns to do work on the X-books; he used to be the one who defined the X-books, but now he’s the veteran working in the margins of somebody else’s vision.
To his credit, Claremont generally seems to try hard to play fair with other writers’ approaches to the X-books. As much as anything, he seems to be interested these days in what remains quietly unchanged through these various iterations of his concepts; not in denying the validity of today’s approach, but in finding lines of connection back to his own work and bringing out a latent sense of continuity with the past that legitimises both eras. And obviously, that’s easy to do with scenes of Kurt trying to find his place in an almost unrecognisable school.
So we get things like the opening of issue #5, in which Nightcrawler attempts to play a game of baseball on his own (well, with the help of the Bamfs), but swiftly gives up. This is a striking scene – Claremont is intentionally writing a failed attempt to recapture his own past glories. If nothing else, he plainly recognises the writing challenge that the X-books now present him.
But this aside, what else does the book have to offer? Well, it’s got nicely chirpy art from Todd Nauck, and it goes without saying that Claremont gets Nightcrawler’s voice (which he created, after all) in a way that few writers have managed since he left. And it has a certain retro charm, if you yearn for the days when action scenes were actually constructed in such a way as to introduce characters and give them something to do. It’s lighter on Claremont’s writing tics than some of his work has been, and it’s a little old fashioned in its construction, it’s nonetheless solid. Besides, if you’re buying a Chris Claremont Nightcrawler series, “a little old fashioned” is probably what you were hoping for.
With Nightcrawler’s personal rogue’s gallery being on the slim side, and an entire wing of that gallery being devoted to the unfortunate Azazel, it’s understandable that Claremont starts by focussing on his family, bringing back Amanda Sefton and Margali Szardos for the first arc. Leave aside the eternal oddity that Claremont somehow gets away with Amanda doubling as Nightcrawler’s sister and his girlfriend; once again, the weirdness of that is simply not acknowledged in any way, as the story cheerfully treats the whole thing as perfectly normal instead. Essentially the plot of these early issues sees Kurt being drawn back into his family by Margali, who turns out to be looking for a way to exploit his return from the afterlife to open her own portal there.
This plays into the storyline that Claremont inherits from Amazing X-Men, though it’s not altogether clear that he and Jason Aaron are wholly on the same page here. Amazing strongly implies that Kurt sold his soul to the Bamfs in order to get back to Earth. The actual dialogue in issue #5 is actually a little ambiguous; Kurt says that he struck a deal with the Bamfs and that it cost him his soul, but he could be speaking figuratively. (The recap page in issue #6 says explicitly that he sold his soul, but it also says explicitly that he can never go back to the afterlife, something that’s expressly left unclear in the previous issue – so how far it should be trusted is debatable.)
If this is indeed the concept, nobody seems to have told Claremont. Instead, he goes with another idea – one that is also explicitly set up in Amazing, to be fair – namely that having left Heaven by choice, Kurt can’t go back. Which obviously begs the question of what’s going to happen when he dies again. There’s an ambiguity here about whether he’s barred forever or simply needs to re-earn his way in. Either way, it’s something to work with.
And in fact, I prefer it to the “sold his soul” idea. The problem with claiming that a character has sold his soul is that it’s far from clear what it actually means. Not least because Kurt’s soul is plainly animating his new body right now; perhaps the idea was simply that the Bamfs get him when he dies next, but even then it’s hard to see what a bunch of child-like goblins on Red Bull would actually find to do with him, or what interest they’d even have in soul-buying. But a story where the most religious of the X-Men has cut himself off from his god… that’s got some potential, actually. You don’t have to be religious to see that there’s a story in there about the psychology of faith.
So there are a couple of promising themes emerging here. That’s the long game, however, and one wonder whether the market for X-Men solo titles is likely to be all that friendly to long games. In the short term, the reality of these first six issues is two fairly routine stories with a bunch of underdeveloped characters. Considerable space is devoted to introducing other super powered characters from Kurt’s old circus, but none really make it to two dimensions. The two-parter in issues #5-6 not only brings back the Crimson Pirates, some pirate-themed villains from Claremont’s abortive late 90s comeback that don’t have enough charisma to get away with being so silly, it also involves a lot of chasing after a women whose personality is barely a cipher.
Rather better work is done on introducing Rico, a mutant with the deeply unfortunate power to be basically just a giant scorpion-insect thing. This is a character whose chances of living a normal life are precisely zero, so naturally enough Claremont wants Kurt to be the inspirational mentor figure for him. Rico’s a nice enough sidekick, but it has to be said that Nauck sometimes seems to struggle to make him as expressive as the story really needs. It’s not easy when you don’t have conventional body language to work with, but it feels like there should be room to do more.
The upshot is a competent book that raises some interesting long-term themes but is doing fairly routine stories in the here and now.