I think a lot about turtles.
There's an old story that appears in A Brief History Of Time regarding a woman convinced that the world stands atop a giant turtle. When pressed as to what the turtle itself is stood upon, she replied with the famous quote: "it's turtles all the way down".
The anecdote is usually dug out as a warning against the assumption that everything must have an attributable cause. Which, of course, is a valid point, and one I've batted around before. When I consider the infinite chelonian stack, though, it makes me think, no pun intended, of scales.
Regular readers of this blog (along with anyone who has ever overheard me in a pub) will know I'm fascinated by the concept of religion. For all their many differences, the vast majority of faiths have one thing in common, they all place humanity here on the scale of divinity, and place God (or Gods) there, many steps above us. The gap varies, but the idea is that it must be there. Maybe it's the truly unhealthy proportion of time in my life that I've spent thinking about mathematics, but every time I consider the gap between us and Him (or Her, or Them) my immediate question is: what fills the gap? What comes between us and God on the scale? Is there anything above God, for that matter? Is God really the terminus, or is it turtles all the way down?
The Marvel Universe, as one might expect, has spent much of its time filling the gap to bursting, in myriad and frequently contradictory ways (the price you pay for half a century of shared universe storytelling). Whilst actually attempting to attribute a hierarchy to this mess might be enough to send the most dedicated taxonomist mad, the implication is clear: there are many beings that exist between us and God, and some are closer to us than others.
One of the things I love most about the X-Books, the unique aspect to them that makes them the only Marvel books I read with any degree of regularity, is the dynamic between mutants and humanity in general. In its earlier incarnations, this was fairly simplistically sketched: some mutants wanted to fit in, others wanted to rule, and most of baseline humanity wanted them all gone forever. As time has passed, though, and the X-Books have "matured" (always a loaded word in comics), the situation has become more complex. Some humans tolerate mutants, and others accept, but some go so far as to fetishise them. Mutants are the new celebrities to some. More still are so desperate to join the new race that they'll use fatal drugs to gain powers for a few hours, or even kill mutants and wear their abilities like new suits. The lines between human and mutant are becoming more and more blurred.
The X-Men stand on the front line of this twisting, fluid war that shouldn't be a war, trying to avoid taking sides amongst combatants which are increasingly difficult to tell apart. But there's another conflict going on as well. For every human that approaches accepting mutants, or even becoming one, there's a mutant casting far into the gap. Whatever delineation might ever have existed between us and the divine is rapidly being dismantled.
This is where Nightcrawler comes into the picture. Kurt Wagner's entire life to this point has been an attempt to understand the boundaries around mankind. What separates good from evil? Man from mutant? Earth from Heaven? In that sense, he places Xavier's struggle for coexistence into a larger conflict. Where do the inhabitants of Earth lie on the scale? Which turtle are we?
Kurt begins his life unaware of his true heritage. He is raised in a circus by a sorceress named Margali, alongside her children Stefan and Jimaine. Stefan is so concerned that his mystical heritage will corrupt him that he makes Kurt promise to kill him should he flip out and go Dark Side. Reluctantly, Kurt agrees. It is around this time that Kurt develops a devout faith in Catholicism. I don't actually know how this happened, but given his adopted mother's powers and the fear it inspires in his "brother", it's possible that it was a direct response to the oat he has taken. If evil and corruption are real, so too must be good and purity. I might be way off the mark, but I can't think of another particularly compelling explanation as to why a child whose only parent was a mystic would become Catholic. It's a hell of a jump.
Eventually Stefan's fears come true, and he begins to kill people (well, not people exactly, but that's a long story). Kurt tries to stop him without killing him, but manages to snap his neck. Finding Kurt standing over Stefan's corpse, the local villagers attempt to lynch him, which is where Xavier enters the picture.
At this point, the lines are clear. Murdering is evil, trying to save lives is good. Magic is corrupting, Catholicism is purifying. Meeting the other new X-Men and leaving with them to battle Krakoa (and how horribly ironic in retrospect that Xavier was manipulating Kurt's mind throughout that mission) clarifies the one border he was still uncertain of. Now it is clear. Good mutants save the world. Bad ones try to conquer or destroy it. Everything is black and white, a cartoon sketch of the world. It's no wonder that Kurt obsesses over old pirate movies, they tell him exactly what he needs to hear: how others view or label you doesn't matter as long as you do what's right, and have fun with it. How can reality possibly complete with such glorious simplicity?
Fantasies never last, and the prettier they are the harder they tend to die. It all starts with Kitty Pride joining the team, because all she can see when she looks at Kurt is a demon. He has encountered such prejudice before, of course, but that was from strangers. Whether or not it was true, Nightcrawler could take comfort in the idea that they were simply ill-educated, that they feared mutants in general, rather than him specifically. Kitty, though, is a fellow mutant and (admittedly neophyte) superhero. One of the good guys. She has no problem with mutants, except for him. The borders start blurring, and Nightcrawler reacts by retreating inside his swashbuckling persona, hoping it will win Kitty over. He retreats inside one boundary in the hope that others will reset. It works, but worse is to come.
During the "Secret Wars" an insanely powerful alien being known as the Beyonder comes to Earth, kidnaps both superheroes and their adversaries, and dumps them on a planet of its own creation to watch them beat the snot out of each other. It sounds good on paper, but of course not everyone wants to play ball, and several of the villains (mainly Galactus and Dr Doom) decide a better way to spend their time would be to nick the Beyonder's power for themselves.
Kurt's reaction is very different. Faced with a being of apparently limitless power, he immediately fears that he may have met the entity he formerly knew as "God". What if Earth was created, just like this crazy patchwork planetary battlefield, as an experiment to see how the universe and its inhabitants tick? What if the gap was far smaller than he thought it was, and the Big Man at the top of it all is kind of a dick?
Meeting the Beyonder is probably the pivotal moment in Wagner's life. On the one hand, where he once had faith in a grand design, he now resents the merest possibility of being manipulated by outside forces (this is why he breaks up with his girlfriend Amanda Sefton, because he fears she is using her magic powers to manipulate him, when it would make far more sense to have dumped her for only pretending to be an air stewardess when she was actually his adopted sister, which is kinda icky). On the other hand, he is terrified of stepping out of the shadow of others to become his own man. He is riven by doubt and insecurity as temporary leader of the X-Men (after Ororo is hit with a weapon that removes her powers), and is only too happy to step down once Storm returns. If divinity is a lie, if the Beyonder is really all there is at the top of the pile, then how does one define the gap but in terms of power. Better to let others tread there, and just to retreat to the basics. If true good no longer exists, and the world has to be viewed in shades of grey, then at least being a swashbuckler is still fun.
Or at least, it should be. Doubts and insecurities continue to follow him around. An encounter with the future-built Sentinel robot known as Nimrod leaves his teleportation powers severely weakened. This in turn leads to him being badly beaten by Riptide during the Mutant Massacre, and requiring a period of convalescence, during which most of the rest of the X-Men apparently die.
It's difficult to know which variable is independent, whether the chicken arrived before the egg, but the disintegration of Nightcrawler's spirit and his abilities are so parallel that it seems foolish to assume they are independent. By now his faith has been shredded, his powers crippled, and his friends killed. Anti-mutant hysteria is higher than ever before, and there is nothing left for Kurt to hide behind or retreat into. Given all of this, the fact that he ultimately helps form a new British-based superhero team, Excalibur, who operate out of an abandoned lighthouse, seems almost painfully ironic. "We'll help you people out, but we ain't gonna be neighbours".
Once again, though, the boundaries become an issue. Without asking for the role, somehow Kurt ends up as de facto team leader. He finds a Pacific island filled with people who worship him as a God, having seen him fight and help defeat Krakoa and consequently altered their entire culture. It is then discovered that he accidentally mutated a ship full of aliens whilst aboard the Starjammer, in effect creating an entire new species. Ultimately he and his team save the entire multiverse through their exploits in defeating Necrom and the Anti-Phoenix. Even his powers recover (ostensibly because Doctor Doom accidentally fixes them with some weird ray gun, but c'mon). The man who doubts his abilities and the existence of God is now creating cultures and species and saving everything that exists ever. Kurt is deep in the gap.
And now that he's in there, he's not getting back. Nightcrawler discovers his father is one of an ancient race of demonic mutants, who fought a race of mutant angels long ago and became enshrined in the literature of several religions. He finds Jimaine has hidden a magic sword inside him due to the purity of his heart. Hell, Mephisto himself arrives to tempt him, offering the safety of his loved ones and the return of Stefan if he promises to not oppose him.
You see where I'm going with this. Dude ends up in the Bible, and then tempted by an actual resident of Hell. All whilst being pure of heart enough to hold a magical sword inside himself without getting his insides all cut up and shit. That's pretty pure, I would think.
If Marvel actually has a position on God, the actual God, then I've missed it. I'd be pretty surprised if it actually existed. This is a universe, after all, in which vampires and sorcerers and zombies and even leprechauns are all real: specifying a "correct faith" would be limiting from a storytelling perspective even if it wasn't a political shit-storm just waiting to happen ("This week: Wolverine meets Mohammed. Not Vishu, though; some fool just made that shit up!"). All they can do is explore the gap, and maybe draw some parallels. Take the Trinity, for example. It's at least arguable that God the Son, in the form of Jesus Christ, is somewhere in the gap. By becoming human, part of his purpose was to act as a bridge. He had some cool tricks to get it done, too, but there isn't anything Jesus is actually reputed to have done that various mutants in the Marvel universe couldn't have pulled off as well (though I confess I'm not sure if any one specific mutant could create food, alter molecular structures, heal the sick, and come back from the dead).
The power of those in the gap, then, isn't really the issue in the Marvel universe. But then, it isn't really the point here, either. The point is the application of power, whatever form it actually takes; that's what all that stuff about rich merchants and poor old ladies was about.
Once again, this is where Nightcrawler comes in. For all his doubts about his place in society, for all his problems with being in command, and all his Gethsemane moments in which he considers giving up on God, he never fails to try his hardest to do the right thing. His view of the world is too simplistic/pure for anything else. I kind of love him for that, even if I suspect that were I to meet him person he would piss me off fairly quickly. No amount of kicks and bruises and disappointments will allow him to change his fundamental assumptions of how the world should be. That's the point of spirituality, and of heroism. So what if he requires periods of convalescence in which he pretends to be Errol Flynn? He comes out of it, and then he saves the motherfucking universe.
He isn't worthy of worship, nor would he want it if it were offered, he proved that on an island a few miles from the place where he risked his life to save a bunch of people he had never even met before. He'd probably be OK with respect, though. I suggest you give it to him.
Next time: we see whether there is anything left to say about the universe's most ubiquitous mutant, and attempt to do it without typing the term "snikt".