Kurt Wagner is many things. He’s a mutant born in Bavaria with unique physical features: blue fur, a prehensile tail, pointed ears, fangs, and three-fingered hands and feet. He’s a teleporter and a trapeze artist. He’s the adopted son of a Romani sorceress and the biological son of a shapeshifter and a big red jerk who’s either a mutant or a demon or maybe a mutant demon. He’s one of the X-Men franchise’s most persecuted mutants and one of its most optimistic. He’s Catholic and a sexy-as-hell swashbuckler. He’s a pilot, a medic, and a mentor. Most importantly, he’s the soul of the X-Men.
Kurt hones his physical gifts in a circus before the crimes of his foster brother turn the townspeople of Winzeldorf, Germany against him. After Professor Xavier rescues Kurt from a torch and pitchfork-wielding mob, he becomes a core member of the “second generation” X-Men team, maturing into a leader before grave wounds land him in a coma. He eventually recovers and helps form the UK-based superteam Excalibur, becoming its longtime leader. During this time, he also learns he’s the son of Mystique, who abandoned him as a baby.
When Excalibur disbands, Kurt returns to the X-Men, where his life endures many upheavals. An anti-mutant cult brainwashes him into believing he’s a priest. He meets his father, Azazel, and his alternate universe daughter, Nocturne. And he dies, giving his life to protect the “mutant messiah” Hope Summers. As X-Men are wont to do, he also overcomes death, saving the spirit realm and earning a new body by sacrificing his soul. It says a lot about Kurt Wagner that losing his soul doesn’t change who he is. The best versions of Nightcrawler are centrally defined by empathy, hard-fought joy, and aspirational heroism.
Dave Cockrum originally pitched a version of Nightcrawler as a member of a Legion of Superheroes-related team before finding him a home among the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men. The character debuted alongside Storm, Colossus, Thunderbird, and Sunfire in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975), written by Len Wein with art by Cockrum. But Chris Claremont contributed crucial characterization, helping transform Kurt from an angry misanthrope into a man who navigates trauma through humor while embracing his unique appearance. Relevant to the latter, Kurt’s first-ever thought bubble proves prophetic. While being chased by the angry mob on page one of Giant-Size #1, he thinks: “Monster, is it? The fools! It is they who are the monsters—they with their mindless prejudices!” In effect, Kurt states the thesis of a more politically conscious era of X-Men comics, which would see Marvel’s mutants become a dominant multimedia franchise. It is Kurt’s subsequent decision to fight hate with love that makes him the soul of the X-Men.
In Uncanny X-Men #165 (1983), Nightcrawler was revealed to be Catholic. In most comics, he practices his faith rather than preaching it, modelling his personal values through his actions. In the years since Excalibur (1988-1998), Kurt’s character development has sometimes languished and been plagued by inconsistency. Yet he continues to be a popular member of the X-Men franchise, starring in three solo series (2002, 2004, and 2014) and several one-shots, with central roles in additional limited series. Creators often spotlight the character when they want to inject humor, reckon with moral quandaries, and explore the deeper meaning of the mutant metaphor.
Through his fantastical difference, Nightcrawler represents diverse experiences of otherness. His difference also informs his empathy. While most mutant bodies change at puberty, Kurt was born different. He’s never been able to pass for human, and before long, doesn’t want to. In Uncanny X-Men #130 (1980), he rejects the “image inducer” that offers a human disguise, a decision that goes against the assimilationist politics of that era’s Professor X. Comics readers quickly latched onto Nightcrawler’s embrace of being different. A letter attributed to Carolyn Amos, appearing in Uncanny X-Men #149 (1981), memorably extols Kurt’s virtues, observing “There aren’t too many characters—in books, comics, movies, or elsewhere—that us real-life ‘misfits’ can lock onto to form or celebrate positive images of ourselves.”
Forty years later, superheroes with visibly different bodies who are both body positive and sex positive remain rare, which is why Nightcrawler remains special for many fans. When Kurt’s faith is convincingly integrated with his other defining traits, he’s also an important example of a progressive Catholic. Kurt enjoys sensual delights, respects powerful women, dates witches and aliens, has (at least) two moms, and counts among his best friends a queer Jewish girl, a stab-y atheist, and a woman worshipped as a goddess. He is built to question stereotypes and orthodoxies.
Loving any X-Men character is often an exercise in loving their potential beyond what’s on the page. That’s no less true of Nightcrawler. But Kurt Wagner arguably lives up to his potential more often than most. The stories in this primer are proof.