When Words Collide

Mon, September 28th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

WHO'S YOUR DADDY, NIGHTCRAWLER?

This has been a crazy busy month for me, what with a couple of new job titles and a new house that has needed a tremendous amount of painting. (And with names like "Mysteria," "Flint Smoke," and "Arabian Sands," these rooms have paint colors that seem like some rejected "Dungeons & Dragons" adventure.) I haven't even thought about comics at all in the past few days other than my conversation with Chad Nevett in the finale of "Splash Page: Wednesday Comics" and a couple of reviews this week. So, nothing is on my immediate mind worthy of a "When Words Collide" installment.

I did get the "Absolute V for Vendetta" book, and that would make a great column, I'm sure, but I have to really dig into that book to mine it for ideas. And I just haven't had time for that in recent days.

So this week you get a Very Special "When Words Collide," something that originally appeared in the "Mutants" issue of "Back Issue" magazine in 2008. I wrote this article as part of the "Greatest Stories Never Told" series, and it was heavily inspired (with permission) from a few nuggets of information thrown out by CBR's own Mr. Brian Cronin.

Ever wonder what the deal was with Nightcrawler's strange parentage? Or what really happened that led Apocalypse to replace the Owl (?!?) as the main baddie in "X-Factor"? Well, I spoke to some of the people involved with those stories, and you'll find out all about that stuff, and more! Keep reading!

A GREAT STORY, NOT QUITE TOLD

Giant Size X-Men #1

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched "X-Men" #1 (Sept. 1963), they surely didn’t have any idea that an intricate—some might say nearly impenetrable—web of relationships would form around the concept of a school for super-powered youngsters. The small original group (Professor X, Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel, and Marvel Girl) has expanded to hundreds of combined members in groups like X-Men, Young X-Men, X-Force, X-Statics, X-Factor, and even X-Babies. With such a diverse cast of characters spread across time zones, timelines, and alternate realities, it’s inevitable that some of the characters would find out that they have more in common than just the letter “X” in front of their team name.

Out of all the X-Men, though, none has led to as much speculation about parentage as the swashbuckling teleporter known as Nightcrawler.

Nightcrawler “BAMFed” onto the comics scene in "Giant-Size X-Men" #1 (May 1975) as a self-professed “carnival freak” named Kurt Wagner, chased by an archetypal, torch-wielding mob through the streets of Winzeldorf, Germany. Visually, a creation of artist Dave Cockrum—and one that Cockrum had intended to use, in a slightly different form, during his earlier run on DC Comics’ "Legion of Super-Heroes" series—Nightcrawler was the most exotic addition to the “All-New, All-Different” team. Other new characters featured strange accents (Russian! Canadian!) or non-Caucasian skin-tones (African! Native American!), but none combined the two into a more bizarre, unheroic-looking form as the blue-skinned, two-fingered, pointy-tailed Nightcrawler.

Fans couldn’t help but wonder if there was something mysterious about Nightcrawler’s past. He certainly looked less human than the other mutant characters—even the furry, blue Beast started out as a relatively normal looking, if extra-bulky, character—and Nightcrawler’s strange feet (were they hooves?) and appendages (what kind of super-hero has a demon tail?) seemed to suggest that he was more than just your average mutant from the wild streets of Germany.

NIGHTCRAWLER'S DREAMY DAD

Nightmare and Doctor Strange

John Byrne, the artist who succeeded Dave Cockrum as penciler on "X-Men," indicates that speculation about Nightcrawler’s parental origins was not restricted to the minds of the readers. Apparently, writer Chris Claremont, who took over from Len Wein after the first appearance of Nightcrawler, had his own theories about who might have spawned a mutant as outright weird-looking as Kurt Wagner.

On a Frequently Asked Questions post on the Byrne Robotics Forum, Byrne explains, “At one point Chris wanted to ‘reveal’ that Kurt’s father was Nightmare.”

Nightmare—the pale-skinned, green-clad, horse-riding ruler of the “Dimension of Dreams”—was going to be revealed as Nightcrawler’s father. Nightmare, as a character in the Marvel Universe, had been around even longer than the original X-Men. Nightmare’s initial comic book appearance was in the very first Dr. Strange story, originally published in "Strange Tales" #110 (July 1963). Even in that first story, Dr. Strange refers to Nightmare as his “ancient foe,” and the evil ruler of the Dream Dimension seems to revel in the knowledge that he will one day bring about the death of the master of the mystic arts.

Presumably, Claremont made the Nightmare/Nightcrawler connection to provide Kurt Wagner with a suitably evil and demonically-supernatural parent (to explain Nightcrawler’s physical appearance), and perhaps the Marvel analogue of Satan, the character known as Mephisto, would have been too obvious a choice. Or maybe Claremont wanted to explain a connection between Nightcrawler’s teleportation abilities and travel to the Dream Dimension. Or maybe Claremont just thought of Nightmare because both he and Nightcrawler have pointy ears.

We’ll never know what stories could have been told when it was revealed that Nightmare was the true father of Kurt Wagner, because, as John Byrne adds on his forum, “Roger Stern, as editor, put the kibosh on that one.”

Roger Stern, who became "X-Men" editor with issue #113 (Sept. 1978), remembers the timeline a bit differently: “Actually, I put a stop to the Nightmare connection before I became the X-Men’s editor,” says Stern. “It happened when I was the writer of "Dr. Strange," back when writers were still occasionally listened to. Chris had come up with the latest of several crazy ideas and declared that Nightcrawler's father was Nightmare. And I replied with something like: ‘No, he's not. I'm not going to let you appropriate one of my character's major villains.’ As I recall, Len Wein crossed the room and shook my hand.”

“And not too long after,” Stern adds, “I did become the "X-Men" editor and was able to make sure that didn't happen for long enough that Chris eventually changed his mind.”

Stern claims that during his tenure as X-Men editor, no plan existed for revealing Nightcrawler’s parentage. “Not at all,” Stern emphasizes. “Nightcrawler's parentage simply wasn't that important to us then,” he adds.

Since Stern took over as editor on the title only a couple of years after Claremont began writing, Claremont must have concocted the Nightmare-as-Nightcrawler’s-Father scenario relatively early on. And, as Stern indicates, Claremont didn’t immediately move on to a new concept of Kurt Wagner’s parentage. If not for Stern’s adamant, and repeated refusal, Claremont would have certainly revealed that Nightcrawler was a produce of the Dream Dimension. Alas, we can only speculate on the stories that might have arisen from that strange and fertile ground.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED

X-Men Unlimited #4

Thwarted in his attempt to give Nightcrawler an appropriately unusual paternal history, Claremont set his sights on a new, and even more bizarre, use of a character as a parent for Kurt Wagner. He attempted to link the blue-eared elf with another azure-skinned character—one who had recently become an important part of the X-Men’s rogues gallery: Mystique.

Mystique, a character created by Claremont for "Ms. Marvel" in 1978, was a shape-shifting mutant whose natural form was that of a red-haired, blue-skinned woman with a miniature skull attached to the base of her widow’s peak. Based on a design by Nightcrawler’s creator, Dave Cockrum, Mystique (a.k.a. Raven Darkholme) began as a behind-the-scenes manipulator—a character who could use her powers to infiltrate government agencies on behalf of her own secret agenda. By 1981, she had begun to appear in Claremont and Byrne’s "X-Men," this time as the leader of an all-new, all-different (almost) version of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants featuring characters like Destiny, Avalanche, Pyro, and the Blob.

“When Mystique first showed up in the 'X-Men,'” says Roger Stern, “I was long gone from editorial. My only connection to Mystique was as the editor of "Ms. Marvel," where she was just one of many villains.”

Perhaps with Stern no longer as an obstacle, Claremont could have returned to the idea of using Nightmare as Nightcrawler’s father, but by then he had a different plan. And what was bizarre about it wasn’t that he decided to reveal that Nightcrawler was the son of another blue-skinned character like Mystique, but, rather, how he planned on explaining their relationship.

As Byrne explains on his forum, “Chris decided Kurt’s mother was Destiny—and his father was Mystique.”

Mystique’s shape-shifting wouldn’t have restricted her to the role of mother. She could switch sexes as easily as she could change her hair color, and a relationship with the precognitive mutant female known as Destiny was just as likely as anything else in the Marvel Universe. Or maybe not, because the plan was abandoned almost immediately, although years later, it would be revealed that Mystique and Destiny did have a surrogate daughter who they raised as their own: and it turned out to be none other than another member of the X-Men: Rogue.

Nightcrawler never got the chance to spend quality time with his two prospective mommies, though, and the stories of such a shocking revelation were never written.

Nevertheless, X-Men fans speculated for years about the possible genetic connection between Nightcrawler and Mystique. What were the odds, the fans seemed to say, that two characters in the "X-Men" series have similar blue skin tones and not be related? And, of course, all they had to do was wait, because in "X-Men Unlimited" #4 (Mar. 1994), in a story called, appropriately, “Theories of Relativity,” writer Scott Lobdell revealed the in-continuity truth about the relationship between Mystique and Nightcrawler. She is, in comic book fact, his "mother." Not his father.

When asked how he felt about Nightcrawler’s parentage finally being revealed after years of speculation, former Claremont editor and Nightmare-as-father-blocker Roger Stern responded: “I don't care for it myself. Too many people in the Marvel Universe are secretly related to one another. And it's much more interesting when mutants have normal parents.” Stern goes on to add, “Of course, that's been a huge problem with the X-book for decades now...no supporting character stays normal for long.”

THE MUTANT HUNTERS MEET THEIR MATCH

Apocalypse Appears

Another X-related “Greatest Story Never Told” features not a question of parentage, but a question of villainy. This time, the untold tale features the original five-member team from Charles Xavier’s school, but in an all-new comic that debuted in 1986: "X-Factor."

Created by writer Bob Layton and artist Jackson Guice, "X-Factor" recast Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel, and the recently-resurrected Jean Grey as pretend mutant hunters who would, in actuality, help mutants they were hired to “investigate.” Basically, the team was a mutant version of "Ghostbusters," but for the x-gene instead of ectoplasm. Hiding their true, mutant identities, the X-Factor team would appear to capture mutants but would actually recruit and train the young characters they encountered instead.

That was the plan, anyway, but the team soon faced another obstacle, in the form of the colossal villain called Tower, who smashed through X-Factor headquarters in "X-Factor" #2 (Mar. 1986) intent on capturing the Beast. Layton and Guice hinted at a larger threat to the team almost immediately, as Tower stuffed the abducted Beast into the back of a sedan and discussed some of the terms of a “contract” with the driver. He didn’t hide the fact that some greater power is behind the kidnapping.

Two months later, in "X-Factor" #4 (April 1986), another new villain, Frenzy, appeared and spoke to Tower of an ominous “master.” In issue #5 (June 1986), the two villains were joined by Stinger and Timeshadow (two more newly created characters), and that so-called “Alliance of Evil” abducted yet another character, Michael Nowlan, a mutant with the ability to augment other mutants’ powers. This time, though, the mysterious master’s identity was finally revealed: on the last page of "X-Factor" #5 we met the Machiavellian architect behind the string of kidnappings. Holding his fist in the air, the shadowy character shouted, “A race of super-mutants! And I shall lead them to war against the puny infection called—man! So swears Apocalypse!”

Thus, one of the greatest villains in X-Men history arrived on the scene.

But Bob Layton hadn’t planned on creating a new character to fulfill the role of the benefactor of the Alliance of Evil. Originally, mysterious “master” who turned out to be Apocalypse was supposed to be none other than…the mighty Owl?!?

Leland Owlsley, a.k.a. the Owl, first appeared in "Daredevil" #3 (June 1964). The Owl, billed on the cover of that issue as the “Overlord of Crime,” was a typical criminal mastermind who would appear from time to time over the years, cackling about some sinister plan before being punched in the face by Daredevil, or Spider-Man, or whoever else happened to come along.

This character was supposed to be the sinister force behind the Alliance of Evil?

Really?

Yes, according to original "X-Factor" writer Bob Layton, who verifies the rumor as “totally true.”

Apparently, Layton planned to recast the Owl as a more formidable foe, and he planned to use the character as X-Factor’s main villain throughout the series. Apocalypse, who has become one of the most important villains in the entire Marvel Universe, was never meant to be.

Collaborator Jackson Guice explains that, although he only knew about the general direction of the series after the opening story arc, he knew that the plan included the Owl. “Bob and I actually collaborated closely on the initial start up of the book, so while I naturally left the specific details of story plans to him as the writer, I was aware of the intended story arcs and where we were going with the thing.”

So, what happened? Bob Layton left the series after five issues, and incoming writer Louise Simonson had her own ideas. Jackson Guice explains, “I'm not sure how much of Bob's original plan Louise was informed of when she came on board--not a conversation I would have been involved with, I'm afraid. Louise is a terrific writer, however, so I assume she wanted to implement her own ideas wherever she could. I do vaguely recall her telling me the broad strokes for Apocalypse extremely early on in our discussions. She always intended for him to be a true heavyweight contender as a villain—all of which bore out.” And although Guice only worker with Simonson for two issues before he, too, left the series, he has nothing but positive feelings about their collaboration: “I have to say, brief as it was, I enjoyed collaborating with Louise very much,” he says.

The Owl appears in Daredevil #3

"X-Factor" editor Bob Harras sheds further light on the origins of Apocalypse, and claims that the character arose because of storytelling needs: "All I had communicated to Louise was my desire that an A-level, first class character be introduced. I wanted a Magneto-level villain who would up the stakes and give the X-Factor team reason to exist."

The Owl, even with a personality overhaul by Bob Layton, wouldn’t have measured up as a truly menacing threat. Originally, though, Jackson Guice had drawn the Owl into that final page of "X-Factor" #5 according to Bob Layton’s original script. It was only after Louise Simonson came up with her plans for issue #6, and beyond, that the silhouette of the Owl was replaced by the shadowy form of Apocalypse.

Bob Harras says, "As soon as I saw the sketch by Walter [Simonson] and heard Louise's take on him. I knew we had the character I wanted. Jackson re-drew the page, patching in the shadowy Apocalypse where the Owl had been. But the genesis was clearly Walt and Weezie's.”

Soon-to-depart artist Jackson Guice, who admits that time has robbed him of the specific details regarding the early "X-Factor" issues, remembers playing a role in the visual concept for the Owl’s replacement: “I knew from my conversation with Louise, she intended him to be some sort of ongoing evil uber-menace, a real brutal monster of a guy capable of holding his own against the combined team, but I think the specific look was left open to interpretation to me. The best I can remember now is putting his look together pretty much right on the pencil page—just adding bits of costuming business which hinted toward his true appearance when we'd eventually see him in full reveal. I don't believe there was even a character sketch done for him at that point—I planned on making sense of it all later on, but by then I was gone and other's had that concern.”

Perhaps Guice hadn’t seen Walter Simonson’s sketch for the character, because even though Apocalypse identifies himself by name at the end of issue #5, it’s not until "X-Factor" #6 (July 1986)—Guice’s penultimate issue—that we see his full form, and his costume doesn’t quite match the silhouette from the previous issue. Apocalypse’s trademark tubing, connecting his arms to his torso, is completely absent from that final panel of issue #5. By issue #6, Guice must have seen the sketch Harras refers to, because, by then, Apocalypse looks like the character we know and love (or love to hate) today.

Bob Harras says that he knew the Simonsons had come up with something special in Apocalypse: "He looked fantastic. Also, the name is dynamic. It tells you right off this character means trouble. And he came with a clear-cut agenda: ‘survival of the fittest.’ He didn't care if you were a mutant—if you were weak, you would be destroyed. He was merciless, but his philosophy was easy to grasp and it fit in with the harder edge of evolution which is part and parcel of the mutant story. Isn't that what humans fear about mutants? That they are the next step? Now, we had given mutants something new to fear: a character who would judge them on their genetic worthiness."

As Harras points out, "To his own mind he wasn't evil (despite his leadership of the Alliance of Evil, which I think we dropped pretty soon after Apocalypse's introduction); he believed he was doing the right thing. He was ensuring evolution. To me, he was the perfect next step in the mutant story."

Perhaps even a re-imagined Owl wouldn’t have quite cut it.

Guice doesn’t remember exactly what Layton might have done with the Owl, had he been given the chance, but he does remember another small bit of a story that never came to be. “The only thing I even vaguely remember,” says Guice, “are the bare bones of a story Bob and I intended to do involving Madrox being hunted by his own multiple clones on some remote island off the coast of Ireland—the gist of the thing being all that splitting had ultimately fractured Jamie's personality to the point he could no longer exert control over his duplicates and now they were running amok killing each other—each convinced he was the original Madrox. It was our tip of the hat toward the movie classic 'The Most Dangerous Game,' amongst other things—with lots of mad frantic scrambling about in wind and rain at night, a remote derelict castle, those sort of trappings. I don't suppose Bob ever got around to telling it elsewhere.”

Unfortunately, that tale, along with the story of Nightcrawler’s not-quite fathers and the Owl’s almost reinvention, will just have to remain one of the greatest stories never told.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, nightcrawler, apocalypse, x-men, x-factor

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