Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second of our new series here on The Middle Spaces – CRITICAL NOSTALGIA – where scholars, aca-fans, and other writers re-visit a single comic book issue (or story) that once held some kind of meaning for them by contextualizing it historically and/or culturally, saying something about what it meant to them at the time, and then re-examining it through a more current and rigorous lens. In the future, it may be opened up to include a single TV show episode, single scene from a film, or a single popular song – but for now we’re sticking to comics. If you are interested in pitching something, check out our Submit page (we pay!). Today’s essay is by Dr. Anna Peppard. This is her third appearance on The Middle Spaces, including an interview as part of our The (re)Collection Agency series.
This isn’t breaking news to anyone who knows me, but for the benefit of everyone else, who’ll need this knowledge to understand this essay: I’m in love with Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler, aka the X-Men franchise’s resident blue-furred, fork-tailed teleporter who’s one of the goodest mutants around despite having a demon for a daddy and (at least) two murderous moms. I’m specifically in love with the comic book version of the character, and even more specifically, any comic book version in which Kurt’s more interested in embracing his weirdness than wallowing in Catholic guilt. The seeds of my crush were planted in Uncanny X-Men but reached full flower in Chris Claremont and Alan Davis’s Excalibur, which saw Kurt leave the US for the UK and a bigger, sexier role amid a smaller pool of heroes. We broke up for a while, mostly because he was dead. But to paraphrase the already-cliché wisdom of a synthezoid I’ve loved even longer and almost as deeply, love has ways of persevering, even through death. Last spring, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I found my way back to Nightcrawler, and to Excalibur. After catching up with what my favorite mutant had been doing since falling from heaven, I fell back into my favorite series, re-reading the whole thing, start to finish, for the first time in over a decade.
My comics nostalgia isn’t rooted in childhood, when I rarely had any comics and even fewer I genuinely liked. But I do have nostalgia for certain comic book runs I read in my early-to-late 20s, usually in a hurry on my computer while listening to the same few carefully selected albums on repeat, which I now indelibly associate with certain comics. (I paired Excalibur with Bat for Lashes and Florence + the Machine.) I was always in a hurry because when I first started to read a lot of comics, character obsessions were my primary motivation. That meant I often skimmed issues, scanning quickly through Nightcrawler-less pages to reach the next great Nightcrawler scene, with special enthusiasm for scenes featuring Kurt being sexy. That’s basically any scene drawn by Davis, but especially those featuring sword-fighting and bathtubs and short robes and short-shorts. And, of course, kissing. I’ve never been good at reciting plot details or recalling the names of b-list villains, but I can describe every time Kurt Wagner has kissed anyone, in any comic from the past 45 years. When those sexy scenes happened, I lingered there. A lot. I’ve probably spent hours staring at one of my all-time favorite scenes, comprising three pages midway through Claremont and Davis’s Excalibur #4 (January 1989). The scene involves Meggan, an “empathic metamorph” with sometimes-unpredictable emotion-based shapeshifting powers who’s in a troubled relationship with Captain Britain, seeking out Kurt in his basement gym. From there, the scene progresses through flirtatious acrobatic daredevilry into a drawn-out almost-kiss, during which Meggan, in response to her own desire, Kurt’s, or both, transforms into a female version of my favorite fuzzy elf.
I’m something of an expert on this, so I feel pretty confident saying—this is a very sexy Nightcrawler scene. In case you need convincing, let me walk you through my read of it, a little over a decade ago. In this scene, Kurt is fun and adventurous, like all the best swashbucklers (who’ve always had my number) but with a vulnerability and self awareness Errol Flynn never had. Following some playful back-and-forth and an exchange of glittering smiles, Kurt, a former trapeze artist, literally sweeps Meggan off her feet and tosses her into his aerial jungle-gym, intending to show off his strength and skill by catching her in mid-air. Meggan, however, subverts his macho performance by choosing to fly instead of falling into his arms. Despite Kurt’s professed fantasies about rescuing damsels in distress, he’s not turned off by Meggan’s show of strength. Instead, he’s encouraged by it. He grins before risking a teleport to tickle her, employing his hands and his tail. This reduces Meggan to breathless laughter, which makes both characters fall, all the way from the high ceiling to the floor.
As they fall, Kurt seems back in control of the situation. He responds to Meggan’s emphatic threat that she’ll “get [him] for this” with a calm, “I can hardly wait.” But on a practical, physical level, he has very little control. He can’t fly or perform a second teleport in so short a time; he’s at the mercy of Meggan—who has both flight and super-strength—as much or more than she’s at his. Kurt doesn’t care, or perhaps enjoys the risk. He says as much—playfully but, I think, genuinely—after the messy landing, when he tells Meggan, “It was worth it, to bring this sparkle to your eyes.” As Meggan leans over Kurt to assess his condition and gently chastise him, the simultaneous carelessness and carefulness of his supplicant pose is perfect. The way he presents himself as non-threatening, flat on his back with an open chest and his hands tucked away, reflects a lifetime of working very hard to be liked instead of feared, in defiance of so many attempts to turn him into the wrong type of monster. He even works in a jab at beastly former teammate Hank McCoy in which he frames his own appeal not in terms of traditionally masculine qualities, but rather feminine ones, of charm and cuteness. Kurt knows what I like. I like trickster-devil-elf-catboys with tragic pasts, quick wits, and cute smiles. And he’s uncannily good at doing and being all those ridiculous things at once in a single comic book panel.
The four-panel sequence that follows, featuring a close-up view of Kurt and Meggan’s faces that fractionally zooms in until they oh-so-nearly kiss, deserves its own paragraph (I’m sure it actually deserves its own essay, but I’ll try to make do). As thoroughly as I’ve ever studied anything, I’ve studied each part of Kurt’s face as it responds to Meggan’s metamorphosis. In the first panel, his innocent schoolboy smile is undercut by his unsubtly flirtatious words, while his eyes are wide with heedless hope and a glimmer of nervous energy, signalled by the slight pucker of his eyebrows. This makes him intensely identifiable and lends his corny romantic dialogue a note of self-deprecation, suggesting his corniness is intentional, and more charming for it. The power dynamic shifts in the second panel, as Meggan begins to transform. When she starts to sparkle, Kurt’s smile starts to falter, his face falling as he begins to fall for Meggan. In panel three, he stops seducing and starts being seduced, his half-lidded eyes and loosely parted lips helplessly drawn into the reflection of himself. Meggan’s transformation might manifest Kurt’s ego, or a darkly Freudian aspect of his desire (the blue-colored, golden-eyed Meggan unavoidably resembles Kurt’s biological mother, Mystique, another shapeshifter). But it’s also a powerful gesture of acceptance. Meggan, who spent years resembling a werewolf before learning to present herself as an impossibly beautiful blonde, decides, instead, to adopt Kurt’s connotatively monstrous appearance, and embrace its different kind of beauty. The fourth and final panel shows Meggan fully transformed and most in control. Kurt strains upward to meet Meggan’s lips but remains pinned beneath her; most of the motion and speed are hers. The usually silver-tongued Kurt also loses his voice while Meggan finds hers, daring him to stop her, which he doesn’t or can’t do. The shadow that spills over Meggan’s face onto Kurt’s signals both the illicit quality of her desire and the depth of the characters’ bond.
That’s how I read the scene a decade ago—as a complex yet consensual dance of gender, power, and sensuality, climaxing in a deferred but glorious union founded in empathy. Nowadays, I want to read the scene the same way, but can’t. Post-dissertation, post-publication of many essays and an academic anthology about representations of gender and sexuality in superhero stories, and in the wake of #MeToo, which has helped so many of us realize just how much rape culture bullshit we’ve internalized, I’m less forgiving of Kurt’s behavior, and more suspicious about the presentation of Meggan’s agency. Even if Meggan desires Kurt—which isn’t entirely clear, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly—she never consents to being seized, tossed, or tickled. She also repeatedly yells “no” when Kurt tickles her. Kurt not only ignores these pleas but treats them like a joke; as every rape culture apologist claims: women often say “no” when they really mean “yes.”
I have a hard time believing I didn’t see these consent issues the first time I read the comic. It’s obvious the characters aren’t meant to be perfect. They’re clearly flawed and confused, just like real people when they’re feeling lonely or lustful—like when they’ve been single for a long time, or their partner’s been a jerk lately, and their very amenable, very attractive friend is right there, wearing a string bikini or a pair of very tight, very white pants. The inappropriateness of Kurt’s behavior is particularly emphasized. After the rest of the team arrives home and Meggan flies off in a panic, Kurt is given a dedicated panel in which to angrily berate himself. He does so while contracting his body into a tellingly tense and protective pose, holding his head in his clenched fists while his unique feet fold together and his tail makes two tight coils around his calf. Visually, this conveys sexual shame. Yet Kurt’s dialogue suggests he doesn’t fully understand why his actions were wrong and leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Claremont and Davis know better. According to Kurt, tickling Meggan wasn’t wrong in a general sense, but rather because she is “Captain Britain’s lady.” In other words, tickling Meggan without her consent was only wrong because Meggan “belongs” to another man. In effect, Kurt sees himself as betraying Captain Britain’s trust, rather than Meggan’s.
But if I saw these consent issues a decade ago, I ignored them. They didn’t matter to my preferred reading of the scene, which was undoubtedly influenced by me being in love with Kurt Wagner and wanting him to be worthy of that love. Admitting that now, I’m uncomfortably reminded of how often women—myself included—feel compelled to excuse or cover up for the inappropriate behavior of the real-life men in our orbit. We do this because we’re taught the same lessons about “no” meaning “yes,” which results in us saying “no” to our doubts while assuring ourselves and everyone else, “he’s not really like that.” I write and talk a lot about the importance of making space for female gazes in superhero comics. Within such discussions, I’ve always considered my own female gaze to be feminist, because it’s my gaze, and I’m a feminist, but also because I know I’m not attracted to straightforward forms of objectification. For all my proselytizing about Nightcrawler’s sexiness, I don’t love him based solely on his appearance and consider the things I love about his appearance to be extensions of his character. But re-reading Excalibur #4, and thinking about how quickly I forgave Kurt and overwrote Meggan’s (fictional but still consequential) desires with my own, has me newly questioning the politics of my gaze.
Re-visiting Excalibur #4 also has me wondering, not for the first time, about how gazes work in comics. This is a surprisingly undertheorized topic, especially within analyses of superhero comics, which too often use these comics’ obvious sexism as an excuse to uncritically map Laura Mulvey’s theories about the male gaze in classical Hollywood films onto a medium that works very differently. (I have, admittedly, been guilty of this at times.) When scholars talk about what makes comics special, they often highlight the medium’s radical subjectiveness. As Frederik Byrn Køhlert puts it in his recent book Serial Selves: Identity and Representation in Autobiographical Comics:
[B]ecause comics rely on both highly personal hand-drawn aesthetics and a serially networked approach to narrative, the form can challenge conventional representational schemes in a complex dance of appropriation and resignification that is always open to the creation of new meanings. Further, the multimodal hybridity of the comics form—consisting, as it does, of multiple overlapping, interdependent, and often competing verbal and visual codes—creates a distinctly unstable and decentered reading experience. (4)
Where erotic gazes are concerned, this decentering and ongoing resignification can be both powerful and dangerous. Kurt and Meggan’s interaction from Excalibur #4 being a perfect example.
In Kurt and Meggan’s interaction, consent is complicated, first and foremost, by the relationship between text and image. Meggan’s most fervent “no” is juxtaposed with her body screaming “yes,” her copious bare skin pinned to the page in a vibrant moment of squishy, jiggling bliss. As she falls, her body continues to betray her, her shuddering breath jumbling her words so that she actually says, “Stop *hee* don’t *ho* stop.” This ambiguity may reflect the pursuit of complexity, showcasing Meggan’s conflicted desires. Yet present-day me is unsettled by the way Kurt’s intrusive touch interferes with Meggan’s ability to protest. Kurt’s not just falling with her (or for her); he’s also pulling her down. I’m additionally unsettled by the way Meggan’s objectification contributes to the unconvincing nature of her protests, feeding into misogynist assumptions that a woman dressing or presenting herself a certain way constitutes consent or even an invitation to assault. As much as I enjoy Meggan’s innocent liberation (I wish I were confident enough to walk around in a string bikini for no particular reason), she didn’t choose her outfit or agree to being captured in these salacious poses. Those choices were made on her behalf, by the male writer and artist.
Consent and agency are further complicated by the conceit of superpowers. Physically, Meggan is far more powerful than Kurt. This discrepancy is compounded by Kurt’s current disability; in previous issues, single teleports have left him so weak, he’s struggled to walk without assistance. Yet previous issues have also depicted Meggan with less-than-total control over her empathic shapeshifting. She becomes more childlike and animalistic when she’s upset or insecure and becomes larger and stronger when she’s angry. In Excalibur #6 (March 1989), she directly tells Kurt she can’t always control herself; her shapeshifting is partly instinctual. Meggan is rendered additionally vulnerable through her rocky relationship with Captain Britain. Kurt knows about these relationship issues. Indeed, he is, at this point in the story, the only member of the team who seems aware of Captain Britain’s troubling behavior toward Meggan, which looks a lot like emotional abuse. Perhaps Kurt is identifying Meggan’s vulnerabilities, and exploiting them, embodying the worst version of the “Dogged Nice Guy” trope. Then again, Meggan’s ability to know and embody someone’s deepest desires is a truly staggering power; whether consciously or unconsciously, she could be playing with Kurt’s emotions as much as he’s playing with hers. In addition, the emotional intelligence that helps Kurt perceive Meggan’s mistreatment is one of the things I like best about him, knowledge I brought with me as an experienced reader of this serialized story. Maybe Meggan likes this, too. Maybe that’s why she wants to be with Kurt—or become him.
Given the transformative climax of this scene, it seems relevant to note that the closest Mulvey came to identifying a female gaze was in her 1981 essay “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’” in which she suggests women might, on occasion, employ “trans-sex identification” by choosing to affiliate with male characters instead of female ones. Of course, as many critics have pointed out, this theorization maintains reductive gender binaries, and continues to ignore the possibility of queer gazes (as subsequently explored by Jack Halberstam, among others). I would never try to argue superhero comics don’t privilege a male gaze; virtually every form of mainstream visual culture does. And it’s well beyond the purview of this essay to solve longstanding debates about what the female gaze might look like or if gaze theory is even the best way to think about looking. Yet how difficult it’s been for me, over the years, and throughout this essay, to stay focused on condemning Excalibur #4 as just another example of male gaze-y-ness (with all the patriarchy and misogyny that implies) speaks to how complicated gazes can be within a medium where, as Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz put it while arguing for the inherent queerness of comics, “anything that can be drawn can be believed” (201)—including a woman becoming more beautiful, desirable, and powerful by transforming into a golden-eyed, blue-furred monster.
Kurt’s tickling is definitely problematic. So is Meggan’s agency being expressed by having her transform into a version of a male character, perhaps in response to his desire. But for me, it matters that Meggan mirrors this specific man. As long as I’ve been in love with Kurt Wagner, I’ve wanted to both have him and be him. I always feel this way about my favorite male superheroes, in part because they possess a sexual agency most female superheroes don’t. Precisely because their erotic appeal isn’t prioritized, male superheroes get to be simultaneously sexy and powerful. They can strut around symbolically naked while never being shamed or diminished for their exhibitionism, never made to feel “less than” or slutty just because they choose to show off their curves—and enjoy doing so. You think Superman wears that impossibly tight spandex to cut down on wind resistance? I say it’s because he likes the way the wind feels on his nearly naked skin when he’s breaking the sound barrier. (I bet it feels good.) Nightcrawler’s especially visible, especially fantastical difference makes him an especially appealing site of erotic affiliation. Even though Nightcrawler, like other male superheroes, is rarely presented as an erotic spectacle the same way a female character like Meggan is, his body is inherently gender fluid, every masculine characteristic paired with a connotatively feminine counterpoint. His power is conveyed through acrobatic flexibility, his vampire fangs are domesticated by his iconic smile, and his tail both thrusts and squeezes, coiling around his own body or the hilts of swords, but also, sometimes, around the waist or thigh of a friend or lover. I’ve also thought entirely too much about the fact that Kurt’s hardbody is literally soft, all those taut muscles coated by a thin layer of fur that, canonically, approximates the texture of velvet. (I bet that feels better than good.) Other stories in other genres and mediums have imagined comparable men. But for me, there’s a special subversive charge to this hybrid body in this space, because it proves superhero comics don’t have to be simply sexist, and aren’t, in part because they’re comics, which are always similarly hybrid.
I don’t want to let myself completely off the hook for neglecting the consent issues in Excalibur #4. But in writing about my re-reading, I’m increasingly convinced that my reasons for neglecting those issues were more feminist than not, since they extended from a deep desire to be represented and a deliberate, if not entirely conscious, effort to re-write the story to fulfill that need. Even as I was minimizing Kurt’s problematic behavior, I was seizing on what was, for me, a rare moment of identification with a female character in a superhero comic, seeing her embody my experience as a woman who both loves male superheroes and envies their freedom. Nightcrawler is someone/something I want and someone/something I want to be, a way I want to want and a way I want to be wanted. For four panels, Meggan reflected that, and made me want to be her instead. She did so by becoming an equally beautiful monster who even more flagrantly blurs gender binaries and takes obvious—if brief—pleasure in that blurring. She’s able to become this beautiful monster for the same reasons I was able to overlook Kurt’s tickling—because, for better or worse, superhero comics are always beautiful monstrosities, the best ones transforming, endlessly, in the eye of the beholder and, in certain sparkling moments, transforming us in turn. That doesn’t mean the politics of representation don’t matter. On the contrary, understanding the incestuous tryst between the things we do and don’t like about superhero comics can help us more productively interrogate their politics, which are always at once industrial, formal, narrative, and personal.
In his epilogue for my anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero, poet and scholar Richard Harrison reckons with his own evolving relationship with superheroes, asking, “What is the answer to loving what you used to love when you thought it was perfect, when now, instead, you see its limitations, its reversal of what you thought it told you?” (358). This is the challenge of critical nostalgia. In some cases, revisiting stories and characters I used to love has led to outright rejection; some loves don’t persevere. In this case, with this comic, my love survives, but it’s not quite the same. I love Kurt Wagner a little less, while loving Meggan Puceanu a little more. And I love comics a lot more, for helping me love differently, which is what I wanted all along.
Dr. Anna Peppard is a sessional instructor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture, and Film at Brock University. She’s published widely on representations of gender, sexuality, and race in popular media, and is the editor of the anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero (University of Texas Press, 2020). She’s also a regular contributor to ComicsXF, and co-hosts the podcasts Three Panel Contrast, a monthly discussion of notable comics, and Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow!, an issue-by-issue analysis of Marvel’s classic Excalibur series.