Gambit Classic, v. 1
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #265-7 and Gambit #1-4 (1990, 1993-4)
Released: April 2009 (Marvel)
Format: 176 pages /color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785137290
What is this?: Gambit! Gambit Gambit? Gambit, n’est ce pas! 1990s! Gaaammmmbiiiittt!
The culprits: Writers Chris Claremont and Howard Mackie and artists Lee Weeks, Bill Jaaska, Mike Collins, and Homage Studios
When future generations look back at us and ask us why we thought Gambit was “cool,” we will be forced to answer: It was the ‘90s; you had to have been there. That’s the only response that makes sense. Oh, perhaps we might say something about his anti-authoritarian attitude, about how he metaphorically pulled the whiskers of Xavier and Wolverine and he had a “mysterious” past, but those aren’t real answers. Those are excuses.
Those delving into the subject will not find the answer to that future question in Gambit Classic, v. 1. Unfortunately, Gambit Classic will raise only more questions: What’s with that accent? Why is Storm a child? Why does the first issue in this collection not have Gambit in it at all? Seriously — is that accent a symptom of brain damage? Is the immortal Candra’s support of the useless Thieves and Assassins Guilds evidence of her uselessness, or is her behavior enough of a de facto argument?
But we must put aside these considerations for the moment. The future, I have been assured by eminent authorities on the subject, will take care of itself, much as I believe those future generations should be allowed to. Let us instead concentrate on the book itself.
Gambit Classic starts at the end of writer Chris Claremont‘s run on Uncanny X-Men, coming during the time when Storm was a child and the X-Men were scattered across the globe, with many of them missing their memories. As most of you who have read Uncanny during that time know, it was not a good period — the 260s of Uncanny were abysmal in quality, but the book was coasting on a wave of popularity. (That wave, I believe, partially answers the hypothetical question at the beginning of the review.) At this point, Claremont was doing issues or short arcs on the various X-Men split up by the Siege Perilous — #259 was about Colossus, #260 featured Dazzler, and #261 pitted Wolverine, Jubilee, and Psylocke against Hardcase and the Harriers. (Forge and Banshee rescued Jean Grey in #262-4.) These issues were about as you would expect: Claremontian dialogue, Image-ish art, plots that seemingly went nowhere. (The team had been split up since #251, and it would not get back together until #270, at the beginning of X-Tinction Agenda.)
Anyway … the former X-Man Storm is a child in Cairo, Ill., where she’d been since #253. Issue #265 provides the background for Gambit’s first appearance — he doesn’t appear in the issue, as I mentioned earlier — as pre-teen Storm steals from the, er, rich in the area. Unfortunately, the Shadow King has taken one of the mansions and turned its occupants into his slaves. Through either laziness or foreshadowing, Claremont doesn’t bother to change much between the Shadow King’s slaves and the mind-controlled Rachel Summers from “Days of Future Past”: both are called “hounds,” and their costumes are extremely similar (skintight with spikes). Perhaps Claremont, having reached the top of the comics world, didn’t feel the need to alter his personal storytelling fetish to suit the norms. Into this weird scene walks Gambit, who wants to steal from same mansion Storm targeted; he helps save Storm from the Shadow King, he helps save Storm from Nanny and the Orphan Maker, and the two escape to New Orleans. This first appearance sets up everything that Gambit is: a trenchcoat, hideous body armor, an accent, a profession, and a propensity to blow things up, mutant-style. Yes, there’s a green glow around his eyes that suggests a psychic power, and the accent is more Claremontian than Cajun, but it’s easy to see what Claremont is going for. (To be fair to him, Claremont’s Gambit dialogue is more than just phonetic mispronunciations and a smattering of high-school French.)
It’s unfortunate for the character that this was his introduction, inserted into this unfortunate storyline. When modern readers think of Claremont’s weaknesses and excesses, this storyline is exactly what they have in mind. The dialogue and narration are stylized to the point of self parody. The mind control plot is Claremont’s go-to storyline, even as it’s bogged down in the remnants of the Siege Perilous / Australian chaos that had been going on far too long. For God’s sake, it has Nanny and the Orphan Maker (not Claremont creations, but right up his alley). In my opinion, this is the absolute nadir of Claremont’s entire run, which would improve immediately after this nonsense was over.
(One final note about the writing: This storyline is set in Cairo, Ill., in part because Storm has mixed it up with her childhood home of Cairo, Egypt. Sure, fine, although the names aren’t even pronounced the same.56 Claremont and his artists seem to think the American Cairo is a large or prosperous town. As someone who grew up in the area,57 I can tell you it isn’t. It’s a poor, small, river town that is occasionally the object or subject of Southern Illinois’s racial tensions. It’s largest population was in 1920, when Cairo had just over 15,000 people. In 1990, it was less than 5,000. Today, Cairo has fewer than 3,000 people, and someone is burning down abandoned buildings for fun. But Claremont’s Cairo has the large, prosperous Mississippi Mall and several mansions full of artwork to rob. According to the art, the mall is huge — a multilevel job that would never have been built in a rural area where land is cheap — and the mansions are opulent and architecturally interesting. I know comics are fantasy, but this seems a rather pointless one.)
When you think of this time in X-Men history, you envision the Image artists working on the title — Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, etc. However, that’s not what you get here. The late Bill Jaaska drew #265, and Mike Collins was the artist for #266, although Lee is credited as Gambit’s co-creator. Neither is bad — I like Jaaska’s clear, simple artwork quite a bit, more than murky, oversexualized, Image-ish #267 — but both were odd choices for the time. Neither had the prominence of the other artists who worked on Uncanny; neither fit the style of Lee et al. Uncanny #267 is credited to Homage Studios — specifically, Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio along with Scott Williams — and it’s not the best work from Lee or Portacio.
As for the Gambit miniseries, the artwork of Lee Weeks is much more pleasing. It’s not perfect — occasionally the reader is blinded when the flash overcomes substance, and Gambit’s hair is a near impossible cosmetological marvel — but despite those shortcomings, it’s clear, it’s quite pretty, and it tells the story reasonably well.
Although given what the actual story is, telling it clearly can be considered a detriment. Howard Mackie … I have no idea what to say about Mackie that rises above personal attacks. The plot of Gambit involves Gambit’s wife, the immortal mutant Candra, and the guilds of New Orleans. The guilds are incompetent — the Assassins kill one person during the series, someone so obviously fish bait he should have had it tattooed on his face — and the Thieves, despite their “power,” are pushed around by everyone. Rogue, the most powerful character in the book, does nothing. Belladonna, Gambit’s unconscious wife, sleeps in the nude the entire series. (Why?) Candra does nothing but wear an impressively stupid costume, which is a swimsuit with arm-length gloves attached to the top. Her enforcer, the Tithe Collector, would have trouble menacing a fourth-grade class. And Gambit? The most impressive thing he does is to slip out, travel to Paris, and return without Rogue noticing. Well, that’s not true — the most impressive thing he does is to ask Rogue out on a date only moments after his beloved wife awakes, an amnesiac. That’s impressively awful, the kind of behavior that deserves fire ants inside the armor and honey-coated underwear.
If you want a more detailed look at its awfulness, consult David R. Henry‘s review of Gambit #4, “The Moron Game.”
So, if you’ve been paying close attention, you may come to the conclusion that this book is awful. Well, yes, and no. The quality of the book is pretty low — so low, really, I hadn’t planned to write a full-length review — with its highest profile creators doing some of their worst work and Howard Mackie doing his usual job. Still, Weeks’s art is easy on the eyes. More importantly, there is a strong whiff of nostalgia in the pages — nostalgia for a time when Claremont and the X-Men were the biggest thing in comics, nostalgia for youth (for some of us), nostalgia for the simplicity of the age.
It was the ‘90s, after all. You had to have been there.
Rating: (1.5 of 5)