Bizarro Back Issues: The Extremely Sketchy Debut Of That Scumbag Gambit (1990)
If you’ve been following along with ComicsAlliance’s weekly X-Men Episode Guide, you’ve probably noticed that I have become utterly fascinated with that scumbag Gambit. That guy is just so alarmingly, hilariously sketchy — especially for a show I watched when I was ten — that I am in danger of becoming obsessed with him on a level that I don’t think anyone has experienced since the heyday of ’90s erotic fan-fiction.
So obsessed, in fact, that I decided this week to go back and check out his first couple of appearances to see just where this weirdo came from, and this… this may have been a mistake. I have been reading comics for over a quarter of a century now, and Uncanny X-Men #267 might be the single most incomprehensible superhero story I have ever read.
If you’ve got a sharp eye and a good memory for first appearances, you might nave noticed that I’m going with Gambit’s second appearance, rather than his actual debut in Uncanny #266. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Gambit doesn’t actually show up until halfway through that issue, meaning that I’d have to write a whole bunch about the Shadow King and these weird dudes in bondage gear attacking Storm in a condo, and folks, I am just not up for that.
Second, and slightly more personal, Uncanny #266 was the first comic I couldn’t afford. Like everyone else, I was super into the X-Men back in the Early ’90s, and I can’t even lie about how much I loved Gambit when I was a kid. “Dude who can touch things and make them explode” is right up there with “dude who has knives for fists” on the list of super-powers that are exactly what twelve (and thirty-one) year-old Chris is into, and when you throw in a tortured yet cocky longing for a Southern girl, it’s definitely something I could relate to in my middle school years. Then, like now, I wanted to go back and find out more, and my local hole-in-the-wall comic shop actually had a copy of this issue on display, but it was marked up all the way to twenty-eight dollars. There was no way I was going to be able to afford that, so alas, I missed out for decades on Gambit just cold showing up and pulling Storm out of a pool.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, this is the way that Chris Claremont and Homage Studios (Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Scott Williams) open the issue, the very first page of Uncanny X-Men #267:
This issue hit shelves in 1990, which was still during the era when you could walk into a convenience store and pick up a comic off a spinner rack, at a time when every comic really was someone’s first comic. So imagine being a kid, and picking this up because all the kids at school are talking about how much they love X-Men, and that is the first thing you see: a woman cosplaying as Aeon Flux in fishnets holding weird bondage vampires on a leash, standing on top of the machine gun turret of a wrecked fighter plane, in front of a full moon.
You would either put it down, walk away and never read a comic book again, or comics would be your favorite thing in the world until the day you died. There is no middle ground when you’re opening like that.
So yeah, we’re in a junkyard full of planes, where Gambit and Storm are attempting to escape from the Shadow King’s henchwoman, Lian, by using Storm’s powers to CALL FORTH THE POWAH OF NAYTCHA and lift up an old B-52 with really, really strong winds. This is, as you might expect, proving to be pretty difficult, largely because Storm is currently a twelve-year-old.
Hoo boy. How to explain this. Okay, so, Storm has amnesia and is also a child now because of Nanny and the Orphan-Maker, a pair of third-stringers who flew around in a UFO, kidnapping the X-Men and putting them into a magic Surprise You’re An Amnesiac Child machine. There’s slightly more to it than that, but let’s be real here, that is all you need to know and probably a lot more than you wanted to know.
Storm and Gambit make their escape, with Storm — again, a child with no memories — flying a wrecked airplane on a hurricane while Gambit deals with Lian and her leather fetishists:
A+ sound effect work from the Mont and Orzechowski in this panel. It’s almost enough to distract you from how out of control Gambit’s hair has gotten.
The escape, however, is only partially successful. After a scene where Pre-Teen Storm reveals that she’s carrying a gigantic knife for self-defense because a truck driver tried to molest her while she was hitchhiking and she stabbed him to death (what.), they end up getting buzzed by Nanny and her UFO. This makes Storm start to remember what’s going on, freaking her out and putting them in danger of crashing an airplane that has already crashed, which is a pretty mean feat. Fortunately for her, Gambit is there to talk her down in his own, ah, unique style.
After making good on their escape (for really reals this time), Gambit and Storm shack up in New Orleans, and we get a pretty awesome moment that goes a long way towards establishing Gambit as a Cool Dude. Storm’s having nightmares about her transformation, and when Gambit wakes her up, she wings her murder knife at him, and he catches it in the most badass way possible:
Not only does he catch the knife by the blade, he does it by letting go of his cigarette, catching the knife, and then catching his cigarette in the same hand. That’s pretty great, and while the Homage Studios crew has never been my favorite, they pull it off solidly here.
It’s worth noting that we’re only halfway through this one single comic book, and this is where the direction changes again. Now, Gambit, a PHENOMENALLY sketchy dude wearing skintight latex and a trenchcoat, is hanging out with Pre-Teen Storm and robbing criminals a la Robin Hood, which seems like something that would take up quite a bit of storytelling. It lasts two pages, and then Orphan-Maker and Nanny show up and kidnap Gambit.
In a perfect world, this would lead to a story where Gambit himself was turned into a little kid, thus giving us the perfect storm of a cigarette-smoking pickup artist twelve-year -old. This would be, if nothing else, absolutely amazing. Instead, it’s time for Storm to sneak on board Nanny’s flying saucer for a rescue.
Now, under normal circumstances, when Storm could SUMMON THE FOHCES OF THE AHCTIC WINS, this would probably be a pretty simple matter, but trapped in a child’s body, she doesn’t have the high-level control of her powers that she does as leader of the X-Men. She needs to give herself an edge, and the way she chooses to do so is bonkers.
You know Storm is claustrophobic, right? Of course you do, because if you didn’t, the Mont would remind you every third caption until it stuck. Well, now that she has been slowly regaining her memories, it turns out that being trapped in confined spaces doesn’t paralyze her with fear, it gives her BERSERKER STRENGTH.
That is the phrase that is used.
This means, of course, that all she has to do is put on a suit of armor, which will terrify her beyond reason, and then use that terror to fuel a severe beatdown on all who oppose her.
That’s what people do when they get scared, right? They smack-talk opponents while using berserker strength to destroy them? Well, that’s what happens here.
Thus, Gambit is freed, the flying saucer crashes, and that is how Gambit joins the X-Men.
If we have learned nothing else from this — and we haven’t — it’s that clearly, he has been a scumbag from Day One.