Saturday, June 01, 2013

Review: Gambit Vol. 1: Once a Thief...

I didn't think the 2012-launched Gambit ongoing series had all that much in common with the critically-acclaimed Hawkeye series, at least not from afar (Aside from the obvious similarities that both are heroes better known as team-members than solo stars, and they are both a lot more comfortable wearing purple than many men are). When I recently saw the trade collections for the first volumes of each series sitting side by side in my library, however, I reconsidered: The trade dress as seen on the spine made the books look nearly identical; the words were different, of course, but the font, color, style and so forth made them look like two book in the same line (Which, I guess, they are, but there are like 70 books in the Marvel universe line of comics).

Obviously Marvel Entertainment, or at least whomever's in charge of designing the spine for their trade collections, think these two books have a lot in common, so I picked up Gambit Vol. 1: Once a Thief....

Great job, whoever designed this trade!

Another, perhaps more salient similarity between Hawkeye and Gambit was almost immediately apparent: Both books feature characters from super-heroes on their off or down time. If Hawkeye is, as its recap page states monthly, about what Hawkeye does when he's not being an Avenger, then Gambit is about what Gambit does when he's not being an X-Man. No other X-people or mutants ever even show up (save for a brief appearance by a minor mutant character whose being-a-mutant is completely incidental to his part in the story), and the X-folks are barely even mentioned in passing bits of narration.

Another similarity? This is a pretty good, certainly way-above-average superhero comic; a nice, accessible comic with a fairly strong premise and little-to-no requirement of continuity. Oh, and I was surprised to like it as much as I did as Gambit, like Hawkeye, is a character I have no real interest in, let alone affection for (Except for the fact that I found the character unbelievably hilarious on that shitty '90s cartoon. Now, almost all of the characters were hilarious, but his completely bizarre costume, weird-ass superpower—the ability to make playing cards glow pink and then blow up—and over-the-top accent made him a special stand-out).

Feeling an itch to steal something again—as the collection's title, recap page and Gambit's narration reveal, he used to be a thief before he was an X-Guy—he decides to break into the super-secret vault of one Borya Cich, a collector of superhero and supervillain accessories, weapons and sundry. Helping justify the B and E, he's also rumored to be a supervillain financial backer.

During the heist in the first issue, Gambit meets a beautiful, mysterious woman, and accidentally destroys most of Cich's collection, while simultaneously becoming infected with an alien parasite (Which looks an awful lot like an eye-less Starro).

So he and the mysterious woman team-up to discover a treasure of sorts that will get the parasite out of him.

After that adventure, Cich and his men kidnap Gambit and force him to steal for them, in revenge for his destruction of the vault. This leads to a couple of heists in Europe, involving the Queen of England, Captain Britain and MI13's Dr. Faiza Hussain and Pete Wisdom (and The Black Knight in a couple panels).

Writer James Asmus plays up the clever, charming, sexy, swashbuckling aspects of Gambit, while simultaneously playing down the superheroic side of him. He uses his powers, sure, but not as much as he uses his wits and good old fashioned jumping around. There's a great deal of emphasis on the craziness of the Marvel Universe (the starfish leads Gambit to a ancient alien astronaut temple with a gate to a Ditko-esque dimension populated by what look like the inspiration for Quetzalcoatl, for example), but Gambit seems to go the first seven issue of his series without ever putting on his costume, even the more stream-lined, less insane-ly stupid-looking one he's shown wearing on the cover. In general, he just wears tight-fitting black spandex-thieving clothes, although he wears a smart tuxedo with gloves and sunglasses to a party.

He's also naked an awful lot for a superhero. That's nice. Like, you don't see all that much beefcake in super-comics, certainly not in comparison to cheesecake, and while I'm a vegetarian, I appreciate balance. (Gambit and the mysterious lady go to a Guatemalan jungle at one point, and she wears gloves, boots, a jog bra and whatever you call those tiny shorts that look like underwear that the school girls in manga wear during gym class; it looks like a lot of skin to expose to jungle bugs, but, perhaps to make up for it, the artists do have Gambit tear most of his clothes off by the end of the arc, as if he shopped for adventure-wear at the same place Doc Savage does.

The art too downplays the Gambit At Superhero Member of Superhero Team The X-Men angle, and most of it has a highly realistic, but slightly washed-out look, like that of the bulk of the art during Ed Brubaker's tenure on the Captain America comics. But the art varies. A lot. And not even in the Hawkeye way, where when primary artist David Aja isn't drawing Fraction's scripts, they get extremely high-quality guest artists to draw them, and there's some logic put into the employing of various artists, so a guest artist will get to draw a whole issue, rather than five pages in the middle of an Aja story or whatever.

Clay Mann was the artist that was originally solicited for the title, but he only pencils portions of the first four issues, some of which are also penciled by Leonard Kirk (and inked by Seth Mann, Jay Leisten and Kirk). Diogenes Neves seems to pencil all of issue five by himself, and parts of six and seven with Al Barrionuevo. Three inkers work on those last three issues, over-lapping one another.

Much of the art is quite strong but, then again, much of it looks like it was hastily drawn by a whole bunch of guys chosen not because their styles were at all compatible, but because they happened to be around and have the time to get this puppy drawn by deadline. Some of the pages look awful.

I don't like to tell comics publishers how to publish their comics (Actually, I don't really mind doing so all that much), but maybe—just maybe—publishing a monthly comic more often than monthly in order to sell more issues more often to the same people isn't as good an idea as publishing a monthly comic once a month, with a high-quality, consistent artist or art team.

The book is apparently canceled with September's issue #17, so they managed to pump out 16 issues in 12 months, and while I'm sure the accelerated schedule didn't help the book at all, I don't think that's the main reason it was canceled.

To be honest, I'm not sure why the market rejected this particular Marvel book. Surely it's a very minor X-book, but, at the same time, it's so minor an X-book that it's not really an X-book at all. Rather, like a Wolverine or Deadpool series, it's more of a Marvel superhero series that features a character who just so happens to be a member of the X-Men. (Although perhaps the series was only really appealing to X-Men fans, to whom it was a less urgent read, due to its distance from the core X-books...?

Perhaps it is simply that the book didn't get a "Marvel NOW!" relaunch (although I see now a "Marvel NOW!" logo is on the trade cover), like a handful of other Marvel titles (Daredevil, Hawkeye), some of which are now facing cancellation (Red She-Hulk, which mysteriously adopted Hulk's numbering rather than getting rebooted with a new #1, Journey Into Mystery). With the relaunches sucking up all the oxygen, perhaps Gambit just fell through the cracks of its target audience.

It was timing, more than anything else, that killed Gambit. That's my guess anyway.

Ah well. I'll surely check out the rest of the series in trade, although I can't say I'll personally feel its absence from the new comics racks or anything, but it's always nice to know there are some good comics out there in addition to all the bad ones, whether or not you're reading those good ones.

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Just to give you a shape of Marvel's current X-Men line of books, here are the they're publishing in August of this year: All-New X-Men, A+X Astonishing X-Men (2 issues), Cable and X-Force (2), Deadpool (2), Deadpool Kills Deadpool, Gambit, Savage Wolverine, Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X-Force, Uncanny X-Men (2), Wolverine, Wolverine and The X-Men (2), Wolverine Max, X-Factor (2), X-Men and X-Men Legacy.

That's a lot of X-Men comics, and, as you can see, Wolvie and Deadpool seem to be the only ones capable of carrying a monthly (or two, or four).

With the flagship titles of All-New and Uncanny X-Men (and maybe Uncanny Avengers), that's already a pretty significant number of comics for a fan who wants to follow the continuing adventures of Marvel's merry mutants to invest in. And then there are all those other books featuring particular groupings of characters, or teams within teams...if sold as part of the X-Men line, I don't think a solo series like Gambit really had much of a chance.

In retrospect, it woulda been better served if it waited until the "Marvel NOW!" relaunches and found a consistent art team and maybe tried to sell itself as the X-Men's answer to Hawkeye.

But I don't know; would a book like this benefit or suffer from association with the X-Men line in 2013...?

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This isn't/wasn't Gambit's first series, of course. He had one that launched in 1999, back when he was still wore an incredibly idiotic costume, that lasted a full 25 issues. I am confused by the trench coat over spandex look in part because they don't really go together, but also because trench coats are traditionally what super-folks wear to disguise their undisguise-able, monstrous qualities—Think Ben Grimm or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in trench coats and wide-brimmed hats. It was as if, subconsciously, Gambit knew how hideous his costume was, and was trying to hide it.

I never really understood why he had part of a catcher's uniform on, either.

But the worst part was that weird head gear. Like a cowl with a the top cut off to show off his hair, and ear holes in the sides...? It doesn't look cool, so he couldn't have worn it just for looks, and I'll be damned if I can think of a functional reason for its existence.

Anyway, that series—written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Steve Skroce and Rob Hunter—lasted eight issues longer than this series.

I wonder if the fact that that series lasted longer had anything to do with the quality, or if it managed to last another three-fourths of a year because it was so much closer to the big sales hey-day of the X-Men, and had a bigger audience to sell to.
Oh, and according to Comics.org, he also starred in a 2004 series by John Layman and Georges Jeanty that only lasted 12 issues, which is apparently so few issues that I didn't even note its existence among all the other X titles.

His costume was a little less hideous then than it was in the '90s, but the fact that Greg Land drew it on that cover and gave him that hair means it doesn't even really matter, does it...?

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I was talking to the librarian who orders the graphic novels for our library one day and she had this open on her lap, so I asked what she thought of it (She's a voracious reader of manga, but tries to read everything she adds to the collection).

She said it was okay, but she was thrown by the fact that Gambit didn't talk in his accent, which she was familiar with from the same shitty '90s X-Men cartoon that introduced me to the character of Gambit (and most of the X-Men, really; my only real previous exposure was their guest-appearance on Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.

Gambit does more narrating than talking, and it wouldn't make sense for him to narrate in his accent—unless the premise was that he was telling us this story himself, I guess—but yeah, he just talks like a "normal" person; there's no attempts to render his accent phonetically.

Would that have helped or hurt the book...? I don't know, but after she said it, I kinda wanted to read it that way.

I suppose, at the very least, it would have made the series funnier. And, in all likelihood, would have lead to me reading Gambit's dialogue out loud as I read this trade (Which, I suppose, would have to be re-titled Gambit Vol. 1: Once a Teef....

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So here's a picture of Rogue and Gambit walking down a hallway wearing bathing suits from that X-Men cartoon, no doubt speaking to one another in outrageous accents:
He's all like, "Hoh hoh cher, Gambit likes da way dat suit fits you," and she's all like, "Pshaw GAM-bit, I oughta throw you through that there wall jus' fer lookin' at me da way you do; don't ya realize one touch an' y'all could end up in da HOS-pital," and then he's all like, "Hoh hoh mon ami, maybe Gambit tink it be worth it ta touch you just da once," and...

Say wait a minute, what am I doing wasting my time blogging about comics when I could be writing fan-fiction based on that '90s X-Men cartoon?

4 comments:

Akilles said...

You SHOULD write that fan-fic.

Brian Cronin said...

I just love the idea that someone was put off by a Gambit comic because he DIDN'T talk with that ridiculous accent.

Eyz said...

hhaha :P
Priceless! That last bit should be made into a recurring feature on the blog! XD

Matt d said...

The Nicieza Gambit is really good. He did downright amazing things with X-Cutioner. It's pretty much the proof positive that there are no bad characters, only badly written ones. And he also did some fun stuff with time travel and the thieves' guild/assassins guild.

That said, I liked the Asmus book too.

And Marvel's X-men line is currently very strong. ANXM/Uncanny is Bendis' best Marvel work in years, easily. It has an energy and ongoing momentum his work has been missing for years while still hitting lots of character marks. Uncanny X-force also has this insane manic energy where they they mix and match continuity and a rollicking over the top feel that doesn't seem gratuitous. It's basically over the top in ways other than gore.

Cable and X-Men is one of Marvel Now's most surprisingly enjoyable books. It's terse and straightforward but sort of hits all the marks it should hit and makes the most of its characters (including Dr. Nemesis and Boom Boom).

X-Factor barely counts but it's been good for years and is at a point where everything is paying off.

I didn't like X-Men #1 much. Legacy though is the closest to a vertigo book that Marvel's had in years (if you don't count Journey into Mystery). And for the most part it works as a fun, weird off-beat book, sort of like Marvel's answer to Animal Man.

Wolverine and the X-Men is well paced, off-beat and tons of character-based fun.

I can't really speak for Deadpool or Savage Wolverine but the main wolverine book is GETTING there. It's Cornell/Alan Davis so the talent is certainly there. I though the first two issues were way too decompressed and flat, but I really liked the supporting cast intro in issue 3 and I think it'll ultimately work out.

Did I miss anything?