‘Wit Style: Why Gambit is My Favorite Superhero
This article has been a long time coming. I’ve mentioned it, discussed bits and pieces of it with readers on the forum, and all but apologized about this issue over the past few months. Well, the time has come to talk about my favorite superhero in all of comic and make my case for why while also revealing how this fact has influenced the stories I write.
So here it goes folks, hold on to your butts.
His name is Remy LeBeau, codename: Gambit.
Surprisingly, he’s one of the newer additions to the venerable X-men franchise, first appearing in July of 1990.
You might not consider that ‘new’, but stop and think about how many characters introduced in comics in 2011 who have already been killed off or dumped into comic book limbo, never to be seen again. Mainstream comics aren’t nice to new characters; fans don’t get attached to them right away, so hack writers kill them off before fan get a chance to get attached to them, so fans learn not to get to attached to them, completing the vicious cycle.
It’s kind of a miracle any new characters survive a year, so Gambit is pretty dam lucky to have survived this long, especially for being a character created at the dawn of the ‘Big Pointless Events That MUST Kill Some C-Listers’ era.
Those of you who have read my continuous mockery of the Dark Age of Comics will notice a red flag for this character immediately: he was created in 1990.
The late 80s and early-to-mid 90s were a spawning pool for awful characters, best encapsulated by the TVTropes article Nineties Antihero. They were characters who, in a less sociopathic time than the 80s and 90s, would have been villains and not even very interesting ones. They were always angry or brooding, killed their enemies (often for things that wouldn’t even get you executed in Texas), and lacked much if any death besides their superficial anger-brooding.
In terms of costumes, there were two choices: incredibly boring union suits with one or two simple shapes drawn on them in a random color, or garish idiot-ensembles of shoulderpads, pouches, big guns, gravity-defying hair, pouches, more muscles than an all you can eat steak buffet attended by the whole WWE, random weapons crammed everywhere (most of which they never used), and pouches.
There weren’t many good characters born out of this caldron of bile, and even the ones who get thrown a bone like Cable…
…didn’t exactly start out well.
Gambit managed to avoid a lot of this, largely thanks to being conceived by noted Good Writer, Chris Claremont and noted Good Artist (but social twit), Jim Lee. His classic costume is lacking in any pouches at all, consisting of an ISO Standard Bad Boy trenchcoat, knee-high boots, a weird cowl that manages to cover neither is face, nor his hair, and an articulated magenta and blue breastplate.
I didn’t say it wasn’t silly, just that it wasn’t 90s. I like the look mind you, and it’s not as weird as the trunks Superman sports (and stopped sporting when his costume was ruined for the New 52), or Wolverine’s eye-horn thing on his mask. I can accept and even love ludicrous things as long as they’re fun.
Just because he’s not plagued by the 90s doesn’t mean that Gambit comes out smelling like a rose here. While he dresses like an actual superhero and has (and uses) powers that aren’t GUUUUUUUUUNS!!1!, his concept and aforementioned powers are something you would flame a twelve year-old for coming up with in his fan fiction—and you would be right to do so.
Hoo boy. First of all, Gambit’s primary power (of the many, many he has) is to explode things. No, that wasn’t bad grammar. Gambit doesn’t make things explode, he exploded them. Making them explode really doesn’t capture just what he hell he’s doing here or the fact that he can explode the unexplodable.
By applying the concept of ‘kinetic’ and ‘potential’ energy to logical conclusions only someone who doesn’t understand physics can apply to those words, Gambit excites the molecules of an object he touches to the extend that it violently flies apart in the same manner in which an object combusts when heated, or to be more accurate the same way nuclear weapons work. His creators didn’t understand the physics involved in their explanation, but yeah—Gambit’s signature power is to turn anything into a miniature nuke.
He typically uses his power on cards, which are cheap, portable grenades in his hands. The 90s animated series amusingly introduces him buying out a store’s entire stock of playing cards and tucking them away in his coat.
If someone came up to you at a con and told you they had an idea for a character who touched things and turn them into tiny nuclear weapons, you would roll your eyes so hard that you would get dizzy and fall down.
But we’re not done yet! Through the power of ‘kinetic’ and his ability to manipulate and channel kinetic energy, Gambit can channel the energy of his own body, making him effectively strong, faster, and more dexterous than baseline humans, which he uses as part of a fighting style that incorporates acrobatics and the use of a bo staff (that staff by the way is adamantium—because of course it is).
Oh, and somehow that fact that he’s constantly full of ‘charged potential energy’ (just go with it), his mnd is full of static, which gives him a natural shield against psychic attacks!
However, because his power set was apparently conceived by Claremont’s sexually frustrated inner child, Gambit also possesses a hypnotic ‘charm’ that work like… well… charm person, except it doesn’t work on anyone who knows about it. Of course he uses it to hit on women.
So he’s a guy who’s good at everything, who can ‘charm’ anyone, and who is powered by explosions and awesome.
Ten year-old me had no choice but to worship this guy, like for real.
How could I not?
But thirty year-old me is a writer of at least middling skill, who knows about Mary Sues and pointlessly overpowered characters, and the basic principles of what makes a character good. How on god’s green Earth can I still love a character like that? I mean really, I should be ashamed of myself! This article should be nothing but self-flagellation and inviting scorn from you, the readers, right?
No. And I’m going to tell you why, as well as hopefully help you be a bit more thoughtful when analyzing characters.
First thing’s first: being powerful is not the same as being a Mary Sue. Being awesome is not the same as being a Mary Sue. ‘Mary Sue’ as a term is overused in today’s pop culture and it’s been poorly attributed to traits a character has when it has more to do with how the story treats them.
Yes, there are visual and conceptual tropes Sues often have in common (and have in common with Gambit) like unusual eyes, supernatural good looks that aren’t treated as supernatural, power without limits or drawbacks, etc. However, the true measure of a Sue is how events unfold around them.
Does every person besides the irrevocably evil love them? Are they always right about everything? Are all of their ‘flaws’ clearly calculated to make them even more endearing? Does their presence cause existing situations to bend in their favor for no in-story reason (i.e. do couples conveniently break up so the Sue can have a love interest, the law of causality cheerfully ignore actions that would normally be punished, etc)? Do they always have not only a victory, but a flawless victory by the end of any story? Then that is a Mary Sue. And in long-running stories, some characters can drift into and out of this.
Take Superman. A lot of people call Supes a Sue, but there’s a difference from him being very powerful, experienced, and a good person… and the entire JLA being idiots or helpless and needing him to save all their asses. There’s a difference between people thinking he’s a physical god… and the story itself constantly drawing comparisons between him and Jesus. Clark as a rule isn’t a Sue. He just happens to be the most powerful guy who isn’t the Martian Manhunter and an all around decent dude in a world where that means something (or used to, thank you Dan Didio).
Which brings us back to Gambit. He is, as I’ve admitted, dangerously close to being a Mary Sue. He’s even got red-on-black eyes for god’s sake.
However, there’s one thing that Gambit does that, in a singular swoop, saves him from that fate in most of his appearances: Gambit loses.
In fact, he loses a lot. His iconic storyline, Thieves and Assassins ends not only with him losing his first love, but the thing he came back home to stop merely postponed. The storyline New Sun, which revealed that he’s actually way more powerful than ‘just’ turning everything he touches into a nuclear bomb, ends with him terrified that it might be true because it is in no way a good thing. It even turned out that, before he was introduced, he got chumped and caused the famous Mutant Massacre.
Hell, there are several instances for example Messiah Complex) where writers dump him directly into the designated idiot role like your common Cyclops or Bishop.
Looking back on it, I don’t think there’s any story where Gambit cruises to victory, being showered with adoration and naked ladies. Whenever he gets an unequivocal win, it’s as a member of a team. And while he’s almost always useful, he’s also almost never the MVP of those encounters.
And then there’s his love life…
As I’ve said before, I love the Rogue/Gambit (Romy) ship. And part of that stems from that aspect. It’s the classic ‘lady killer in love’ deal only with superpowers. And the superpowers aspect really serve to enhance things here.
See, the other thing about Gambit that keeps him from being a Mary Sue are his negative qualities. He’s arrogant, he’s prone to oneupsmanship, and he’s kind of misogynistic. Not in the ‘stay in the kitchen’, do what your man tells you’ kind of way, but in a manner that some might call ‘old fashioned’.
He feels that the man should always save the woman, that he man should pursue, and can get pretty objectifying when you comedown to it. His relationship with Rogue has served as serious character development on this matter. For one, Rogue is pretty much the most powerful person on the team who isn’t stuffed full of cosmic bird and can and does both save his life and kick his ass. For another, more important thing, Rouge (until very recently) can’t b touched.
For people not up on the X-men or Rogue specifically, her power comes in the form of a touch that drains people’s life force as well as transcribing any powers they have and bits of their personality into her. If she remains in contact long enough,she can kill you—and she can’t turn it off.
The practical upshot of all this is that our lady’s man, Gambit can’t love Rogue and leave her; he actually has to get to know her. This as turned out to not only be a boon to both characters, but to my enjoyment of the relationship. Instead of them just being romantic all the time, the two have become comfortable with each other, giving advice or even trading barbs like real friends. When writers aren’t trying to keep them apart, it’s honestly one of the best relationships in comics.
When hey are pointlessly split up, however, it brings out another trait I love about the Cajun: he loses well.
For example, in Mike Carey’s run on X-men: Legacy, Rogue and Gambit break up (yet again, because for all his great writing, Mike Carey for some reason felt the pairing of twenty-something Rogue and noted septuagenarian, Magneto was more interesting) and Gambit takes it more amicably than pretty much any super-breakup in comics.
Does he violently attack Magneto? Does he go brood in the rain? Does he immediately turn evil (I’m looking at you, Maddie Pryor)? Nope, he notices X-23 needs some help and goes off to have an adventure with her in her excellent solo series.
This is Gambit’s reaction to all bad turns in his life, by the way. While he rage-quits the X-men almost as often as Wolverine, he never goes on moody, introspective road trips like Logan. Nope, he does things like going home to try and free his friends and family from the ancient evil that’s been playing them as pawns, or rolling out and kicking in Apocalypes’s teeth (which… didn’t go well for him, but still…). Seriously, every Gambit solo series starts with him suffering a setback, then consciously deciding to go do something awesome to make himself feel better.
Which is the other remarkable thing I like about Gambit. For all his 90s origin, he’s still a rather light character.
Some people don’t get what that means. When they hear me complain about dark and gritty bullshit, they instantly decide I mean I want a return to the days of the Adam West Batman. That’s idiotic. Anyone with basic simian common sense knows there’s a massive range between camp POW sound effects and pointless rape stories (Identity Crisis), children being eaten by their fathers (Spider-man: Shed) or Wonderdog mauling Marvin and Wendy to death (Teen Titans #62).
No, I don’t want 60s Batman, I want 70s Spider-man, 2000s Powergirl or, Gambit. Here’s the deal: Gambit isn’t ‘funny’. He quips, he does Bond one-liners, but he involved in gags outside of the 90s animated series.
But the big thing is that Gambit doesn’t brood. Not much at least. If he does, it’s done in an issue and then he snaps back to himself. Some really harsh detours into awful aside (Death!Gambit, anyone?), he consistently bounces back and act like a normal freaking human most of the time.
In fact, his characterization is probably one of the best ‘average man with powers’ from characters of his era. Where Superman is the best of what makes us human, Gambit is what makes us flawed and likeable. He’s a nice guy, but he’s tempted to do bad things and sometimes he does them—not even major things, like something it’s just petty theft or picking a fight with an asshole he could have ignored. He gets wrapped up in himself, but when people bring him down to earth, he takes notice.
And he genuinely enjoys his powers! Not only does he enjoy using them, but he manages to find mundane (granted they’re pranks mostly) uses for a power that makes things explode as a rule. Gambit abusing the crap out of his powers in the animated series was my first exposure to that kind of thing and I was always disappointed that beyond X-men, you didn’t see that much mundane power usage in other series.
Oh, and he’s shown using that power creatively and learning new tricks with it. Even the card thing is kind of genius when you realize that the character had to realize how awesome his power would work with throwing cards.
It ended up being Gambit who caused me to want to learn more about the X-men, resulting in my perusal of back issues that included the infamous softball games, Kitty’s Fairytales, and other slice of life superhero stuff that you’ll notice is so prominent in my writing. He’s also why I ran out and got videos and books on bojutsu, (poorly) teaching myself the basics of the martial art. I eventually realized I wasn’t any good at it, but that also lives on in how several Descendants also know bojutsu.
So yeah. If Gambit over the top and ridiculous? You bet, but that’s part of why he’s awesome. And on top of that, there’s more to the character than meets the eye, including many of the same traits I’ve come to value in characters in general.
I’m not saying any of you have to like him, I just wanted to share my reasons why I mean it when I say he’s my favorite. If you’d like to head on down to the comments or the ofrums and share who your favorite superheroes are and why, that’d be awesome too.
Next week: the Many Faces of Godzilla.
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