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Thu, April 30th, 2009 at 10:28am PDT

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

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THE MUTANT CALLED GAMBIT!

Welcome to the X-men, Gambit! The first appearance of the character via the art of the Mike Collins (pencils) and Josef Rubinstein (inks

It was almost twenty years ago today that the popular Cajun mutant Gambit (a.k.a. Remy LeBeau) made his debut in the pages of “Uncanny X-Men” #266. Slightly under the fan radar then, the character’s arrival was in the midst of the book’s bi-weekly summer schedule and the transition of regular penciler from veteran Marc Silvestri to young gun Jim Lee.

These were even interesting times for the X-Men themselves, since the characters in the team had been scattered around a bit for over a year. In fact, in his first issue, the only X-Man that Remy befriends is a radically different Storm, who had been de-aged (to a mere child), powerless, amnesic, and surviving by stealing.

A need to expand the team roster with some all-new and all-different members helped inspire the creation of Gambit. Legendary X-Men writer and Gambit’s co-creator Chris Claremont recalled, “I’d been writing the X-Men at that point for fifteen years, and we were in the process… Magneto had just taken over as head of the school, and the intent, the ongoing intent all along had been to involve the playlist of adversaries further and further away from the original Stan and Jack, Roy Thomas, Neal Adams collection of adversaries. We didn’t just want to keep going back to the same two or three major villains over and over again, and the conception of Gambit fit right into that. And it was time to further grow the team.”

The character’s arrival was such a baptism of fire that in several of his initial appearances, he’s not much more than a background wallflower due to the hectic nature of major mutant manic events that year, “Days of Future Present” (a sequel to the classic “Days of Future Past”) and “X-Tinction Agenda.” Neither allowed much face time for Remy, because their intent was seemingly more in reuniting the X-Men families. Also, during this same period there was an editorial struggle within the X-office that eventually led Chris Claremont to depart from the titles and characters he helped bring from obscurity to massive popularity in 1991. Due to these circumstances, the writer never got to fully evolve and explore Gambit (among other storylines) as he originally intended.

Andy Kubert's awesome cover to "Uncanny X-Men" #266. Boy, I remember buying this off the rack in the summer of 1990

Claremont said, “[Gambit] wasn’t around for that long [at that point]. We introduced him basically just before Jim Lee came aboard as penciler, even though conceptually he had been in my head, he’d been on the drawing board for quite a while; he was actually only in print for the better part of a year.”

“Well, bear in mind,” stressed the writer, “that my conception of the character is one thing. The presentation of him that evolved over the subsequent years is substantially different. I mean, what I would have done with him was aimed in significantly different directions from the way he turned out, and, to a certain extent, will be on view in ‘X-Men Forever,’ because we’re picking up where I left off [at the end of 1991’s ‘X-Men’ #3].”

In order to visualize the character, then X-editor Bob Harras recruited a young Jim Lee to sketch out Claremont’s conception, but when it came time to introduce the character properly in “Uncanny,” British veteran comics artist Mike Collins was the man chosen to ultimately pencil Gambit’s arrival in “Uncanny” #266.

In getting the gig, the Wales resident recalled, “Bob Harras had been using me on back-ups for ‘Classic X-Men,’ the ‘Director’s Cut’ of the seminal Claremont/Byrne run (before anyone had thought of director’s cuts) and asked me if I wanted to draw a couple of issues on ‘Uncanny,’ which was running bi-weekly over the summer. My issues were #264 and of course, #266 — I had no inkling that it’d be so significant a book. Unfortunately, this issue coincided with Chris’ honeymoon, so I was getting pages sent through close to deadline. I drew the book in about eight days. So, yup — tight!”

This the only page from "X-Men Archives Sketchbook" where you can see various potential Gambit designs from the mighty hand of Jim Lee

About those days in which the book was produced, Claremont said, “It was an extremely chaotic period because the series was in transition. Mike was, ‘Are you available for this issue?’ ‘Uh, yeah.’ ‘How about this issue, too?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay, we may need you for another issue. How many do you want?’ ‘I don’t know, how many…?’ We were in some respects making things up, in terms of schedule, as we went along. Which, in those days at Marvel, seemed to be the rule more than the exception. And half the time we were improvising more than planning, and this is one of those occasions where all of the random elements that could have spelt disaster actually clicked quite brilliantly into place. Made us all look smart.”

In terms of his instructions for drawing Gambit, Collins followed the sketches transmitted to Wales. The artist recalled, “In those primitive pre-Internet days, when we got by with dial phones and wove our own clothes, I had an arrangement with the Copy Shop in my village — Marvel would fax through reference and scripts, all of which now are faded sepia ghosts, like passing memories. I got sent through Jim Lee’s Sharpie roughs of this new character who Bob assured me was going to be a hit. The fax was a bit distorted and squiggly so I really didn’t know if I’d drawn him right in the comic, but I figured I’d got it pretty close.”

Remembering how the character was described to him, the penciler recalled, “He was to be a bit of a rogue, a chancer. Chris’s plots are always full of description, well beyond the simple ‘he’s 6' 3", and weighs 170 lbs.’ — he suggests mood and attitude, which, as an artist, is a gift. Even though this book was a fast turnaround, all the info I needed was there to decide how he stood, how he carried himself.”

In this Art Adams panel (from "X-Men Annual" #14), a slightly awkward Gambit partakes the first of many, many X-Men events

Gambit’s trademark trenchcoat was an element bestowed to him from Claremont. The writer informed, “The trenchcoat was something I wanted. I mean, he’s a thief. He needs somewhere to stash his stuff. To a certain extent he may have been derived from the visual presentation of ‘Highlander’ in the sense of being stylish and physical… No, I mean, it was just the sense… You could see, looking at the way that MacLeod was presented and dressed operating in North Europe in the winter wearing a trenchcoat as if it was not a trenchcoat, even, wearing a long coat instead of a jacket was a more stylish and effective way of dressing. And, in his case, it hid the sword. In Gambit’s case, it presumably could hide a multitude of tools and equipment.”

Within the “Enter the Mutant Called Gambit!” story of issue #266, a now 12-year-old Storm develops a platonic relationship with fellow thief Gambit once befriended. Her natural instincts from her original childhood had led her to once again be a thief in order to survive on her own. Remy immediately saw a kindred spirit in her.

“Well, as far as [Storm] was concerned, her memory told her she lived in a place called Cairo, and she was a thief,” Claremont explained. “Well, she found herself in a place called Cairo, and she was a thief. And she lived next to a giant river. That’s it. The details of her reality and her memory matched up. It was the realities that were screwed, because it wasn’t Cairo in Egypt, it was Cairo in Illinois. It wasn’t the Nile, it was the Mississippi. But the pieces fit together, so she accepted, ‘This is where I belong.’”

"Old Man Logan" gets the smackdown from the new guy in "Uncanny #273" (art by Michael Golden) and fight on Jim Lee and Scott William's "Uncanny X-Men" #277 cover

At the start of the Nineties, something funny — which no one ever seemed to notice — was the fact that Gambit never formally joined the X-Men; he just sort of ended up on the team and earned an X-uniform without any proper initiation or formality — thus no traditional “Welcome to the X-Men, hope you survive the experience!” cover. When I asked Chris Claremont about it, he confirmed this observation.

“That is a significant aspect of where his character is, again, in respect to ‘X-Men Forever.’ He’s been hanging around now for a dozen issues, or barely, but he’s not an X-Man. He never asked to be part of the team. The only reason he came along is because his friend and protégé asked him,” Claremont explained.

In the months after his initial appearance, with the X-Men families altogether again, the mutant from the Bayou really began to shine once his natural rivalry with Wolverine, who just couldn’t stand the sight of the Cajun and his power to manipulate kinetic energy, developed. Unfortunately for Logan, Gambit always seemed to gracefully get the upper hand whenever they tangoed (ah... fight). The memo was delivered that a changing of the guard in the X-Men bad boy status quo might be in order if he was indeed a match for Wolverine. X-readers were quickly smitten with the mysterious Gambit’s ability to kick ass and his endearing ladykiller ways.

“You want a new character,” stated Claremont, “any new character, to make an impact with his introduction. That’s why Rogue, for example, in her first adventure with the X-Men at Wolverine’s wedding, saves the day. It almost kills her, but she saves the day. You don’t want a character to be introduced as a non-entity, or in a position that doesn’t show them being effective. You’re marketing them. You want them to sell themselves to the other characters, and the cast, and to the

Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch is Gambit in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

The intriguing cloud of mystery surrounding Gambit added much intrigue to the character’s exact motives. The longtime X-Men writer added, “Realistically speaking, you weren’t supposed to know what Wolverine’s backstory was, either. In Gambit’s case, it was an integral part of his reality in that he had something primal to hide. That was meant to be a major part of the first two- or three-year arc.”

So for Gambit’s first artist, Mike Collins, what type of perks come with rendering the initial adventure of one of Marvel’s most popular characters of the last twenty years? Collins’ response: “I can't claim any credit there. Visually, it’s all Jim [Lee] and character-wise it came from that strange, wonderful alchemy of Chris and Bob [Harras]. I was just the Pencil Monkey. Perks? Well, I get a kick when folks go, ‘Wow! You drew the first appearance of Gambit!,’ which usually gets undermined by them following that with, ‘I read that when I was a KID!’... I feel old sometimes, George...”

And now that Gambit will see some time on the big screen in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” both Claremont and Collins are keen on seeing how their character will be portrayed on film. Claremont said, “I’ve seen him in the trailer. It looks cool. I get pleasure seeing any of the characters that I was involved with on the screen. Watching the “X-Men” movie was a treat because it was getting to see the characters that I had more than a hand in creating, if I didn’t actually create them myself, brought to life. In many cases, by actors I tremendously respect. How can you feel bad when Ian McKellen is doing Magneto, when Hugh Jackman’s doing Logan. Holy Toledo. Better yet, looking at the ‘Wolverine’ trailer, you’ve got Sabretooth… oh, bollocks…”

Mike Collins is also excited to see Gambit on the big screen, but the artist has one gripe: “Disappointed he hasn't got square pupils!"

TAGS:  gambit, x-men, x-men origins: wolverine, chris claremont, mike collins

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