[Jason Powell continues the homestretch on these issue by issue Claremont X-Men blogs. He may be coming to New York City soon for a visit -- Jason, am I allowed to say why? do you want to say why? Anyway we will finally meet in person. This will be exciting because I think of him as a digital image. One of those pixelated photographs that when you get real close turns out to actually be made up of tiny images of pages of Claremont comics that only look like person when you get enough distance from them.]
“Nanny – Into the Fire”
Debuting so near the end of Claremont’s run, the character Gambit is surrounded by some confusion as to the author’s intentions. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that he was intended as the angel to Mr. Sinister’s devil. Sinister, Claremont has explained, was the alter ego of a mutant child who only aged one year for every ten. Accounting for the character’s outré visual design, Sinister was conceived as the ultimate boogeyman. Gambit, meanwhile, was another projection of this same child, the vision of the quintessential “cool” superhero.
As far as I can remember, I haven’t seen or read Claremont confirming this plan, but if it’s true it explains Gambit’s somewhat ridiculous perfection in every area – wit, charm, style, fashion, and of course, super-powers. Of course, his debut having occurred in the 90s – superhero comics’ peak decade of excess and cynical commercialism – Gambit’s blatant and unabashed wish-fulfillment qualities are just as explainable as the result of greedy corporate calculation.
That said, in either case, someone (and I apologize for not remembering who) has pointed out online that Gambit is actually an entirely reasonable addition to the X-Men cast, embodying a perennial trope that the mythology had previously been missing: The lothario. I quite appreciate this point of view, as it gives me personally a more sympathetic view of a character I’d previously been inclined to dismiss as a bit of cynical pandering. So, whoever exposed me to this more charitable take, please do stand up and take a bow.
(As a sidenote, I was also once quite taken with a theory posted on the X-Universe message board that Gambit was Longshot after passing through the Seige Perilous. Granted, we never saw Longshot enter the portal, but we also were never told he didn’t. And given the two figures’ virtually synonymous codenames, their shared attractiveness to the opposite sex, their similar acrobatic prowess and affinity for small projectiles, and their each possessing a single, glowing eye, it seems not at all unreasonable to intuit a connection. Yet for all of that, I’ve never heard or read anything to suggest that this theory has any basis in fact.)
In any case, Gambit’s staying power is undeniable. Although a co-creation with Jim Lee, Gambit still owes much of his personality and identity to Claremont. The author can claim no small amount of credit for the character’s longevity and success, comparable to that of Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Rogue and others. It is a testament to the author’s talent that throughout a 17-year run, he never lacked for the ability to create and/or develop popular, durable and ultimately much beloved characters with which to populate the X-Men’s fictional universe.
“Into the Fire” concludes the Storm/Gambit trilogy, and the issue itself is set up with a canny three-act structure that makes its 23 pages feel quite dense with incident. The opening sequence presents the final (for the moment) battle against The Shadow King’s hounds, depicted with intense fervor by Lee (assisted here by Whilce Portacio and Scott Williams). The end of the issue concludes the Nanny thread, tidily explaining the mystery of adolescent Storm while depicting Nanny and the Oprhan-Maker’s final defeat (thanks in part to an Ace of Spades hurled by Gambit – issue 267 marks the first appearance of his signature projectile). Both bits are equally breathless -- gorgeously illustrated by Lee/Portacio/Williams, and nicely choreographed by Claremont.
These two bombastic action set-pieces are linked by a more pensive middle section set in New Orleans. Partly a montage conveyed via narrative captions, the sequence is classic Claremont, conveying a solid sense of both setting and character. (Earlier examples of similarly well-wrought transitional narratives can be found as far back as Uncanny X-Men 101.) This sequence is literally the centerpiece of the issue, selling us both on Gambit himself and his newly forged bond with young Ororo. Without this bit, the action sequences that bracket it – well rendered though they are – would seem like so much sound and fury.
Claremont had little good to say about Jim Lee’s work in Uncanny 267, and while subsequent issues are certainly more confident, the artist acquits himself far better than Claremont would suggest. His talent for big superhero set-pieces is undeniable, and he proves equally adept at selling Claremont’s quieter, more prosaic moments. Thanks to Lee and his assisting artists (along with colorist Glynis Oliver and letterer Tom Orzechowski, who both happily return in “Into the Fire” after a three-issue absence), Claremont delivers his most rousing X-Men story in months, an irresistible pot-boiler that stays engaging from its sexy opening splash page to its final, stand-up-and-cheer line of dialogue.