In trying to come up with a clever introductory paragraph for this piece, I’ve realized that there’s no better way to get into this potential quagmire than to just jump right in. I love Gambit.
Gambit is one of my favorite comic book characters.
I’m going to guess that this surprises exactly no one. The guy that made the outlandish claim that the first season of the 90s “X-Men” is perfect thinks Gambit’s awesome? Of course! I named this column after the hyperbolic phrase used to kick-off early “X-Force” issues, so I’ve made it perfectly clear that my fan heart beats proudly underneath a puffy leather bomber jacket. I started reading comics in 1992, so I absolutely think Gambit’s awesome.
The ragin’ Cajun — possibly my favorite super hero nickname ever — has sidled his way back into the spotlight one more time thanks to X-Men movie producer Lauren Shuler-Donner’s consistent attempts to shove a bo staff and a deck of playing cards in Channing Tatum’s hands. The most recent assertions came at the premiere of “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” where Shuler-Donner half-sorta-quasi-maybe confirmed Tatum will bring Remy LeBeau back to life on the big screen. This news got me thinking about the character and why — why — I have such a soft spot for him when it seems like every other comic book professional gleefully hates him. So bear with me, because I have to figure this out for myself.
Doesn’t any defense of Gambit start with the fact that he’s just cool? That’s the only defense I can come up with when people make fun of his overwritten accent and goofy costume. Yeah, his hodgepodge “Cajun talk” rightfully offends anyone from New Orleans, and he is a thief that chooses to wear neon colors and big metal boots — but he’s still cool. He’s Gambit.
See, I can’t even effectively defend my Gambit love to myself. Maybe that’s because I’m too far-gone; this love runs deep. I’ve never gravitated towards primary protagonists, even as a little kid. I preferred ancillary Cobra villains like Zartan to G.I. Joe poster boy Snake-Eyes, I eagerly awaited Daffy Duck cartoons and snoozed through Bugs Bunny ones, and I’m much more of a Gonzo than a Kermit (a sentiment that I’ve learned is shared by pretty much every other improv comedian in the country). I even preferred Christian Slater’s Will Scarlet to Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood in the early ’90s “Prince of Thieves” film. Yes, I preferred a bratty, floppy-haired whiner who gets an arrow through the hand to Robin Hood. I need a real mental health equivalent of a Buzzfeed test, one that tells me what specific self-confidence issues I had as a kid that led me to identify so strongly with these weirdos and scoundrels.
But those characters pale in comparison to the king of scoundrels — Han Solo. When I first saw “Star Wars” — on a VHS tape rented from Video Depot — Han Solo redefined what it meant for me to like a character. Han Solo was it, the purest distillation of everything I had ever liked and could ever like about any fictional character ever. The guy had the coolest car, the coolest best friend and the coolest one-liners I had ever seen before. The whole flippant attitude hiding a heart of gold thing won me over, big time. Seriously, Luke Skywalker didn’t even show up to the Cool Competition six-year-old me held in his brain after watching the original “Star Wars” trilogy.
Enter: Gambit. I know that Gambit couldn’t have come across as cool to people older than I was when the first “X-Men” cartoon series debuted in late 1992. I know now, thanks to context, that Gambit’s inclusion in that cartoon came at the exclusion of a lot of characters that had been around almost ten times longer than he had; Nightcrawler, Colossus, Kitty Pryde, Iceman and Angel fans had to have been pretty annoyed that Gambit — a character that had only been chilling at the X-Mansion for two years at that point — got to charge headfirst into battle every week in that cartoon’s opening credits. But, as far as a kid introduced to the X-Men via that cartoon is concerned, Gambit’s a certified original team member.
I can also see how anyone older than a third grader when “Night of the Sentinels” hit the airwaves would view pretty much everything about Gambit as painfully ridiculous. His hot pink aerobics gear, his gravity-defying non-mask, his aggressively “cool” trench coat, his pick-up artist style antics with Rogue — the guy’s an absolutely bonkers choice for a Saturday morning super hero. Still, the character clicked with his eight-year-old target audience. He made quite an impressive debut, too. I had a new favorite super hero as soon as Gambit chucked a few explosive playing cards at a Sentinel while sarcastically shouting “apprehend this!”
It clicked with me then: Gambit was the “X-Men’s” Han Solo. He was a mysterious charmer, always with his weapon of choice and a quip at the ready, and he even kept his teammates at arm’s length, trying to convince them that he could leave their movement at any time… even though he always came through when it mattered most. Yeah, to little kid me, Gambit was just Han Solo filtered through a whole mess of early ’90s signifiers of cool — with funky headwear thrown in.
Gambit makes no sense in an adult world — and he definitely doesn’t make sense when super hero comics try to rationalize away everything that makes them super hero comics. But Gambit made a lot of sense to me as a kid. I practiced throwing playing cards like him, which came in handy when I charmed candy out of neighbors’ hands while dressed as Gambit on Halloween. I legitimately thought he had the best costume of any X-Man; I remember being super excited when I finally found out what his get-up looked like without his trench coat (spoiler alert: there’s more pink). Gambit’s Marvel Masterpieces trading card, where he was smoking a cigarette, was easily the edgiest thing I’d encountered since Raphael let out a cathartic “damn” in the first Ninja Turtles film. Gambit was cool to me then because I didn’t pick up on any of his incongruous elements, and he’s still cool to me twenty-two years later despite knowing how little sense those elements make — but only if those elements are included. Sheesh, this is complicated.
Now that I’m an adult, Gambit doesn’t work for me when he’s removed from the very things that make him a relic of the ’90s. Gambit floundered — hard — in the ’00s, as writers tried to make the character work in a post-“New X-Men” world. In fact, Gambit spent the entirety of Morrison’s tenure on the X-Books in Claremont’s “X-Treme X-Men,” which was about as far as a character could run from that radical revamp. After that, writers tried making him blind, they tried making him a Horseman of Apocalypse, but none of that worked. They tried making him serious, tormented by guilt retconned into his backstory, when serious is the last word you should use to describe a playing card throwing, trench coat wearing, French phrase dropping scoundrel whose favorite color is hot pink. Like any fan favorite character from 1992, Gambit needs equal parts mystery and equal parts flippancy. Revealing every aspect of his tithe-filled past and adding in tons of drama with Mr. Sinister — as cool as Mr. Sinister is — only damaged the character.
James Asmus and Clay Mann’s recent “Gambit” ongoing series rekindled my love for the character. Even as the lead character, Asmus allowed Gambit to hold onto his cocky attitude as he dove headfirst into missions that primarily did not involve “de T’ieves Guild,” and Clay Mann always made sure that Gambit looked exactly as steamy as he should, considering his reputation as the first crush for many a comic book fan (sidenote: Gambit’s not my type).
So I guess I like Gambit primarily because of — duh — nostalgia. If that character hadn’t been on the team of X-Men I fell in love with first, I might hold a grudge against him too for taking up all that airtime and panel space. But I do think there’s something deeper there; I’m sure this will spark many an eye roll and a few disgruntled tweets, but I think I like Gambit because I still think of him as the X-Men’s hot pink Han Solo. So Channing Tatum might play him in a movie. The guy’s got star power, and a lot of people find him attractive (again, not my type), and he proved in “21 Jump Street” that he can play both charming and comedic at the same time. He’s even from the “bayous near the Mississippi River,” according to his Wiki page, so he might be able to pull off that ridiculous accent. I’m all for this.
Just as long as his wardrobe includes a lot of pink. This is Gambit, after all.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).