The Man of Steal
Credits: Fabian Nicieza & Steve Skroce (story & art), Rob Hunter (inker), Shannon Blanchard (colors), Comicraft’s Emerson Miranda (letters)
Summary: In China, Gambit steals a spaceship component from an ancient temple. After Gambit rescues archeological engineer Sekmeht Conoway from the crumbling temple, the employees of Elysian Enterprises and American federal agent Carl Denti are unable to find him. He returns home to the X-Men, but receives another mission from New Son via the Courier. Looking to steal more information on the spacecraft, Gambit attacks an Elysian Enterprises convoy lead by the X-Cutioner. When Gambit realizes that the spacecraft is the one that once powered Apocalypse, he decides that no one should have the information and destroys it. In the process, the X-Cutioner is humiliated and three Elysian guards are fired. Meanwhile, a mystery woman examines the dreams of Gambit’s adopted father and the Courier.
Continuity Notes: The ancient ship is a Celestial craft that once belonged to Garbha-Hsien, before it was stolen by Apocalypse. A footnote points to X-Force #37 for details. Carl Denti is the X-Cutioner, of course, and the three security guards fired by Elysian Enterprises (Cosmo, Ellenthrope, and Farley) will appear in future issues.
I Love the '90s: The Courier’s dream takes place in Washington, which of course leads to a Monica Lewinsky reference. The senior LeBeau’s flashback to Gambit’s childhood with Bella Donna is described as “Dawson’s Creek meets Pulp Fiction.”
Gimmicks: This is a double-sized issue without any cover enhancements. However, numerous variant covers were released for the issue. You can view all of them here.
Review: Decompression was already catching on by the late ‘90s, although the phrase “writing for the trade” probably hadn’t been coined yet. (Doing this at Marvel would’ve been foolish, since the company barely released trades during this era.) Fabian Nicieza seemed to be conscious of the fad, and responded by making every issue of Gambit a tightly packed, dense read along the lines of Chris Claremont, Don McGregor, John Francis Moore, etc. If Bill Jemas had actually read a comic by this point, his head would’ve exploded ten pages into this one.
Along with setting up Gambit’s new status quo -- working with the X-Men and secretly for the New Son simultaneously -- Nicieza has also introduced a new group of supporting cast members and villains. And by “introduce” I don’t mean a drawn-out sequence that shows them making coffee in the morning, taking a shower, and driving to work. The very first page establishes C.E.O. Anwar Anubar, archeological engineer Sekmeht Conoway (who we later learn is his daughter), and the concept of Elysian Enterprises. They’re intended to be ongoing foils (and, in Sekmeht, perhaps a love interest) for Gambit, which is somewhat surprising given their low-key introduction, but that’s the nature of the book. You’re actually expected to, y’know, read and pay attention and not presume that everything’s going to be spoon-fed to you. X-Fans were probably already familiar with Carl Denti/X-Cutioner, and perhaps even the Celestial spacecraft, but the combination of new characters, a new status quo, numerous scene changes, some vague subplots, and old continuity references left some fans with a bad impression. I remember several people complaining online that this issue was too difficult to follow. And there is quite a lot thrown at the reader, but any confusion should be alleviated by a second reading.
In terms of characterization, Nicieza seems to be pulling Gambit closer towards the affable rogue he appeared to be in his initial appearances, instead of allowing him to endlessly wallow in patented X-angst. Gambit’s dealing with an ethical dilemma, as he doesn’t know where he fits in with the X-Men and isn’t sure if he should be helping New Son out, but he isn’t whining about it. He’s still having fun and using his powers in creative ways. Nicieza’s throwing Indiana Jones, Robin Hood, and maybe even Tomb Raider into a blender and getting a pretty likable hero/anti-hero out of it.
Steve Skroce was initially used as a major selling point for the book (the title was announced with Skroce as artist before any writer had been found), and he is producing remarkable work. He’s going for the Geoff Darrow “thousand-and-one things happening per page” look, and he’s skilled enough to make it work. Not content merely to draw a million shell casings or glass shards during a fight sequence, Skroce is also working out complicated movements for Gambit, car chases, and giant explosions…often on the same page. Occasionally the page layouts can be a little too busy, but the amount of effort he’s put into the issue is obvious. Even if you’ve already dismissed Gambit as a character, it’s hard to deny that this creative team is putting a lot of thought and energy into this book. Unfortunately, given the glut of X-titles, and the general impression that the franchise had gone off the rails by the late ‘90s, the title always had an uphill battle.