Thursday, 1 April 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #31: The Ragin' Cajun

People love mysteries. Always have, probably. Ever since the first caveman watched a bolt of lightning immolate an unfortunately-placed mammoth and demanded to know what had just happened, who had done it, and how exactly they proposed to furnish him with a new mammoth, humanity has prided itself in pricking up its collective ears in the presence of Questions to which they do not have Answers.

It is this phenomenon (as I have argued before) that makes horror films so engaging. Strip away the layers of blood and screaming and musical stings and, yes, an awful lot of titty, and what you're generally left with is a good old-fashioned mystery. Sure, a lot of horror films got unglued in the '80s when the Question always seemed to be "Who has drawn up a list of local teenagers in strict order of sexual promiscuity and started doing them in with a common house or garden tool?", and took a further dive more recently when the Answer repeatedly proved to be "A profoundly unconvincing slice of CGI," but the point still stands.

With few exceptions, however, films are required to present and (hopefully) resolve their mysteries over the course of an hour or two. Deeper mysteries - who killed Laura Palmer, where the Hell are Jack, Kate and co., or why should anyone in the 21st century be allowed to imply a baby wizard was saved by the "power of wuv" and expect to get away with it - need to pieced together over a longer time period. Which means TV, or books, or comics.

When Remy LeBeau sashayed into view in 1990, the aura of mystery clung tighter to him than that ridiculous pink armour of his (I promise that's the last time I'll mention it). In many ways he was the harbinger of the entire '90s ethos, which can best be described as replacing characterisation with mysteries, dialogue with quips, dramatic conflict with constant surly disrespect, and superheroic beat-downs with... well, more superheroic beat-downs, in truth, but with an extra dash of "My man is best and he hits all your mens and all your mens is dead" on top. In fairness, this was a process had already begun thanks to Wolverine's enormous popularity (along with other characters to a much lesser extent), but to the best of my knowledge, and certainly within the X-books, Gambit was the first character who was seemingly deliberately assembled wholesale from the traits Wolverine had organically grown into [1]. Only a few years later, this process had progressed to the point where Marvel was apparently prepared to introduce us to characters like Bishop, someone who's entire point was to not actually have a character at all, but just be endlessly, horribly violent and not care in the least. As usual, though, I digress (besides, Bishop is up next in any case).

Even as a fourteen-year old, and even discovering comics four years after LeBeau's debut, I understood what was happening, and I didn't like it. The laziest shake-up of an ongoing franchise imaginable is to stick in a combative, viciously effective fighter with a shadowy past and a problem with authority; the only surprise is that they didn't preempt Voyager and make Remy a top-heavy blond in a skin-tight sparkly jump-suit. It still goes on today, as anyone who watched the various line-up changes of Stargate Atlantis will attest. Any character judged insufficiently interesting can expect to be given the chop at any minute and replaced with someone stronger and silent-ier, or sexier and, well, just sexier, pretty much.

The one thing that I did love about Gambit, though, was the mystery. Like I said, it's mammoths and lightning bolts (which may or may not be the title of my second record with The Desolation of Smaug). Perhaps this is what made me a mathematician; I have a deep-seated compulsion to tear apart things that aren't even real and poke around until I can figure out how they work. Gambit might never have particularly interested me as a character, and even his value to me as an enigma was limited by the constant eruptions of "Ah want you Roguey, but ah'm just too dark an' tortured, chere!" I was forced to endure, but the puzzle was there, and so it neeed to be solved.

It should be noted that whilst everything else about Gambit seemed factory-assembled to appeal to the basest instincts of teenage boys (well, not the absolute basest, probably - though if it did I'm not judging), Gambit's underlying conflict was actually genuinely really interesting. More so than Wolverine's, actually. Wolverine's fundamental question, at least whilst he was being written by Larry Hama (which was the case when Gambit was introduced) was this: how can you know yourself if you don't know your own past? Logan's quest to solve that conundrum, which he attempted both by uncovering and facing the past and proving himself as more than a slavering killer in the present, was the consuming obsession of his life, telepathic red-heads notwithstanding.

Remy's question is more intriguing, I think: how can you redeem yourself if no-one else knows your past?

Something that always bothered me about romances is how often you find you can only make up for the mistakes you make in one relationship in the one that follows. Far too often, you can only make up for all the shitty things you did by finding someone else who doesn't know about all the shitty things you did like the shitty shit you are. In theory, you might have worked out you were being a shit at the time [2], but probably not. Probably, you were too busy being a shit to notice. You've learned your lesson, with any luck; you know not to pull that same crap a second time, and you try desperately to prove that to yourself once you're granted the chance. Which, y'know, is all very well and good, but the whole time you're terrified that somehow your new beau is going to figure out all the hideous things you've done in the past, and the fact you didn't mean to do them, and you're massively determined never to do them again, isn't going to matter at all. You will, quite simply, be fucked.

It's more than possible that I'm uniquely bad at relationships, admittedly, but that's not really the issue here. My point is merely that Gambit is running on the same principle; the only way to redeem himself for what he did is to help the X-Men put the hurt on the local mutant supervillains, and the only way they'll let him do that is if they have no idea what he's done. It's a fascinating Catch-22; either way he can't actually pay for what he's done. Or at least, it's a Catch-22 when viewed through the lens of superhero fiction. In reality, of course, it would hardly be difficult to conclude that what LeBeau needed to do would be turn himself in to the authorities. In our fantasy world of POW and ZZZARK, however, Gambit's dilemma works very well.

It was also a very smart move to pair Remy up with Rogue, at least in theory (as I say, the execution was problematic), and not just because it made the link above between redemption in general and in relationships specifically more strong. I'm not sure that there was any other X-Man at the time with such a checkered past (with the possible exception of Wolverine, and as noted we still didn't really know what exactly his history entailed at that point) as Mystique's adopted daughter. Rogue spens her years before the X-Men running with a group of mutant criminals. Much of her power set, including her powers of flight, strength and invulnerability, is deliberately stolen from a superhero she then attempts to murder. And all of this is common knowledge. By the time Gambit arrives, Rogue has had to earn her place on a team that knew exactly what she had done, and exactly why they should kick her to the curb. Having Remy fall in love with Rogue but be too afraid of losing her to actually follow the same path she's taken was a clever move.

It would be too easy to simply label Gambit as less brave than Rogue, however. Whatever else he is, or perhaps precisely because of what he is, LeBeau is an excellent judge of character. He knows all along that Rogue won't be able to withstand hearing the truth. And he's right. When the Crystal Wave sweeps towards Earth in the wake of the Age of Apocalypse, and the universe seems to be mere seconds away from ending forever, Rogue grabs Gambit and kisses him, figuring it doesn't really matter whether they're still breathing at the point all of reality is frozen in crystal. The Wave is later reversed; the kiss is not, and whatever it is that Rogue glimpses in the mind of her lover forces her to flee the mansion, beginning a cross-country road trip with Iceman that in an paradoxical attempt to both distance herself from and discover Remy's secrets. When he finally catches up with her, in the hollow ruins of a theatre in Seattle, he finally offers to tell her what he did. To finally offer her the chance to know the truth, and decide whether to forgive him or not. It's possibly his finest moment. He's finally prepared to allow someone else to have a say in deciding his fate, which isn't the worst definition of love I've ever heard.

She doesn't accept. What little she has seen is already too much. She runs again, this time with no intention of returning. When at last she does come back, it's in the company of the mutant Joseph, a man believed to be a rejuvenated and amnesiac Magneto. This combination is even more inspired, because Joseph is exactly who Gambit wishes he could be. Not only can he touch Rogue, but - and this is I suspect far more important - rather than carrying around a secret no-one else can know and which weighs him down like the lead in a coffin under the Louisiana bayous, "Joseph's" violent history is already known to everyone, but he gets a free pass because he doesn't remember any of it himself.

In truth, that situation brings its own problems, as we'll discuss when we get to Joseph in a few month's time. For Gambit, though, the comparison is almost unbearable. He already knows, having essentially been told by Rogue, that revealing what he has done would be the end of him. After all, if Rogue, the woman who loved him with the intensity you only ever get to feel the first time, was prepared to leave him knowing only a fraction of the truth, he can't possibly believe that the other X-Men, so many of whom had never entirely accepted him in the first place, would ever allow him to remain. The implication, at least as far as Gambit sees it, is that what Magneto did, killing the crew of a Russian submarine, ripping the adamantium from Wolverine's body in a moment of supreme spite, assisting in the creation of Onslaught, who almost destroyed the world and cost it so many of its mightiest heroes, is somehow easier to forgve than his own crimes. To the rest of us, the flaw in this reasoning is obvious; Magneto's crimes are known, and can thus be quantified, and Joseph, morally speaking, is not to blame for them. For Gambit, though, that's even worse, because it means a mass-murderer has been given the gift of forgetting the truth and then been rewarded for receiving that gift. In a lot of ways, I think Joseph was something of a wasted character, but the strange love triangle formed between him, Gambit and Rogue was absolutely one of my favourite moments of the rather directionless period between Onslaught and Operation: Zero Tolerance.

I realise that up until now I haven't actually mentioned what Gambit's secret actually is. This is entirely deliberate. I've been saving the reveal, because once that's dealt with, I'm honestly not sure what's left to be said about Remy LeBeau. Once we finally learned the full truth of the matter during "The Trial of Gambit" in UXM #350, it was the beginning of the end. To be sure, contra David Lynch - whose repeated insistence that Twin Peaks could have run indefinitely if only the network hadn't demand he reveal Laura Palmer's murderer rather confirms that he was almost entirely unaware of just why the show he'd created worked in the first place - a mystery can only be spun out for so long. But then resolutions bring their own dangers, too. It's almost always the way with these things that the answer is always less satisfying than you were hoping for. Perhaps too often these things are not truly thought out in advance, perhaps it is merely that it is better to journey than to arrive. In this case, though, I think the reason lies in a third option, specifically in Marvel's attempt to provide a satisfactory explanation of Gambit's misdeeds and his years of secrecy which did not render him entirely unsympathetic after some seven-odd years of being a popular hero. I'm not sure if that needle could be threaded, but it most certainly wasn't. Instead, we were told that the black stain on Gambit's soul was that he had once worked for Sinister, under whose orders he had assembled a team of mercenaries, and unknowingly led them to the site at which the Morlocks were massacred.

In fairness, this was hardly out of the blue. Several hints had been dropped along the way. A former relationship with Sinister and Sabretooth, an interest in mourning the dead Morlocks, killed in a massacre before either the X-Men or the reader had ever met him. The problem with the story, however, is that it just didn't feel as though it was disgracing enough to have made all the years of secrecy worth it. He put together a team of mercenaries? We already know he was a thief, with connections to the assassins' guild, as well, which is to say that worse things about him had already been revealed. He was working for Sinister? The man quite literally saved Gambit's life. It's made very clear that Gambit didn't know the reason why the mercenaries were assembled - he must remain sympathetic, after all - but presumably we're supposed to conclude that the shadiness of the characters involved should make him directly morally culpable.

Well, maybe. I wouldn't want him over for tea and biscuits, certainly, and not just because I suspect he would steal all my favourite stuff. Ultimately, though - and as mentioned, I completely understand why they went with this - it felt like all those years of watching a man trying to atone for the deliberate and terrible choices he had made were actually spent following a man trying to make up for a single event he didn't know was going to happen and which wouldn't have been prevented had he walked away from a man he had given his word to serve. Put another way, by lessening Gambit's crime, Marvel lessened Gambit's story.

Which is a double shame, because it was pretty much the last interesting one he had. With the best will in the world, it's difficult to imagine people sitting around twenty years from now discussing how awesome it was when Gambit was revealed as the New Sun, or was almost seduced by his girlfriend's foster mother, or became the latest incarnation of Death with quite possibly the worst redesign in 21st century comics history (see below). I literally cannot think of anything Gambit has done since his return a year or so after his trial saw him abandoned in the Antarctic that feels worthy of comment.

With his past and his crimes revealed, Gambit is really little more than another '90s throwback. Everything he does is supposed to say moody and dark and too-wild-to-be-tamed, but those guys are ten a penny in the Marvel Universe - and fiction in general - these days. Hell, I can't even work up the energy to dislike the guy anymore. He's just there, cluttering up the place. Without the mystery, there's quite simply nothing left; just an assembled jigsaw puzzle, lying on the shelf, useless as it is but not worth the effort of playing with again, because you've already seen the picture.

Next time on SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men, we prepare for various time paradox-induced headaches, take more than one cheap shot at the world's most ludicrous mullet, and discuss what happens when an X-Man really does turn out to be a crazy-evil motherfucker.

[1] Just try reading some of the earlier Wolverine stuff. He was always a bad-tempered rebellious loner, but there is actually a fairly significant distance between how he started and where he ended up. Of course, there are very few comics characters in general for which that isn't true, to a greater or lesser extent.

[2] I must confess to being curious as to what point in that paragraph the various filters used by my readers' office computers judged this post too offensive to be shown. Seriously, I get letters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is where I disagree, FUCk the mystery. What is done is done, the main problem with Remy is that few writers can handle him. About the New sun stuff , it was originally a completely different idea. But maybe a picture is better (I'm not as eloquent as you actually ,so I apologise...)

Also, he is not really lost . Not by a long shot I've read my fair share of stories with him & none of them stroke me as the definitive one (unlike Magneto who has no business anymore as a villain...) so Gambit is definitemly a good card to use in many stories...

genuinely yours $