August is turning out to be one of those odd banner months for Marvel launching solo titles. Just a week after Hawkeye #1, X-Men mainstay Gambit gets another crack at his own series, after one in the ’90s and another in the ’00s. It even follows the same edict as that title: just a brief acknowledgement of the titular character’s involvement with a much larger, more prominent franchise, then just shrug and go about doing something mostly unrelated. As a commercial formula, it’s a solid idea, but it’s the execution that’s going to determine whether it sinks or swims, and after this first issue, I’m not sure this Gambit ongoing will fare well.
It’s not a particularly bad comic, and right around when it stops being about exposition and setup to get down to its habitual thief protagonist commencing his heist (under the nose of a collector of supervillain gadgets) it’s easy to see this becoming a far more interesting one than it currently is. Employing spy gadgets, the ability to charge objects and cause them to explode, and his picaresque charm–particularly clever in how he handles being made by his target’s security team–there is a certain pulpy thrill to part one of Once a Thief… that also has an elegance to it, thanks to artist Clay Mann’s impeccable placement of the various moving parts of the tale, deftly establishing a server in the background of one page before she is utilized in the actual plot as a distraction for Gambit to create a whole separate distraction on the next (though he did seem to have flubbed a few details, like whether or not the server’s wearing thigh-high socks and also how characters’ feet seem to be hovering over steps rather than interacting with them). Alabaster: Wolves colorist Rachelle Rosenberg adds a nearly-sensuous atmosphere to the proceedings with a pink-purple-blue-green color scheme creating the laid-back yet meticulous vibe of the planning stages of a heist flick like Inception or The Great Train Robbery (sadly lacking a crew to serve as foils, other than Gambit’s unwitting accomplice, a tattooed woman that still seems at ease amongst the socialites that surround them), but then clashing dull browns and deep blacks with bright reds and hot pinks when Gambit actually begins the theft portion of his plot and faces down a lethal security system. All such a shame that writer James Asmus has the most banal opening scene such a comic could have.
The idea is that Gambit, a character introduced in Uncanny X-Men as a bad boy thief with a dark past, has strayed from his roots in the past few years into a (relatively) stable existence within the X-Men hierarchy as a “teacher” and “security guard,” and has a desire for the adrenaline rush of his thieving days. Sadly, rather than illustrating this status quo Gambit wishes to shake up, it’s largely relegated to expository narration and two panels showing some objects of his current position (including an amusing term paper he’s grading and a picture with him and on-again/off-again love interest Rogue). Where Matt Fraction and David Aja opened Hawkeye #1 with their hero’s Avengers exploits going horribly awry as an excuse to jump off into a solo adventure with its own complications and insights, Asmus and Mann open with him taking a shower (at least the gratuitous cheesecake is slightly more equal opportunity) and already set on some B & E. Rather than using Gambit’s internal conflict (upbringing vs. status, law-abiding vs. law-breaking, and communal belonging vs. individual desire) to drive the story, it’s merely pretext.
This series can work in the picaresque sense, as a springboard to various tales of Gambit doing what Gambit does best, but without context it becomes a sterile exercise in plot similar to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies. Steve Gerber, Paul Cornell, or Paul Jenkins (on a good day) could have made this a playful and satirical examination of identity and reputation: the scene where Gambit and his mark Borya Cich have a discussion about how they’re perceived would’ve informed their worldviews in addition to providing plot function. Disappointingly, like the rest of the issue, any subtext is merely acknowledged and then brushed aside.