Heroes Never Rust #1 by Sean Ironman
The first comic book I remember reading is X-Men (second series) #33 written by Fabian Nicieza with art by Andy Kubert. I was ten years old and had read comics before, but X-Men #33 was the first to have an impact on me, enough of an impact to remember it nearly panel by panel almost twenty years later. My parents had seen the issue at Waldenbooks on a trip to the Coral Square Mall. I immediately stopped playing with action figures on my bedroom floor and read it.
The issue focused on Remy LeBeau, aka Gambit, who became a favorite of mine after reading it. It takes place in the present-day at the X-Mansion, the headquarters of the X-Men, and in Paris many years before Gambit joined the X-Men, back when he was with the Thieves Guild. Rogue, Gambit’s love interest in the present-day, talks to the villain Sabretooth, who has been imprisoned by the X-Men in an attempt for rehabilitation. She orders Sabretooth to talk about a past encounter with Gambit. (This must have been setup in a previous issue that I had not read. I’ve heard people complain about this kind of thing before, but not knowing what had happened in past issues was never a problem for me. It just made me want to track down what I had not read on the next trip to the store.)
As it turned out, Sabretooth and Gambit both tried to steal a necklace from an attractive French woman many years before. Sabretooth, in all his rough and tumble ways, attacked the woman. Gambit, at seventeen years old, protected her and used his charisma to get the woman to fall in love with him, to trust him. This was something superheroes just didn’t do in my ten-year-old mind. Gambit sleeps with the woman and steals the necklace before she wakes. To get it back, Sabretooth captures both the woman and Gambit’s step-brother, Henrí, who was in town.
The final showdown occurs on a rooftop. Gambit hands over the necklace, but Sabretooth, because he’s a psychopath, drops both the woman and Henrí off the roof. Gambit can only save one. He chooses his brother, and the woman falls to her death. (Which is made much sadder when I read the Gambit mini-series that had been released around the same time that opened with Henrí’s death.) Her final words were that she loved Gambit and would have gladly given him the necklace if he had just asked for it.
Back in the present-day, Gambit goes to look for Rogue, and they discuss their relationship. Rogue doesn’t think Gambit is capable of love, and she leaves.
The issue was thoroughly depressing. There were no fights to save the world, no returning from the dead. My take on it is that Gambit wanted to love the French girl—he was acting while with her, but not just to get the necklace. I think that he wanted to love her, but wasn’t capable. In the issue, he briefly discussed with Henrí his arranged marriage. This was a man who wanted love in his life, but couldn’t have it. He was an orphan taken in by the Thieves Guild and was forced to marry a woman from an opposing guild, the Assassins Guild. And in the present day, he still wanted to love.
Many superheroes have tragic beginnings, Spider-man for example. But the death of Uncle Ben in Spider-man allowed Peter Parker to become a superhero. Spider-man became a superhero to make amends. But this woman’s death didn’t have any effect on Gambit being a superhero. He didn’t become an X-Man because of it. It was just something that had happened. He continued being a thief. It was so human, so real, to see Gambit not be able to just flip a switch and turn his life around, make everything better. Rogue walked away from him in the end. This was no villain he could punch in the face until he wins the fight. This was no person to push out of the way of falling rubble. It was a hurt man unable to escape his past no matter how much good he had done as an X-Man.
This is what I love about superheroes. When I opened that issue, which featured Gambit and Sabretooth in mid-battle on the cover, I wanted to see Gambit and Sabretooth fight, Gambit win, and then everyone be happy in the end. That’s what I saw on the X-Men cartoon show on Saturday mornings. Even though I couldn’t understand all the issues at ten years old, I still knew it was deep, important. I read the issue again and again.
Today, many superhero comics are geared toward adults. They feature huge city destroying battles with millions of people dying, profanity, and sex. Many deconstruct the superhero concept. While, all of that has its place—and I read and enjoy just as much of those comics as every other comic book reader—I think what’s important to make a comic book mature lies in the psychology of the characters. Characters that can’t be figured out immediately. An adult could have enjoyed that X-Men issue just as much as I did at ten. The sex in the issue was off panel. I don’t even remember at ten if I knew if Gambit had sex with the French woman or if he just slept over. It wasn’t sexual. I know my mom wouldn’t have gotten it for me if it did.
I’m always hearing that a big problem facing the comics industry is that kids don’t read comics, that comics are made for adults and even if a kid wanted to read a comic, they couldn’t find one suitable. I think that’s been changing over the last couple of years. But I don’t think it’s an issue of comics either being made for kids (When I was a kid I didn’t want to read books for kids.) or backing away from adult topics. It just falls on using the psychology of the characters to create a mature book. Why did Marvel Comics become so huge in the sixties? They created characters that were like real people, people who happened to fight crime. The issue shouldn’t be whether to have adult comics or kids comics, but to have comics with complex characters where both adults and children could enjoy.
Sean Ironman is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where he also serves as Managing Editor of The Florida Review and as President of the Graduate Writers’ Association. His art has appeared online at River Teeth. His writing can be read in Breakers: An Anthology of Comics and Redivider.