By Benjamin Nobel, April 5, 2017
There’s an interesting debate in the comic collecting world, over the 1st appearance of Gambit; in this post I will investigate and weigh in. First thing’s first: let’s change our mindset and mentally transport ourselves back to the beginning of the 1990’s. There was no eBay. There was no CGC. You didn’t even own a 14.4k modem yet. Many of you reading this post hadn’t been born. We have to put our mindset back to the era when the phone rang, and you didn’t know who it was going to be on the other end until you picked up and said, “hello?”
It was much harder to do comic book research back then, versus this day and age. And in the 1990’s, the most prevalent type of comic book sold was the direct edition type [by the way, if you’re not yet in-the-know about the difference between direct edition and newsstand comics, I encourage you to drop what you’re doing and read this link immediately, because comprehending this difference is perhaps the single most important thing you should know if you collect modern comic books]. The reason I mention this, as relates to the X-Men Annual #14 situation, is that if you happened to be tasked in the 1990’s with investigating Gambit’s first appearance, and you picked up a copy of X-Men Annual #14 for reference, odds are the copy you picked up was the direct edition type.
Let’s take a look at a direct edition copy of X-Men Annual #14 now, with the following question in mind: “Can we tell what month it was published?”
Here’s the spine, where we can see it is a square bound book which says “Marvel” at the left, “The Uncanny X-Men Annual #14” in the middle, and “$2.00” at the right. No month information yet.
How about the front cover? Any month listed? Nope, still no month, just the year 1990.
The back cover is just a Game Boy ad, which is of no help… Hey, how about we just “cheat” real quick and look it up on CGC’s census? We’re not in the 1990’s anymore! How does CGC catalog this book anyway? Let’s cheat and find out if CGC has the month, by doing a census lookup:
But CGC doesn’t have a month listed either! Just the year 1990. However — and if this is the first time you’ve investigated X-Men Annual #14 then this is where you’re about to become really intrigued — you’ll notice the Key Comments note at CGC indicates that the book predates Uncanny X-Men #266. But I happen to know that CGC did not always indicate as such in their label note… here’s an older copy, to show you how their label note used to look:
So the part of the present day CGC label note about the book pre-dating X-Men #266 is relatively new. But if there’s no month anywhere on the book thus far in our investigation, how do we know this earlier publication timeline vs. X-Men #266 to be true??
And here’s where newsstand-focused collectors and long-time readers of this blog will know what comes next in the story. If you were to ask me what month a given comic was on the stands, and if I couldn’t go online to check, then the first thing I’d do is open my copy to the indicia page. And you’re about to spot in the indicia picture below that I own a newsstand copy:
Did you spot the bar code peeking around the corner? As you can see, the indicia page just shows 1990… no month. So the next thing I’d do, is I’d look at that bar code. Because with Marvel’s newsstand distribution, at least for their monthly issues, the bar code is structured in such a way that a month code appears at the top right. And as you can see, the bar code for X-Men Annual #14 has “05” at the top right of the code… if this was a monthly issue, we might conclude that Marvel was communicating the month of May:
As an annual, rather than a monthly issue it isn’t clear whether we should make this conclusion [4/2019 update: here is a post about Marvel newsstand annual numbering, for Uncanny X-Men that explains further]. So really the only indication we can find anywhere on this comic where a month might mentioned in any way, was related to its newsstand distribution. Ah, but as long-time readers of this blog are well aware, newsstand copies were a very low fraction of the total sold in the 1990’s, so going back to our early-90’s mindset, it is quite possible anyone investigating this book was doing so holding a direct edition copy in their hands. I’ve never seen a discussion of the “05” newsstand code for this issue, have you? Given that newsstand copies of this issue are such a tiny minority of the total copies sold, I think the principle of “out of sight, out of mind” definitely comes into play.
Given the survivorship difference between the types, the odds are even more extreme today, that if you’ve collected this book recently (without paying attention to the direct edition vs. newsstand difference) that you actually own the prevalent and well-preserved direct edition, not the dramatically-more-rare newsstand edition. To illustrate this newsstand vs. direct edition disparity, here are a couple of screenshots of available CGC graded copies of this book on ComicLink, and also on eBay, at the time of this writing. Here’s ComicLink first, and in this screenshot you’ll also notice where ComicLink has apparently sided on the 1st Gambit debate: their description says “1st Gambit App – precedes X-Men #266“:
As you can see, not one newsstand copy is listed; every currently available copy is a direct edition. And next, here’s the current eBay availability, and I’ll just link you to this next screenshot rather than picture it below, otherwise you’ll be scrolling down forever, but you can see that there are a full 48 CGC graded copies presently listed on eBay and zero of them are newsstand copies, they are all direct edition copies. Picture someone looking for a nice copy to collect — you could easily picture them reaching the false conclusion that the book was a direct edition exclusive!
My point with these screenshots of observed relative newsstand rarity is to ask you to consider just how strong a possibility it is, that back in the early 1990s, someone investigating the Gambit appearance in this book might not have done so in the context of fully exploring what month it was published in relation to X-Men #266. And if you didn’t know it pre-dated X-Men #266, then think about the context you’d have that would have reinforced the perception that X-Men #266 was the book that contained the character’s first appearance. For one thing, the cover of X-Men #266 says “Enter the mutant called Gambit”:
With Gambit making an entrance, it gives you the impression that he’d not yet entered before. And then within the context of the #266/267 story-line, I learned the following interesting tidbit about X-Men Annual #14, from this source (my emphasis added in bold):
“Also, Storm is joined in this issue [X-Men Annual #14] by an enigmatic, floppy-haired dude named Gambit. That’s right, this is, technically, Gambit’s first appearance, though with this story set after X-Men #267, his appearance in issue #266 is generally considered his first appearance by fans (it is certainly the issue that commands big money on the back issue market for being Gambit’s first appearance).“
Sometimes story-tellers give you the future first, and apparently the story within the pages of X-Men Annual #14 was set chronologically after issue #267. But now think about what this information does to our context of the person we were imagining as the one tasked as being the 1st Gambit Appearance investigator, who may not have realized X-Men Annual #14 was published before X-Men #266, and then if they were reading Annual #14 they would have encountered a story-line that falls after issue #267. I think it is pretty easy to picture a scenario where Annual #14 was overlooked when Gambit’s first appearance credits were first considered!
Today, I think there is no debate on the publication date side… That link where I quoted the above says X-Men Annual #14 was “on sale at the same time as Uncanny X-Men issues #263 and #264,” and, “this issue spoils the upcoming ‘Kid Storm’ arc.” I showed you CGC’s present label note already, which clearly indicates their understanding that X-Men Annual #14 pre-dates X-Men #266; and CBCS, similarly, says as follows, that X-Men Annual #14 is the first published appearance of Gambit:
So if there’s no debate about the publication order of these early Gambit comics, then the debate here with Gambit and X-Men Annual #14 is really about the scope of the appearance itself and what to call that appearance. Here’s Doug Sulipa on the subject:
As you can see, he refers to X-Men Annual #14 as the “True FIRST FULL” appearance of Gambit, and indicates that Gambit appears in 15 panels on 9 different pages. That seems like a pretty extensive appearance, does it not?? But let’s give the other side of the debate the benefit of the doubt — maybe there’s something about this appearance that argues it is really more of a “cameo” in nature… For instance, maybe, perhaps, we don’t actually see Gambit in a “recognizable” way, perhaps for example he doesn’t appear in his full costume or just appears in the shadows? I flipped through my copy to see if I could spot Gambit and it took me a matter of seconds to spot him:
That’s unmistakably Gambit… in full light. So what’s another possible argument on the other side of the debate that we could check into? Perhaps Gambit isn’t actually named anywhere in the pages of X-Men Annual #14? I flipped through the book again, this time scanning to try and spot the word “Gambit” and sure enough, here it is! Here’s the full page and then I’ll zoom in on the specific panel I spotted where he is called Gambit:
Here’s a zoom-in, and by the way, this panel below also dispels the possibility that the other side might argue the appearance doesn’t rise to “full” because there’s no dialog… because clearly, the two are talking:
I don’t know about you, but after investigating this situation I find myself coming down clearly on one side of the debate… If I didn’t know what the prevailing industry credit was and I was tasked with determining Gambit’s first appearance, X-Men Annual #14 would be my pick, and I would definitely not have deemed what I saw a mere “cameo.” But I can easily envision a highly-understandable situation where someone would have examined these comics in the past and reached a different conclusion!
I think this situation has resulted in an excellent relative value collecting opportunity, where even the dramatically-more-rare newsstand copies of X-Men Annual #14 can be found out there today (with effort and patience), in high grade, at prices an order of magnitude lower than you would probably expect the first appearance of this increasingly-popular character to sell for… Here’s one example newsstand copy someone recently won for $5.50:
Notice that the seller of the above copy did not title it as a newsstand copy, i.e. the “newsstand” keyword did not appear in the listing title. A newsstand-focused collector searching eBay specifically on the phrase “X-Men Annual #14 newsstand” would therefore not have found this above-pictured copy. This goes to show just how much opportunity is still out there to this day for newsstand-focused collectors willing to do the extra work of reviewing all copies, despite all the growing newsstand awareness out there.
Here’s another similar listing for a newsstand copy (but, once again, not identified as such in the title, so much like panning for gold it would take effort to find it), this one advertised NM and the winning bid was just $9.50:
Unbelievable to me that the opportunity is out there to score an NM newsstand copy of the true 1st Gambit appearance for under ten bucks!
Will Overstreet come around in their thinking on this book and how they apply the first Gambit appearance credits? And furthermore, will they ever come around on their thinking about breaking out newsstand comics in general (where breaking out Canadian price variant newsstand comics is a great place for them to start — I myself have strongly encouraged them to do so and wrote them an open letter)?
I would encourage you to collect the early Gambit comics based on your own conclusions (and there’s no rule that says you have to choose to collect only X-Men #266 or only X-Men Annual #14 — you can go for both!), and take the current Overstreet view only as one input into your decision-making, because the industry is littered with instances where key appearances were overlooked, mis-assigned, and re-defined.
Not too long ago, for instance, Savage Dragon’s first appearance credits were completely re-arranged. Just this week CGC began to recognize a first Krang appearance in comics… Feeling more encouraged that change is possible in the industry? Things like this are not written in stone! We have no way of knowing how Gambit’s first appearance credits might get re-arranged in the future at Overstreet and other “authorities” in comics.
And speaking of Krang, don’t forget, the 1st appearance of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves was once credited to a different book than it is today… For the longest time, Overstreet assigned that first appearance credit to Gobbledygook #1. And had you submitted a copy of TMNT #1 to CGC prior to 2004, you would have opened the box to find that the label made no mention of the 1st appearance of the TMNT. Having gotten back your copy with no mention of the 1st turtles app., but having read the story about Eastman and Laird publishing TMNT #1 as their very first comic book, you might have then wondered about the true publication date of Gobbledygook by comparison? You might have then reached out to Mirage for help. They might have shared the following with you:
So Gobbledygook was made on a photocopier [as a side note, I can’t even imagine collecting it and paying thousands for it, because how would you really know if you’re just buying a photocopy, when every copy was a photocopy?] Yet, Gobbledygook #1 had historically carried the TMNT first appearance credit in Overstreet! Maybe although it was hand-made with a copier, it still had a publication date at Mirage? Nope!
Subsequently, the industry changed its first appearance credit. This is for the TMNT we’re talking about! If it can happen for the TMNT, and if it can happen for Savage Dragon, and if it can happen in so many other cases… then we must conclude it can happen for Gambit. Until it does, those rare newsstand copies of X-Men Annual #14 sure are one heck of a relative value if you ask this collector!
Happy Collecting! 🙂