Green Day: Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? Never Mind, it's Only The Sentry

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Continuing Kelvin Green's on-going skewering examination of Marvel Comics' catalog of characters. In previous installments Kelvin has written about Hank Pym, Reed Richards, Scott Summers, Black Cat and Rocket Raccoon.

This month's column focuses on a character that DEMANDS the Kelvin Green treatment: The Sentry!

Ah, the Sentry. A product of that strange and exciting time at Marvel when they started taking creative risks, apparently all hopped up on adrenaline after barely surviving bankruptcy. This is the era that gave us Grant Morrison's* Marvel Boy and New X Men, as well as a new imprint aimed at bringing young readers back into comics. "Ultee-Matt" or something, I think; I don't recall how that turned out...

Anyway, there was also this odd little miniseries, claimed by Marvel to be a lost Stan Lee project from before Fantastic Four #1, polished and updated for the modern era. This astonishing bit of comics archaeology was backed up by Wizard, a scholarly journal well known for its journalistic thoroughness.

Really, how did anyone fall for this nonsense? Considering that Stan usually has all the subtlety of an H-Bomb, even he's not that obvious; his boss told him to rip-off DC's Justice League and he instead delivered the Fantastic Four, so the suggestion that he just took Superman and changed absolutely nothing but the costume and the colour of his hair must have surely raised eyebrows? No? Really? What is wrong with you people? But I digress. I'm not here to deconstruct the hoax surrounding the Sentry, but rather to put the boot into the character himself, and there are fewer more deserving** than this confused and useless non-concept.

I actually do quite like the original Sentry series, despite the hoax. Jae Lee's art is really quite strong throughout, and there is a palpable sense of doom and inevitable tragedy running through the story; this last is particularly notable, because no writer since, even Paul Jenkins himself, has managed to wring the barest smidgeon of pathos out of the character, but we actually cared for him in his first outing. Aside from that, the initial series established one thing in particular, which will require further elaboration.

Spoilers for a series published nine years ago follow!

See, the Sentry was the most powerful Marvel hero of them all, but in an extension of the flawed hero concept Stan Lee emphasised in his early creations, the Sentry's drawback was exaggerated to match his heroism; in this case, the hero had a split personality, and the other part was a nasty evil thingie called the Void, as destructive as the Sentry was powerful. The only way to defeat this great evil, short of killing the Sentry***, was to wipe his mind, and erase him from history, a process performed once before, which was why the character had, to all appearances, not appeared before the year 2000. So at the end of the series, everything was as it was at the start, with no sign of the Sentry, but also no sign of the Void.

At the time, this was all considered very clever in a self-referential, meta-fictional, kind of way. There were no Sentry comics in real life, you see, because the character had been eliminated from the Marvel Universe. Or something. In truth, it was all a bit jumbled, and not nearly as intelligent as everyone thought it was, but it was nonetheless a fun little multimedia experiment, what they'd call an Alternate Reality Game nowadays. In truth, everyone would have been far better off had they left it there. Yet across the gulf of, er, Oregon, a mind that is to our minds as ours are to those of some really clever guys, an ego vast and crude and unsympathetic, regarded the Sentry with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew its plans against us.

New Avengers inexplicably threw the Sentry back into the Marvel Universe, and those of us who were paying attention were all, like, "WTF", and then Bendis was like, "Chillax, nerds, I'm getting to it." And for our patience we got some half-arsed, eye-bleedingly poor flailings at metafiction as Paul Jenkins himself appeared and told the Sentry that he didn't exist, in a sequence that suggested that Bendis had seen someone on a message board talk about Grant Morrison's**** Animal Man, but didn't really pay attention because he was picking lint out of his belly button at the time. Following that, matters were clarified in no way whatsoever as Emma Frost turned up out of nowhere to reveal that the Sentry did in fact exist, but the Void did not, because the latter was just some kind of information bomb/thought virus pinched from a Warren Ellis comic and placed in the Sentry's mind in order to cripple the powerful hero. The villain behind this dastardly scheme? Mastermind, of course, whose connection to the Sentry had been well-established through exactly zero previous appearances. Worse, this latest twist served to effectively rob the character of any responsibility over his flaws, which suggested that the writer hadn't understood the first Sentry miniseries either. Perhaps he just liked the covers.

Jenkins returned then, and there was much hope that he was going to fix a character who, by only his second appearance, was already half way to becoming Marvel's very own Hawkman. I will tell you that the Void was revealed once more to be real, then not, but then real again, or at least real enough to be thrown into the sun, and all in the space of six issues, and you'll have to draw your own conclusions from that. This is how the character was "integrated" into the Marvel Universe, in much the same way that syphillis "integrates" itself into the brain. In all fairness, I'm not sure how seamlessly it could be done, since the original series demonstrated quite clearly that the Marvel Universe never needed a Superman in the first place, as no one missed him when he was gone, and his presence was not required in the many events that passed during his retirement(s). Still, one would think that they could have come up with something slightly less fractured and nonsensical*****.

The heavy albatross of continuity isn't the only problem however. In the Sentry, Marvel have a character with a crippling mental illness as well as staggering levels of power, and no one really seems sure what to do with such a volatile mix. As a result, we get episodes such as the hilarious "Sentry won't get out of bed" sequence from the timeless comedy classic Not Avengers #17, or he completely overpowers the threat by throwing it into the sun, a technique which became such an immediate cliché that Bendis himself made fun of it. He also continued to use it, but so it goes. What they've ended up with after all this is a character who is simultaneously too powerful and too broken to use in a story, which surely can't be the point. Spider-Man is often torn with indecision; should he go to rescue Aunt May, or chase after Doctor Octopus? It's a difficult choice, but Spidey makes it, and that's why we like him. The problem with the Sentry is that there's no similar attempt to engage with, or overcome, his difficulties; instead he's crippled by them, and this becomes a feature of his character. It's certainly funny, but he's not supposed to be a comedy character. Is he?

Also, there is that niggling problem laid bare by the original series and never quite answered since: what is the Sentry for? Someone at Marvel apparently discerns a gap in their fictional universe that only this character and no other can fill, but the company had been publishing comics for forty years without filling that alleged gap, and the character's own introduction was quite a convincing argument for leaving things well alone. While Thor was gone, one could argue that a character of this power level was necessary, but upon introducing the Sentry, writers promptly did nothing useful with him, and now Thor's back, so I'd say the next step writes itself.

Perhaps it's something to do with the massive shrinkage of the market, where Marvel is no longer content to provide an alternative to DC's publishing output, but instead wants to grab part of that declining audience. Perhaps it's a sign of the insular and self-cannibalising nature of the U.S. superhero comics industry, where every newly-launched universe seems to have its own version of the JLA******, and Marvel's offering for the new millennium was a character DC had already been publishing since the 1930's. Or perhaps, to take a rare glass-half-full stance for a moment, there is something to the Sentry, and the creators genuinely believe that there's something in the concept worth writing about. The problem being that none of them, even his creator, have been able to express that potential, resulting in the whiny, ineffective, mentalist with which we've been lumbered. All in all, he's less of a sub-par Superman, which would be bad enough; he's a sub-par Hyperion.

All of that nerdish whinging aside, if you've got the Sentry, you've also got the Void, his direct opposite in all things, including reader interest. While the Sentry is a lame and pointless Aryan poster child, the Void is a nifty Shadow-like hoodlum, complete with theatrical cackling, and pulp-appropriate trenchcoat and fedora, and like his alter-ego completely out of place in the modern Marvel Universe, but nowhere near as desperate and needy. If only we could get Thor to chuck the Sentry into the sun and the Void running a brand-new Masters of Evil. I could get behind that.

* He'll be coming up again in a bit.
** Dark Speedball, your time will come.
*** Compare to the later "Wanda's gone crazy, let's go and bash her brains in" plan hatched by the Not Avengers.
**** See? And you think I just make this stuff up as I go along.
***** Then again, this is the company that thought a pact with the Devil would be more palatable to Middle America than divorce.
****** Wildstorm alone has at least four, by my count.

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