Modern Marvel Part 1: The Sentry

A journey through Modern Marvel, beginning in the period leading up to the Avengers Disassembled event and continuing until the heat death of the universe. Given the nature of comic books, the universe(s) may suffer multiple heat deaths. We’ll go right up until the last one.

It might make sense to begin my exposure to Marvel Comics with an origin story of some sort. Maybe find out how one of the big-hitters first donned the spandex or how The Avengers came together. Those are the stories that I’ve picked up through cultural osmosis though – I might not know what names the X-Men go by when they’re not using their oh-so-descriptive callsigns, but I have a good idea about who most of the main players are and what they can do. I know about Uncle Ben. I’m aware of the Weapon X program.

Where to start then? The Sentry, a 2000 miniseries by Paul Jenkins (words) and Jae Lee (art) is as good a place as any. It is both the most continuity-heavy comic I could possibly have picked and also the one in which continuity matters the least.

I had no idea The Sentry existed, which is appropriate given the events of Jenkins’ story. Created for this miniseries, he is both the Silver Age ideal of a superhero, seeded through the fictional history of the Marvel universe and the long-forgotten alter ego of a broken-down middle aged man. Along with the spin-off one-shots that follow (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Angel, Hulk) and concluding issue The Void, the five issues that make up the mini-series form that rarest of things – a self-contained superhero story that touches on and causes ripples in the fabric of the wider Marvel universe, but does not require knowledge of that universe.

In its depiction of a man who no longer understands his place in the world, this is a deeply melancholy story. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it before now because it seems natural to mention it alongside Grant Morrison’s much-discussed Animal Man run in the late eighties. While not as blatantly metafictional in its approach to superheroics and the convoluted plotlines of the big publishers, Jenkins’ work finds a similar desperation and sadness in the life of its titular character, whose most significant ability is the power to be forgotten and erased.

The art, across the oneshots in particular, is wonderful, particularly in its blend of the old and the new. As the Marvel universe begins to eat itself, incapable of accommodating the very idea of someone so significant and yet so new, flashes of Silver Age innocence shimmer through the darkness. Even though the eventual conclusion leans far too heavily on a bossfight, of sorts, and the exploration of alteregos takes too-predictable a turn, The Sentry is a magnificent piece of work.

It’s an examination of the difficulty involved in writing characters within an inconsistent but highly regarded continuity, and of the impossibility of change in a fictional universe that hits the reset button whenever things become too messy. There’s an exploration of the dynamics of a power in a world packed with godlike figures; how can all of these characters be necessary at the same time? And would the existence of something more powerful still eventually erase the lesser heroes from memory?

As an entry point, The Sentry is perfect. It introduces plenty of heroes – with Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) carrying the bulk of the character development on his stretchy shoulders – and gives a good impression of where they stand in relation to one another. I’ve never seen the Hulk quite like he is in this story and I’d love to see more of this conflicted creature. Most of the actual Hulk comics I’ve read, if not all, come from his earliest appearances. I’ve read the original, short run of his self-titled comic and most of the Tales To Astonish books that he appeared in during the late sixties.

When I hear people talking about World War Hulk and Planet Hulk, I’m completely in the dark. I’ve always assumed World War Hulk pits a bunch of Hulks against one another and I guess they might be on Planet Hulk at the time? Planet Hulk, in my imagination, looks a lot like Dredd’s Cursed Earth except every mutant is a Hulk (I haven’t googled to correct myself or asked anybody to explain what the titles refer to because I want to be surprised).

I’d always thought there was just the one Hulk, until recently, but then I learned about She Hulk (a lawyer!) and Red Hulk. It’s entirely possible that Red Hulk is just the regular Hulk with sunburn. I don’t know. I always liked the “We have a Hulk” line in The Avengers – there’s nothing to suggest that Stark knows about other Hulks but he doesn’t go with the definite article there. It’s a Hulk. What does that mean?

Anyway, The Sentry does good Hulk.

I found it to be a great entry point because it’s not at all what I expect when I pick up a superhero comic and yet it’s grounded in some of the constants of the Marvel setting. It’s also a splendid story in and of itself, even if the storm doesn’t quite live up to the calm.

Next week, I meet Daredevil and Elektra. All comics featured are available on Marvel Unlimited at the time of writing.

11 Comments

  1. Talesdreamer says:

    Never read this, but always read good things about this mini. Might pick it up sooner or later.

    If you’re looking for self-contained, continuity-light comics, may I suggest Spurrier’s X-Men Legacy? It’s about Legion, the son of Professor Xavier – you know, the psychic mutant in a weelchair.
    Legion was always used as a villain because he has dozens of different personalities, each one with a different superpower, but in this mini he decides to fight his mental illness. So his inner thoughts are a mess, everyone hate him and he seems somehow destined to end mutankind, but nonetheless, he tries to become a better person. It’s heartwrenching and pretty good.

  2. Themadcow says:

    I have read more about Sentry on the Internet then I have in actual comic form, but as I understand it he’s a highly divisive character for Marvel fans. One of the reasons for that is that he’s very much a twisted version of Superman in terms of relative power, something that we know that Marvel fans are not keen on generally. However, I am very curious about some of the incredible possibilities he unlocks – especially the idea that his powers are so great he might be able to rewrite history with willpower alone.

  3. icupnimpn2 says:

    The Sentry is even more fun in context of Marvel’s straight-faced marketing blitz at the time of release. It was nice and “meta” at a time before people called things “meta.”

    They played it in interviews and ads for the most part as though the Sentry was actually a character concept unearthed from the vaults, a forgotten concept from the formative days of 60s Marvel and therefore a true contemporary of sorts of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four et al. Fun stuff.

    • shoptroll says:

      I remember Wizards of the Coast did something similar with one of their M:tG sets which was ultimately revealed to be a newly created set, not an unpublished one from “the vault”.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      It was quite fun to see them wheel out Stan Lee to give interviews in which he couldn’t remember if he invented the Sentry or not. A nice touch, I thought.

  4. jj2112 says:

    The Sentry was okay initially, but Marvel didn’t know what to do with the character and finally went nowhere.

    • Asurmen says:

      I think that’s because he lacked any background or support characters except his wife and the Void. He didn’t have his own rogues gallery for example.

      • phlebas says:

        I think it’s more because he had this one great story and that was it. Trying to integrate him into the Marvel Universe afterwards could only undermine what had come before – Marvel put marketing over storytelling, and so of course the result was disappointing .

        • thekelvingreen says:

          Quite so. One of the central threads of the original miniseries was that the Marvel Universe didn’t need the Sentry… then they brought him back. Then plastered him everywhere for years. It did rather undermine whatever poignancy the original series earned.

          Part of the problem was that his return was put in Brian Bendis’ hands; Bendis has a focussed skill set as a writer, and deconstructionist cosmic superheroics is not part of that skill set.

  5. shoptroll says:

    I think I’m going to like this series as I’m also picking away at Marvel Unlimited as a relatively new reader, but this article felt a little too abstract or light on details about the subject matter as I don’t feel like I got a strong read of why I should read the miniseries in particular.

  6. Urthman says:

    The main problem with the Sentry is that he’s the most blatant Mary Sue I’ve ever seen actually published rather than in fan fiction.

    A Mary Sue is when you get the sense that you’re reading the author’s fantasy of, “What if I could be a Star Trek character! And what if I were stronger than Worf, wiser than Picard, smarter than Data, and had sexytimes with Riker and La Forge and Wesley, and then I became captain and everyone agrees that I’m the best captain Starfleet has ever seen! And my nemesis more scary than the Borg! And only I can defeat them!”

    The Sentry sucks because he runs rampant over every other character and story in the Marvel Universe, diminishing everything he touches. He’s the one guy the Hulk trusts (and is stronger than the Hulk!). His villain is the one thing Hulk is scared of. He’s strong enough to take on Galactus! He was the only person who could hug Rogue! When Spider-Man had no buddies and was trying to scrape by on his own, he actually had the Sentry as a buddy, which made everything better.

    He’s constantly monitoring every situation around the world and dealing with the most important threats. So you can be assured that whatever world-shaking crisis you’re reading about in a Marvel comic, if the Sentry isn’t there saving the day, something more important is going on somewhere else.