By Don Alsafi. The Sentry is the greatest superhero the world has forgotten, with adventures dating back even before the rise of the Fantastic Four. The Sentry is also a comic creation of the modern age, first appearing in an eponymously titled miniseries which debuted less than twenty years ago.
In the fall of 2000, writer Paul Jenkins and artist Jae Lee unleashed upon readers a self-contained story detailing the struggles of Bob Reynolds, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic who had once been The Sentry, and who no one else in the world remembered – or maybe, he feared, he was just a self-destructing schizophrenic with an underlying substance abuse problem. Jenkins and Lee’s story was unusually dark and utterly fascinating, coming just two years into the Quesada era of reinventing Marvel in the wake of their bankruptcy, with both retroactive-continuity attention to detail and more than a splash of unreliable narrator intrigue.
Five years later, Brian Michael Bendis brought the character back to the foreground of the Marvel Universe, incorporating him into Bendis’s New Avengers roster. The Sentry’s first story had indelibly marked him as one of the best character-rich creations of the previous decade (along with Bendis & Gaydos’s Jessica Jones), and it was initially exciting to see him featured in the then-flagship title of the Marvel U. In the end, however, a big-action book ended up not being the best place for such a reflective and richly thematic concept, with Bob Reynolds as often as not being portrayed as a mentally unstable Avenger who was unreliable at best, and at worst a dangerously unhinged loose cannon. The character made a few more appearances over the years, but you couldn’t shake the impression that Jenkins and Lee’s initial tale – explicitly designed to have a beginning, middle and end – was perhaps where the character’s story should have remained.
But last December, rising star Donny Cates brought The Sentry back into the limelight in the first arc of his Marvel Legacy run of Doctor Strange. And with that reminder of this complex and troubled superhero, Marvel have decided to give the character another series, to see if the concept still has any life to it. Is The Sentry a character that should remain in the past, with his seminal story being where the tale should have ended? Or, improbable as it seems, can Marvel strike gold with this idea once again?
Written by Jeff Lemire.
Art by Kim Jacinto.
Colors by Rain Beredo.
Letters by VC’s Travis Lanham.
Beacon of light, shadow of doubt. Few modern creators have enjoyed a career trajectory as quirky, and as meteoric, as Jeff Lemire. First coming to prominence with the award-winning indie comic Essex County in 2008, he soon began work for the Big Two on celebrated runs such as Green Arrow (with frequent collaborator Andrea Sorrentino) and All-New Hawkeye. But even while spending increased time in the superhero realm, he still continues to put out idiosyncratic indie comics as well, like the recent Royal City from Image Comics. Meanwhile, Kim Jacinto’s first major comics work was for Marvel Comics in 2013, first illustrating various arcs for Venom, Indestructible Hulk, and Angela: Queen of Hel.
The issue opens with an unshaven and haggard Reynolds musing how he’s a man of two worlds. Doctor Strange has given him a new lease on life, with the creation of a pocket universe inside Bob’s own mind that he must visit once every twenty-four hours. While in this separate reality, Bob can live his life being the iconic paragon he once used to be, and having adventures every night that he can pleasingly sort out in classic superheroic fashion before each episode’s end. This is also the only way that Bob can contain The Void – the Sentry’s archenemy and dark shadow-self born from Reynolds’ own subconscious, and who would surely destroy the world if ever unleashed upon the wider region of the Marvel U once again. By the issue’s climax, of course, The Void has somehow gotten free, with immediate and catastrophic results…
Thoughtful homages and exploring rich themes. One of the interesting things about The Sentry, and particularly of this newest series, is how knowingly the book invokes and riffs on its antecedents. The golden superhero who cheerfully wins every fight and inspires the masses is an obvious analogue to DC’s Superman, but his pocket universe teammates The Sentress and The Scout are clear stand-ins for Fawcett’s Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam) Family cast members Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. Of course, the original tale of a Marvel Family cognate who had been forgotten by the world at large was first conceived of by Alan Moore in the groundbreaking Miracleman title from the 1980s. (Little surprise then that Jenkins had originally worked up the concept with Rick Veitch, one of Moore’s artists on Miracleman.)
And yet even with callbacks and references to classic comic book stories of decades past, The Sentry is also a decidedly modern comic, with notable – and welcome – similarities to at least one universally acclaimed comic book presently on the stands. While Jacinto’s depiction of The Sentryverse is as wildly over-the-top as you’d expect (for what is, essentially, Bob Reynolds’ nightly wish-fulfillment fantasy), it’s in the presentation of Bob’s normal, everyday life where the writing and art both excel. He spends his days trying not to miss the life he used to have, and passing his hours as a fry cook in a greasy spoon – and not a particularly skilled one, at that. It’s hard not to witness his struggles with ennui, or scenes of domestic mundanity like eating his breakfast cereal in silence, without being reminded of the stellar work currently being seen in Tom King and Mitch Gerad’s breathtaking Mister Miracle epic from DC. As present-day comparisons go? That’s good company to be in.
What’s more, it’s satisfying to see that the allegory of alcoholism explicitly found in the original miniseries is still being mined for rich thematic use today. Bob is doing the best he can to try to live a stable (if unexciting) life, but it’s hard enough without a group of agents led by Misty Knight breathing down his neck, as vigilant for Bob’s inevitable backsliding as might be an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, or a parole officer. Moreso, Bob’s coworker at the diner is the real-world counterpart of his sidekick The Scout, and who keeps venting his frustration at missing the life he used to have. It’s hard not to see the character as the irresponsible influence from one’s past who constantly gripes about how much fun you used to be, while not-so-subtly implying that just one little drink couldn’t hurt…
Marvel’s retro-classic indie hero. The Sentry was an astonishingly unique character when thrust onto the scene in the year 2000, and one of such complexity – equally straddling the worlds of the external and internal – that it’s been difficult for later creators to replicate the original mini’s success.
But Jeff Lemire, with one foot firmly in the world of superheroes and the other still grounded in the indies, is perhaps the only other comics writer who could approach this most unusual concept with the thematic and deeply psychological attention to detail that the character so rightly deserves. Kim Jacinto can likewise pull off both classic superhero action and navel-gazing introspection, and colorist Rain Beredo’s tendency for dirty backgrounds and wan yellows completes the visual style in a way that – appropriately enough – looks more than a little reminiscent of Lemire’s own artwork in books like Sweet Tooth and Plutona.
Readers who require more fisticuffs than reflection may not find The Sentry to their tastes – but let’s be honest, there are more than enough superhero books for the likes of them. For the rest of us who like a little more depth in our action stories than the medium usually offers us? Comics like these are the rare gems that make it all worthwhile.
8 out of 10