Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hero Tune-Up: The Sentry.

'Know thyself.'

'Everything you know is wrong.'
-The Firesign Theatre

Pity Robert Reynolds, the Golden Guardian of Good, charged with the power of a Million Exploding Suns granted him by his downing of an experimental formula that made a geeky and shy young teenager into a superhuman powerhouse, the Sentry! The Sentry was created by writer Paul Jenkins in one of the most enjoyable fakeouts in recent comics history; passing off the idea of a lost Stan Lee creation during the early days of Marvel Comics. The initial series was an intriguing examination of power and consequences, inner demons and true heroism. Had it been left as a simple 'What If?' sort of mini-series I think it'd stand as a really interesting and entertaining story.

Unfortunately, the Sentry was brought out of limbo by necessity; the Avengers were being restructured and there was a need to fill the caped flying brick slot left empty by the departure of the mighty Thor, so Rob Reynolds was tapped, rocking a mullett and seemingly back in action as one of the cape and tights set. The Sentry: Reborn told a story of Rob's inner struggle to both find a place in a world that had remembered him as its greatest hero, forgotten him, and then kinda remembered him again, his wife Lindy's potential infidelity, and the fact that he might very well be insane, as his id made manifest--the shadowy figure known as the Void--was seemingly on the loose again, causing mayhem and destruction in its wake. By the end of that series the new status quo was established, wherein the Void was seemingly destroyed, Rob regaining some semblance of a normal life, but with the knowledge that the Void would return to balance the scales, performing acts of atrocity to counter the Sentry's acts of heroism.

So what we have is a potential oppurtunity to explore the Marvel universe from the height of the Silver Age to the modern day via the medium of a Superman archetype, something that universe has never truly had before(though cases could be made for characters like Hyperion from the original Squadron Supreme or the Gladiator, but they're either from other dimensions or too far from Earth to really count). It's a goldmine of potential stories. You have Rob dealing with being an struggling writer as well as the mightiest human being on the planet, his wife Lindy trying to find her place in a world she'd only remembered as half a dream, at once in love with the man she marrried and pining for the god he can become, his headquarters the Watchtower, home to the world's most powerful man as well as the fellow heroes he serves with, even a superpowered (robotic) corgi known as the Watchdog. Add to it the potential to travel from the Silver to Iron Age and back again in flashback format and you can see how The Sentry could not only be a book about one man's struggle against the forces of evil from without and within but a commentary on comicbook superheroes from the beginning of the Marvel Age through to the present, and perhaps beyond.

Unfortunately, it's potential that so far has been unexplored. Not out of any sort of malice or anything I believe, but simply because of the needs of plot. Sentry is a member of the Mighty Avengers, the Government-sanctioned 'official' team that comprises Earth's Mightiest Heroes after the divisive fracas of Marvel's Civil War crossover, but he's been a member since the retooling of the team into the 'New' Avengers some years back. To say his utilization has been less than spectacular borders on understatement. Indeed, it seems that the Sentry is handled in much the same way as the animated version of Superman in the early seasons of the Justice League cartoon; have him attack the Threat of the Week and promptly have his head handed to him, to illustrated that the TotW was indeed serious business. 'Gasp and Choke! It dropped Superman/Sentry!' Of late he's been formidable enough, unless someone waves a picture of the Void at him, or impersonates the same. Then off he goes, yipe-yipe-yiping in the best Warner Bros. manner. As a result what could be one of the coolest characters created by Marvel in recent years is basically handled as the equivalent of a redshirt in Star Trek.

So needless to say, it's a tall order for today's tune-up, as the character seems pretty much totalled: a joke on most messages boards and pretty reviled in fan circles. So how do we fix the Golden Guardian, make him the best character he can possibly be? We explore what makes him work, find those aspects that intrigue the reader, and then bring those elements to the fore. For the Sentry, I'd say those aspects are Power, Duallism, and Consequence. So let's break it down:

Power: The Sentry is the result of a refinement of the super-soldier serum that created Captain America, a forumla so powerful it made Robert at once both a god and a demon. As a result, he has Superman-levels of power as a base. What he's capable of he hasn't really explored, but he could easily be the strongest non-deity on the planet save the Hulk, and the most powerful mind on the planet, right up there with Charles Xavier. Given the fact that the Void has a tactile existence outside of Rob/The Sentry, he may also be able to make his thoughts a physical reality. Given the somewhat fracturous state of Rob's mind that may not necessarily be a good thing. But the Sentry has power, scores of power, reams of it. There's the old Marvel chestnut that 'With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility', and we've seen how Peter Parker handles it. But what about godlike power? What happens when you find out you're easily the most powerful being on the planet? What would you do with it? More importantly, what couldn't you do? Throw in the fact that Rob in fact stole the formula as a young punk to get high. He wasn't special or important; anyone could have drank that formula and become their highest aspiration and their lowest depravity all at once. That's the glory and the tragedy of it; that maybe someday humanity will ascend to that level of power, but also to the depths as well.

Being one of the heaviest hitters in the Marvel Universe opens up doors for the character. Yes he can thwart the occasional bank robbery or get the odd kitten out of the tree in the best blue boy scout tradition, but equally he should be called in to deal with problems regular superheroes (hell, regular teams of superheroes) can't handle. He should be the representative of Earth to a lot of these powerful, eldritch entities. It'd be very interesting to see the Senty cross paths with Galactus I think, to say nothing of other cosmic level entities and powers. He shouldn't lose his connections with humanity, but he should be seen as the exemplar of humanity; all that it could be, for good or evil, and all the potential it could meet in time. The Sentry as a flawed example of what we could evolve into, a forerunner of humanity's potential destiny. And that flaw leads us into the second aspect.

Duallism: Imagine you down a serum that grants you incredible amounts of power. Power that could change the world, more power than maybe any one person should have. It makes you a god, with all the promise for good or evil that entails. Maybe your Clark Kents or Peter Parkers could handle that, maybe even your Billy Batsons or Mike Morans. But Robert Reynolds was a messed up kid, a schizophrenic, and when that formula interacted with his body and mind it made manifest both sides of his persona. All the Apollonian ideals went into the form of the godling Sentry, and all the Dionysian impulses went into the living shadow of the Void. In essences, the Sentry quite literally is his own worst enemy. There are unconscionable crimes on his conscience, tinted with the knowledge that this is the one enemy he may never be able to permanently defeat. After all, you can imprison most psychopaths, lock them away, even execute them if there's no other option. But if that mass murderer lives in the corners of your own head, what then? Here lies the difference that makes the Sentry so very different than his kryptonian template, than even his occasional sidekick the Incredible Hulk; the Sentry knows for certainty that the good he's done in this world has been balanced by equal acts of evil by the Void and despite the fact that he's been 'destroyed' by being tossed into the sun that avatar was only a construct. The Void can never be fully gotten rid of, because the Void is as much a part of Robert Reynolds as the Senty is. How do you come to grips with something like that? Clearly it has to be dealt with, a resolution met. The idea of a hero looking over his shoulder constantly would eventually wear thin, though the notion of the Void still being there, still offering his potential running commentary a la the god Khonshu in the current Moon Knight series is tempting. But eventually Rob would have to confront his inner angels and demons, which could lead to something entirely new. . .but that's a post for another time. For now, that conflict, that knowledge that he is at once everything he could ever hope to be and everything he fears he could be makes Rob a helluva interesting character, at least from where I'm sitting.

Consequence: The notion of consequences is something seldom explored in superhero comicbooks, and it's pretty clear why; the average superhuman battle would destroy portions of large cities and leave an atrocious bodycount, to say nothing of how different the world would look under the influence of super-science; if you have Reed Richards and Tony Stark in your world how are you not on fusion power and flying cars by now? But the fact that this take would distance the world of the ficton from the everyday world outside our door stays the hand of the editorial teams of the Big Two.

But imagine you're a guy who for a long, long time wasn't a hero. Just an ordinary guy, or so you thought. You had bills to pay, a mortgage, a wife that you loved madly (and sometimes drove you mad). Your life was wonderfully, blissfully mundane. And then you find out it's all a lie and in fact you're the mightiest superhero on the planet living in a fortress in the heart of New York city with a sentient computer and a robotic superdog, fighting guadily clad villains and oh yes, you also might be the ever so slightest bit insane, with a serial killer living somewhere in the depths of your brain. A serial killer who could--and this is the thing that keeps you up long into the night--in fact be the 'real' you. Think about the consequences of a revelation that huge. Think about how it affects you, the people around you. Your wife, your friends in 'The Life', the friends you had when you were just Rob Reynolds, aspiring writer. Your psychiatrist, their family, the whole of the world around you. With the Sentry you can explore what it is to have that insanely huge comicbook reality just dropped into the lap of an ordinary person, with all the glory and horror that it entails. You can explore what it is to actually be a superhuman being, and one that tries it's ample best to fit it's square-peg, complicated self into the round holes his contemporaries seem to handle so easily. The potential is vast indeed.

So there we go. An examination of a potential breakout character who's been handled a little shabbily (c'mon, you have to admit it just a little), and what could be done with him. If you haven't read The Sentry or The Sentry: Reborn I encourage you to do so. If you have, I'd love to hear what you thought, and what you think could be brought to the table.

'The way of a superior man is three-fold:
virtuous, he is free from anxieties,
wise, he is free from perplexities,
bold, he is free from fear.'


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