You know Spider-Man.
Whether you read the Spider-Man titles or not, whether you read comics or not, you know Spider-Man. The character, through cartoons, live-action films, pop culture reference, and unabashed merchandizing, has become part of the public consciousness. Like Rhett Butler or the Great Gatsby, you don’t need to have read Spider-Man to know him. The details are unimportant: whether his name is Peter Parker or Ben Reilly, whether his union suit is blue-and-red or all-black, whether he’s married or single. You, regardless of any background in comic books, know his essence.
You know Spider-Man. You know Superman. You know Batman. You may even know the Hulk, Green Lantern, or Wolverine.
But, nobody knows the Sentry.
His allies don’t know him. His wife doesn’t know him. Neither Marvel Comics nor Marvel Knights know him. Even his creator, Stan Lee, hardly knows him.
“I have a terrible memory for these things,” Lee tells editor Joe Quesada in the appendix-interview to Sentry #1. “I wrote so many stories and so many strips, there’s no way I can remember them all. I must admit the Sentry is just kinda a vague memory to me.” Quesada spoon-feeds the background of the Sentry to its own creator that Lee and Artie Rosen’s concept of the Sentry was recently found in a “lost file” which, in turn, has led to the new series being piloted by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee. So, for the first time, we have Lee’s allegedly pre-Fantastic Four hero on the page after being M.I.A. for almost three decades.
However, by issue #2, Lee and Quesada begin to speak of the Sentry’s exploits as if they had actually happened. When Quesada inquires about why there is no mention of the Sentry in collector’s price books and guides, Lee evades, saying, “There are so many intricate nooks and crannies of the Marvel mythos. I’m sure no one source can catalogue them all.” Later, Lee ups the illusion by admitting, “I didn’t want to say it earlier, but when Michael Kelly went through my archives, he said it looked like someone purposely took certain books out It looked like someone had been very manipulative. Perhaps you were right about the ‘conspiracy’ thing. It’s almost as if there is something larger going on.” The Sentry, as they would have us believe, has always been part of Marvel Comics’ continuity and what we have now is not the use of a conveniently forgotten character in a new series; it is the restoration of a suspiciously missing element to the superhero mythos.
This sentiment plainly echoes the plight of Robert Reynolds, the Sentry himself. Nobody remembers him, his career as the preeminent hero of the Marvel Universe. Not even Bob, who has settled into a mundane life with his wife, with his dog, and with his secret: a drinking problem. The lines blur for both Bob and the reader, however, when the bottle he longs for is becoming swiftly mistaken for a secret formula. He half-remembers scenes from some past where young Bob Reynolds samples the Professor’s concoction and becomes The Sentry, Golden Guardian of Good. But, if that is so, then what was he doing in here-and-now, as an average joe, forgotten by heroes, villains, and the populace alike? Another drink brings with it another blurry revelation: The Void, his arch-nemesis, is returning. Bob is convinced that the heroes of Earth must be alerted, even if the reader is not; Bob could just be a deluded alcoholic. Besides, if the Void is that menacing and the Sentry that powerful, why would we, content with our knowledge of Superman and Batman and Spider-Man, never have heard of him before?
Therein lies the hat-trick Marvel Comics’ edgy sub-company, Marvel Knights, is trying to play: Perhaps there is both a void and a Void, a forgotten history of the Marvel Universe to both readers and characters alike. Applying a retroactive continuity, or retconning, has long been a part of comic book tradition. Superman’s origins of coming as a full-grown adult from a planet of superhumans was retconned into the modern story where the baby Kryptonian is found by the Kents and powered by this world’s alien yellow sun. Likewise, Captain America went from being a Maryland native to a Depression-era Brooklynite. Iron Man was first created during the Korean War, and the Fantastic Four raced against the Russians to be first into space. All of these troubling details and histories became smoothed over, in time, with the subtle application of retconning. But, never before has a company tried to convince us that the truth, the real existence of a character or story, actually lay with us in the world outside the pages. Someone has been hiding the Sentry’s existence, they seem to be telling us, from the characters of the Marvel Universe and from the comic-reading populace itself.
While Jenkins’ plot and script echo this air of conspiracy, Lee’s art draws upon over thirty years of comic book history to support the Sentry’s missing saga. As with film, each generation of comic book production has its own style its own dated, telltale signs. A black-and-white film can connote either a classic or noir or pure starkness (e.g. Citizen Kane, The Big Sleep, or Clerks, respectively). Similarly psychedelic effects and fluorescent coloration can be easily accessed to denote the ‘70s, as plainly done in movies like Austin Powers or Boogie Nights. So, when the Sentry attempts to grasp at the gossamer remembrances in his mind, they manifest themselves in the legendary style of comic book pioneer Jack Kirby. Further, he confronts the individual Marvel heroes to unlock their memories of both his existence and the Void’s threat; each hero glimpses a moment of his career in their mind’s eye through the prism of that era’s most prominent creators. His marriage is penciled in the likeness of John Byrne’s early ‘80s work, and his latter-day, enigmatic downfall in done a style similar to both Rob Liefeld and Ron Lim of the 1990s. Again, the linkage between the fictional and professional comic books worlds are deepened, leaving the reader with a brilliant, if disturbing experience.
In fairness, The Sentry is not the first to tread this ground, this shared space between the real and the fictional. It has been explored ad nauseum in other media in all degrees of depth, quality, and success: Gods and Monsters, Misery by Steven King, Last Action Hero, “American Pie” by Don McClean, Never-Ending Story, “God” by Woody Allen, Ed Wood, “Hook” by Blues Traveler, The Player, and so forth. One could easily point to Art Speigelman’s self-doubts as a cartoonist in the graphic novels of Maus, to the self-aware work of Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line and From Hell, or to Warren Ellis’ Planetary. Further, DC Comics just recent published a JLA story featuring the return of forgotten character, one whom had been erased from existence; DC has continually played with this do they/don’t they exist theme ever since wiping the slate clean and rebooting their universe twice in the forms of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour. Likewise, Marvel has attempted clumsy cross-over retcons of its character stable before in the forms of Onslaught/Heroes Reborn or Marvel: The Lost Generation.
But, Marvel Knights succeeds with The Sentry where others, including Marvel itself, have failed. It is unrelenting, ignoring the binding conventions of both comic book practice and production; The Sentry‘s limited run gives it a sense of morbid finality rather than running month to month for years on end, and Lee & Quesada’s intentional misleading of the readership shows commitment to the company’s inventive gamble. In issue #4’s interview Lee allows the lines to blur, saying, “I seem to recall I wrote a strip in which Peter Parker took a photo of the Sentry All I know is that when I went to find the issue that strip was in, I couldn’t I don’t know if the event ever happened. Or maybe Maybe! it’s all been wiped out of existence to protect us all.” While Lee’s testimony may be unconvincing and coached, it does accompany the book’s dark prose, biting visuals, and compelling approach into a realm once daunting to the large publisher. It is an approach that could, in modern parlance, be considered multimedia if one is willing to see real life as a medium unto itself. With its issue #5 conclusion and week of one-shot follow-ups, The Sentry could mark Marvel’s first foray into mass-market comic books of self-awareness, of stories that not only trouble the characters’ reality, but also our own.
That is to say, we will not be left trying to understand the Sentry. Trying to know who he was, and then compartmentalizing him as easy as we would Wonder Woman or Captain America.
We may be left trying to understand who we are.