Last week, in my post on character death, I mentioned that the one character who absolutely nobody will miss is the Sentry, Marvel’s attempt to see just how narrowly the courts interpret the laws against copyright infringement (and just how badly they can piss off Alan Moore. I sometimes suspect that the Big Two have some sort of secret engine hidden in their basement, fueled entirely by Alan Moore’s irritation with them, and they need to periodically stoke it by leaving copyright notice off of his work or making a shitty movie version of one of his comics.) But I didn’t get to the root of the problem. Why, apart from being a gigantic fucking Mary Sue and a blatant rip-off of Miracleman and apocalyptically uninteresting, is the Sentry such a goddamn terrible character that death wasn’t good enough for him?
Unfortunately for my attempts to be original and clever, Ragnell posted a very nice analysis on her blog that notes a lot of the key points. I’ll try not to repeat too much of what she said, because that’s what links are for, but basically she points out how the Sentry is portrayed as retroactively being the most awesome person in the whole Marvel Universe, the guy who was everyone’s best friend and mentor and helped Angel learn how to embrace his mutant gift and showed Reed Richards how to care and taught Rogue how to love and shot Uncle Ben…no, wait. Not that last one.
But she doesn’t get deep enough into the problem. She points to those things as being terrible in and of themselves, because they reduce the entire Marvel Universe to the role of supporting characters in the Sentry’s story, and she’s right, but the deeper problem is that those things didn’t happen. The Sentry is not a long-established, integral part of the Marvel Universe. He’s not the one guy who’s always been able to calm the Hulk down when he’s pissed, he’s not the one guy who Doctor Doom has always been afraid of, he’s not the one guy who Reed Richards can talk to and the one guy that Rogue can turn to for a booty call. He’s some total schmuck we don’t care about. We are not emotionally invested in the Sentry, because that’s something you have to earn over time. It cannot be imposed by editorial fiat.
Not that they haven’t tried. There’s almost an element of condescension to the constant retcons that shove the Sentry into an ever-higher profile within the fictional history of the Marvel Universe. “Oh, the Sentry is totally a major part of the Marvel Universe and always has been! You just don’t remember him. Stupid, stupid readers. Why don’t you remember how awesome the Sentry was?” But it doesn’t work because we’ve got the back issues. We’ve read the stories. They were an integral part of our childhood, and our transition to adulthood. And the Sentry wasn’t there. Having him show back up now is like having your absentee dad pop back up when you’re thirty and try to take you to a ballgame.
(Actually, it’s a bit like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Having an old friend of Indy’s betray him at a crucial moment, shattering their long-time friendship and setting them against each other? Good idea. Having the friend be someone we’ve never met and have no emotional investment in? Not so much. It’s hard to care about Mac’s betrayal, because he’s a total stranger to the viewer. The whole thing feels hollow.)
No matter how much history they make up for the Sentry in the Marvel Universe’s timeline, it’s history with the reader that counts. All the retcons have a faint stench of desperation to them, a feeling that they can compensate for lack of depth with an increase in volume. There’s no history between the Hulk and the Sentry? Howabout we just have everyone talk about how they’re the bestest friends ever! The Sentry’s never really achieved any kind of heroic triumphs? Howabout we have everyone remind each other about how he saved the world over and over and over again! The more they talk about how great he is, the more it reminds us that we haven’t seen any actual evidence of that supposed greatness, and the more hollow and useless he seems. Until at the end, we get a funeral scene filled with characters telling us how much he changed their lives forever with his brilliance and awesomeness…only to never ever ever mention him again the second the dirt is heaped on his grave.