It’s often said that while the DC Universe is a realm of godlike heroes, the heroes of the Marvel Universe are much more human. That’s why a character like Superman can not only work as well as he does in the DCU, but be a linchpin which the entire DCU revolves around. He’s the archetype that everyone else is developed from; it’s his universe, everyone else is just living in it, so to speak. There are a handful of Superman analogues in the Marvel Universe but being Marvel characters they all have feet of clay, and none more so than The Sentry, the Golden Guardian of Good.
Before we get to who The Sentry is and what role he occupies both in the Marvel Universe and as a Superman analogue, his creation is an interesting story. The Sentry was originally developed by Paul Jenkins and Rick Veitch who pitched the character to Marvel as an over-the-hill superhero who was once the greatest hero in the Marvel Universe, but no-one could remember him. The pitch was picked up by Marvel Knights, but Jenkins was instead partnered with his Inhumans collaborator to introduce The Sentry into the world.
However, in order to build buzz about the book and lean into the forgotten hero aspect of the character, Marvel announced that The Sentry was actually created by Stan Lee and an artist named Artie Rosen. Supposedly debuting in Startling Stories #1 a week before Fantastic Four #1 came out, everyone had forgotten about The Sentry until he was unearthed in the Marvel archives and given to Jenkins and Lee to reinterpret for the 21st century. This was of course a PR stunt and nothing more — Artie Rosen doesn’t exist and is likely a portmanteau of two Silver Age letterers, Artie Simek and Sam Rosen — but it was a fun way to build hype for a new character being introduced by an acclaimed creative team.
The Sentry was introduced over the course of 2000/2001 and at first the concept behind him was fairly simple. He was once the Marvel Universe’s greatest hero but in order to protect the world from his greatest enemy, The Void, everyone had to forget he ever existed, even himself. However, now The Void was back, Robert Reynolds was starting to remember who he really was and he’d need to reach out to his friends like Mister Fantastic, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man and remind them of their shared histories together. However, he’d learn in the end that The Void was his dark opposite and Robert Reynolds was as much The Void as he was The Sentry. In order to protect everyone, they would have to forget him all over again.
The problem with The Sentry (the character) is the same problem with The Sentry (the comic); it can’t decide what it wants to be. The original debut series doesn’t commit to the kind of story it wants to tell and instead tries being a handful of things, which has a knock-on effect on how different creators utilise The Sentry over the next two decades. Jenkins and Lee don’t settle on what they want to do with The Sentry, which results in him never really gaining a purpose within the Marvel Universe because his own creators never really settled on what they wanted to say with the character.
Sometimes he’s used as a commentary on mental illness and Reynolds’ schizophrenia is at the core of his issues and the divide between The Sentry and The Void; sometimes it’s a story about addiction and dependence, with Reynolds addicted to the serum that grants him the power of The Sentry. There are moments when The Sentry is used to critique different eras of superhero storytelling with flashbacks to Frank Miller and Rob Liefeld inspired issues of Startling Stories but it doesn’t commit to that in the way that something like Supreme does. Characters like Spider-Man, The Hulk and Iron Man are beloved because you can describe them quickly and they have universal struggles; The Sentry could be the same way but Marvel needs to pick something and stick with it.
Over the two decades since The Sentry debuted, it feels like every creator that gets their hands on him changes how he operates and alters the core dynamic between The Sentry and The Void in some way. Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven reintroduced the character in New Avengers and had Emma Frost help Reynolds contain The Void; Jenkins returned to the character with The Sentry: Reborn pencilled by John Romita Jr and that established that The Void was the real Robert Reynolds while The Sentry was the fiction; Bendis carried the character over to Dark Avengers and introduced a weird biblical aspect to the character before killing him off in Siege.
The Sentry isn’t a complicated character like Hawkman or Donna Troy but it is hard to keep track of what his deal is because it feels like nothing has stuck. Most recently, Jeff Lemire, Kim Jacinto and Joshua Cassara tried to refine the character into something cohesive that other creators could use in the future. The most recent The Sentry miniseries ended with The Sentry and The Void finally merged into something new and left the character in a more confident place after decades of bouncing from one status-quo to another. However, it was immediately followed up by a role in Annihilation: Scourge that saw him revert back to being his more traditional self and then he was killed by Knull in King in Black #1.
It’s telling that the time the character worked best is when he was played straight, as a straight-up Silver Age Superman analogue instead of something darker and more meta. 2008’s The Age of Sentry miniseries — written by Paul Tobin and Jeff Parker with art by, among others, Nick Dragotta, Colleen Coover and Michael Cho — featured throwback, semi-canonical stories of The Sentry’s adventures as Marvel’s greatest heroes and introduced villains like Cranio, The Man With The Tri-Level Mind and Ursus The Ultra-Bear.
The Age of Sentry was essentially a Silver Age Superman miniseries set in the Marvel Universe and kind of proved that you just can’t mess with perfection. You can take Superman away from Metropolis and the DC Universe, you can give him real world problems and personal demons to overcome and you can whittle away all the parts you think stop him from fitting in the Marvel Universe, but the version that works best is still just straight up Superman. A hero with the power to save us who wants to do so because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s a shame, because I think there is potential in The Sentry. My first online handle was even “Sentry/Void” back on the old Newsarama forums, so I have a lot of affinity for the character, and as someone who both loves Superman and has quite bad mental health, I’m very much drawn to a Superman analogue who has to deal with those kind of internal struggles. In order to make The Sentry work, he needs a creative vision behind him that Marvel is willing to stick with but when his whole deal shifts every time we see him, there’s no reason to care.