Marvel’s Sentry is the Spiritual Successor to Onslaught

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In the world of comic books, sometimes ideas that at first seem really controversial or asinine turn out to be great ideas that push the series in exciting and new directions.  Despite all the death threats that they received for it, giving Spider-Man the black symbiote suit was probably the second best idea that ever hit the Spider-Man franchise.[1]  Likewise, having Cyclops embark on a psycho-sexual tryst with Emma Frost initially seemed like heresy, but that lone act refreshed the franchise for another five years.[2]  Other times, ideas that seem crappy and stupid turn out to be just that.  What makes matters worse is when a company like Marvel or DC tries to mine gold from that pile of shit without realizing they’re elbow deep in a pile of clichéd, unarticulated horseshit.

Some ideas are just bad from the get go, like Spider-Man sacrificing his marriage, or getting rid of Mr. Sinister’s flattop.  Other notoriously disastrous moments in comics arise from an initially interesting idea that was run into the ground because no one had any idea what to do with those ideas, case-in-point: Onslaught and the Sentry.  Two of Marvel’s most recent conceptual blunders share an eerie amount of similarities, so much so that with the Sentry, Marvel should have realized they almost had another Onslaught on their hands.

In a nutshell, Onslaught encapsulates everything that was wrong with comic books in the 1990s, and is indirectly responsible for Marvel going bankrupt back in the late 90s.  There was no substance to the character, and he displayed an overreliance on the “cool” factor.  But unlike most clichéd 90s characters, everyone at the time realized that Onslaught was a pretty dumb idea.     Onslaught, as a character and a crossover event was a colossal screw up that almost ruined Marvel beyond repair.  Onslaught was a malevolent psychic entity borne from a combination of Magneto’s psyche and Professor Xavier’s repressed dark side.  Originally beginning as an X-Men villain, he soon grew to become a threat to the Marvel Universe at large, and a massively frivolous crossover began to deal with this planetary sized threat.  Eventually most non-mutant heroes were thought dead, everyone hated mutants even more, and Marvel decided to (slightly) revamp their universe[3] with the Heroes Reborn line, which was an even bigger failure than the Onslaught crossover that preceded it.

osnlaught

What an incredibly 90s thing to do Onslaught.

The concept of Onslaught actually began right after the Age of Apocalypse, when editor Bob Harras gave all of the X-writers carte blanche to do any story they wanted after the AoA crossover ended.[4]  This was to be their reward for a job well done in creating one of the best X-Overs of all time: creative freedom.  Onslaught wasn’t originally envisioned as being a mind-melded configuration of Xavier and Magneto, nor was he meant to be a company killing bastard.  And he certainly wasn’t meant to be the traitor that Bishop had forewarned the team about.[5]  In fact, Onslaught wasn’t originally meant to be anything in particular.

Writer Scott Lobdell had only one idea in mind to re-launch Uncanny X-Men after the AoA crossover, and it was to have Juggernaut literally thrown across the continent by an immensely powerful and mysterious entity.  Although a talented writer in his own right, Lobdell lacked the plotting foresight of his predecessor Chris Claremont.  Lobdell had no clear cut idea who this mysterious assailant would be, besides that this being’s name was Onslaught.  Very similarly to Spider-Man’s Clone Saga, because the writers and editors had no clue about the plot’s resolution before beginning the storyline, they just kept pushing the plot forward with no definitive end in sight.  Sort of like a snow ball that slowly builds up enough momentum to eventually spiral out of control, Onslaught became this omnipotent being that no one, not Lobdell, Harras, or anyone else at Marvel knew what to do with.  As a result, they just kept prolonging the story since they didn’t have an ending, or a character with no real definitive qualities.[6]  That’s why he became the much reviled and poorly written, one-dimensional villain that almost ruined Marvel, more thoroughly than even he would have desired.

Marvel made Onslaught omnipotent because no one had any other ideas and because they had been building up to this gargantuan climax for over a year as a stalling tactic to figure out his identity and motive that they hurriedly shoehorned a back story and motive to legitimize this otherwise inconclusive and vague threat.  They had to make him a universal threat to justify their year-long buildup of Onslaught.  And rightfully so, because if Onslaught first flung Juggernaut across North America as his opening act, and then got his ass kicked by Generation X, well, it would have been the biggest waste of time since the failed Upstart crossover that would have taken place had Jim Lee and co. never left Marvel.  But, as it stands, because of poor planning, plotting, and execution, Onslaught remains the single biggest bust in Marvel’s 76 year history.

If there’s anything to be learned from the example of Onslaught, it’s that you shouldn’t start writing a story without having thought of the ending.  Unfortunately, Marvel learned nothing from the failed creation of an omnipotent character that fans unanimously hated.

void

Can someone please tell me what the hell the Void is?!

What’s the bad version of the phrase “lightning strikes twice”?  Whatever it is, Marvel repeated the mistakes made with Onslaught when the Sentry was created.  Like Onslaught, Sentry was another omnipotent creation who became more than loose a cannon in the hands of subsequent writers.  Originally, Bob Reynolds was a drug addict who drank a special serum that granted him the ridiculous power of “a million exploding suns”.  Maybe it’s just me, but does this really sound like a good idea for a superhero?  Seriously, does it?  Write in the comments section if you think this is totally absurd or if you think I’m out of my mind.  The phrase “a million exploding suns” sounds more like a tongue-in-cheek Superman parody than a cornerstone member of the New Avengers.

With a moniker of “The Golden Guardian of Good” and a power set that could only be described as “a million exploding suns”, the Sentry could do anything: flight, superhuman strength, energy projection, telepathy, and even molecular manipulation for Christ’s sake!  So not only was Bob Reynolds a drug addict to accidently became God, but in an attempt to make him less deified, he was given a gigantic Achilles Heel—Mental instability. Or, better yet, every conceivable mental illness including agoraphobia, depression, bi-polar disorder, and even disassociative identity disorder.  There’s no fun in reading about a superhero that can’t be defeated, and there’s only precious little creative room to actually do anything with the character.  To circumvent this problem, Marvel gave their god-like character crippling anxiety disorders as well as a clichéd equal and opposite enemy alter-ego in the form of the Void.

Instead of having this all-powerful superhero deal with anxiety disorder, which would have been really insightful and inspiring, Marvel instead chose to have the character run in place and fight a preternatural war with his evil half.  The character would sit out major threats, just out of fear that he would lose control and the Void would take over.  In Civil War, Secret Invasion, and even the majority of World War Hulk, the Sentry sat on the sidelines because writers could not find a way to believably bring in this omnipotent character who could end the conflict in the blink of an eye.  After Paul Jenkins, the creator of the Sentry, the only other writer to really handle the Sentry was Brian Michael Bendis, who repeated the exact same mistakes made with Onslaught.  By not having a clearly defined character arc, the Sentry just kept rolling along, being made more powerful and more complicated by a writer struggling to make sense of this mysterious and poorly crafted character.  But, as with Onslaught, and The Clone Saga, when it came to the Sentry, creators were literally making it up as they went along.

At one point the Sentry was described as being analogous to the Molecule Man.  At another point, he was a government test subject,who was supposed to be the next super-soldier. Then readers thought he killed his wife, but she wasn’t really dead so they moved into Stark Towers with his sentient spaceship thing (?).  The Void, and what exactly it was supposed to be, was even more confusing to readers, as its existence was never really clarified either.  Again, maybe it’s me; maybe I’m just not comprehending this, but if someone knows what the fuck the Void really was, please explain in the comments below.  At first, the Void was simply the dark, evil side of the Sentry, who sought to cause an equal amount of destruction and chaos in comparison to the Sentry’s noble acts.  Then, the Void became like, the manifestation of Bob Reynold’s social anxieties, and then readers thought the Void was a demon until finally Bendis half-heartedly and still somewhat cryptically implies that the Void is actually God’s Angel of Death.  Wait..what?

siege

The Void and Sentry doing God only knows what together.

Aside from that one scene during the Siege event, no further explanation or revelation is given regarding the nature of the Void.  In fact after the few pages of the Void committing infanticide in Ancient Egypt, more questions are raised than are answered.  What the fuck is the Void?  Where the hell did it come from?  And why have readers been forced to read 10 years’ worth of shitty stories featuring the Sentry?  Readers never really got answers about the Sentry or the Void, and besides almost killing everyone during the Siege event, the worst thing the Void ever really did was bully Bob Reynolds when nobody was looking.  Writers couldn’t supply answers because they were too busy treading water with the Sentry and raising even more questions since they, themselves, didn’t even have the answers.

It’s not only Marvel that’s at fault here, it’s just that Onslaught and Sentry are two of the most recent, and reviled omnipotent characters.  In fact, the most iconic superhero of all time faces this exact same problem of creators not really knowing how to handle the character.  The biggest reason why Superman will never be on the same echelon as Batman or Spider-Man, in terms of fanfare, is because Superman is invulnerable. It’s boring for readers, and difficult for writers to come up with a believable threat to the character.  In all honesty, if Superman was created today, he would have absolutely no resonance in society. Look no further than the Sentry for proof.  There’s never been an iconic and definitive Superman run the way there has been on other titles like Uncanny X-Men, or Green Lantern, and for a character as recognizable as Superman, proportionally speaking, he has the worst rogue’s gallery.  This is because of the character’s invulnerability, and the difficulty involved in creating a credible villain that could conceivably threaten the hero.  It’s really no surprise that DC has recently tried to limit the character’s power with the onset of the New 52.  And ending  of Geoff Johns’ run Superman leaves the titular character depowered for 24 hours so that there are actually stakes in play.  With Onslaught, Sentry, and Superman, omnipotence becomes not only the character’s defining trait, but their only trait as well.  All of these characters became too much of an absolute in their own right, and readers get tired of them quickly because they out wear out much faster than other, better defined, and less absolute characters.

On top of the usual struggles that come with writing a character that can’t be harmed, Marvel faced the additional challenge of not having a trajectory in place for either the Sentry or Onslaught.  Besides a few one-and-done miniseries Onslaught hasn’t been seen since 1996, half the reason why Siege was created was to get rid of the Sentry and the Void because readers finally became fed up with the lack of answers and the repetitive nature of the character.[7]  Even the character’s trademark move of throwing things into the Sun is a metaphor for the godlike nature of the character.  A threat that no one knew how to deal with was summarily thrown into the Sun and that would be that.  Again, this ridiculous solution was used in addition to the character’s gimmicky description and powers.  Marvel didn’t know what to do with either Sentry or Onslaught so they did what they always do in these situations. They kept writing the character and adding more incongruent layers and raising more mysteries in the hopes that this stalling tactic would buy them enough time to come up with an actual and credible solution as to who these characters were and what they originally wanted.

But, with both characters Marvel failed.  After 10 years, they couldn’t explain the nature of the Sentry or his powers, so they killed him off.  In trying to legitimize Onslaught after having almost murdered Juggernaut, Bob Harras made the character into a universal threat because Scott Lobdell had no further vision for Onslaught.  Having a superhero who battles anxiety or depression is an amazing concept, and it’s quite a shame that no one has made this happen yet, especially with the recent inclusion of comic book characters that break the white, straight, abled mold.  Likewise, creating a story that shows the stress and toll that leading the X-Men has on Charles Xavier would have been phenomenal, as Xavier is often overlooked in favor of his X-Men.  In both cases however, Marvel handled these characters poorly.  Let’s just hope they don’t try and go for the hat trick, Onslaught was bad enough.


 

[1] With the best idea being the death of Gwen Stacy.

[2] Even though Marvel continued to mine their relationship years after it became worthwhile.

[3] Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chos?

[4] Another exhibit that all bad things lead back to Bob Harras.

[5] By 1996, this was the only cool plot point that the X-titles still had going.

[6] In the end, Onslaught’s plan was to create a second sun to have it engulf the planet…or something similarly ridiculous.

[7] All Sentry would ever really do is complain about the Void, talk about how insanely powerful and insane he is, and occasionally throw things into the Sun.  I shit you not, he really didn’t do anything else. Oh and he fought the Hulk once but that’s because Greg Pak needed a Deus ex Machina for World War Hulk.




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