Tuesday, April 9, 2002


Writers pick their favorite SF/fantasy and it's not only something of a memory trip but mainly good examples of extended blurbing turned into genuine criticism. (I now want to re-read Bradbury and there are a couple of unfamiliar but promising things here.) Particularly nice to see is Neil Gaiman's choice of R.A. Lafferty. I discovered Lafferty in high school along with Philip Dick, both at the time considered somewhat declasse writers even among the SF fans who bothered to consider such things. Now of course Dick is considered a Major Author and has the full backing of perhaps the US's largest publisher. Lafferty's death in March went pretty much unnoticed and in fact nearly all his books are out of print. Lafferty's stories were perhaps the first to hint to me that there's more beyond a plot (the "standard" short story) and cool ideas (the "standard" SF/fantasy short story). In fact Harlan Ellison once suggested that Lafferty didn't write stories so much as lafferties which may be the best way to describe something that seems to have no predecessors or for that matter followers.


"in the late sixties Ed Hanson played me

this song. although it filled me with a

vague sense of future memory, I really

didn't like it. it seemed to say that in this

field of honor, sooner or later, everybody

gets hurt and I just didn't believe it."

Patti Smith on "So You Want to Be (a Rock and Roll Star)"

In the Washington Post material referenced above, John Clute notes: "It is the same with science fiction as it is with opera. It is seriously stupid. At the same time, it is a storytelling frame -- a contraption for the enabling of stories not otherwise tellable -- that has been used by a number of writers of wit and intelligence and passion and craft who might not have otherwise created significant fictions." Consider superheroes a type of SF and you see where this leads.

So try this: A man with inhuman, unlimited powers and a flashy costume who was literally forgotten by everybody now gathers other ridiculously powered and costumed humans to fight an unstoppable entity called The Void. Yeah, stupid. But now try this: A melancholy book-length meditation on loss and missed opportunities, on the corrosion of time and things that can never be undone. That's probably just as stupid. But both are The Sentry, written by Paul Jenkins with art by (mostly) Jae Lee, and it's far from stupid.

The premise is simple: A lethargic ex-alcoholic suddenly remembers that he was once The Sentry, the first and greatest of the superheroes. The catch is that nobody else remembers this: not his wife, not his best friend (Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four), not his colleagues, not the fans, not reporters, nobody (with one exception). But now an old threat called The Void is returning; all the heroes combined barely defeated it before but now it's vastly more powerful.

That makes The Sentry sound like a familiar good vs. bad sort of battle but that's not at all what it's about. It's an adagio, a literary equivalent to CCR's bottomless "Walking on the Water." Nearly half the book consists of heroes standing and waiting on Liberty Island for the approaching Void, a battle none of them expects to win. (And to Jenkins' credit the book doesn't cheat on the ending; that most readers will have long guessed what happens at the end doesn't dilute the symmetry or appropriateness. Compare this to, say, Straczynski's first Spider-Man arc--collected in tpb as Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home--which creates an unstoppable, unbeatable enemy that Spider-Man stops and beats. He should have remembered more from his own Babylon 5 where to win doesn't necessarily mean you have to defeat an enemy.) During this wait the heroes remember: Richards remembers a best friend he had to sacrifice, Spider-Man remembers a father-figure who helped him gain now-unreachable money and prestige, Archangel remembers a mentor who taught him that to fly you must fall. The most striking is the Hulk, the only person who initially remembered The Sentry (or Golden Man as he calls him). The Sentry gave the Hulk something resembling a normal life with relief from his pain and loneliness. Unlike the rest, the Hulk has always known this just as he's always known it could never happen again. And that's why he's now standing beside The Sentry, facing the only enemy he's ever feared.

And more than the story it's the realization, the art, that brings The Sentry into focus. Most of the book is done in a textured but stark style. The colors are mostly grays, night blues and earthtones apparently done by watercolor, or at least partially watercolor since there's little of the preciousness and delicacy usually associated with that medium. A few inserts in earlier comics styles (a Kirby-esque 60s, an 80s Marvel house-style) create contrast. The imagery is mostly lone figures or subtly distorted ones; the stretching of Richards no longer has a Jack Cole cartoon feel but a long impossible pull as if he could go on forever. There are more subtle touches like how the man first attaches his cape with clothespins but his costume increasingly becomes that of The Sentry as more people remember him. It's the kind of thing other creators might have felt needed close-ups or dialogue comments but here it just happens and a reader might barely notice.

The question relevant to the Clute quote is whether The Sentry needed superheroes. Could it have been, say, a middle-aged man returning to the small town he left 20 years before and encountering rough equivalents? Perhaps. But there's a power to using such iconic characters that can't be replicated. Mr. Fantastic beside the Statue of Liberty's torch thinking "This used to be an adventure....Back before things went sour." Or Spider-Man confronted by his dead parents, murdered Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, a failed marriage, an uncertain career. The Hulk who's "been given enough sense to comprehend your deepest fear" deciding that he and Bruce Banner are cowards. Put this bluntly there's probably not much to it but it's the resonance of these characters that give it heft. (In some senses The Sentry has parallels to The Dark Knight Returns though without the right-wing politics, in fact mostly without politics of any kind.)

Though The Sentry was first published as a series of ten comics it is definitely meant for book form. Since it's a long mood piece with a nearly irrelevant plot such serial reading could only have worked against it. Elsewhere in his piece Clute remarks about writers "whose works interact so intimately with the templates and the tintypes and the iconographies and the gaucheries of sf that they seem simply indecipherable to anyone not already versed in the genre." This is certainly even more true of superhero comics where you not only have the conventions of the medium (possibly the least "transparent" of any in pop culture) but an intricate set of histories, allusions, in-jokes, references, conventions.