Emanata: Permanent Tidal Wave

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When the Sentry first appeared in 2000, he was a clever idea: Bob Roberts, one of Marvel’s most famous characters in the ’60s, the star of Startling Stories–oh, wait, you’ve never heard of him? That’s because his archenemy the Void forced him to use his incredible telepathic powers to make everyone forget him! And the Void is actually the same person as the Sentry! It was a crisply metafictional premise, with a neat little metaphor for depression built in; the Sentry has since become one of relatively few new superhero characters of the past decade who’s caught on at all.

With this week’s third issue of Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel’s Siege, though, the Sentry is moving into something that looks a lot like an endgame–that looks, in fact, like a lot of the point of this particular big crossover is to make enough noise to justify eliminating him from play. When the Sentry moved out of his metacomics role, he became a slow narrative poison for Marvel Universe stories; from the early days of New Avengers onward, he’s provided a magical fix to resolve one story after another. In Siege #3, he’s described as having “no limit to his power set.” That sounds impressive, but it also means that any story he’s in is going to have its plot options severely constrained. Constructing stories about him is less like playing tennis without a net than like playing Calvinball.

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That’s one kind of conceptual terminus of power-fantasy stories: the fantasy of actual omnipotence, of the power-up that goes so far that it puts an end to all conflict. But it isn’t a particularly fertile fantasy. In ten years as a protagonist and ensemble character, Bob Roberts has remained a near-total cipher: either he’s stuttering and paralyzed by fear or he shows up in his golden-god form and solves everything. To be fair, Bendis has been getting some mileage out of that problem in Siege and its lead-ups and tie-ins (although the scene in this week’s Bendis-written issue of Dark Avengers in which the Sentry’s wife is killed would be a lot more dramatically effective if she hadn’t returned from the dead a few times already in the last five years). The Void is this story’s final boss, and the climax of Siege #3 is Dark Reign’s boss Norman Osborn effectively making way for him. If the final page’s image of the Void, surrounded by a cascading shape representing his suddenly enormous power, looks familiar, that’s because it’s been a trope of superhero comics since at least X-Men‘s Dark Phoenix storyline thirty years ago, and it signals that there’s only one way the story can end.

There’s another kind of power-up that reappeared in comics stores this week: a little square hardcover containing the most complete reprint to date of the “Tiger Tea” sequences that ran in George Herriman’s wonderful, daffy comic strip “Krazy Kat” in 1936 and 1937. (Sections of “Tiger Tea” had previously appeared in a 1969 “Krazy Kat” book, and in a 1991 volume of RAW.) The strip was usually concerned with the eternal love-and-hate-and-brick-throwing triangle of Krazy, Ignatz and Offisa Pupp. Here, though, for a number of months, Herriman turned its daily incarnation into a cartwheeling narrative in which Krazy gets a whiff of something curious, follows his nose to an adventure across the gorgeous Southwestern mesas Herriman loved to draw, vanishes briefly, and reappears with a bag of unusual catnip that he brews into Tiger Tea.
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Tiger Tea, as it turns out, is a super-potion: placid, big-hearted Krazy drinks a cup and starts hurling things, yelling “I’m a poiminint tidal wave in a notion of dynamite pow-WOW!!” It works on everyone and everything: a worm on a hook dipped in the tea starts bellowing “Yaaa-a-a–I’m a boa constrictor – a anaconda – a python…”; a decrepit tiger lily, watered with a few drops, rises up and declares that it can take on “a septillion nonillion violets.” (There were actually a couple of references to Tiger Tea in Final Crisis, of all places: humanoid tiger Mr. Tawky Tawny drinks a beverage by the same name and briefly becomes a super-warrior, pulling a Sentry/Ares move on Kalibak.) This edition of Krazy + Ignatz In “Tiger Tea” plays up the obvious drug jokes–the book itself is apparently printed on hemp paper–but Tiger Tea really makes the most sense as a humble plot device, like the serum that powered up the Sentry.

And, as stimulants do, it gradually wears off. The “Tiger Tea” sequence doesn’t really reach any kind of dramatic climax; it just drifts away, and then pops up again a few times over the subsequent months. It’s a kick to see Herriman’s characters, or any other characters, emboldened beyond reason for a few pages. But then the tidal wave becomes the usual ripples, and they go back to being themselves, because they have selves to go back to being.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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