Saturday, December 27, 2014

When Came The Sentinels!


I only recently got around to seeing "X-Men: Days of Future Past" (and someday will have to get around to seeing it again, just to get a better understanding of it), but it made me curious to take a look at the three-part story featured in X-Men #s 14-16, which introduced Bolivar Trask and the Sentinels to the Marvel universe. I'd never read these issues; in fact, I only became aware of the Sentinels by way of a reprint of X-Men #17 which immediately follows what appeared to be a hard-fought battle with them, as well as later issues of both X-Men and The Avengers where they had returned.

It's hard to know who to thank for the basic Sentinel design which would go on to be modified in future appearances. Art on the X-Men book was in something of a state of flux at this point in time, with initial artist Jack Kirby all but having made his exit from the title, to be replaced by Werner Roth (a/k/a Jay Gavin, his pseudonym for these issues). For this three-parter, Kirby handled layouts, with Gavin pencilling--while Vince Colletta would ink Part 1, and Dick Ayers Parts 2 and 3. Pencils for the cover are unmistakably Kirby's, with what appears to be a solid Sentinel design (with the exception of its bare hands)--but we don't know at what point Kirby was given the cover assignment, or, for that matter, if Gavin was finalizing the design from notes provided by Kirby.

At any rate, this story offers as much enjoyment in hindsight as it might have when it first hit the racks, as it pivots the X-Men from being a mysterious group of costumed young people to bona fide "mutants" in the public eye, swept up in a debate which plays out to this day. Once the story concludes, writer Stan Lee clamps the lid on that aspect, and the X-Men return to battling menaces like Count Nefaria, El Tigre, the Locust, et al., with no perceptible change in the public's reaction to their presence--perhaps mitigated by the presence of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in the Avengers, or perhaps simply because Lee may not have felt like heating up this issue to the point where it might overly preoccupy the title and distract readers who were proving difficult enough to draw into the X-Men's world.

As for Trask, the man who sets all of this in motion, it makes sense to make him an anthropologist--both to illustrate how fixated he's become with mutants, and to establish his credentials on the subject with the public:


(It's easy to see why reporters are sometimes referred to as "newshounds.")


Thanks to the hounds, it doesn't take long for Charles Xavier to become alarmed at this turn of events:



Prof. Xavier's debate with Trask doesn't go particularly well.  Xavier needs to perhaps work on his presentation when attempting to educate homo sapiens on mutants, given his penchant for tut-tutting and bluntly pointing out humanity's ignorance when a more subtle approach and more tactful persuasion are called for (methods he would learn to adopt for later public hearings and discussions). But however Xavier had chosen to approach the discussion, it's unlikely he would have been able to make a dent in Trask's visual surprise:




As we can see, the Sentinels are initially about ten feet in height (the same height which Goliath was once trapped at). Artist Neal Adams would go on increase their height to about twenty feet (though his perspective shots would make them seem virtually gargantuan), which artists such as Rich Buckler and John Byrne would continue to depict as the standard:





As for the Sentinels' mandate, Trask quickly finds that being an anthropologist doesn't make you Tony Stark:



In fact, it would not only take one hell of an engineer to assemble and activate the Sentinels (to say nothing of their massive citadel), but also resources which Trask, who appears to be little more than a researcher, couldn't hope to have access to, much less afford. But in a 1966 story, that's definitely overthinking the plumbing. However it was accomplished, the Sentinels live--and they'll follow their programming, though they clearly have other ideas of how they'll go about it:



The X-Men, of course, become involved; and, in addition to this story formally broaching the "mutant menace" subject and letting it take root, we're introduced to some other firsts. We meet Warren's parents, who, astonishingly, know nothing about Warren's mutation, which Warren discovered while he was in military school and subsequently kept hidden (leaving the school before the time came to report for a physical exam). The Beast's origin is revealed when he's subjected to a Sentinel mind probe. There's of course nothing new about the developing attraction we see between Scott and Jean, with Scott still reluctant to make his feelings known. But we do see Scott get his first pair of custom "sunglasses":



These panels are a little confusing in terms of the visor. It's probably the first stab the book makes at explaining the visor's functionality--from those early days when Scott would lift the entire visor in order to release his beams, leading later to a switch on the visor to raise only the protective lens (alternately used with studs on his palms). Still, it makes little sense for the lens to raise when the visor is lifted with the rest of his mask, as Scott describes here. Another segment two issues later would try to clarify the process further, with the "visor" and the "lens" now being one and the same:



Meanwhile, there is another character this story introduces:  the Master Mold, a Sentinel many times the size of the other models, which Trask has enabled to manufacture as many Sentinels as he needs.  Though in Trask's current state of regret, that's the last thing he wants:




It's interesting to note that these Sentinels, unlike later models, have little to no regard for humans as far as their safety being paramount--one of the few aspects to the Sentinels that gave their stories an edge and made the Sentinels themselves compelling. Here, when Trask refuses to comply, the Master Mold threatens to use the weapons Trask has given him to decimate half the country--and so he acquiesces to its demands. But during the Beast's mind-probe session, Trask has realized that the X-Men are mutants who have fought to protect humanity--and with Trask now facing the fact that it's himself who's truly put humanity at risk with his fearful interpretation of his data on mutants, his conscience now has him seeking to undo what he's set in motion:





It's difficult to gauge the extent of Trask's change of heart. With his dying words, it seemed he mostly sought to rectify his error and thus save humanity from his own deadly invention, with perhaps some misjudgment of mutantkind playing a part in that. The story clearly regards Trask's final scene as sufficient closure on the incident, treating his fate as a tragedy of misjudgment. Though with a lesson to impart to the rest of us, it cuts the man no slack:



I also found interesting Trask's final, panicked thoughts on his creations, in relation to what would come later: "They'll eventually outnumber the human race! They'll enslave all of mankind! They'll be the masters of Earth!" Written well before Chris Claremont's 1981 story, they offer a chilling prediction-come-true perspective of the results seen with the reactivation of the Sentinels:



It occurs to me that it's no wonder so many Marvel films are possible, given the wealth of material available to screen writers that can be drawn on from even decades-old stories that provided such possibilities without even realizing where their concepts might lead. Granted, I wouldn't want the Locust or Mekano to find themselves in an X-Men film anytime soon--but it would seem the introduction of the Sentinels in cinema has successfully brought them full circle with their first appearance, where the lesson learned too late by their creator has a chance to resonate with all of humanity.

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