‘Sentinel’: Bringing Back The Sci-Fi (And More) Of Classic British Comics
by Richard Bruton
A nostalgic love of Starblazer brought Sentinel into being, but there’s a quality of storytelling through most of the self-contained issues that makes this way more than a simple homage to the old sci-fi digest comic.
Don’t be expecting highly polished work here, none of these six issues are perfect and there’s plenty of improvements that could be made. But the big thing about them is that the storytelling is strong and, of the six, I thought two were great page-turners, another three were enjoyable, and just one didn’t work for me. For this sort of work, that’s a really strong hit rate.
Sentinel delivers 64 pages of digest-sized action, mixing up the genres each time but always delivering one whole story every issue – it’s raw and rough but it’s also a load of fun and packs in plenty of great reading.
This is just one of a number of new titles over here in Britain that both hark back to the Brit comics of old and also offer something new and different from comics out there right now. We’ve covered a few of them here at Comicon – including Brawler and Spacewarp, but there are also the likes of The ’77 and Blazer out there, as well as more established comic anthologies such as Paragon or the various 2000 AD fanzines out there, including Sector 13, and the FutureQuake titles, Zarjaz and Dogbreath.
However, where all those are anthology titles, Sentinel does things way differently, giving you one full story in every issue, 64 pages in the digest size (same size as the Archie digest comics), with each issue funded through Kickstarter – the seventh issue is on Kickstarter right now.
It’s a tribute to the old Starblazer comic, something that’s much-loved and fondly remembered here in Britain, another digest-sized sci-fi comic, published by D.C. Thomson, that ran for 281 issues from 1979-1991.
Sentinel creators Ed Doyle and Alan Holloway have both featured in many of the publications I’ve just mentioned, but this one is all theirs and, from the outset, their obvious love of Starblazer shines through with the care and affection they’ve put into making Sentinel. However, where Starblazer was very much a sci-fi thing, with occasion dips into Fantasy, Sentinel is mixing things up with sci-fi, fantasy, sword & sorcery, horror, and comedy in just those first six issues.
To be honest, Sentinel was one of those comics that I quickly looked at and rather dismissed at first, thinking it just wouldn’t be my thing.
I hold my hands up – I was at least partly wrong.
Sure, it’s not the greatest comic you’ll ever read, and it’s certainly not the most polished of things, with both the story and the art being rather raw and, with some of the issues, rather rough around the edges, but that’s not the point here – Sentinel is all about the reading experience, the fun of getting that digest story and engaging with it.
That digest format means pages can fit only a few panels comfortably, so a 64-page Sentinel is probably 30-ish pages of normal comics, meaning the creators involved need to be confident in getting everything onto the page quickly, building characters and worlds fast, then letting the plot take over.
In the end, both writer and artist have got to deliver good storytelling to get you into the comic quickly and keep it going through the 64 pages to keep you there until the end. And that’s exactly what happened for me with Sentinel. The actual reading experience turned out to be a most enjoyable one for the majority of the issues I’ve read.
The advantage of Sentinel is the self-contained aspect of it all. Anthology titles are fabulous things, loads of variety, plenty of different styles, but they can suffer from the necessary short nature of the strips and the need to split any longer tales into multiple issues, sometimes with months, or occasionally even a year or more, between issues.
Here, it’s one story, start to finish, with enough pages to properly develop a storyline. It makes a refreshing change from both the inherent problems of anthology comics and a real refreshing change from the convoluted storylines of the big comics companies.
Of course, with anything like this, there’s always going to be some that stand out, and here it’s issues 1 and 5 for me.
Issue One, ‘Special Delivery‘, is simple sci-fi, plenty of familiar touchstones, good sci-fi grounding, a touch of humour, all done very well. It’s your typical Han and Chewie setup, rogue Doyle and his fuzzy little pal RHLSTP in ‘Spence’s Bar’, a madcap scheme, cock-ups and space adventure.
It’s no criticism to say the plot here is thin, as it’s a decision of necessity, allowing the sci-fi crime caper to get into gear fast and the gags and banter to flow, ending up with a comic that’s a fun and fast bit of entertainment. Similarly, the art’s more functional than pretty, to be honest. But the looseness of the art, the raw and rough nature of it, it’s all in service to the necessary pace of the story. Storytelling should always be the priority, with the pretty stuff thrown in once the storytelling is nailed down – and in that, Doyle does the job, with a smooth flow for the reader.
After the great start of issue one, things change up in subsequent issues, which is all to the good for the series as a whole.
Now, I didn’t get as much out of issue 2, ‘Scales of Justice’, another Holloway & Doyle piece, which Holloway describes as “Spartacus with dragons,” which gives you a fair idea of what to expect – an alt-Roman Empire thing where the dragons are enslaved for the entertainment of the masses. One small (both in number and size) group of dragons decides enough is enough and launch their bid for freedom.
It’s played a little bit too straight and the bigger scope and more anatomical work exposes some of Doyles flaws. Still fairly enjoyable, just a dip from issue one and the fun to be had there.
Similarly, Issue 3 and A Fare To Remember, is good but not great. Holloway’s playing to the strengths and loves of his artist, Paul Spence, with a strip that’s playing off 2000 AD‘s Ace Trucking Co. of two rival space cab firms and the chaos that comes from the competition. As for Spence, he’s definitely a huge fan of Massimo Bellardinelli and what you get is an artist doing good things who needs to get the influences out of his system before he can go on to real improvements and can properly find his own style.
‘Misty Moore’ in Sentinel issue 4, with Ian Beadle drawing Holloway’s script is another example of a familiar story that ticks most of the boxes but with art that’s just that little too raw and unpolished, his fine lines having to work far too hard to cope with the need for realism and good anatomy in this supernatural tale.
Obviously, we’re in Misty and Spellbound territory here, as Sentinel goes into the realm of those wonderful girls’ comics of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the sorts of thing that the Treasury of British Comics is busy reprinting and bringing us new material in the Tammy & Jinty and Misty & Scream! Specials.
And Holloway’s story does a good job of apeing the template of those – the new girl at school, the nasty cliques, trying to make friends, the bullies making the new girl’s life a misery. And then, of course, as with those Misty strips, there’s the added intrigue of the supernatural twist when the new girl discovers the ghost haunting the house and offering violent vengeance.
Issue 5 is the first full-colour Sentinel, with the sword and sorcery tale ‘Kazana The Slayer’. It’s a comic originally created by Doyle and Chris Atkins in larger format and has now been rescripted and re-formated by Holloway and Doyle to fit the digest format.
Sadly, it’s the one Sentinel that I simply couldn’t get along with. For a start, Doyle’s artwork, that worked well in the more fantastical, cartoonish settings in issues one and two, simply doesn’t work here at all in the sword and sorcery setting. The anatomy is off, the flow of the storytelling that was really great in issue one just isn’t here, and the whole thing doesn’t work in colour at all. Similarly, Holloway’s script just comes off as dry and lacking the pace of other Sentinel issues.
Oh well, one out of six is a bust – that’s not too bad.
Oh yes… the sixth issue… another favourite…
I have to say, ‘Bad Kitty‘ in issue 6 is my favourite of all the Sentinel strips so far, albeit with issue 1’s ‘Special Delivery‘ a very close second.
It’s so much fun, an anthropomorphic sci-fi romp featuring Rover Kingston (the dog) and his adopted brother TC (the cat). But this is no sweet family drama, as TC’s hired intergalactic con-artist Carlos Harrison to rob his millionaire brother. That particular plot goes south quick and TC’s plan escalates to murder (bad kitty), with Harrison finding himself looking to protect Rover.
It’s a great slice of the silly, but it’s also a load of fun. Holloway’s script is packed with cartoon and comic references and gags, but we’re also back to the sort of fast-paced, free-flowing storytelling that makes the pages turn themselves. And as for Morgan Gleave‘s art, it’s my favourite thus far, with his big, bold cartooning perfect for the big panels of the digest format. Again, not perfect, as there’s times where the high constrast work loses the definition of the characters in the shadows, but again it’s the excellent storytelling and flow of the art, matched with the story, that makes Bad Kitty a damn fine comic.
All in all, six issues, all completely different, most of them eminently readable with storytelling from writer and artists suited to the pacing on the digest format of Sentinel.
Yes, the art can seem rough at times and there’s all the problems of young artists who haven’t yet found their style or simply haven’t put the hours in to hone their craft yet. But for the majority of the time, Sentinel’s strips are fun page-turners that kept this reader entertained quite nicely.
Sentinel – co-created by Alan Holloway and Ed Doyle.
Issue 1 – ‘Special Delivery’, story by Alan Holloway and Melanie Bagnall, script by Alan Holloway, art and lettering by Ed Doyle. Cover by Ian Beadle.
Issue 2 – ‘Scales of Justice’, script by Alan Holloway, art, cover, and lettering by Ed Doyle.
Issue 3 – ‘A Fare To Remember’, script by Alan Holloway, art and cover by Paul Spence, lettering by Ed Doyle.
Issue 4 – ‘Misty Moore’, script by Alan Holloway, art by Ian Beadle, lettering by Ed Doyle. Cover by Ed Doyle.
Issue 5 – ‘Kazana The Slayer’, story by Ed Doyle and Chris Atkins, script by Alan Holloway, art and lettering by Ed Doyle.
Issue 6 -‘ Bad Kitty’, script by Alan Holloway, art and lettering by Morgan Gleave.
You can get hold of all the issues of Sentinel from their Etsy store and get in touch through Twitter and Facebook.
The Kickstarter for issue 7, ‘Hell on Harry Howson‘ (bringing back Doyle and RHLSTP from issue 1 for more dumb sci-fi fun), is active right now. It’s obviously all coming from a love of those old Ray Harryhausen movies.
A few extras now… Sentinel runs with variant covers – and there have been some beauties over the issues thus far… but you have to seriously adore Hunt Emerson’s variant for issue 3 – with the special guest appearance of Hunt’s Firkin the Cat in the back seat of the cab!