Charlton was pretty much the bottom rung of the comic book business. Yes, they published a lot of material, but it was always on the crappiest paper, and always had the worst distribution. What’s more, it only rarely seemed as though anybody cared about what the content of these magazines was. One notable exception was the period in the mid-1960s when Dick Giordano took over as the editor of Charlton and attempted to pump some life into it’s largely staid offerings. This led to what is remembered as the “Action Hero” line, a group of super hero and quasi-super hero books that all reflected Giordano’s ethos to a certain degree, and which were all a cut above Charlton’s typically dreary output.
THUNDERBOLT was one of those new series. A creation of moonlighting police officer Pete Morisi, Thunderbolt attempted to be a somewhat more realistic super hero. His powers came both from extensive study of lost and secretive eastern scrolls and from his own formidable will power, which could drive his body to perform amazing feats. His mantra of “I can–I will–I must!” became his version of SHAZAM! in endowing him with the strength of character to see himself through whatever situation he faced. But we’re not here to talk about T-Bolt today.
Instead, I want to look once again at the short-lived and largely-forgotten back-up strip that ran through a half-dozen issues of THUNDERBOLT, The Sentinels. It was said to be the creation of writer Gary Friedrich, but apparently Marvel editor and writer Roy Thomas gave his old friend a bit more than just some token help when conceiving the series. Which is no wonder, as The Sentinels was likely the most blatant attempt to copy the Marvel style and formula that Charlton ever put out. Consequently, that’s likely why I was so fascinated by it when I first encountered the series in the 1970s.
The Sentinels were a trio of young people–Rick Strong, Cindy Carson and Crunch Wilson–who had come together to form a folk singing group in order to pay the bills. It turns out that their landlord was secretly a Russian scientist working in the employ of a power-crazed madman known as the Mind-Bender. In order to foil the Mind-Bender’s schemes to dominate the nation, the Professor has created a series of special devices that will give whoever uses them superhuman powers. (in this respect, the Sentinels were like Tower’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, whos superhuman abilities likewise largely came from gear that they used.) On his deathbed, the Professor gives the tech to the folk singers, recruiting them into a secret battle against his former benefactor before he himself passes.
Accordingly, Rick Strong becomes Helio, armed with a backpack that allows him to fly by making his body akin to helium. Cindy as Mentalia gets a headband that permits her to read minds and will eventually also grant her some degree of telekinesis. And Crunch gets a pair of gloves that give him super-strength, which he uses as the Brute. They’re very much the Fantastic Four if the FF were also folk singers, and like the FF, they squabbled among themselves and threatened to fall out and had personal problems of a sort. The Sentinels was never as polished a strip as anything Marvel was putting out during this heyday, but it was still a pretty good, if fannish, emulation of the style.
The Sentinels was drawn by Sam Grainger, a fan artist who was trying to make it into the business professionally. The strip was his first real step, and while he didn’t wind up doing all that much in the field (and most of it wound up being inking rather than penciling–his natural style was just a little bit too cartoonish for Marvel at that point) he wound up working on some relatively important stories before his too-early death.
The Sentinels ran for six installments before being consigned to comic book limbo, from which they’ve never reappeared. But in that run, they did wind up eventually vanquishing Mind-Bender, so I suppose the task that was responsible for their creation had been accomplished, and they were able to go back to their ordinary pursuits. (Either that, or Professor Kolotov’s devices were dangerous and caused them all to develop cancerous tumors that took their lives, if you prefer the darker notion.)