Thursday 21 July 2016

A Long Look At Sonic the Comic 1-100 Part 5: Goblins, Pretenders & B.A.R.F.*

2016 is Sonic the Hedgehog’s 25th Anniversary and I’ve been around since (almost) the start, in celebration of Sonic lasting so long I’m going to be posting a Long Look At Sonic the Comic issues 1 to 100, my favourite time period on one of my favourite comics and one of my favourite things about one of my favourite things – that’d be the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise- and this is that Long Look At. 

For a few months we get a slight shift in writers – Mark Eyles is taking over back-ups for the new Tails strip and the second Sonic’s World strip while Lew Stringer is here for his first (short) stint as Main Sonic Writer. I feel bad for marking Stringer out as the weaker of the two Main Sonic Writers (always capitalised, always) because he’s a really nice bloke with a far bigger career in British comics than just Sonic the Comic, he created and drew both Tom Thug and The Dark Newt, for instance and he is often a good writer, though he does turn in more stinkers than Kitching will. But he is the weaker of the two – his dialogue isn’t so good, his plots aren’t so good and he tends to involve fairly weak humour when it’s not needed, that latter downside isn’t all his own fault though; apparently there was several editorial mandates put in as the book went on, one was that Amy was to be a girl power positive role model and the other was that there should be more humour, as I understand it Kitching wasn’t interested in doing either, so Lew got the job of fulfilling those requirements in his strips – as he’d worked on typical Beano and Dandy humour strips before he was probably better suited, I just don’t think that style of strip is well suited for Sonic the Hedgehog, especially not when you’ve got big dramatic world shaking stories going on in the Sonic strip (which is the first one in the book remember), it’s jarring and makes the strips seem throwaway. Anyway Stringer’s work is typified by:
·          Shorter stories with lower stakes (until Kitching is fired anyway)
·          Groan-worthy humour that isn’t without its charm at times.
·          Amy Rose and/or Shortfuse the Cybernik
·          Parodying things that children wouldn’t get.
·          Not Richard Elson

I’d do one of those for Mark Eyles too but really he’s just typified by being so similar to Kitching or Stringer that I didn’t even know he existed until I started having this Look At the book, I just thought he WAS either Stringer or Kitching, that said he is far from a bad writer and has created some of my favourite characters in the series. Anyway: to the issues!

The Morbidden Hunt (Tails strips, issues 28-31)
Quick Summary: having been left behind again by Sonic, Tails’ day is livened up by a portal to the Nameless Zone, this time cast by Shaman Wurlpul because there was an unwritten rule about the writers not using each other’s characters and Eyles is sticking to it. Two fox cubs have been kidnapped by the Goblin Prince (not David Bowie) so his big sister Queen Vulpecula can hunt them. After outsmarting a griffon by running away from it and getting help from some local centaurs, Tails runs straight into the Prince, Catalus, who has the twins and is torturing them by…giving them junk food and letting them play with his sword. He’s convinced them they’re going to play hide and seek, not be hunted, Tails is unsure so goes along, of course it’s a proper hunt and the three foxes are on the run. Tails again wins the day by running away, using his ability to fly to lift the cubs from the safety of the Queen and Prince and onto the Centaur’s flying ship.

Mark Eyles starts off strong, so strong I thought he was Nigel Kitching on this strip for 21 years, though that could alternatively be because it follows the exact same formula as the last two strips, Tails is pressured into doing something heroic, he sucks at it, but running away works. Fair play to Eyles though this is the longest strip Tails has had and it feels suitably epic, there’s no padding with even the griffon fight serving to further the plot, the griffon incidentally doesn’t speak but has thought bubbles, all of which makes him sound like a Mogwai and makes him unintentionally cute. Further fair play goes to him for turning in four strips of excellent dialogue, I think there’s maybe 2 panels where the dialogue is a bit stinky and he has Tails’ personality down pat, not bad for his first time on the book and the dryness of Catacus is amusing, my favourite line? “And remember, my sister calls Hide & Seek “Fox Hunting”” pity he’ll never turn up again. Actually that’s something worth bringing up – where is the Goblin and Centaur lands in relation to the Fox villages? It seems like they’re in the same Zone and Tails doesn’t cross the Dimensional Bridge but rather an ocean (a void separates The Land Beyond and The Nameless Zone), yet there are clearly goblins in the Land Beyond. Might be a hiccup due to a different writer? They come back to The Land Beyond, and the Goblin nation, later on so maybe Kitching will explain it.
The art is by Casanovas who is a great fantasy artist with detailed, Frazetta looking worlds and gnarled, fearsome looking creatures – this generally isn’t well suited to Mobius (his Mobians and Zones look a little to real) but is perfect for The Nameless Zone and it’s Dungeons & Dragons fantasy world, and especially for the goblins, who look like Henson made ‘em.

Metamorphia / The Pretender (Sonic strips, issues 30-31)
Quick Summary: a strange bear lady comes to Sonic because there’s a monster in her Zone, Tails and Amy instantly distrust her to build drama, and of course they’re right, she becomes Metamorphia, a shape shifting monster, as soon as they enter the Grim Zone. Sonic is put into a Retro Block, uses some questionable physics to escape and Metamorphia appears to die after posing a Tails, of course she doesn’t. Stringer then tells the exact same plot the next issue, this time a green version of Sonic turns up and works Sonic’s ego, this time getting him to race, leads him away from his friends (who again don’t trust this new character and warn sonic) and then tries to capture him, only to fail and appear to die, this time by Badnik fire.

Did you just think we wouldn’t notice Lew? Do you really think readers are that daft? Well you worked on Oink, the most obnoxious British comic ever published so maybe you do, but you wrote Tom Thug in Oink, the best strip it had, so what the fuck? On their own both of the strips are fine it’s just that they’re one after the other and they’re the exact same story! Anyway Metamorphia is definitely ‘the writers first work on the book’ and has some kinks to work out, the odd bit of clunky dialogue, especially early on – it’s weird to see Stringer writing Amy so poorly given how well he’ll write her in years to come, there’s also the weird Retro Block thing that just has no purpose. The story is honestly saved by Mark Hadley’s art, which is nowhere near as good as it usually is (Tails looks weird) but is still as atmospheric as it always invariably is, making the Grim Zone and Metamorphia nightmarish, and for once it’s actually necessary.

Everything is better in ‘The Pretender’, Stringer’s got the characters down and Hadley turns in some most dynamic art, there’s also very little of trademark nightmarishness going on (well, besides Metamorphia’s face, god he draws her scary) so at the least kids will get to sleep after reading (well unless they read Pirate STC, which is also running, we’ll get to that). I like Metamorphia, her concept is sound and her first two appearances made her out to be a living nightmare, this is all good, in fact I’ll admit that I had a bit of a crush on her as a 7-8 year old, yes she’s a terrifying bear-cat-lady-thing but then I also had a crush on Chyna, maybe I’m just into scary terrifying bear ladies?

The last Stringer Sonics strip in this short run is The Unbeatable Foe (issue 32) it’s a quick one-and-done and would be dramatic were it not for Tails acting like a complete dickhead despite the character development he’s been receiving in his own strips, and doing so for ‘unlimited coolness’ and releasing a monster who, in one breath, could destroy a whole Zone. There is some fun dialogue though “Ok, you’re unbeatable – but are you happy” *MONSTER SMASHES GROUND* “I think not” and better still “who are you mysterious traveller?” “I am…the Mysterious Traveller!” “Oh, right”. The Art’s also by Casanovas again and again playing to his strengths by focussing on a big monster that doesn’t have to be Sega-style, but the plot ruins things. It’s only really of note because The Misery Zone, where the death-breath monster comes from, will be used as a base of operations by Commander Brutus.

No More Mr. Nice Bug (Sonic’s World strip, issues 32-34)
Cam ‘n Bert , B.A.R.F. are here! That’s two terrible puns in one! I fucking adore these two and I am completely aware that I am completely, utterly, alone in that amongst Sonic the Hedgehog fans. Anyway Quick Summary: Porker Lewis’ ‘reprogramming’ device actually slags a bunch of Buzzbombers while reprogramming them, so the Badnik Army Repair Functioneers are called in – Bert who’s obsessive about hammering, and Cam, who’s funny, scary and a little bit sexy. A Trooper has let two Niceniks, who didn’t get slagged because…reasons, escape though, so after turning him into modern art (no, really), the two track down the Nicenicks using balloons with Sonic’s face on them (it’s more effective than you think). After being confronted by the Nicenicks they track them down and jump ‘em, but as they fly off one BUZZBOMBER is still sniffing pretty flowers.

They’re fucking Buzzbombers! but every piece of dialogue, even the title, refers to the Badniks as Moto-Bugs, they look nothing alike, Motobugs can’t even fly, and yet the Badniks flying is clearly in the script, thus I am blaming Mark Eyles, though really Mark Hadley couldn’t have just looked in, oh, say a Sonic the Hedgehog game manual?  Aside from that COMPLETE ANNOYANCE they strip is pretty good, it’s a comedy strip ostensibly (they’ll get an adventure strip soon, and it will be awesome) and as it’s genuinely funny, often in a very absurdist way, I’m calling it a success, some of the jokes are obvious – like the Barfmobile getting a big build up only to putt and sputter like an old jalopy, but others – like the modern sculpture gag, Bert having fun on a Green Hill Zone loop completely out of nowhere, or badniks killing over vegicide are all very tittersome. Also there’s this running gag of strange exclamations, my favourite is ‘Ivo’s Corset!’. I will say that it takes Eyles an issue to get Bert’s personality right, he’s way too keen on pushing the hammering thing in Bert’s dialogue in part 1, and as these are his characters that’s a little unforgivable, what is nice though is that nowhere do the two seem like anti-heroes, they’re villains, they just happen to be the protagonists.

That actually clears up all the Sonic’s world strips for these issues of the comic, but before we go I want to talk about something else: The first Sonic Summer Special! These summer specials were very important to my childhood, I would go to the same holiday camp each year (Devon Cliffs, back when it as good, before the British Holidays-Haven merger) and every summer I would buy a Sonic Summer Special in the grocery store there, whenever I read one I am transported back to a sticky caravan, I am in my swimming trunks, I am 8 again and it is good. Those holidays were genuinely happy times in a miserable childhood filled with bullying and self-hatred and these specials were a major part of it. It doesn’t mean they’re good mind you, just that they mean a lot to me.

Sonic the Summer Special 1994

And none mean more to me than the 1994 issue, by being first (and *ehem* having the Game Genie codes to Sonic 1 & 2 in it) this book was read to death, again I meant this literally, I wore the cover’s spine out from over-reading, and my physical copy is now held together with cellotape. It’s a pretty average comic though, it also doesn’t have credits for any of the strips, but Nigel Kitching wrote all of them.

The main story is Doctor Sun wherein a Badger comes to the Freedom Fighters because his son has joined a cult in the Mystic Cave Zone; after navigating some perils of the Zone Sonic and Tails find Dr Sun and his cult, and apparently it’s Segaworld, and…oh fuck it, it’s Dr Robotnik, of course it is. It’s a big fat character, of course it’s Dr Robotnik in disguise. I have one question about this story: Why? Why is Eggman doing this? He’s the dictator of Mobius, if he wants children to turn into Badniks he can just send Troopers to take them, he says it’s so much easier than capturing them but he doesn’t do that personally and it’s clearly shown to be very easy to capture them in other stories written by the same author. With this plan he has to build a fucking giant video game room and do all the work himself, it makes no sense! On the upside, Ferran Rodriguez is back on art, and his on-model Mystic Cave Zone is a delight, combined with Kitching putting Sonic through traps that actually appear in the Zone (as he did in The Sentinel) it’s like reading the gameplay experience, this sort of accuracy is appreciated Sonic authors, I’d say Ian Flynn should remember this, but he does. 

There’s two short strips, one for Dr. Robotnik and one for Tails and both drawn by Paul White; Test Drive, The Eggman story (his first strip in the series) is just some Hanna-Barbera Tom & Jerry shit when his impatience with a new Eggmobile goes wrong, it’s not unfunny though and does serve to remind readers that Eggman’s still based in the Egg Fortress in the Special Zone (remember that?). The Tails strip is a little meatier and furthers his development from a thick child to a competent freedom fighter, he does technically win by running away again but this time he’s proactively running away, if that makes sense: he lures the Badniks through obstacles like forests and caves, outsmarting and outmanoeuvring them, of course Sonic comes in, destroys the last Badnik and won’t believe Tails destroyed loads more, because Sonic’s a dick in STC. Also – THAT FUCKING BADNIK shows up again:

The real importance of this special, and the reason I’m writing about it here and not in the upcoming odds and sods post is because of the final strip, the first Knuckles the Echidna strip and his first STC appearance!  ‘Guardian of the Chaos Emeralds’ it’s called and it’s…well it’s necessary, let’s say that. It’s just the backstory from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 you’re told about but never shown in-game, Robotnik’s Space Station crashes on the Floating Island (as Angel Island was known in the west back then), Knuckles finds him and is instantly duped by him because Knuckles is a gullible twat in every universe. Another first here is that this is Kitching’s first work on Sonic as an artist, he has a strange, gruesome style – an angular mix of Mike Mignola and Big Daddy Roth, coloured in such a way that it looks like it’s all made out of sugar paper. For the horror strips, for things like Decap Attack or 2000AD back-up strips, it’s great but it’s awful for Sonic strips, Sonic is very round, very vibrant and Kitching’s art is very pointy and very washed out and dark, it’s just ill-fitting. 

So yeah, this special is pretty average, but the Knuckles strip is nice and the Dr Robotnik interview is fun. Anyway next up – Nigel Kitching makes up for it by adapting Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Elson’s on art again so everything is right with the world.

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