Monday, 8 August 2016

A Long Look at Sonic the Comic 1-100 Part 16: Heroes & Villains*

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. 

< Part 15

Once again the Sonic stories are all out of order, though this is the end of it and it’s actually quite understandable this time. See Running Wild takes the comic into its next era, the Trapped in the Special Zone Era, for around a year of our childhoods Sonic (and thus the Sonic strip) was stuck in the Special Zone with the Chaotix; it’s not my favourite era for reasons I will happily tell you about when we get to the appropriate point. Thus at the end of Heroes & Villains (issue 86) Sonic gets stuck in the Special Zone, but the readers couldn’t know this – and sometimes I doubt if the editors or Lew Stringer knew, but I presume they must – so while Running Wild and Heroes & Villains was running (pun intended?) in Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic’s World  strips continued to tell stories starring Sonic set on Mobius, with no real way to fit them in between the two aforementioned strips and it being impossible for them to happen after (because Sonic’s blue ass is in the Special Zone) they must happen before. They also dumped a filler story – Bubble Trouble – in between Running Wild and Heroes & Villains for, I presume, practical reasons. But as all the offending stories are covered in the issues we’re looking at in this part (#s 80-87, roughly), I can review them for you in rough chronological order, rather than publication order (for the third time) – yay me.

Bubble Trouble (Sonic strip, issue 83) is a nice enough little story, I personally really enjoy it when a writer uses an

element from the games to build a story around, usually that’s Kitching’s forte but this time Stringer has a go. Grimer builds a trap disguised as an air pocket from the Mega Drive games, it traps Sonic in a plastic bubble that shrinks the more air he uses, suffocating him in the end, unable to burst it Sonic has to think his way out in the one element he’s out of his element in – water. Even Stringer’s telling while showing issues are excusable for most of the story as Sonic talking to himself while he’s in trouble feels pretty in-character for him. Rob Corona does the art as well, and it’s set in the Labyrinth Zone (though I’m pretty sure Corona drew the Aquatic Ruin Zone, and regardless Spikers aren’t in either) so it’s fine, except that it was stuck between two Kitching stories that made up his next epic, so reading it in order or more so having to wait a fortnight to find out what happened only to get this filler works against the poor little strip, I’ve still not forgiven it for not being Heroes & Villains Part 1, but nowadays that’s mostly moot. New Image (Sonic’s World strip, issue 84) disserves any and every kicking it’s ever gotten though (and I hope it’s gotten some or that sentence will sound really silly) – not only is it incredibly jarring to have something like Heroes & Villains going on and it being backed up by a story about a killer anorak but…it’s a story about a killer anorak! A fucking anorak! That’s not threatening, nor is it amusing, it’s just…a killer coat. Basically Sneaky & Snooty, two agents of Robtonik who are a pot-shot at those horrible make-over TV shows, force Sonic to wear their anorak by holding Amy hostage (she escapes) but it hampers him. It’s just…pathetic. Steve White’s colours are not pathetic at all, anoraks and flamginos being the perfect things for him to colour, he saves Carl fucking Flint’s weird art again. Also this was published the same issue as a Tails story also dealing with how dumb fashion is by the same writer – I think these may have been inspired by real life, don’t you?

Due to Mystery Villain being mentioned in Future Shock; it seems that the Tails stories pre-issue 86 also take place before that story, and thus Running Wild. Mystery Villain (Tails strip, issue 83) is pretty important to the overall narrative of the comic but it’s not the best story, Tails is attacked in the Grim Zone by a powerful badnik who wants revenge, but Tails had
never met it before, it turns out to contain Metamorphia, depowered and disheartened with Robtonik, she then goes through one last change into a pretty little bear (so she was always a bear? She looked like a cat to me) because typical feminine beauty is the ultimate goal of all women (sorry, got a bit Tumblr there, it’s just because I found Metamorphia attractive before the change is all). Steve White colours Metamorphia completely wrong and Stringer turns in some terrible dialogue – ‘I HATE Robtonik now’ ‘Wha-? I’m changing!’ - it’s a bit painful and a sad end to a cool character that was frankly mistreated by her creator half the time and turned into a bit of a joke in the process, still we’ll always have Cybernik Strikes Back Metamorphia sweetie. Also the unfortunate implications that Metamorphia suddenly turns good once she’s pretty is just…well… what is nice though is that Mike Hadley, who drew her debut, draws her finale, very fitting, and his creepiness is always welcome. Sneaker Seeker (Tails Strip, issue 84) is complete throwaway garbage and makes Tails look like a shallow idiot and Grimer look like Dick Dastardy; he tricks Tails into wearing some killer trainers and everyone goes ga-ga for them, thinking Tails is so cool because of his fucking shoes, then thinking he’s a dork when he changes back, because shoes are that fucking important (I wonder if it wasn’t written around the time there was a little media uproar about how kids were doing bad stuff for posh sneakers, I think that may a have been a little later though). It’s the sort of shit I expect from Mark Millar and should be skipped completely.

Trooper Trouble (Tails strip, issues 85-86)
Quick Summary: Clive the Donkey, local buttmonkey for the Wood Village Zone, is dressing up as a trooper and terrorising his tormentors, taking extra taxes etc, a parody of George & Mildred1, because of course all children in 1995 know who fucking George and Mildred are, calls Tails in, Tails uncovers Clive’s ruse but they get caught by real Troopers. Luckily Clive’s technical know-how, which got him bullied in the first place, allows them to break free and wreck the Trooper’s transport they were being carried to Robtonik in, so the village all think he’s keen now.

Not a terrible plot, a throwaway plot but not a terrible one – it’s the execution that’s not too good, Carl Fucking Flint turns in a truly boring set of pages, going for silly when he should be going for dramatic and giving us some weird ass Mobians and Stringer fails at dialogue fairly regularly – and then has the cheek to criticize the Troopers for always having corny dialogue!  Anyway let’s move onto something far better from Stringer:

Fuck you, donkey!
Future Shock (Sonic’s World strip, issues 86-88)
Quick Summary: Sonic and the Freedom Fighters interrupt at a Buzzbomber attack, while smashing them Sonic gets himself stuck in a swamp only to be rescued by…Sonic the Hedgehog, from 50 years in the future! Yeah, yeah we’ve been here before, it’s written by Lew Stringer too, so it’s probably Metamorphia – except she was depowered, on screen no less – and Sonic has clearly learned from having gone through this plot a 100 times, and takes his newest doppelganger to a doctor loyal to the resistance but he only confirms that the future Sonic is telling the truth – he IS Sonic the Hedgehog.  Future Sonic says that he underestimated a drill badnik in his past (the future) and got everyone killed, Sonic still won’t believe him, but the Freedom Fighters agree to follow him to the factory building the drill, it’s a trap, and Robotnik is waiting for him. Future Sonic says he’s doing it to prevent his future, Eggman laughs at him. Turns out he IS a clone, a crap one, he aged at an accelerated rate (and still is) so Eggman improvised and implanted false memories in him, Future Sonic takes it well – he smashes the place up and goes and gets Sonic, the two of them rescuing  the Freedom Fighters, smashing Eggman’s latest battlecraft just for good measure. Future Sonic then DIES, apologetic and redeemed, turning into pure energy.

*Lip quivers* what a sad story. This is another hidden gem in Sonic the Comic, Stringer takes a plot we’ve all seen over and over, and one that this comic has used at least five times, and surprises the readers with it, using one plot twist after another to turn what could have been another boring imposter and making him to a tragic figure who was, despite it all, doing the right thing, rather than laughing and twirling his moustache behind the duped freedom fighters backs like all the other importers. He genuinely believed working with Robotnik was the only way to save the people he cared about and that came across completely. He also genuinely died, holy shit, this comic is aimed at six year olds, since when was Lew Stringer that ballsy? Well done sir. Rob Corona’s art is lovely for this too, complimented nicely by Andy Pritchett’s painted colours.

To stop gushing I’ll move onto a piece of trivia, Part 3’s fourth page was erroneously printed in issue 88, a mistake had it running with another page’s text, it was corrected in a small image in the letters page but that wasn’t much use really was it?. When the story was reprinted later on, they printed the page with the correct text (any scan you’ll find will have the corrected page from that reprint), possibly the only useful thing about the reprint era of the comic.

Running Wild (Sonic strip, issues 80-82)
At last. Quick-ish Summary: Sonic is visiting Porker Lewis in the Emerald Chamber, having a nice chat, Porker says he misses everyone, especially Amy, but Amy is driving Sonic up the wall this week; then Sonic is surprised by the Guardian Robot and falls into the well below The Floating Island’s Chaos Emeralds – which, remember, are twice as powerful as regular Chaos Emeralds – and Mater Emerald – which remember can keep a continent afloat. Porker shits himself though the Guardian robot can’t quite understand the problem, but by now we can – Super Sonic has returned, and he needs something to destroy, and the last thing on his mind was Amy Rose. Back on Mobius Johnny is just too late relaying Porker’s message – the Chaos Demon has arrived to kill Amy (for a cliffhanger). Super Sonic is more powerful than ever, destroying whatever scenery he’s not chewing as he mocks Johnny, Amy and Tails’ desperate attempts to avoid him, in doing so they cause him to destroy their caravan and Bob Beaky’s Travelling Circus with it. SS shrugs off a rocky outcropping collapsing on him but it seems the Freedom Fighters have used the time to get away in the Tornado, until Sonic shoots it down, seemingly ending his friends life. Laughing manically he becomes Sonic again and the gravity of the situation sinks in. Weeks later Sonic is on the run, at a dive bar some local thugs make the mistake of being threatening so Super Sonic wrecks the place but The Freedom Fighters are here with a plan – huh? – yeah Amy used the Kintobor Computer to auto-pilot the bi-plane, now they have a new plan – they hook Kintobot up to their Star Post and he uses it to drain off Super Sonic’s energy – it’ s a tight call and it looks as though the Chaos Demon might break free but ultimately Sonic returns to normal – but there’s a catch, going by his readings it seems that the Star Post didn’t send all that spare Chaos Energy to the Special Zone, it sent Super Sonic, as an entity.

While I think I may have overhyped this a little, even to myself, GOD DAMN THAT WAS AWESOME. One thing I did forget, and I kind of see it as a flaw with the story – is how damn chatty Super Sonic is, he never shuts up, and he is fucking hammy with it. Now Super Sonic has always been about shouting threats of murder of mayhem so it’s not out of character, or even wildly different from previous Super Sonic stories, in fact SS is a little more articulate this time around, which makes him seem less of a rage monster but also more of a character unto himself – handy as that’s what he’ll be until the last story in the series – but it does distract a little from the wholesale carnage of part 2 and some of it is really a little cheesy – having him say ‘I have returned’ and ‘what? Energy, pulling me back?’ (paraphrases) is a bit more Thundarr the Barbarian than I’d like.

That’s my only complaint though; the art is the pinnacle of Richard Elson’s work on the series and more so his colouring on the series, it’s something that doesn’t get brought up enough but Elson was a damn good colourist, he often coloured his own work and for a long time did this by hand (his switch to digital colouring was, well…pathetic at first but he got better) and this is just him at his best, with each panel being excellently lit and appropriately hued. We also get I think the only instance of him drawing Guardian Robots until the Sonic Adventure arc, just for trivia fans. The story is also plotted perfectly – one part to build up Super Sonic (including him casually destroying a whole Trooper vehicle); one part to show him off and one part to defeat him – with a good fake out. Beyond that, on the writing side, while Super Sonic’s loquaciousness (thanks Con Air!) did distract Kitching and the editors need a shitload of praise for being so open about death, SS uses variants of ‘kill’ ‘death’ and ‘die’ in most of his speech balloons, and then there’s Kitching’s handling of Amy.

The pretty well known (in the Sonic fandom) behind-the-scenes story for StC is that Co-Editor-in-Chief  pushed for Amy to be more ‘girl power’, to be a positive role model for female readers to the point of being flawless, while Kitching and Stringer always planned to make her more competent Kitching bucked against what he saw as a kind of reverse-sexism and just didn’t use Amy very often (so it always seems like a treat to me when she turns up in a Kitching script2J). Reading this is order I can see the clear progression of Amy becoming more and more useful and skilful, though there’re strips that smell of existing solely to show off how she’s as good as the boys, if not better (Badnik Bridge, Snow Business, Plasma…) the lads have been pretty slow about it, building up her new place as female badass, and this is the end of that build, with this story, frankly, Amy becomes as good a leader and as good a character as Sonic – and despite editorial meddling it feels really natural. Throughout Parts 2 and 3 Amy is leading the Freedom Fighters in Sonic’s absence and it’s totally out of necessity and completely understated, Amy reacts to the threat and orders the others around because Sonic isn’t here to do it, at no point does she say ‘I must take charge’ or does Tails or Johnny say ‘wow, you’re actually a really great leader Amy’, Kitching just has her doing it because it needs to be done and actually being good at it, in part 3 she’s heading the team and running the show. If Tate had a problem with how Amy was being handled after this she is just unpleasable and thinks children – especially female children it seems – are thick as shit3.      

Heroes & Villains (Sonic strip, issues 84-86)
Quick Summary: Sonic arrives in the Special Zone via Omni-Viewer to tell the Chaotix Crew about Super Sonic being loose in their zone, they’re not that bothered, they’re The Chaotix bitches, they can deal with it. Anyway there’s trouble on Planet Meridian – yeah, turns out there’s a lot more to the Special Zone than the weirdness of the games’ Bonus Stages, there’s planets and everything – on Planet Parody Meridian superheroes and supervillains are having a fight, after some Superhero tropes and clichés the cops arrive and Sonic is nicked (why doesn’t he run away? take the gun apart? Eh he’s a pretty law abiding guy when he’s not being a terrorist so I’ll buy it). Sonic is bailed out from Lieutenant Furor’s custody by Lord Sidewinder, a local ‘legitimate businessman’ with a gang of three supervillains – Lightmare (who makes nightmares real), Mr Fry (Jekyll & Hyde) and Bio-Hazard (a robot full of pollutants) – and he’s working with Super Sonic. Super Sonic blows up Sidewinder’s mansion in a moment of genuinely well timed comedy and then sets about bashing fuck out of everyone; as long as Sonic is around there’s a chance SS will become part of him again and the Chaos Demon won’t have that, the Chaotix arrive, having tracked police scanners, but get wrapped up in a battle with their old enemies (Sidewinder & Co) leaving Sonic to figure out how to defeat his worser half. He tricks him into Omni-Viewer and wants Omni to send Super Sonic far away, but Omni says no, wherever he goes Super Sonic will kill and destroy, so instead stops time within himself, freezing Super Sonic but also becoming frozen too, trapping Super Sonic and trapping Sonic in the Special Zone. A week later Charmy notices that Super Sonic has moved slightly...

Right, despite the moaning I will do, I do genuinely like the Special Zone cast – Sidewinder’s gang are awesome, Elson gives them unique and memorable designs despite their fairly simple concepts and Kitching always writes them as legitimate threats, even when they’re appearing in one-and-done strips or comedy stuff like Captain Plunder and we’ll see that Lightmare and Fry actually have more to them than just being super-henchmen. And I LOVE the Chaotix, I always latch on to b-listers but I think in this case it’s because they’re always entertaining – either in their roles of comedy relief that they don’t know they’re being like here or SegaSonic or as legitimate heroes in Archie – and frankly they all have cool looks and cool powers (well except Vector), my favourite’s always been Mighty, either as ‘The Raphael’ here or as the nice guy in Archie he’s just a sort of character I like, and his design is great, this abstracted armadillo-Sonic in black and red, lovely. I even like Lieutenant Furor – a dog version Nick Fury as a hard boiled cop.    

With that out the way this is an alright story, I have a lot of nostalgia for it but reading it ‘unbiased’ it’s still good – the whole superhero critique thing is silly, it takes two pages to say ‘hurr, superheroes fight for no reason, that’s dumb, our characters fight for a good reason’ as well as not being true (well, a lot of the time), Sonic & The Freedom Fighters will become pretty much all-purpose superheroes post issue-100, so it’s silly and hypocritical (although they didn’t know it was hypocritical yet I guess). Buuuut it doesn’t really slow the story down, the fight is what gets Sonic arrested which is what gets him into Sidewinder’s clutches which is what gets him to battle Super Sonic, but it is plotting part of a story around mocking something in an ill-informed way and that’s crap. To make that worse, Elson gives us some really cool designs for the Justice Brigade and the Discriminators:  

I want action figures of all of those. Maybe you shouldn’t make your characters so cool looking if you want to use them to illustrate how dumb those sort of characters are, y’know like what Mark Millar does, it kind of undermines your point. However thanks to a comment on Part 15 from Nigel Kiching himself (about the Fundamental Four) a lot of the critique of superheroes may be my reading and not intended, oops, Sorry Nige. I would also have liked a little bit more of a battle between Sonic and Super Sonic, it’s not bad, and Super Sonic looks awesome marching through the Sidewinder gang but a) we don’t know them well enough to see how powerful this makes him and b) I want to see Sonic fight his evil self, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. So overall – it’s pretty good.  

I waffled on a lot about those last two stories, so I’ll end things here and do the Knuckles strips next time.
Next Time: Sonic dicks about on Planet Meridian a lot, Knuckles takes the long way home, Shortfuse hooks up with the Freedom Fighters and Amy hooks up with Tekno. Ignore all that shit, next time I write about all the stuff I forgot to write about this section and the one before.

1 George & Mildred Roper were supporting characters in the 1970s sit-com Man About the House, who then got their own show George & Mildred – which was pretty much just Keeping Up Appearances before Keeping up Appearances, Mildred was a horrible social climber, George was a nice but lazy unemployable. Their sitcom was pretty lame, but occasionally funny, Man About the House was better. Oh, they had a cool motorbike and sidecar.
2 Although I don’t know exactly when Kitching said “fuck it, let Lew use her then, he’ll do what you want Debs”, I would suggest it’s around this time, as Sonic’s moving into the Special Zone thus she won’t appear at all in the Sonic strips and post-issue 100 Lew will handle pretty much all her appearances.
3 this is hypothetical, I don’t know when/if Tate eased off on the whole ‘maek Amy Grrl Powah!’ thing and she might be lovely and might have been really chuffed with Amy in this story.

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