Thursday, 4 August 2016

A Look At Sonic the Comic 1-100 Part 14: On the Run, Out of Order*

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 13

The publishing order of these few issues (#73-75) is all to cock. ‘The Big Decision’ is clearly supposed to take place straight after The Return of Chaotix, and that has to take place straight before the Knuckles Knock-Out Special which has to take place before Ghost Ship, yet it’s published during Ghost Ship, four issues after Return finished, also Tails is in it so it can’t take place during Fox on the Run, as such I’m doing this in reading order rather than publication order.

First up is The New Master Emerald (Knuckles strip, issue 73), it’s really just a scene bridging Graveyard to The Ghost Ship (or I suppose, Graveyard to the Knuckles Knock-Out Special) and is another entry in Kitching and Dobbyn’s near flawless Knuckles run. It’s a good scene – Knuckles is draining the Guardian Robot’s head of its energy, it wakes up and starts firing its lazer, Knuckles dodges it until its energy reserves run too dry to use the weapon, but when it appears the energy drain will kill it, Knuckles stop the transfer. The drain has also removed Zachary’s programming and the Robot (which can talk now that’s all gone) is quite personable, the two make friends.    

The Big Decision (Sonic strip, issue 76) / Traitor of the Lost Pyramid (Knuckles Knock-Out Special)
A one-shot story that continues straight into the lead strip from the Knuckles Knock-out Special, which was, predictably, a special just for Knuckles, who was becoming more and more popular just as he was in America (fun fact: the Knuckles Knock-Out Special was published in Summer 1996, the exact same time as Sonic’s Friendly Nemesis Knuckles, his first solo series from Archie). Quick Summary:  Porker Lewis is quitting the Freedom Fighters; his time on the Miracle Planet with the Brotherhood of Metallix has done for him, Sonic is furious, insults him and then storms out when Amy defends the pig. The Chaotix then leave him too, having got word of Nack the Weasel breaking out of jail, seems he’d heading of the Floating Island so they are too. Sonic is blind-sided by Troopers, and the battle is affecting his vision, Porker saves him using SCIENCE and then Tails flies him to the Floating Island too, but not before Sonic has apologised (The Big Decision).  The CHaotix arrive in the Sandopolis Zone while Knuckles is just randomly posing on a hilltop, they rush to the Sandopolis Zone to find the pyramid raised again, after encountering he ghosts and escaping them via light they meet Nack, who’s body is apparently being inhabited by that bloke from the Tom & Jerry Movie, the snooty superior Nack brags about how he got in through the Floating Island’s forcefield and where all the sand and treasure went, he shrunk it, this’ll be his thing from now on. He then releases another Stone Guardian and runs for it, leaving his shrinking ray behind, Knuckles uses that shrinking ray to shrink the guardian and then shrink his ship, blowing it up (Traitor of the Lost Pyramid).   

The Big Decision is a very powerful little story, you can understand both sides of the argument, Porker can’t do it anymore (and might be a liability) and Sonic feels that fighting for Mobius’ freedom isn’t something you can or should just quit, Sonic acts like a dick but you can still understand his point, and that makes it well written, take heed writers of strawmen. Traitor of the Lost Pyramids is a piece of shit; it’s a rotten story in a special full of them, made worse by the artist – something White, I can’t even remember his name, he’s just…shit, characters change size per panel, he clearly swipes at least two images (both from Elson), his perspective is crap, his layouts are confusing and he can’t draw anything dramatically or excitingly and he’s drawing the whole special! And Nack, Nack is so out of character, acting like this aloof Captain Planet villain rather than his sneaky self, I’m guessing Kitching was still exploring the character but it was an exploration that just should have been left in the planning stages instead Nack gets Creature from The Black Lagooned – my metaphor may have gotten away with me there, or I’m just really tired and hot (it’s really late and really hot here)

The Knuckles Knock-Out Special has two more strips – both by Kitching and drawn by that Mike White bloke. Jake’s Story is actually ok, and the art is slightly better than Traitor of the Lost Pyramid; it seems like an Eggrobo, who’s barely ‘alive’, kidnaps a little boy (Jake) for his Organic Battery and is then destroyed in the Larva Reef Zone with the kid still in it, luckily he just hid in his wardrobe and it was an empty Eggrobo that burned, it’s the best story in the special. Reflections is boring and average, there’s an evil Knuckles from a magic mirror (it’s really an evil spirit in Knuckles’ form after he looked in it), Knuckles tricks it back into the mirror then smashes it, which would probably release the evil spirit again but doesn’t because it’s Nigel Kitching’s story and he makes the rules dammit – nothing special and pretty much the same as the Extra Life’s story which was better drawn. Most of the rest of the special is crappy too, there’s a nice little feature on the badniks from Knuckles Chaotix as well as a guide to the Zones but the rest is garbage, especially the jokes page (yes, a joke’s page, because Knuckles is such a wacky joker like that…).

Ugh, Spinball Wizard is next – Spinball Wizard (Sonic strip, issue 73) is, I think, Mark Millar’s last work on a Sonic’s world strip – thank fuck – and he goes out with a bang, by writing a dire piece of crap as only he can. Everything he did that sucked in the early StC issues is included: Sonic and Tails are back to their pre-Nigel Kitchen personalities -Tails is dumb and motivated by petty, childish silliness (in this he gets captured because he wants some fan mail like Sonic), Sonic (and everyone else) is a horrible, insulting bastard;  even though Tails does technically save the day, life itself seems to hate him even more than it hates Charlie Brown; stuff just happens for no reason better than ‘cos it does’ (Tails’ ropes just become loose, Sonic & Tails survive an explosion just because…) and weird elements and even weirder dialogue (Sonic: go, go, go! – while….just running). He’s even been paired with an amateurish artist who seems to colour via a pound shop paint set, actually the artist – a Keith Page – isn’t terrible, he’s a bit like Mike Hadley, but he IS amateurish, especially next to other artists like Nigel Dobyn (or even Carl fucking Flint). Anyway Tails is in this strip so I’m saying it takes place before Fox on the Run (which debuted the same issue) except it seems pretty obvious it’s an inventory story…except it clearly has elements from after the Sonic CD and Sonic 3 adaptations (like Bob Beaky’s Travelling Circus), *shrugs* maybe the artist drew it later – or Millar really didn’t improve this whole time (both are equally likely).

Anyway before we get to Fox on the Run, I wanna do the summer special for 1996, because I loves it and because I feel its main story fits nicest here, chronologically speaking.

Break-Out! (Sonic Holiday Special 1996)
Quick Summary: Sonic & Tails are breaking out the last of the Emerald Hill Folk from the Metropolis Zone, just as they’re ready to leave for the Floating Island Robotnik turns up in an Egg Spider being awesome. Sonic gets overconfident while battling the new machine, slowing down enough for him to be grabbed by it, as he’s about to die Sonic gets Eggman to tell him how he found him after weeks of successfully evading the overlord, but we cut away to a worried Tails and Emerald Hill folk. ‘Buttnik then throws Sonic into a wall, clearly attempting to kill him (even saying ‘Die’) because StC Eggman is fucking hardcore – but he’s out of luck, because Super Sonic is here. The Chaos Demon demolishes the Egg Spider and then, with Eggman having skidded out of sight, flies straight into one of the Emerald Hill Folk, leaving nothing but a smoking crater. Tails is distraught but Sonic (no longer Super) isn’t worried at all once he finds out it was the pig he killed – that doesn’t improve Tails mood – but it turns out the pig was a badnik, a spy set to find out where the Emerald Hill Folk are all fucking off to, Eggman told Sonic before he threw him into a building and Super Sonic retained the memory (as he often does).

I remember reading this – it was in our touring caravan at Devon Cliff’s holiday park (where I bought and read, and read, and read all of these Sonic Summer Specials) and I was utterly shocked and utterly enthralled the whole way through, even now I know the plot twists and the pig fake out it’s still a hectic and powerful little two-parter. Kitching was really getting good and really getting ballsy at using Super Sonic and lord knows why but the editors let him, this is a summer special! Kids read this on the beach! And what does Kitching do? He turns in this dark tale with two fake-outs, one about Sonic’s death and one about Sonic killing, with Nigel Dobyn complimenting it with a dramatic, foreboding urban setting that just makes everything seem bleaker and somehow more shocking. The pair turns in the most badass – and frightening – Super Sonic rampage yet, check this panel out:

How cool – and yet slightly unnerving – is that panel? StC Super Sonic is best Sonic.
I do have one complaint though – Steve White’s on colours, and he colours Sonic’s arms blue the whole time, it’s a silly mistake that someone should have caught but when the only downside to your story’s a colouring error you’re not doing too bad are ya? I put this here because following Spinbal Wizard, Tails will be off in Fox on the Run (and noticeably missing from adventures for a few issues) and no more strips will feature the Freedom Fighters breaking out Emerald Hill Folk, thus I figure they must have already finished the task – which Kitching also gets some praise for, not dragging that out indefinitely for easy motivation for an adventure, it makes the Freedom Fighters look very competent while makes him look like a bolder writer. 

The back-ups for the final (*sob*) summer special are complete opposites. On the one hand you have the same fucking ‘Robotnik dresses up as something clearly Eggman shaped and fools the Freedom Fighters’ plot that has been used in EVERY SINGLE FUCKING SUMMER SPECIAL with Movie Madness – this time it’s Tails who sees through everything and Eggman is dressed as a terrible Steven Spielberg parody called Stephen Squealbird (yes, really) – it’s a piss-poor script by Lew Stringer and even Mike Hadley’s art is off – he’s nowhere near as good as he usually is and using a different colouring style, he doesn’t even bring any of his trademark creepiness, boo hiss. The complete opposite is Sonic Vs Shorfuse which is by the exact same team and yet is great (well one line aside, Amy actually says, without irony “look it’s our old friend Shortfuse the Cybernik”). It’s just a straight-up fight between Shortfuse and Sonic (fans had been keen to see it), Shorty gets a Control Disc put on him and they fight until Tekno smashes it, thus leaving neither Shorty nor Sonic the winner and not annoying any fans (or licensees named Sega), a bit of a cop out but executed in a way that made it at least seem fair to both characters. Hadley is one fine form, throwing creepy shit in for no good reason, though he seems to have issues with how big Shortfuse should be. It’s also pretty damn important in a pretty accidental way as it’s the first time Amy meets Tekno (albeit briefly).

The rest of the special is fantastic by the way; Richard Elson turns in a how-to-draw feature that’s completely useless in telling people how to draw Sonic but is told as a silent strip starring Robotnik and Carl fucking Flint draws info pages on the Freedom Fighters and a guide to Shortfuse’s armour so good I’m gonna post it here:

Fox on the Run (Tails strip, issues 73-76)
Up until now all of Tails strips have been based around two concepts – ‘The Nameless Zone vs the Land Beyond’ and ‘The Chemical Plant under Nutzan Bolt’, giving Tails his own little worlds and some major threats, this ends with Fox on the Run, while this story is fine, it’s not a change for the better – Tails’ new concept is ‘Dicking about in some Zone fighting someone trivial’ and it’s Lew Stringer’s doing, though as I understand it not totally his fault – apparently there was an editorial mandate to get more humour in the comic (as British comics are often focussed on humour strips, especially so in the 1990s) and Stringer got this task, and I guess he decided to use the Tails strips for it. Giving Stringer – a former humour strip writer – the job makes sense, choosing Tails… not so much, especially as all his stories so far had been pretty much the same tone as the Sonic strip. As such from now on I have a pretty low opinion of Tails strips, this is his last ‘epic’ and now mostly it’ll be one-to-two part stories that are largely unimportant to everything and seem to exist solely to fill space in the book and add some apparently needed humour, it wasn’t needed, and Tails didn’t need to be turned into throwaway crap.
Anyway Fox on the Run. Quick Summary: While just in the Spring Flower Zone (expect to see that set-up a lot) Tails saves a mouse called Tantrum, who lives up to his name by going off on one at the drop of a hat. Just after offering to take him home to the Metropolis Zone they are confronted by Fleabyte, a bounty hunter, and chased into the underground world below the zone. The two progress through the caverns while Fleabyte tracks them from above, Tails having to save Tantrum from a Crawlton and two Grabbers (who want to eat them, the fuck?), pressing to him to attack rather than run or rely on luck (at last). The two escape only to be caught by Fleabyte, who ties them up and drags them towards the Metropolis Zone. of course Fleabyte, who’s a bit stupid, doesn’t know Tails can fly so tails takes him for a spin, he shoots the rope, lands on his feet (he’s a cat) and takes Tantrum hostage. Tails convinces Tantrum to have a noisy tantrum and knock some loose rocks onto the cat, and is returned home safety.

I actually quite like Fox on the Run, seeing Tails being pro-active throughout is a lovely change and also feels like a natural place for him to be in after the Kitching and Eyles stories (though I don’t know if Stringer knowingly took that into account) and even if it wasn’t, having Tantrum depend on him is a good reason to push him into always being proactive, this story develops Tails into ‘pretty competent freedom fighter’ (presumably because it’s easier to write but it has the added benefit of being less repetitive and frustrating) and he’ll stay that way for the rest of the series. Tantrum isn’t nearly as annoying as he could be, and actually feels quite like a real (obnoxious) child – he changes his mind every minute, gives up, has a tantrum, insults Tails then expects him to save him and actually has a little character arc as Tails teaches him, mostly by example, to behave a bit better – needing him to be prompted to have a tantrum at the climax. I really like Fleabyte’s design too, a scruffy, cyborg, bargain basement Clint Eastwood, he is a bit needlessly dumb at times (he actually says ‘duh’ more than once) but feels threatening, even if he’s nothing more than a pretty low-rent bounty hunter. Ian Flynn’s Nack the Weasel is a far better stupid but fearsome bounty hunter, but Fleabyte’s good also – it’s also nice to see a Mobian who believes in Dr Robotnik’s propaganda again, there’s not enough of that in the series.

Stringer’s script is pretty decent too, his dialogue’s good (the odd panel aside) and his plot’s fine – except the robots who want to eat someone – Badniks don’t eat (they run on organic batteries) and that’s just weird. Even Carl FUCKING Flint isn’t so bad, he’s not doing the photocopy backgrounds yet and the underground scenes actually force him to draw some backgrounds and add some depth and he’s even kept the random hand gestures under control! I still hate his style of art but it’s not atrocious and the colourist (John M Burns) does a good job of making everywhere look barren ( and rock or sandy) and giving some more of that  much needed depth to Flint’s work

This part’s getting really long and I don’t feel like I’ve talked about hardly anything! Probably because I was bloody moaning so much, I always write more when I’m bitching. Soooo….I’ll wrap this up with the other two Sonic strips before ‘The Big Decision’ and we can start fresh with Ghost Ship next time after all this fannying about out of order.  Mission to the Metropolis Zone (Sonic strip, issue 74) is really only noteworthy because it teams up Roberta Corona and Steve White

for (I think) the first time, White’s shiny colouring and Corona’s dumpier art work really well together and make the comic look very much like a Mega Drive game I always think – Johnny and Sonic pretend to get captured so Amy can use them as a distraction and do some sabotage, I will admit that it tricked me so well played Mr Stringer, and there’s some good jokes too, the panel where Sonic turns to the camera and explains his plan though? That’s crap, that insults my intelligence, that insults the intelligence of the target audience, it’s obvious and it’s totally out of place. Smokey and the Badnik (Sonic strip, issue 75) however is wonderful. It’s about a little boy called Smokey (I have no idea what animal he’s supposed to be, a Bear?) who has befriended an old Roller badnik who hides in an abandoned leisure centre in Metropolis City (what we’re now calling the city in the Metropolis Zone, something I fully approve of, as the city is clearly visible in the Metropolis Zone you play, but is clearly not the area you’re in, making the Metropolis Zone more than just a city). Smokey is visiting his friend and runs into Sonic, and Sonic is forced to decide between trusting the child that the Badnik is a Nicenik, or smashing it, the last page leaving you unsure what choice he’s made until the very end. Other than some off screen teleportation from a Trooper platoon (seriously, how did they make no noise in an empty swimming pool? - they’re metal, wear huge stompy boots and are walking on wood and tiles) it’s superb, and it’s a Kitching/Elson team-up too so the art and dialogue are both great (there’s actually more action than you might think) – highly recommended.

Yeah I’ll cut it off here, oh before I do though, issue 75 features a great April fool’s joke about Sonic’s new ally Chickles:

Let Chickles live in your hearts forevermore  

Next time – Knuckles gets shanghaied onto the Ghost Ship, Tails and Sonic have a bunch of stand-alone stories to kill some time before Running Wild and the Brutus Trilogy concludes. 

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