Wednesday 10 August 2016

A Look at Sonic the Comic 1-100 Part 18: Trapped in the Special Zone*

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 17

Welcome to a period of Sonic the Comic I’m not that fond of but was actually a big part of my childhood, the ‘Trapped in the Special Zone’ era (which technically began last part with Mister Shifter). I should love this era – The Chaotix, some of my favourite characters in the franchise, are in it the whole time (and to the writer’s credit, the Chaotix are always great in these stories), as much as I like StC Amy, Johnny and Tails they’re not The Chaotix. The truth is though, Kitching and Stringer will totally squander the potential of the location to satiate their desire to take the piss – but not right away – the first few arcs ‘The Tomb’ and ‘The Hive’ use the potential of the Special Zone fully and are great AND while their work on the Sonic strip (and Tails, but that’s beyond hope for a while) will be a complete let down their work on Knuckles and Sonic’s World will be some of the best they’ll ever do. Oh and issue 89 has the best cover the series had pre-reprints, nothing else Sonic is as Halloweeny or phallic as this:

The Tomb (Sonic strip, issues 89-90)
Quick Summary: Sonic gets in touch with the Freedom Fighters to bring them up to speed as he and the Chaotix take Super Sonic (in Omni-Viewer) to the Black Asteroid, a an abandoned gemstone mine where they’re going to leave Super Sonic and blow the only entrance. But Nack the Weasel is back, using his shrinking capsules, he shrinks the entire set of heroes down, crashing the Chaotix’ ship in the process because a tiny Vector cannot steer a Charmy-shaped ship, Nack has come to steal Super Sonic for Lord Sidewinder and traps the tiny Chaotix. Sonic, despite being his size, still manages to spin-attack with enough force and then uses Nack’s shrinking capsules against him, only for the sniper to shrink and shrink, appearing to shrink into nothing. Vector, who can work the capsules, restores them and they complete their mission, leaving Super Sonic behind and thus grinding the story to a complete fucking halt until issue 96.

Oh, hey another Shrinking Episode, though this one is… well it isn’t creative because shrinking episodes never are, but it’s a shite sight better than Small Change, mostly because the shrinking isn’t really the focus of the story, it’s just the weapon Nack uses, in fact it’s really not used as anything different to how Kitching uses any other weapon so it feels a lot less like a shrinking episode. it’s also atmospheric (I love that word) and featuring some fantastic art by Nigel Kitchen and some fantastic colours by Steve White, even if he can’t get anyone the right colour he makes everything look so 3D and pleasing to the eye. And he helps with making the Black Asteroid feel enclosed and the group really feel like they’re trapped somewhere deep and alone, in fact it’s that whole feeling – that this happening inside this empty rock where no one can help and they are utterly alone – that makes the story stand out I find.

The Good, The Bad and the Echidna (Knuckles strip, issues 87-90)     
From ripping off The Wicker Man to ripping off every western ever recorded, the excellent Kitching/Dobbin Knuckles run continues. Quick Summary: While crossing the Mobian Prairie on his way to the Metropolis Zone Knuckles is caught in a stampeding heard of Apterik, a stampede that nearly kills the animals’ owner Rooster. Rooster’s ally Chito the Rabbit is convinced Knuckles is the one responsible for several sabotage attempts during their Apterik drive and though Rooster is unsure, they take him to nearby Backwater Town where he’s put in an all steel cage by the deputy, filling in until the Sherriff comes back. The captive gets a visit from the deputy’s pa and mayor of Backwater – Boss Krouch, another Apterik owner and Rooster’s chief rival, Knuckles figures out he’s probably behind the sabotages and Rooster agrees. Chito, the real saboteur, is worried that when the Sherriff gets back Knuckles will be found innocent and he found guilty, so Krouch organises a lynching whereupon Knuckles is saved by the Sherriff. That Sherriff chucks out Krouch Jr and makes Knuckles temporary deputy while they clear his name, Rooster carries onto Metropolis Zone and Knuckles starts a bar fight apprehending Chito (it’s a western, you gotta have a bar fight) who, being a sneaky Mexican stereotype, tells Knuckles al he wants to know – Krouch has already left town, intending to finish of Rooster himself.  Knuckles cons a confession out of Boss Krouch by dressing as Chito (he has apparently seen Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog) and as the Sherrif deals with the Krouch mob, Knuckles deals with their boss, but he falls forma cliff with a vial of Apterik…pheromone I think…that drives them crazy, they stampede and kill him (my god).

TV Tropes like to say ‘tropes are not bad’ and this story proves it, everything from every western Kitching and Dobbyn grew up with must be in here and it’s pretty damn glorious because of it (well except Chito’s a bit racist really), I bet the pair of them had a bloody marvellous time doing this arc. Maybe it’s not so enjoyable if you haven’t been exposed to as many westerns as I have, my paternal grandfather is a Western obsessive and watches two or three a day (at least) and I usually spent two days a week in his house during my entire childhood – that’s a lot of cowboys – so I’m very familiar with the genre and it’s trapping but surely everyone can recognise things like deputizing the hero, bar fights, driving cattle, dodgy rich bastards, slimy Mexicans and such right? Even if it’s only on a subconscious level. I will again point out the bizarre choice of references re: the intended audience though, I doubt many 7 year olds have seen True Grit (except me, obviously, but most grandparents presumably aren’t massive cowboy nerds).

I do remember this being a lot slower paced though, hmm, maybe because it’s quite decompressed? It’s five parts, so two and a half months, which is an eternity to a nipper - but in reality it’s really busy, in fact I’d call it fast paced as fuck - with one western cliché after another gleefully thrown at the reader, I can’t decide if this is a negative or not, it feels fast paced but is it really too fast paced, or are we just all so accustomed to decompressed Brian Michael Bendis writing for the trade that it feels like it? I think another part wouldn’t have hurt things, so I’m leaning towards it actually being a little too fast paced but I’m still not sure.

With issue 89 Sonic’s World begins to have a regular focus - from now until issue 100 it will be focussing on what the Freedom Fighters are up to while Sonic’s in the Special Zone, pretty damn sensible really, and will be written by Lew Stringer almost exclusively. The first in this ‘new era’ for the strip is A New Hope (Sonic’s World Strip, issue 89), whereupon the Freedom Fighters are outnumbered and saved by Shortfuse the Cybernik, who agrees to join them, again pretty sensible – this time in and out of cannon: it gets both sets of characters in the strip and Shorty makes up for their loss of Sonic by being the team’s new powerhouse, but just because it seems sensible on paper Freedom Fighters, doesn’t mean it is in practice. The script’s kind of average but not really offensive, the art however is Carl Flint as his worst, everything I’ve already complained about is out in full and I want to punch puppies.

The Hive (Sonic strip, issues 91-92)
Quick Summary: Unable to sleep for worrying about how to return home, Sonic sees Charmy being ‘kidnapped’ by bees from The Hive, who have been ordered to bring him home to the Queen, a home that manufactures gold. Sonic agrees to speak on his behalf (against his better judgement) and finds out the problem is… Charmy hasn’t phoned home for months, yes the Queen is his mum and she’s not happy with her boy and she wants him back home to stay, thankfully Vesper and his wasps attack. The Wasp Marauders make the throne room, though Sonic beats up and thoroughly humiliates Vesper they’re outnumbered so Sonic convinces the queen to surrender, Charmy assures his mum they have a plan, they don’t – yet. But by the time they’ve got all the wasps in one place Sonic’s thought of one – he Megatoxes them – creating a vortex with his speed and blowing them out The Hive. Sonic uses the gratitude (and a law about the rewards for someone who saves The Hive) to allow Charmy to come home with him (against his better judgement)

I’ve read literally thousands of comics, I have no idea how many but 22,000 is a conservative estimate (no that isn’t a joke) and none of them remind me more of Christmas that this strip. I can read this in a heatwave in the middle of July and still feel like it’s dark by five pm, its cold and raining out, it’s only a few weeks to Christmas, I’m counting down the days until school ends and there’s the after taste of advent calendar chocolate still in my mouth. Some of this is Steve White and his cold colours but mostly it’s just because this was published in November/December but I really felt the need to share that. On another note, isn’t it odd how two different writers in two different countries both decided to make Charmy royalty? As far as I know this wasn’t a Sega thing, it was something that Kitching and Penders came up with independently of each other – maybe the fun in having annoying little Charmy Bee turn out to be important was just too good to ignore? 

The story itself is very enjoyable; Rob Corona is the perfect choice to draw the bees and wasps, he already draws everything shorter, squatter and rounder and that’s bees all over really isn’t it? I really like the Wasps too, Vesper is quite clearly based on Genghis Khan but that’s nothing to hold against him, I’d’ve liked to have seen his revenge on Sonic and Charmy, pity we won’t – the rest of the Special Zone issues before the Countdown to Doomsday arc are just going to be parody filler.

Secret Weapon (Sonic’s World strip, issues 90-91)
Shortfuse’s fist mission with the team is a go! Quick Summary: Johnny buys some information from a rat informant about a secret weapon being transported in the Gum Tree Zone, it’s a set up. They dispatch the Troopers but the secret weapon turns out to be another Cybernik, Vermin, whose Johnny’s snout and wants to be a super badnik, and he’s more than a match for Shorty AND the Freedom Fighters and he has a tail that inject computer viruses, taking Shorty out of the fight. Luckily Amy remembers the titular Gum Trees are corrosive to metal and shoots some, the battle is thus won but all they achieved was making Vermin temporarily flee for basic repairs. Tekno is able to flush the virus from her Cybernik buddy.

"Why are you here master, when you should be running a global empire?"
"Rule of cool my ratty subordinate, rule of cool"
I’m sorry for using a meme, I feel bad, I really do, but seriously the Gum Tree resolution comes out of nowhere, it’s like watching someone play with their action features “Vermin has a computer virus tail! And then, and then Amy shoots the trees which are made of acid and Vermin didn’t even know they were acid and he has to run away” and it ruins what was otherwise a really cool debut for the evil Cybernik. Vermin is fucking cool, he’s so cool he makes being shiny pink look threatening, he feels like such a big threat in this story – the Freedom Fighters don’t even really win so much as just put off the rest of the fight until later. I think what works about it, and doesn’t make Vermin look over-powered, is that his power-level feels correct – we know the Cyberniks are physically more powerful than the other Freedom Fighters (hell that’s why they wanted Shorty to join last issue) and Vermin is only able to defeat Shorty via having something specifically made by Robotnik to do so, without his virus tail the two were shown to be equal in power. Vermin should have become Cybernik’s long-term nemesis but sadly he’ll only be used once or twice more and that’ll be before issue 100 – I think StC-O brought him back, did they? Anyway Corona’s on art and Andy Prichett’s on colours and that’s a combination alone that makes this strip worth reading, but the gum tree thing bothers me and hopefully it’ll bother you.

Shanghaied (Captain Plunder strip, issues 91-93)
Replacing Knuckles being fantastic for a few issues is Captain Plunder being fantastic, and it’s a Kitching/Elson strip - yay! Quick Summary:  Having attached a Star Post to his ship (Filch’s idea) Captain Plunder is in New Tek City but waiting for his press gang to rustle up some new crew members, unforutantely al the get is one bloke and even more so it’s Proctor Speckle – alias Lord Sidewind’s own personal Mr Hyde – Mr Fry. After eating Plunder’s chocolate he walks the plank, but as sharks circle him in the water he works the stopper free from his potion and transforms, but not before a lot more potion than he intended goes into the water. Fry wrecks Plunder’s pirates but it turns out he’s happy to join Plunder and even cooks him some shark stakes, unfortunately the sharks who got some of the potion have transformed into awesome monster sharks. Fry takes on the Sharks but transforms back to Speckle mid-way through, leaving Plunder to finish them off (and fish Simpson the Cat out of their stomachs), Speckle is last seen leaving in Plunder’s last chest of rum truffles.

I really enjoy this arc, it’s pretty quick, pretty simple and really I think is just around to remind us that the Sidewinder gang still exist so the Sonic strip can dick about until Countdown to Doomsday but its so much fun! Captain Plunder, Simpson and Filch make such a great comedy threesome and Kitching has got ‘em playing off each other wonderfully by now. Elson makes those transformed sharks look so good; they are fucking toyetic as all get out – it’s a problem with StC, a good one I suppose but still a problem - so many characters only appeared once or twice (The Flock, Dr Zachary, Vermin, The Leaf) but they’re so cool looking and so memorable my mind builds them up to be bigger than they are – Metamorphia had more story arcs than Dr Zachary but Zachary is undoubtedly Knuckles’ StC nemesis in my eyes (and I think in many others too, yes?), when I think of how many times Stringer used Fabian fucking Vane rather when he could have used Vermin or that panther with the boxing gloves or any number of characters left around. I understand the ‘professional courtesy’ of not using other writer’s characters (meaning Stringer wouldn’t really have used Zachary or The Flock) but they still could have reused their own damn creations!

Anyway back to this strip, which is great and features one of the best gags in the series – Captain Plunder smashing a ‘Shark Repellent’ emergency window and it containing a giant mallet that he then uses to beat the bejeezus out of three giant mansharks. Gags are always better when they end up making the title character look fucking badass. So yes, this is another ‘buried gem’ for the series, file it next to Future Shock, Double Trouble and Zonerunner & The Big Freeze please.   

This really fucks with my layout but 
I wanted to show you all the sharks

Reading all these together it’s surprising how strong the first half of the Trapped in the Special Zone era was, it was very bitty – my format for these Look Ats might not make it seem that way but it is, lots of two parters, but by and large it was really quite good. That’s all over now! I was going to do the rest of the one-and-dones but I see there’s a bunch of story-arcs I may or may not have forgotten about as well, so I’m gonna end this part here and do them next time so…
Next Time: Dicking about before Doomsday!

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