(Note: This post contains spoilers for the last six months worth of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe issues.)
It’s been more than a year since the effects of lawsuit by former Sonic the Hedgehog writer Ken Penders first made their presence felt upon the Archie book, and just as much time since I’ve been able to unreservedly enjoy the book. After current scribe Ian Flynn was forced to jettison all his predecessor’s characters (*1) it seemed that the book could only move forward by either ignoring huge swaths of its universe and continuity, or by hitting the cosmic reset button in order to create a universe where those characters didn’t exist. Either way, the story I’ve enjoyed in one way or another for more than a decade would end.
We have crossed that bridge, and then another. Archie chose alternative number two, and for the last six months, we’ve been dealing a brand-new Archie!Sonic-verse, one considerably more influenced by the videogames than the one seen in the previous three hundred issues. We also have our first two complete arcs, designed to serve as an introduction to our new setting, a reintroduction to our core cast of characters, and as an implicit argument for the idea that what has been gained is of equal or greater value to what has been lost.
Mission not accomplished, so far.
So far, we’ve gotten a pretty clear inkling of what this new universe is not—namely, the one from issues #1 – #250. There’s no real way it could have been, given how many characters and story points created or developed by Penders. had been interwoven throughout. Knowing what this universe is, however, has proven harder. We know that Bunny D’Coolete is the half-robot wife of Antoine D’Coolete, but we don’t know how either of those things came to be. We know that Eggman has an army and some dealings with King Acorn, but we don’t know the extent of his reign of terror, if indeed he even had one—his videogame version didn’t, after all. Uncle Chuck was apparently roboticized, but we don’t know how or how he was returned to his biological state. Some stories, like “Triple Team Tango” still occurred in some way–“Pirate Plunder Panic”, the first Sonic Universe story set in the new ‘verse, is a sequel to it–but those appear to be the exception rather than the rule.
So what replaces all this history? Apparently, the videogames. While details are scarce, the understanding appears to be that the events shown in games like Sonic Adventure all happened in more or less the ways depicted there (*2). Also extant are the Freedom Fighters and other characters introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog Saturday morning cartoon, redesigned and retooled to better fit in the Sonic-verse as conceived by Sega, as well as characters previously created by Ian Flynn himself. Less certain are the fates of concepts and characters introduced by people who aren’t Flynn or Penders, although absence of evidence for their existence seems to indicate evidence of absence.
Now, I’m a soft-core Sonic videogame fan. I’ve played and beaten the four Genesis games, enjoyed Sonic Adventure quite a bit, and have bought several of the modern-day portable installments. While the stories in these games have occasionally been told in interesting ways—Sonic 3 & Knuckles, in particular, manages to use the language of videogames to great effect—the stories themselves have never been a draw. It was only thought the various cartoons and comic books that I learned to love the universe, and the same continues to be true today. Hence, this refocusing on what I see as the least interesting elements of the Sonic franchise—to the point of citing the videogames as reference material–does shockingly little for me, and feels somewhat perverse–superhero films don’t expect the audience to be familiar with the comic books their based in order for it to be enjoyable, and yet this is precisely what the book seems to be doing.
What’s more, the books attempts to make the non-Sega material fit in more seamlessly with the world established in the videogames has one important side effect: it makes the seams that do show up all that more visible and distracting. Take the Freedom Fighters: if the only stories we know happened are all videogame stories, and those by definition don’t include characters like them as agents, then just what the heck are the Freedom Fighters supposed to have been doing all this time? Presumably they’ve been doing their own thing, but without knowing what those things are, the characters ring somewhat hollow, and their existence and importance within the story somewhat contrived. The book can’t argue that these are vital characters and then keep them absent from every vital story, and yet until we actually get some stable backstory, this is what it implicitly argues.
Still, this approach is not without a certain type of sense. There’s certainly a case to be made for the idea that the previous universe, large parts of which were created without regard for coherence, theme, aesthetic–or very often, quality–did not adequately reflect the spirit of the videogames or its characters. With the Penders affair leaving large parts of the universe out of play and with a cosmic reset button allowing for, essentially, a new beginning, one could argue that not changing things to the degree they appear to have been would have been irresponsible.
What makes less sense is the creators decision to keep the door to the previous continuity open, by allowing several characters—the Freedom Fighters and —to remember it. Normally this sort of detail would set the direction for the series—the F.F. would attempt to make things the way they were, or at least try to come and accept that they can’t. Here, however, neither choice is possible. They can’t restore the world that was, or even properly acknowledge it—that’s the original problem that started this whole mess. And the story—the world is fundamentally wrong, and can’t be fixed—is too big for it to be substantively dealt with without derailing the happy fun adventure book that Sonic the Hedgehog is supposed to be.
The book has so far handled this obstacle by moving at a breakneck pace, with various consecutive crises (*3) not allowing the characters any real time to deal with the matter, and as a short term solution, this works, to a degree. However, this can only work for so long, and Flynn is too good a writer not to know this; indeed, since the new status quo has been introduced, he has had various characters mention that those past-life memories are getting progressively harder to access, suggesting that they’ll eventually be gone for good. Which leaves us…where, exactly? While it’s certainly true that there’s no perfect solution to the problem, and that this particular approach is not without its benefits–some good character beats have come from it, and the device allowed the first arc to hit the ground running while still working as an introduction—on the whole, the move feels like pouring salt on the wound, and quite a bit like denial—if the first Archieverse is done, why pretend it isn’t?
Normally, I’d be more than willing to give what is essentially a new book time to find its feet, and if the old Sonic-verse had been given anything resembling a proper send-off, that might have still been the case. However, it got the opposite: almost an entire year of some of the most lackluster stories in half a decade, followed by an interruption that has yet to be properly acknowledged by the book (*4). Simply put, Sonic the Hedgehog had all but exhausted any reserves of patience and goodwill I towards it, and as unfair as it is to expect the new book to be perfect from minute one, that’s pretty much what it needed to do to win me over. While decent, what was once one of my favorite books has become an obligation—one that I can no longer read without having to wonder about the behind-the-scenes machinations that brought about what I see on the page, which have now become the main attraction.
(*1) In a bit of horrible timing, this occurred precisely during an arc designed to focus on a particular sub-group of these characters, who had heretofore spent years in the background.
(*2) To the point where the book has editors notes asking readers to refer to the videogames, which gets on my nerves.
(*3) To wit, we have earthquakes which herald destruction on an world-wide scale, which is something hugely similar to what we got not that long ago in “Sonic: Genesis” and more recently in “Worlds Collide”. And if repetitiveness wasn’t an issue, there’s also the fact that threatening a world the reader has no reason to care about tends to undermine dramatic tension.
(*4) Yes, I’m aware that the creators have been as open as they can when it comes to the behind the scenes details, online. As palliatives go, this is a far cry from an official statement on the actual book.