The demise of Archie Comics‘ Sonic the Hedgehog has long been prophesied. The series had been on hiatus since December 2016 right in the middle of a story-arc. Rumours flooded the comic commentariat as sources within SEGA and Archie would only state that the companies were in ongoing talks. It came as little shock to anyone when on July 19th SEGA confirmed on Twitter on that their relationship with the publisher had ended. With the method of communication and the long silence between official statements, the entire affair felt like a bad break-up. Unlike many of its contemporaries, it had managed to avoid the relaunch and renumbering trend throughout its 25 years of publication. It survived legal battles a plenty, crossed over with Mega Man, spawned numerous spin-off series, and was a staple of the FBCD line-up. Inextricably linked with the iconic SatAM series, Archie‘s Sonic the Hedgehog was the home of the rambunctious freedom fighters of Mobius, and for many fans it was the definitive version of the Sonic canon. So the confirmation that this universe had reached its expiry date was accompanied by the sounds of thousands of hearts breaking as fans came to terms with the loss of their favourite characters. I was not one of them. Beyond the SatAM series itself the American Sonic continuity never really appealed to me, but I instantly knew how they felt. Why? Because I lost my Sonic comic once, some 15 years ago. Make yourself a cup of tea and find a nice chair because this is going to be a long one. This is the tale of Sonic the Comic.
Immediately, you may gawk and shake your head in confusion. What was Sonic the Comic and why I haven’t you heard of it? STC, as it was known to fans, was a fortnightly anthology series published in Ireland and the UK from 1993 to 2002 lasting an impressive 223 issues. It featured ongoing adventures of Sonic and his band of rebels in their quest to rid Mobius of Dr. Ivo Robotnik. Outside of very limited editions, it was never collected in trade paper back form and the various rights issues involved ensure that it likely never will. Each issue featured 4-5 short stories of varying lengths ranging from one-shots to multi-part epics. Outside of its comic stories, it functioned as SEGA’s official magazine and was used to promote their console business with competitions, reviews, and previews of upcoming games.
Where 2000AD had Tharg the Mighty as the omnipotent editor introducing us to each comic, STC had Mega-Droid: a robot built out of various SEGA consoles who affectionately referred to the magazine’s loyal fan base as Boomers. The majority of the writing duties were carried out by Nigel Kitching or Lew Stringer, while art was provided by Richard Elson, Nigel Dobbyn, Carl Flint, Woodrow Phoenix, Roberto Corona, Mick McMahon, or Kitching himself on occasion.
Originally, the Sonic strips were isolated, slapstick affairs with very little in the way of overall continuity. It was Tom and Jerry if the former was replaced by a motormouth speedster and a latter a maniacal Eggman (the first and last time I will refer to Robotnik as such). They were eclipsed by the much more impressive stories based on other SEGA franchises like Shinobi, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Mutant League Football and Rocket Knight. Over time, however, the blue blur began to assert himself as the star with stories taking a more serious tone, while maintaining a lively sense of humour. As the other SEGA strips faded out, the Sonic strips began to develop their world and show a thoroughly unique take on the mythology. Throughout the course of the STC‘s lifetime, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and many other supporting characters would get their own spin-off strips; with them came a chance to show off their strengths and explore new genres of story-telling.
It’s worth noting that the story of STC was unlike any other in the Sonic canon. Sure, it placed Sonic as the leader of a band of freedom fighters, but the similarities with the Archie series stop there. Beyond the core cast of the games, Sonic’s rag-tag team of rebels included original characters such as Johnny Lightfoot and Porker Lewis, whom he a liberated from Robotnik’s control. Later additions included the computer genius: Techno the Canary along with Shortfuse the Cybernik, a roboticised squirrel who had resisted his programming and used Robotnik’s techology against him. Sonic would be occasionally aided by the Chaotix Crew: a superhero team composed of characters from the underrated 32X fame and their Zordon-like mentor: the Omni-viewer. The plot kicked off in earnest with Sonic and the gang falling into Robotnik’s trap and being sent six months into the future. They emerged to a world firmly under the thumb of Robotnik, forcing them underground as they schemed to dismantle this brave new world of theirs. In one swift action, the writers had turned their villain from the butt of everyone’s jokes to a force to be reckoned with.
As the comics progressed, more and more elements from the game were introduced. Super Sonic, typically portrayed as a power-ed up version of our hero, was instead given a sinister twist. Upon being exposed to chaos energy or undergoing significant stress, Sonic would transform into his psychotic alter ego and go on a rampage. The near invincible Super Sonic relished in destruction and didn’t care whether friend or foe lay in his wake. If he destroyed one of Robotnik’s creations, that was simply a happy side-effect. A later story-line featured Super Sonic manifesting as a separate entity and allowed the writers to explore the dichotomy between their characters.
Another refreshing revision of the game’s lore was the role of Metal Sonic. Known as the Metallix, Sonic’s robotic counterpart began as a mere puppet of Doctor Robotnik before gaining sentience. The newly independent Metal Sonic replicated itself to form the Brotherhood of Metallix with the Emperor at is head. Posing a far greater threat to Mobius’ existence than even Robotnik, the Brotherhood learned the secret of time-travel and began rewriting history in their own image. As evil as their creator may have been, it was their desire to subjugate all organic life and exterminate their template that truly made them frightening adversaries. It was only through the combined wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey efforts of Sonic and the Chaotix Crew that their plans was thwarted in a story-line that intrinsically linked the origins of Robotnik and Sonic in a neat grandfather paradox. If this sounds to you like a riff on the Daleks, then you’d be right, but it made for great storytelling.
STC devoted much of its space to developing Sonic’s supporting cast with all-shapes and sizings being given their own strips. Tails’ stories revealed his people came from the Nameless Zone, a place that existed on another dimensional plane and very much inspired by high fantasy. If the series’ main action was a sci-fi rebellion inspired by Star Wars, Tails’ strips focused on the more mystical elements of their universe. Having come to Mobius proper to prove himself, the high-flying Miles Prower would send letters home boosting of his accomplishments and relegating Sonic to the rank of sidekick. When homeland came under threat, his people called upon him to dawn a suit of armor and defend their honour. The two-tailed fox would have to dig deep to find the bravery in him necessary to beat ever the insurmountable odds presented by the malicious Goblin Empire. Even when he did, Tails would have to face the grim reality that some enemies can’t be defeated, merely abated. Later strips would see Tails delve into the realm of Cyberpunk as he assists a group of resistance fighters known as “The Flock” in the Chemical Plant Zone. These stories saw Tails’ face off against the robotic psychopath Nutzan Bolt and branded a “Zone Runner” in a nice nod to the Ridley Scott classic.
The Knuckles strips were among my favourites, ranging from cross-dimensional team-ups with the hair-brained Chaotix Crew to Clint Eastwood-inspired Westerns that saw the echidna explore Mobius in search of a way to repair the damaged Master Emerald. Contrary to his Archie counterpart, Knuckles was not a part of a rather extensive family of echidnas, but rather was the last of his kind. Long before Doctor Who made it cool, Knuckles was presented as the sole survivor of his race, tasked with protecting the Master Emerald at all costs. He even had his own evil Master-like counterpart in the form of Doctor Zachery, a scientifically minded echidna bent of world domination. One of the comics‘ central mysteries surrounded the fate of Knuckles’ race as it had faded from living memory. The only hint we got about it came during the Sonic Adventure arc which revealed that Knuckles himself had been alive and well in ancient times. Clearly, there was something special about our hot-headed hero. Knuckles suffered from amnesia and was as curious about his past as the readers themselves. Unfortunately much of his story went unresolved within the printed pages of the comic, but more on that later.
Miscellaneous Sonic’s World strips explored various facets of the STC universe and featured the likes of Amy Rose and Techno the canary taking on Mobius’ kingpins of crime, Shortfuse the Cybernik rebelling against his creator and the Chaotix Crew getting into various misadventures. Sometimes these stories covered a range of genres and could be humourous or played straight if necessary. In both scenarios, the readers were treated with respect and the comic flourished as a result. This was a kid’s comic, but it knew it audience and refused to talk down to them. STC forged own path and weren’t afraid to take risks. The printed edition’s final original story-arc was an adaption of Sonic Adventure that had the gall of killing-off a core character in a discernible non-heroic way. As a long-running subplot involving the Drakon Empire (a race of aliens that had influenced the development of Mobius) began to reach a conclusion, Johnny Lightfoot became the first victim of their Chaos creature and died without glory. His death’s raised the stakes of the entire story-arc as for the first time, the freedom fighters was presented with an unmitigated loss that they couldn’t simply laugh off. They had lost one of their own. It was a fitting climax for the series as Chaos grew more and more powerful with each Chaos Emerald he stole. The creature’s links to Knuckles and the ancient echidna culture attempted to wrap up some of the mysteries of the storyline, but did so in a way that only raised more questions. It was an imperfect story, but it was a fitting end that left Sonic and his freedom fighters hopeful for a better future.
At one point in its lifetime, STC was outselling 2000AD, which was practically unheard of in the internal UK comics industry. It was clearly one of the more popular comics in newsagents, so what happened? Why did it end after only nine years? Like all cancellations, dwindling readership played a role, but the situation was complicated by other factors. The publisher, Egmont-Fleetway, has a policy of five year reader cycles to cut down on costs. It assume that its audience would move on and saw little reason in producing new material. As the comic began to get on in years it reduced the amount of new strips being printed, opting instead to reprint older stories. This continued until only one new strip remained and as a result, readership began to decline in great numbers. Following the conclusion of the Sonic Adventure arc, STC opted to deal only in reprints with the only new material being the covers. This version of the magazine lasted for two years before ending on issue 223 which featured a letter from the writers in a heartfelt good to fans.
Normally when a series ends or is cancelled, its fan-base mourn its lost and move on. Not so for the STC community. In May 2003, slightly more than a year after its cancelled, the magazine was revived as Sonic the Comic Online (STC-O). This fan-driven continuation saw writers and artists worth together to ensure that the world they loved didn’t disappear into the ether. Over the last 14 years, they have worked tireless to continue the adventures of Sonic and the freedom fighters, wrapping up lingering story threads and adapting some of the hedgehog’s later games into comic form. The comic has also seen the return of non-Sonic related gaming strips inspired by other SEGA’s franchises such as Shenmue and House of the Dead.Many of the original creators behind STC have given the fan-comic their approval and resulting in the labeling of STC-O as “unofficially official”. It is truly a marvel to behold, a testament to the dedication and reverence with which some fans hold this material. The rotating team behind STC-O may not be able to work on the fortnightly schedule of its predecessor, but its managed to overtake it in terms of years of publication. STC-O proves that whatever you creative desires there is an audience for it. If you build it, they will come. What is perhaps most inspiring from this is that some of the writers and artists have gone on to work professionally in the industry. They took a comic that they were passionate about and used it as a platform to make some of their own.
Interestingly, in a similar vein, the magazine itself was a breeding ground for many creators who would go onto make big names for themselves in the wider comics industry. Former 2000AD editor and writer, Steve MacManus served as its managing editor for most of its run. Andy Diggle of Green Arrow fame was the editor responsible for ushering in a short-lived renaissance in the quality of the comic. In a bizarre twist, Mark Millar (yes, that one) not only wrote much of the early Sonic material, but two Streets of Rage serials too. When asked about the comic on his Millarworld forums, the writer behind Civil War admitted that his first few Sonic stories were essentially a cash grab to pay for his wedding, but he still expressed fondness for the Streets of Rage strips. Nigel Kitching and Lew Stringer have become remain quite active in the UK comic industry and are regular guests at Sonic fan conventions.
So where should you go if you are interested in reading this forgotten series? Unfortunately, the lack of any collections of the original printed strips makes it hard to obtain for even the most dedicated Sonic fans. All of STC-O is available for free online and is worth checking out, but beyond that you’ll run into difficulty finding legal avenues to check out these stories. A Youtuber going by BlackDogBrew put out a retrospective of the series a number of years ago that will catch you up on all the important details, but it doesn’t come close the replicating the feel, excitement or drama of the originals.
At the end of the day, why is STC an important series that deserved to be preserved? It may have one some interesting things with the Sonic canon, but why should any of us care? Its more than a case of allowing me to empathise with fans of the Archie Sonic series, STC was the first comic I ever collected. I still have most of my original issues and will occasionally revisit them for inspiration. Why? Because before the printed versions of the Marvel and DC universes ever entered my life they showed me that comics could presented a unique forum for storytelling. I don’t think I would be the fan or writer I am today were it not for these goofy, but earnest stories about a blue hedgehog and his friends.
During SDCC, IDW announced that they had obtained the license to publish Sonic comics beginning in 2018. As the king of licensed comics, SEGA could find no better publisher to take over creative control of the blue blur, but it remains to see whether Sonic’s future outings will join the hallowed ranks of Transformers and TMNT in surpassing their source material. I haven’t read a Sonic comic in years and some of his more recent games have left a lot to be desired, but as someone who retains a fondness for the character, I’m looking forward to see what IDW do with him. Chances are the people who will work on those comics will never have heard of, let alone read Sonic the Comic but if they do they may find inspiration can come in the most obscure of places. In the meantime, IDW, I’m available for consultations and have I got a pitch for you.