We’re back with even MORE Sonic the Hedgehog to talk about because… well I’m on a Sonic the Hedgehog kick again and it’s gonna take a bit more time to burn itself out! We’ll be looking at three issues today because this stretch of issues includes some TRULY fascinating changes for the series and is a turning point in a lot of ways. I’m always fascinated by stuff like this where you can pinpoint an EXACT moment where things are different from what they were before, and while I’m not equipped with the knowledge as to WHY these changes happened in the series, it’s going to be a lot of fun to point them out!
Issue 16 (November 1994)
So the first thing we need to acknowledge is the change in Sally’s design. Based on accounts from Michael Gallagher (the first writer for the comic book including the four initial test issues that I have yet to cover in this recap series) we know that the SatAM series was being developed at the same time as the comic which is why the basic outline of the story is the same, but it seems that some early concepts made it into the comic book before they were finalized for the series. We know this happened already when Boomer was renamed to his cartoon name Rotor in issue 9, and the very first episode of the SatAM series had a design for Sally that is SOMEWHAT close to her appearance in the comics up to this point. The big question I’m still left with is why her design wasn’t changed earlier as the comic was only on its second official issue (not including the four test issues) when the SatAM series premiered. It could have just been a scheduling conflict as I have no idea how far ahead the books were written and illustrated before release, or maybe no one was too concerned about it until much later when it became clear that Sonic was going to be A THING for the foreseeable future. Interesting fact! This is not the first know redesign of the character as one of the earliest known pieces of concept art for the SatAM show portrayed a blonde princess with a dress and crown, and the first issue of the test series had her blonde as well; though it was corrected by the second issue to the design we know now.
Oh right! We’ve got a story to cover here, don’t we? Well the issue begins with everyone super happy because they’ve finally managed to beat Robotnik (not sure if he’s serving out a life sentence in a gulag or was murdered during the final raid on his capital) and they can go back to their normal lives! No more squabbling over meager resources or hiding underground! No more robot armies trying to hunt them to extinction! In fact, everything is SO good that Sonic and Sally even get married!
If you’re starting to feel that this is turning into a very awkward fanfic, well your half right! It turns out that Robotnik has kidnapped all the Freedom Fighters and put them in The Matrix (or the Vacation Goo from American Dad if you prefer) and are keeping them in scenarios of utter bliss in order to keep them from realizing they ARE in the Matrix and breaking out to stop him from destroying whatever’s left of Planet Mobius’s organic life. Now that’s a really cool idea all on its own, but what REALLY sells it is just how dark and maniacal Robotnik is written here that really sells him as a legit threat for the first time in this ENTIRE series! The stakes feel like they’ve genuinely been raised which only adds to the weight of the situation inside the matrix and the urgency for them to figure out what’s going on.
Despite Robotnik’s rather menacing personality change, his penchant for being the instrument of his own destruction remains the same as the fatal flaw in the system reveals itself almost immediately. Form what I can tell, it looks like ALL the Freedom Fighters are merged into a single simulation rather than ones of their own; so while Sonic and Sally getting married is a happy occasion for ALMOST everyone, Antoine is still a stick in the mud and ends up causing a fracture in the system when it tries to compensate for his lack of happiness. This is where things get a LITTLE weird as I’m not sure ENTIRELY what’s going on at this point, but basically Sonic manages to realize that what he’s seeing is fake and… ends up in some sort of virtual reality subspace with his Uncle Chuck. Now this isn’t supposed to be the REAL Uncle Chuck who was roboticized by Robotnik long ago; rather it’s another manifestation of the system that is designed to make Sonic happy. Now that he’s aware of all this however, what is a blue hedgehog to do!?
Of course Sonic comes to the conclusion that he needs to get everyone out and to fight back against Robotnik which he does by… hacking I guess. Not sure exactly how he pulls it off but it IS a rather satisfying conclusion as Sonic not only taunts Robotnik while wearing Max Headroom shades (oh hey! A CLEVER reference for once!) but also turns Robotnik’s steamrollers of doom back towards his own home base. With Robotnik sufficiently outmatched, Sonic releases himself and the other freedom fighters from their idyllic cage and renews his vow to stop Robotnik one of these days and to get back everything he’s lost along the way!
I’ve certainly enjoyed this series up to this point, but this is legitimately the first time that a story in here felt like it mattered. Sure, stuff like the parallel universe in issue 11 was an interesting bit of world building and I do like the wacky humor from issue 8 that took relentless swipes at other comic books, but this series has always been crying out for something more given its rather bleak setup and the clear indications made towards a rich and detailed history before the Robotnik takeover that everyone here still remembers. This story is definitely a high point for the series so far… and that fact only makes it more disappointing that the story following it goes right back to what I haven’t like about this series. Now I guess it’s not the WORST of the filler fluff as it does have a few clever moments here and there, but the complete change in tone is almost enough to induce whiplash. It’s called The Man from H.E.D.G.E.H.O.G. and if that title isn’t enough to let you in on the joke, the whole thing is a spy parody of sorts with Robotnik constantly getting outsmarted by our hero who seems to be one step ahead at all times; indicating that a mole (literal or otherwise) has infiltrated his organization. Now some of the jokes do work and I like the idea of Robotnik using a giant wheel to plan out his schemes (if even HE doesn’t know what he’s up to until the last minute, how would a mole in his organization know?), and they even manage to make a classic James Bond bit that’s already been done to death come across as mildly amusing.
Everything else though just doesn’t really work. For some reason Robotnik’s scheme involve robberies of banks and art museums… but he’s the freaking ruler of this planet. He can just make a law and send his robo-stapo thugs to seize whatever he wants! He even opens a casino (an allusion to the Casino Nights stage in the games?) seemingly just to draw in Sonic and spring a trap, but like with the mall in issue 14, I don’t see how any of the Freedom Fighters would even bother with it. It seems like this whole story takes place in some alternate universe where Robotnik is merely a thug instead of a conqueror, and it just feels out of place in an issue that had such a great story where he was very much THAT version of the character! Not only that, but the ending doesn’t make sense. Like… I get the pun, but that still doesn’t explain how the mole was able to get the information on Robotnik’s plans.
Yeah, hopefully we won’t be getting as many filler stories going forward and the next issue gets everything back on track.
Issue 17 (December 1994)
Okay, maybe that was a bit of wishful thinking as the FIRST story is a very specific movie homage. That said, in my zeal for more satisfying stories and a stronger narrative through line, I might have become overly harsh on the sillier stories that are just there to be fun, and this one is admittedly one of the stronger of those that we’ve gotten, so let’s try to stay POSITIVE!! Robotnik is on an expedition to Skoal Island (isn’t that a brand chewing tobacco?) in search of King Gong; one of his earliest creations that he tells us all about in an extended flashback sequence.
It’s interesting to see Robotnik in his younger days, though I doubt any of this will play into future stories, and his dialogue is actually pretty well written here given that the writers have so much great material to satirize. The rest of the story is your standard King Kong parody with Sally as the Ann Darrow stand in, but even that’s done fairly well with Tails getting another chance to bring out his plane (has it been officially called Tornado yet in the games?) and Sonic riding on top like a boss!
As far as amusing side stories go I’ll take this over many of the others we’ve gotten in recent issues, but let’s move on to what we’re REALLY here for and that’s more of that juicy plot! The next story begins with Sally contemplating her place in the universe, her relationship to Sonic, and her past which we’re FINALLY getting a canonical glimpse into!
So this confirms a few things such as the fact that Sally is INDEED a princess and there was a Mobian governement before Robotnik took over. Sonic was around during that time as well which may seem obvious, but think of what this confirms for us. Sonic was not in fact created by Dotor Robotnik like the back story in the UK version of the comic book (no, I don’t plan on recapping those anytime soon) which implies that his super speed has always been a part of him. He was friends with Sally before the hostile takeover which indicates that he may have had some standing in the Mobius social hierarchy and isn’t some street brat who became useful once the restistance started up. Sure we don’t really get an answer as to what the heck happened to her father or how she managed to escape capture, but this is some cool stuff we’re dealing with! Almost as cool as what happens next! While Sally is reminiscing about her past life, a freaking orb from space comes crashing down and she runs off to retrieve it! WHAT THE HECK IS IT!? I guess we’ll have to wait for another time to find out!!
I have been waiting SO LONG for something like this to finally show up in the comics! Okay, only sixteen issues, but if this was back in the nineties I’d have waited a year and a half to get to this point!! It’s a bit awkward trying to jam this is NOW considering how freaking goofy the scenarios have been up to this point and how unconcerned they’ve been with an ongoing story line (how many times have they beat the hell out of Robotnik yet STILL haven’t won the war?), but I’m glad that we’re finally getting SOMETHING to tie these stories together and it only gets better in the next issue!
Issue 18 (January 1995)
The first story in the issue may SEEM like yet another paint-by-numbers story that we’ve gotten a dozen times before, but we can already see where the comic’s subtle evolution over time is affecting even the filler of this series. The basic idea is that Sonic and Sally are FINALLY tying the knot and are trying to stage the wedding in some barn between Knothole and Robotropolis, which ADMITTEDLY feels a bit uninspired considering we just had a wedding in the VR story back in issue 16, but let’s give this a chance. Could it be a power play to rally the Freedom Fighters similar to the Coronation of Charles VII during the Hundred Years War? Have these two FINALLY revealed their true feelings for each other and are ready to make the ultimate commitment!? Or maybe it’s just an attention grabbing gimmick to sell more issues. I mean, it DID work for The Fantastic Four AND Spider-Man! Whatever the case may be there’s no hiding it from Robotnik because if there’s ONE thing the Freedom Fighters are really bad at, it’s maintaining a secure perimeter!
Sure enough, Robotnik gets wind of this scheme and is having NONE of it! He decides to rally the troops for one final assault on the Freedom Fighters during the wedding itself when they will presumably have their guard mostly down, though I’ve gotta say… he’s not the most ELOQUENT of public speakers.
From there we cut to the wedding, and this one picture is actually REALLY fascinating to me as we see that not only are there Freedom Fighters other than the half dozen or so animals hiding in that one hole in the ground, but that Antoine’s uniform is not something he pulled out of thin air as it seems to be standard issue. It’s yet another example of the series somewhat clumsily HAVING to expand the world after being so simple up until this point, but it’s still really fascinating to see and now I’m just curious to find out where their suits even came from!
Naturally Robotnik arrives with heavy artillery and a battalion of robot minions ready to eradicate everyone in attendance, but it looks like the Freedom Fighters were expecting this and most of them (freaking Antoine…) spring into action to stop the robotic menace. It’s… actually pretty awesome! The artists on this issue (Dave Manak, Harvey Mercadoocasio, and Barry Grossman) are regulars to this series, but it seems like everyone stepped up their game just a bit here as the action is a lot more exciting than we’ve really gotten so far. There’s genuine tension and stakes to each panel with is rather new for a series that always took a light approach to everything, and there’s simply a sense of swashbuckling fun as Sonic swings around the barn on a rope dismantling robots or Sally using a freaking knife to cut ropes that drops a giant curtain on Robotnik! It’s too bad that the story doesn’t end on a very satisfying note after such a solid action scene as we find out that the wedding was just a PLAY they were putting on, which means… something? I guess? Like… what does this have to do with anything? AND WHY DO THEY LET ROBOTNIK GO!? QUIT MESSING AROUND AND JUST END THE WAR ALREADY!!
Alright, so it had to maintain the status quo at the end which is MUCH more noticeable in a really solid story, but then we’re still in the transition period between this starting as a laugh-o-rama funny book to being a more refined and carefully crafted adventure story. I’ll throw it a bone for at least putting in the effort even if it didn’t stick the landing! The next story is a continuation of the Sally story from the last issue as we pick up with Rotor trying to figure out what the glowing ball of hopefully sunshine and rainbows (as opposed to death and despair) can actually do. Now here’s where we get another lurching change from the way things were before to the bigger story as not only is Knothole MUCH bigger than it’s been in previous episodes, but there’s more people around including this squirrel lady who seems to have some dire news for the princess.
This new character who sprang up out of nowhere has come to inform Sally that ANOTHER character who sprang up out of nowhere is on her deathbed and requests to see Sally. The new character in question is her childhood mentor named Julayla who wants to impart some final words of wisdom before she dies of… something and she also looks fondly on the past they had together that we are only learning about just now!
Okay, smarminess aside, this DOES appear to be a very crucial point in the continuity as it further establishes Sally as not just the leader by default (the princess is ALWAYS in charge) but because she worked her butt off to be as smart and exemplary as she needs to be in order to be the one true leader of the resistance. Remember that crappy story back in issue 14 about her and Bunnie getting tricked by a fake mall because GIRLZ but then the comic makes it all better by them punching robots afterwards? Yeah, this story goes to show EXACTLY how shallow and damn near offensive such a weak excuse of a GIRL POWER story that was. It didn’t give us any insight into who they are and portrayed them as generic two dimensional archetypes; something this story avoids by putting in the effort to flesh out Sally’s character and to portray her as someone truly capable of anything that’s thrown at her; not in a STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMANTM sort of way, but on a much more nuanced and interesting level.
So even though Sally has proven herself in the eyes of her mentor (she FINALLY snatched that acorn from her hand!), the comic ends on a rather somber note as Julayla does indeed die; making it the first CONFIRMED death in the series as far as I can tell. I mean sure Uncle Chuck’s been a robot slave of Robotnik for some time now, but I’m pretty sure they can figure out a way to get him back! Julayla on the other hand, let’s just say that I’m guessing the Chaos Emeralds in this comic don’t work like Dragon Balls. And so the issue ends with Sally contemplating her future and Sonic being there to comfort her in her time of need. What lies ahead? I guess we’ll have to wait until next time to find out!
These three issues, why not PERFECT by any means, truly feel like a turning point for the series as the world begins to expand beyond the initial premise and the characters start to get fleshed out quite a bit; especially Sally who’s really the most important figure in this story and it looks like the writers are really starting to understand that. Even the artwork, which hasn’t been BAD up to this point, is taking a noticeable uptick in quality with better lighting and shadows all around and some much more bombastic action scenes to really carry across the intensity. I hope the books continue to go down this route as we continue into the 20s, but I guess only time will tell!
RANDOM FACT (because I can’t always squeeze everything into the recaps!)
The first appearance of Sally’s vest in the comic is in issue 18 during the wedding story which will become a continuity problem after the first Sonic Annual: Sonic In Your Face. Her vest also appeared on the cover of issue 16, but I’m not counting covers as part of continuity.