The Archie Sonic the Hedgehog comic book series has had significant ups and downs, very much like the quality of the games they're based on. At their peaks, they are easily the best writing in the franchise. At their worst, though, they make games like Sonic '06 look like a Shakespearian masterpiece. Since the series was taken over by head writer Ian Flynn in issue #160, there has been a consistent level of quality storytelling that readers will now have come to expect. That's not to say, however, there weren't great stories to be found before Flynn took over. You just had to dig them out of the manure to find them. To remedy this, I've made a list of the top 10 issues and storylines of the pre-Flynn era that are more than worth a look to anyone who enjoys great comic stories.
10. Mecha Madness Special #1, written by Mike Gallagher
Mecha Madness likely won't “wow” anyone with its storytelling or themes. There's nothing too particularly deep in how they approach the theme of man vs. machine; but there's no denying the pure fan-service that is a Sonic and Knuckles showdown—made all the sweeter when both combatants have been turned into awesome-looking mecha versions of themselves. After Sonic has been captured and “roboticized” by Robotnik, he's turned loose to destroy his friends and reveal the location of their hideout. After a previous failed attempt by Bunnie Rabbot (I know, I know...) and Knuckles to stop his rampage, Sonic's friends have no choice but to send Knuckles through the same mechanization process to go toe-to-toe with Mecha Sonic. The result is a fantastically drawn issue pencilled by the incomparable Patrick “Spaz” Spaziante that features some of the best visuals of the series.
9. Issues #86-87, “Heart of the Hedgehog,” Written by Danny Fingeroth
This is the story that got me into the comic, and made me a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog in general. What we have here is a simple Sonic and Tails story that doesn't try to do too much, but what it does do feels genuine and straight-forward. Sonic and Tails are adventuring out in the wilderness when suddenly Tails goes missing. While searching, Sonic comes across the culprit of Tails' disappearance: Metal Sonic. After being destroyed in a previous fight, Metal Sonic had rebuilt himself better than ever, and even developed a level of free will. Regardless, he is still bent on killing Sonic first and foremost. Throughout the story, it becomes obvious that Sonic doesn't stand a chance against Metal, who has become stronger, more intelligent and even faster than Sonic himself. Only after Metal Sonic lets Sonic find Tails is he stopped, when the Hedgehog and the Fox's friendship causes Metal Sonic to realize what being alive really means. Knowing that is something he will never be able to amount to, Metal Sonic sacrifices himself to ensure Sonic and Tails can escape an erupting volcano. The issue sports some good, though somewhat inconsistent artwork by Sam Maxwell, and helps the story feel like a pure Sonic escapade.
8. Issue #98, Sonic Adventure 2 Adaption, Written by Karl Bollers
The Sonic comic series' strongpoints have never really been actual adaptions of the games they're based on. The ongoing narrative of the comics often contradicts and works against the events that take place in-game, causing the comic to either awkwardly try and jury-rig the plot into the existing narrative, or just make an alternate universe story where it just tells the beginning of the story of the game. Issue #98 takes a little from column A, a little from Column B, and creates a story that awkwardly fits into the timeline of the comic. But you don't read issue #98 for the ongoing storyline integration. You read it for the absolutely drop-dead gorgeous artwork by Patrick “Spaz” Spaziante. Issue #98 is the ultimate example of style over substance. The line-work is positively outstanding, with colors that remain vibrant yet having a definite earthy tone to compliment the more skate-punk style of the source material. It is, without a doubt, one of the most gorgeous comics I have ever read, and makes you wish SA2's City Escape level had just an ounce of the visual energy of this issue, and that “Spaz” pencilled every issue. Alas, it remains a solitary artistic masterpiece that causes all other art in the series to pale in comparison.
7. Issue #56, “Immortality is Forever – Life is Finite” Written by Kent Taylor
Where the comics may have significant issues with implementing game adaptions, when it comes to incorporating multiple storylines together across multiple writers into one event, they're generally pretty successful, or at the very least, competent. Take in this instance, “Immortality is Forever – Life is Finite” in issue #56. A crossover between the ongoing storyline in the Knuckles the Echidna spin-off series written by the immensely controversial Ken Penders, and the ongoing main Sonic series, “Immortality” pits Sonic, Knuckles and Tails against who is, at this point in the series, the most powerful being in the Sonic universe: Mammoth Mogul. After absorbing the equivalent power of over 12 Chaos Emeralds from a variety of locations including that of Knuckles' super-powered ancestor Enerjak (trust me, don't ask. More on that later), he sets up shop on Knuckles' Floating Island, and begins wrecking havok. While nothing special narratively-speaking, #56 is a fun action issue that includes fan-favorites Super Sonic and Hyper Knuckles, as well as giving Tails the opportunity to come into his own as a character and a powerhouse, and more intrigue surrounding Knuckles' mysterious family (seriously, don't ask....). Overall, a fun romp of an issue.
6. Issues #62-63 “Icon” Written by Karl Bollers
“Icon” takes place during what is known as the “Search for Naugus” arc, where Sonic and Tails adventure across the globe in what is probably, as it was in “Heart of the Hedgehog” the purest essence of Sonic the Hedgehog story-telling. The duo comes across various sorts of trouble and puts a stop to them, simple as that. One of the most enjoyable events in the “Naugus” arc was a two-issue adventure known as “Icon” where Sonic and Tails' plane crashes in a desert, and they are rescued by denizens of a place known as Sandblast City. Problem being, the city has a nearly cult-like obsession with Sonic, erecting a massive statue in his likeness, and secretly plotting to keep him there forever to ensure the mindless roboticized mechs that attack them will be stopped for good. For comparison, this storyline is basically “Janestown” from Firefly mixed with Stephen King's novel Misery. With a good Sonic and Tails dynamic, and some excellent artwork from Stephen Butler, “Icon” is a great stand-alone story.
5. Sonic Super Special #14, “Best of Times, Worst of Times,” Written by Ken Penders
Ah, Ken Penders. For anyone who knows anything about this particularly infamous writer, having his work on this list may surprise you, much less having it this high on the list. For those that don't, well... I invite you to Google “Ken Penders Lawsuit,” and draw your own conclusions on the matter. To boil it down, Penders writing style is often ambitious, attempting to tackle massive issues (at least, massive for a kid's book), but often is unable to follow through on the execution, as his skills were many times simply not up to the task. There were a few exceptions, though. Issue #50 was decent, and killed Robotnik in a believable way, his “The Good, The Bad, and the Unknown” arc in issues #146-149 were harmless, and his short story “Father's Day” in issue #143 was genuinely affecting. But generally speaking, his stories were somewhat mediocre. A fairly decent exception to this rule, however, was the Knuckles storyline started in Super Sonic Special #14. While the storyline completely jumped the shark before the end, the beginning chapter, “Best of Times, Worst of Times,” was a good framing device.
Speaking generally, some of the best stories are taking particular characters, and putting them in situations in which they are not comfortable, and watching how they react in said environment. That was “Best of Times” in a nutshell. Knuckles had been a loner the majority of his life. He had a few friends here and there, but generally, he fended for himself. But all of a sudden, he finds that not only is he not alone, but has a large extended family, an entire civilization of Echidnas he had no previous knowledge of, and a whole slew of problems that came with them. “Best of Times” portrayed Knuckles' difficulty with trying to learn to cope with all of this, meanwhile being under the gun of running from a giant explosion threatening to overtake him. On the one hand, he's overjoyed to have family and friends to love and be loved by. He enjoys to see them happy, and know he doesn't have to be alone. He's happy for his mother getting re-married, but at the same time, the loner in him is still a major part of his DNA, so when he goes looking for trouble at the base of an old enemy, it's natural. When survival instinct kicks in, it's obvious that he is once again in his element, that this is the kind of situation in which he thrives. Yet despite that, after all he's learned, he knows he'll never be able to truly go back to this. “Best of Times” shows Penders does have an ability to craft a decently balanced story, though it is rarely seen outside of this arc. Stephen Butler's great artwork again is on display, and lends a gravity to the proceedings, and the story ends with an excellent call-to-action for Rad Red.
4. Issues #138-141, “Return to Angel Island,” Written by Karl Bollers
The “Return to Angel Island” arc is, in many ways, the prototype to Ian Flynn's current run in the on-going comics. It has an excellent blend of humor and drama, without swinging too far in either direction, showcasing some of Karl Bollers finest writing of his entire run. This is well-served with Jon Gray's instantly recognizable cartoon-y art style that easily reminds the reader that even though there's a plot going on here, in the end, this is a story about a cartoon blue hedgehog and company, so you're able to take it easy. His style is full of little easter eggs and visual flair that eagle-eye readers can spot, and 4th wall-breaking jokes that are quite amusing.
The plot, centered around Sonic, Knuckles and Co. teaming up to take back Knuckles home of Angel Island from Robotnik's evil forces, hits all the right notes, especially with Knuckles. At this point in the series, Knuckles has lost all of his powers; he can't glide, he's not that strong and, as Sonic says, “Is basically as weak as a kitten.” On top of it all, the Master Emerald, the jewel he's sworn to protect, causes him actual physical pain whenever he's near it. Needless to say, he begins to question what he's good for anymore, and if all of this is worth it. Over the course of time, through the help of his friends, and even his enemies, he's able to overcome his depression and helps liberate his home from the evil forces. Yet even despite his victory, still has to deal with his father's dismay that he can't stay and resume his duties as guardian of the Master Emerald, as he promised to help fight Robotnik on the surface. It's a well-told, well-illustrated story that stands as an excellent indication of things to come.
3. Issue #88, “Family Matters,” Written by Karl Bollers
Here is where we begin transitioning from enjoyable issues with decent stories to the legitimately impressive story-telling. Issue #88 begins what is, in my opinion--despite some noticeable mis-steps— the best story-arc of the entire comic series, which ends in issue #100 (or possibly #101 or #102, depending on how you view it). After returning to their home from the events of the Sonic Adventure adaption and “Heart of the Hedgehog,” the gang comes across the king and father of Sonic's on-again-off-again girlfriend Sally ready to launch a full-fledged assault on Robotnik's base of operations to rescue his son, Prince Elias. Elias had ventured there to find a cure for his mother's coma-inducing ailment. Sonic and Tails readily join the fight, and everything seems to go fine up until they realize who they're up against: Sonic's roboticized Uncle Chuck, who has been brain-washed into being Robotnik's loyal Lieutenant until Robotnik's return. Things begin to go awry when Sonic hesitates after his Uncle's free will returns as a result of being exposed to the king's mystical sword. He leaves the king's side to try and bring his Uncle home, during which the king's head is bashed from behind by a guard mech, paralyzing him from the waist down. While the Prince is safely returned, the cost is great.
The issue begins to tackle multiple massive storylines that had begun to crop up in the series. Sally, who before the king's return had been the de-facto leader of the resistance against Robotnik, now finds herself locked out of leadership as the King continues to cut her out of decisions, and keep important information from her. Her father's injuries drive a massive wedge between her and Sonic's relationship, and consequently the entirety of the main cast in a legitimately emotional way. In addition, Sonic begins to realize that even with all of his speed, his choices have consequences, and even good actions can go awry; his aggravated screams of “No! They were back! They were back!” are still very effective. On top of a legitimately well-told story, FRY's beautiful manga art-style adds a unique kinetic flair to the proceedings, making issue #88 a classic. It's a story that tackles mature subject matter, but in a way that isn't inappropriate for children, offering them more than just simple entertainment.
2. Issue #93 “Crime 'N Punishment,” Written by Karl Bollers
As a direct result of the events in issue #88, Sonic chooses to steal the King's sword from the Royal Armory, knowing they would never allow him to take it, and try to use it to bring back his Uncle. His plan fails when he loses the sword in a battle with Robotnik's scouts, and is unable to get it back. Issue #93's story “Crime 'N Punishment” deals with the direct repercussions of Sonic's brash actions, and the consequences he faces for his failures. What really is impressive about this story is how you see Sonic's personality being contrasted by the system that he refused to adhere to, and the change he goes through as a character when he makes his final decision. Initially, Sonic is indignant that the actions he perceived to be the right ones are being treated criminally, despite the fact the sword was lost. In his mind, it was a mistake to have lost it, but when called out by others, he becomes defensive, defending his actions. It's a fascinating contrast compared to what generally is represented in Sonic the Hedgehog, where you can always count on Sonic doing the morally upright thing, whereas this time, his choices indicate shades of gray that readers may be unaccustomed to. You sympathize with what Sonic was trying to do, but at the same time you're also aware that it was an underhanded way of going about it.
Sonic could have continued to fight the accusations and ignore the accusations of Prince Elias and Geoffery St. John. In fact, it is implied that, were it not for the coaching of St. John, Elias would not have done anything at all about Sonic's insubordination. Despite this fact, after a discussion with the wise Nate Morgan, Sonic decides to turn himself in, realizing that, despite his good intentions, his actions were wrong, and the consequences were dire. He accepts his punishment of being stripped of his knighthood, and therefore not being allowed to be free and do what he does best: fight Robotnik. There's something specifically aggravating about being talked down to by someone who, by all respects, is on the same footing as you, and that emotion comes through loud and clear between Sonic and St. John; especially when it's been clear that St. John also has feelings for Sally, causing Sonic to feel even more helpless when he is later unable to even get a chance to see her. The tension is palpable.
Possibly the biggest character-changing moment in Sonic's history, “Crime 'N Punishment” shows that, in the right hands, even characters that seem no more than caricatures can have a nuanced development.
1. Issue #54, “Running to Stand Still,” Written by Karl Bollers
As I mentioned with “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times,” some of the greatest characters studies in literature, and in media in general, is when you take an established character and put them in a situation that they are diametrically opposed to, and see how they react to it. In Karl Boller's “Running to Stand Still,” we get exactly that in what is easily the most effective writing Archie's Sonic series has ever had.
Robotnik is dead. Reclaimation of Robotropolis has begun, a new government has been formed, and Sonic's parents, long thought dead, have returned. Sonic, who's lived his entire life dedicated to the singular pursuit of defeating Robotnik now finds himself deprived of his one goal in life. He finds himself in a world he had not prepared for, or even spared a thought thinking about: What happens after he wins. He has a seat on the City Council, where it immediately becomes obvious that politics is not where he belongs. He has no evil to fight, so he accepts his Uncle's experiment to see what his top speed actually is, even though he feels it's useless. He's angry about being lied to for years about his parents, thinking they were dead, just to find out they were always alive, and he generally feels lost about who he is now that his place in the world has been thrown out of balance.
Anyone who has ever been a teenager can relate. As one's understanding of the world around them becomes more clear, questions can arise about how you actually fit into this world you're just beginning to really understand. Naturally, as someone who never just wants to wait on an answer, Sonic becomes angry when that's absolutely all he can do. He can only wait to be delegated new objectives to achieve by others, or pursue answers that he has no interest in. It's angst, but not just for angst's sake. This is the only way he knows how to react, because up until now, when he's in a bad situation, there was always been an evil he could pin it on. Now, he's just stuck questioning himself, and pushing away the ones closest to him.
This comes out most in his interactions with his Uncle Chuck, who is the closest thing he has to a face that he can push his frustrations on. When he finally elaborates on his anger at Uncle Chuck for lying to him about his parents and you see the sadness on Uncle Chuck's face, as well as experience the ensuing silence between them, the audience really understands what's going on. You know this is a problem that doesn't have a clear-cut solution. All that can be done is wait until the anger subsides for there to be a chance to achieve understanding. And—as has been stated—Sonic hates waiting.
When Sonic and Uncle Chuck embrace at the end of the issue after Sonic comes to understand his Uncle's good intentions, it comes with a paradigm shift in Sonic himself. He may not be cut out for the new world he's helped brought about, but at least he's taken a step to acclimate. And even if he never can fully fit into a world of peace, it shows a step forward into maturity that the audience can relate to and possibly one day, emulate.
Those are my top 10 non-Flynn-written stories for the Archie Sonic the Hedgehog series. I would highly recommend all of them, so if you ever have the chance to pick them up, they're a quick read, and well worth the experience.