Line by Line

Sonic Comic Criticism: I Asked Ian

posted May 18, 2013

Tags: BumbleKing, Ian Flynn, reviews, Sonic

You can probably guess based on my last few posts that I enjoy reading and reviewing Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog comics. In addition to the reviews here, I spend a good deal of time discussing the comics on the Sonic section of BumbleKing Forums.

In my reviews, I try to stay as neutral as possible and judge each issue on its own merits. I don't refer to writers or artists by name, because I've fallen into the trap of getting personal before. I don't refer to behind-the-scenes goings-on, because the reviews are supposed to be about the finished product. I don't hold myself to quite the same standards on BumbleKing, but I still try not to let my criticisms of the comics become criticism of people or situations.

Sometimes I fail to keep those concerns separate. Other times it backfires, and by not taking circumstances into account, I end up asking for the impossible. These problems are especially apparent when I'm discussing ways that I think an issue of the comic could have been improved.

So when the good folks at SegaBits started soliciting questions for another marathon "Ask Ian" interview with Sonic's head writer Ian Flynn, I decided to ask:

Does it ever bother you when we fans get so into our criticisms and so detailed with discussions of how it should have been written that we end up playing script doctor? I'm thinking especially of the discussion around #247, where I and several others started brainstorming about how we'd change the story, how to fix the pacing, which characters we'd cut, and the like.

Surprisingly enough, they used the question (it's the third one from the end, around 2h 5m 30s) and Ian gave a rather in-depth answer.

First, let me give a little context: In the BumbleKing thread for Sonic #247, I went into some detail on what I felt were rather severe pacing problems. My first case-in-point was this panel, which had enough dialogue for an entire page:

A single panel from STH #247: 
Sonic: "There never was a 'traitor.' That was your assumption."
Silver: "History's assumption. I got the motive wrong."
Sonic: "We're saving Sally. We're stopping Eggman."
Silver: "And I'm going to help."
Sonic: "And you think that'll fix the future?"
Silver: "...I don't know. It's a start."
Sonic: "All right..."
Sonic: "...As long as you mean that..."
Sonic: "...We're cool."

No, really:

Thumbnail sketch of the above panel rewritten as a whole page

(Please ignore the badness of the art. But do feel free to bring it up next time I'm criticizing Tracy Yardley's modeling.)

In addition, I ended up getting really detailed with talk of how the story could be changed to alleviate the pacing problems. I said, in some detail, which characters and sequences I would have cut. Here's an excerpt, which—be warned—contains spoilers:

I think the arctic FF and the orca should also have been cut. (Of course I can't stand Erma or Akhlut, so maybe I'm biased. ;) ) Perhaps establish that the orca legion is harassing the walruses in order to keep the AFF distracted and away from the Death Egg (that is the MO Eggman's been using for Mecha Sally's entire tenure). Maybe bring one AFF along for the ride as an escort, and so there's someone impartial to listen to Silver's revelation (as Erma ended up doing). As it is now, the AFF are little more than set dressing except for a few fleeting moments, and the orca are a credible threat for all of two pages and then Akhlut just wastes page space by flailing around, being useless, and giving the robots pointless orders. They're pretty much only there because, by golly, this is an Arctic story.

Here's another one:

Gatorman wrote:
Third, have Guntiver knocked out by a robot. This makes their escape, which could be in the next regular story, much more dangerous, as they would have to carry dead weight back through the tunnel. At this point the other AFFs may enter to assist, and the orcas can have a go at them.
If you're going to go the dead weight route, I think it would be better to have them actually retrieve Sally, but have to carry her back through the tunnel. (Silver would have to be otherwise occupied, otherwise he could just float her.) Come to think of it, having the Genesis wave go off while the heroes were escaping with Sally in tow--victory finally within their grasp--would have been more dramatic, I think.

That's really getting down into the nuts and bolts of the story. At this point I'm starting to wonder if I'm not stepping out of line and trying to do Ian's (or editor Paul Kaminski's) job.

Here's what Ian had to say:

If anything, if the criticism has to be, you know, itty-bitty things, and you're taking apart small components, if you have to get to the nitpicky stage, I think that's more of a compliment than anything, because you're not saying, "Okay, this entire issue was wrong, because x." If it's "Okay, we have to get in, dig down, and we have to find individual things that should have been improved, that I think is, you know, saying that the story worked overall; it's just, you would have preferred it another way.

Um, it is a little...I don't know, "frustrating" maybe?...because you're working under the assumption that you would be able to change those things, and those things were not there for a reason. I mean, I can't immediately think of, you know, specific examples of what Linebyline's talking about, and I don't want to sound too defensive about this, 'cause sure, maybe it could have been improved in some aspects. I'm not saying that it was some perfectly polished gem how dare you question my GENIUS!? [supervillain chuckle] (Also, in case anyone's confused, that was also a joke.)

Um, but I mean it's really easy to look back at the finished product and say, "Okay, I would have done x, y, and z differently," and I was really guilty of that when I was, you know, up and coming in the Sonic community. But, you know, it's one thing to say, "this is how it should have been," and it's another thing to take into— was the editor— what, I mean, do they know what the editor said about the script? Do they know what Sega said about the script? Do they know what outlying factors behind the scenes necessitated certain things to happen as they did? You know? There's a lot of variables that the fans just simply can't know about, and turn and, you know, realistically apply them to the script.

That said, there are, you know, technical aspects that they can go through and point out, "yeah, it could have been done this way, and potentially better," in which case, I can just shrug. Sorry. I did my best, and hopefully you enjoyed it overall.

One of the podcast's hosts (I apologize for not being able to tell who's who) added this:

A good example of, um, things kind of happening behind the scenes that the writer has no control over would be what happened to the "Darkest Storm" arc, where you had to take this six-issue—six-issue story, and condense it into a three-issue story. And for years, I was really critical of you because it— I really didn't like the pacing. But then it turns out, oh, but this— this really— this thing happened behind the scenes, and that necessitated that it be shrunk down like that.

Ian responded:

Yeah, it was, "Eliminate these three dozen plot three issues. Go!" [All chuckle.]

"Also make it fully accessible, and feature all the Sonic characters, and it can't be nothing but dialogue."

Okay! Challenge accepted! Let's have a 27-character fight scene! Whoo-hah!

(Note: Ellipses in the above quotations indicate pauses, not deletions.)

There's definitely a temptation to look at a story that turned out badly and think "I can do better than that." But I can't do better than that! Maybe, with lots of time and effort, I could learn to do reasonably well enough that if I didn't have any of the restrictions Ian works under, I could produce a finished product that I would like better. In any case, there's a good reason I pay money to read Ian's writing, but he's never read any fiction I've written (unless he stumbled onto my old Zelda site, in which case I sincerely apologize).

Okay, my suggested edits to STH #247 may well have improved it. But one important thing to remember is that Ian already did most of the work. I'm only suggesting modifications to what he's already done. Furthermore, I didn't come anywhere close to producing a finished script; it would be less ridiculous to call my thumbnail sketch finished page art. I can't do Ian's job even when he's already done most of it for me.

And of course he's right to bring up the fact that he works under restrictions that I don't have. "Endangered Species" is a testament to the fact that sometimes crazy stuff happens and there's nothing the writer can do about it, and also a testament to the fact that even in those cases Ian still does his manly best to tell a coherent story. Even under normal circumstances, though, there are a lot of different things Ian has to work around that I don't, some of which the fandom at large doesn't even know about.

(Even if the fandom generally does know about something, that doesn't mean I do. Case in point: "Darkest Storm" being cut down to half its intended length. Maybe it was mentioned in the Script Bits and I just forgot, but that came as news to me.)

I certainly understand Ian being frustrated by people criticizing him for not doing things that he simply couldn't have done. That's part of why I try not to make things personal in my reviews, but I don't think that's quite going far enough. After all, saying that something should have been done differently isn't really different from saying that whoever did it should have done it differently.

So what have I learned? First, I need to review comics, not decisions. Like Ian said, it's one thing to say something else could have been better than what the end product actually was, and another to say that specific things should have been done differently (with or without reference to who did it).

More importantly, I need to focus on what was actually written. It may be interesting to do some kind of analysis of what could have been (or what I think could have been), but it's not necessarily very helpful. It's better to say what I did and didn't like about the story than to complain about not having been told a different story.

Besides, just because I can spot problems doesn't mean I know how to fix them. While this can be tough to admit, it's not exactly a new concept for me. After all, I'm fond of quoting Chesterton about being "right about what is wrong" but "generally wrong about what is right," not to mention that my habit of linking to Jakob Nielsen's article about not designing software around how users think it should be fixed. It's a well-established principle that I need to bear in mind when I write reviews.

Above all, I need to keep in mind that the comic is made by people, and for that reason I need to make sure to be respectful.