Line by Line

The Sonic Reboot

posted December 31, 2013

Tags: Sonic

Archie Comics recently did a soft reboot of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic, which has predictably sent the fandom into an uproar. (Not that Sonic fans are special; there are as many opinions as there are fans, regardless of what they happen to be fans of.) Anyway, now seems like as good a time as any to get my thoughts on the matter down in one place.

First, a little background, as succinctly as I can state it: Once upon a time, it was believed that Sega made sure to get the rights to all licensed Sonic media (except Sonic the Comic, which was a mistake they don't want to make again). So it should have been no problem to let the makers of the Sonic Chronicles game use some issues of Archie's Knuckles comic as inspiration. Unfortunately, it turned out that the contract between Archie and former Sonic writer Ken Penders wasn't quite as ironclad (or, um, extant) as they had believed. Penders set out to sue Sega for using his work in ways he never agreed to. He registered the copyrights to his Sonic scripts, and Archie sued him for doing so. Long story short, Archie couldn't prove that Penders wasn't entitled to the copyrights, so as far as Uncle Sam is concerned, they're his.

While all this was going on, Archie was adamant that Penders was bound to lose the case and did not own the copyrights. Consequently, the comic continued to use Penders' characters, concepts, etc. in stories until late 2012, when Archie got a new legal team. The new lawyers (smartly) insisted that the comic get rid of all Penders' material ASAP, resulting in the first issue of the long-awaited "Endangered Species" arc being heavily edited and the rest of the arc being rewritten entirely to shove Penders' characters off-panel. For a short time thereafter, the comic limped along trying to refer to Penders' material in non-copyright-infringingly vague terms until the badly over-hyped Mega Man crossover happened. The crossover ended (spoiler alert!) with Eggman literally breaking the universe, and the following issues have dealt with establishing rebooted versions of the characters and settings. The new version of the continuity contains no material created by Penders--or pretty much any other past writer, for that matter.

One other important note: Several other previous members of the comic's creative team were prepared to testify that they, like Penders, did not have contracts that assigned their copyrights to Archie. This is widely believed to be the reason that no Archie-exclusive material not created by the current creative team has appeared since the reboot.

I bring this up purely for the sake of context. I am not going to be doing any kind of legal analysis here. Rather, my aim is to discuss what I think of the reboot itself. The short version is, I don't like it. Here's the long version:

My biggest problem with the reboot is that it can't quite decide whether it wants to be the same continuity as the old comic or not. At first blush, it looks like everything old has been ditched. Indeed, that's largely the point, given that it's probably illegal for Archie to use most of the old material.

On the other hand, the comic seems to be at great pains to remind readers, almost ad nauseam, that the old continuity existed (even if the point is largely to illustrate how much better the new one is). The first issue after the crossover wasted valuable panel space giving some form of closure to the lingering plot points from #247, and the whole first arc is dedicated to giving the Freedom Fighters back their memories of the old continuity (even while those who already had memories are apparently losing them).

The reason this bugs me is that I can't see an advantage to it, other than maintaining the notion that this is nominally the same comic. It isn't really the same in a meaningful way because everything has changed, right down to the personal history of every single character. But it's also not the clean break/fresh start that it's trying to be, because such a huge amount of the comic is devoted to exposition about the old continuity and making the point that things have changed. A hard reboot would still require exposition and setup, of course, but all of it could be devoted to moving forward, and there wouldn't need to be all this business about who still has what memories.

That brings me to another complaint I have: The comic's entire history is completely up in the air. This is to be expected, of course, since it is a brand-new continuity, but I have two reasons for considering it a problem anyway. First, you should not have near-zero world-building when your comic has been around for over 250 issues (plus another hundred or so issues of secondary titles, mini-series, and specials).

Second, the comic keeps trying to take shortcuts to this world-building and then undermining itself. I'm referring partly to the fact that certain bits of the old continuity did still happen (such as "Genesis" and "Treasure Team Tango") but that's entirely unhelpful because we don't know which parts happened until we have them confirmed, and even then we don't know how the post-reboot versions of those events differ until that's explained to us, too. Mostly, though, I'm referring to the same approach being taken to the games. We know that some of the games have already happened (Sonic Colors and Shadow the Hedgehog have been confirmed) but we have reason to believe that others (like Sonic Generations and Sonic Unleashed) haven't. Moreover, we don't know the extent to which the games' events happened differently in the rebooted Archie continuity.

Even if the reboot hadn't undermined the game shortcut by being selective about what's happened yet, it's still unfair to those who haven't played the games. I'll dispense with the absurd "but the comic is just an ad for the games" meme some other time; for now, let me just point out that the intended audience for the comic is between six and twelve years old. It's not fair to expect them (or rather, their parents) to run to eBay and pick up these old games just so they can understand the backstory. Sure, some are relatively recent (Colors) or have been re-released on modern consoles (Adventure 2 on Xbox Live) but then there's Shadow the Hedgehog, which came out over eight years ago (when the target audience ranged from toddlers to not-yet-existing) for consoles that are now two generations old, and is referenced in SU#59 the way that back issues normally are. Somehow I doubt Archie is going to start bundling video games with the Sonic Archives.

It also bothers me that games that never got adaptations have already happened in the rebooted continuity. I wanted to see some of those adaptations, and now that probably won't happen except maybe in flashback a la SU #2. I had hoped to get a chance to see first-hand how those games' events would have transpired differently in the Archie continuity (even the post-reboot one). I can understand not rolling back the clock to the Sega Genesis days and re-adapting all the old games that already got adaptations (of sorts), but I don't understand why the unadapted games have been taken off the table (albeit selectively).

Speaking of things I wanted to see but never got to, I'm not thrilled with the way the reboot simply never-minded (or at best hastily resolved) some of the ongoing plots from before the crossover. I'm not talking about things that had to be dropped due to the legal drama; I mean things like Antoine's recovery, the deroboticized-Bunnie subplot, and the fate of Mecha Sally. I'm irritated by the cursory sendoffs given to King Naugus and the Tails Doll, but I'm much more bothered by the things that were simply Genesis Waved away.

My last gripe is an obvious one, given all the legal shenanigans I mentioned before, but still worth mentioning: I'm disappointed at the amount of Archie-exclusive content that has been lost. Sure, some of it wasn't very good. In fact, depending on whom you ask, a lot of it or even most of it wasn't very good. But some of it was good, and some of it was just waiting for Ian Flynn or another writer to come along and make something of it, the way Flynn took Monkey Khan and Harvey Who and made them relevant and interesting. I'm not saying Archie shouldn't have removed the old material--the alternative was to break the law--but I'm still sad to see it go.

So is it all bad news? No. There are a few things I like about the new continuity.

Probably the best thing I can say about the rebooted reality is that parts of it feel like the way the comic should have been all along. Take King Acorn for instance: He's the same dignified, charming, affable King of Mobius seen a couple of times in SatAM, rather than the brain-damaged grouch seen in Archie. Another example is the Mystic Ruins: Being a location from the games, it's actually like it was in the games, rather than the home of some made-up cat tribe that served only to make Echidna history even more convoluted than it already was. I may not like the fact that these things were changed via soft reboot, but I do like the way the new continuity handles them better than the old one.

I've also long been a fan of the comic's fusion of recent Sega, old Sega, SatAM, and original material, and the post-reboot continuity is making some valiant efforts to keep up the tradition. (Okay, the Archie-original material is pretty thin so far, for obvious reasons, but that's beside the point.) In one issue, we see GUN aircraft carriers harassing Archie-exclusive Eggman subordinates, leading to a glorious homage to one of my favorite Sonic Adventure 2 levels. It's been hinted that Uncle Chuck knows Professor Pickle. Mobobtropolis and Knothole (which still exists, by the way) are on Westside Island and there are Sonic 2 references all over the place. I eat this stuff up.

So yeah, there's reason to be happy about the new direction of the comic. But is it enough?

The answer will be different for every reader. For me, it's "not yet."

Sure, the new continuity looks promising, if I can ignore my problems with the reboot itself. I just can't justify getting invested in what is basically a whole new Sonic continuity unless the stories themselves are good. So far, though, they're just not that compelling.

Don't get me wrong: "Pirate Plunder Panic" was a lot of fun, but it sort of fell apart at the end. "Countdown to Chaos" (including the alleged part 2 of "At All Costs") has some nice moments but has mostly been a boring exposition-fest laced with the total derailment of Antoine's character and papered over with fun little bits of Sonic fan service. "Shadow Fall" looks all set to be a crappy Mary-Sue fanfic, unless we luck out and it turns out to be satire.

So where does that leave me? I'm putting some distance between myself and the comic. (I've needed to do that for a long time: It's just a comic book, after all, and I've been fretting over it way more than it deserves.) I may or may not renew my subscription when the time comes, though it's looking like "not" at the moment. In the mean time, I'm done worrying about it. If I like what I see, great. If I don't, too bad, but I'm not going to let it hurt my feelings. I'm a fan, yes, but I'm also a grown man with more important things to spend my time and energy on.

What's the bottom line on the reboot? I don't like the fact of the reboot or various aspects of how it was handled. The post-reboot continuity looks promising, but unless the stories get more interesting than what I've seen so far, it's not enough to keep me interested. Your mileage will vary.