By Charles EP Murphy
Sonic the Hedgehog is all about two things – going fast and franchising. And in the first decade or so of Sonic’s life, Sega wasn’t too fussed about how a franchisee adapted Sonic so long as they paid up. One outcome of this is that both the US and the UK had their own Sonic comics. Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Egmont Fleetway’s Sonic the Comic both would last far longer than expected and both had Sonic in them, and that’s their only common point! Their tones, the way they adapted game elements, their stories, and even the origins for Sonic and Robotnik (“Eggman” to you) are wildly different. They also became wildly different to the Mega Drive games, for Sega didn’t care too much about synergy until the 2010s. And there’s several points of diversion that could have made the comics even more different than that! In Brightest Day… Sonic the Comic is the most well-known media to use Sega of America’s origin tale (even though America itself never did). Sonic was a brown hedgehog once who helped a kindly scientist named Dr Kintobor collect the Chaos Emeralds, to remove all evil from the world. Kintobor’s experiments would turn Sonic blue and, thanks to a lab accident, turn the man himself into the evil Doctor Robotnik.
But in 1993, Nigel Kitching, who would write half of the comic, pitched a completely different origin for the hedgehog.
As revealed in Sharper Than A Cyber Razor Cut, Kitching had been bothered why “such a self-centred, shallow character” would keep saving the day and so proposed that Sonic was empowered by a higher authority, akin to the Green Lanterns of DC Comics working for the Guardians of the Universe. This authority figure, named Mobius after Sonic’s planet, gave Sonic his power sneakers and blue appearance in exchange for the hedgehog fighting for justice. “I rather like the idea of Sonic being a hero for totally selfish reasons,” Kitching wrote. One story in this pitch is “Sonic No More”, where Mobius gets bloody sick of Sonic’s attitude and strips him of his powers, giving it to new hero Warp the Squirrel. Sonic would be ignored by the people and only his buddy Tails would stand by him. In the end, Warp would be less capable than the hedgehog and our hero would get his powers back. Getting this through Sega may seem difficult but at this point, Sega was quite blasé about what people did as long as Sonic remained ‘cool’. In Sharper, editor Richard Burton and artists Carl Flint & Richard Elson all recall an early meeting involving the comic’s team with Sega and Copyright Promotions LTD, whom Sega had tasked to oversee the licensees for them. While Copyright Promotions had been calling for many changes, Sega’s own representative was almost immediately won over by the creator’s argument that a looser hand would make for better stories! (“From that day on, CPL were really hands off,” Elson told Sharper)
This would change the entirety of Sonic the Comic. For a start, will the Kintobor origin still be used if Sonic’s has changed? Most of STC had the heroes using the Kintobor Computer, which had a copy of the scientist’s brainwaves and was their avuncular operating system. That would be out. So too would the time travel story where Sonic is forced to ensure Robotnik’s origin happens. Do the Sonic novels from Virgin Books still use the Kintobor origin, becoming the most prominent media to do so? Most significantly, Sonic would have a boss and he can be stripped of his speed powers. If that can be done, there will be plots where Robotnik will try to do it; and if someone else can gain his powers, there will be plots where this happens; and poor Warp is likely to pop up again too. A story where Tails becomes a blue speedster, similar to Dick Grayson filling in as Batman, is a safe assumption! As the comic goes on, more things will be affected. Would Knuckles the Echidna, as Sonic’s big rival and as Guardian of the Master Emerald, be given his own ‘guardian’ employer to make him a better rival? Can Knuckles lose his power too? Would a villainous equivalent to Mobius show up, or stories where Robotnik has knocked out Mobius and the heroes are on their own? When writer Lew Stringer had Amy Rose and her friend Tekno travelling the multiverse righting wrongs, is it because Mobius sent them? Tails’ early solo strips sent him to the sword-and-sorcery Nameless Zone, where people mistakenly believe he’s the hero and Sonic is the sidekick – do they mistakenly believe he has the power of Mobius too? How would Super Sonic, famously the Mister Hyde to Sonic’s Jekyll in STC, fit into this – have the Chaos Emeralds, having absorbed evil thanks to Kintobor, corrupted Mobius’ power? This origin story was also pitched before editor Richard Burton decided that Sonic and his friends should become freedom fighters against a Robotnik regime, an element taken from the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog (“SatAm” to fans) cartoon that Archie Comics would more directly adapt. If Sonic is literally empowered to guard the planet, Robotnik taking over means he’s failed. If Sonic originally took the gig for selfish reasons, does the character feel guilt (which he would likely bury and pretend isn’t there) about this failure; does something personal drive him? Sonic the Comic would likely be completely unrecognisable. Sonic And the Heroes
Archie Comics had a significant point of divergence in 2003. Karl Bollers, one of the two regular writers and now editor at Valiant Comics, attempted a ‘soft reboot’ of the cast and setting. The premise was Sonic had returned from space to find a year had passed on Mobius, allowing for all manner of ‘off-screen’ change. Bollers would pass on a document of his plans to Sonic HQ, and so we know he had long-term plots for multiple characters going on for years. The most significant are:
Sonic and his once-girlfriend Princess Sally Acorn break up (with Sally slapping him during it). Afterwards, Sonic ends up gradually falling into a relationship with Amy Rose, who he slowly realises has matured and become a proper hero since he’s been away. The hedgehogs would try to keep this secret from Sally.
Knuckles lost most of his powers after being dead (he got better) and goes on a pilgrimage to learn martial arts. When supervillains go hunting for power-up maguffins, Knuckles is temporarily turned into a demigod and liberates his home of Angel Island.
Dr Eggman has to deal with his supercomputer ‘son’ A.D.A.M. defecting and his nephew Snively trying to overthrow him – the latter disguised as a giant robot called Skarkus.
A military coup succeeds in the human city of Station Square.
After months of build-up, Sally’s dad is revealed to be taken over by magical villain Naugus, who has corrupted a mystical source of knowledge called the Source to try and mislead the Acorns. Sally rejects the idea of the Source dictating her actions.
Sonic’s evil mirrorverse counterpart Evil Sonic briefly impersonates his good twin and finds he actually likes the love & affection he gets from Sonic’s parents. Now he wants that permanently, so the real Sonic has to die… Bollers’ plans would likely fill at least two years of comics, especially as he’d started writing four-parters, and these plans would lead to further plans as is the norm for superhero comic soap operas. In his full document, he also makes repeated reference to video game elements he plans to bring in – something Archie was struggling with at the time, as their comics were quite different to the new Sonic Adventure era games they had to incorporate. The other regular writers, Ken Penders, was going to focus on a future-set 25 Years Later pet project, and an agreement was made that Bollers could use Penders’ Knuckles cast in exchange for Penders’ having the Sonic cast. As 25YL would last fourteen months, Bollers in theory would have a good stretch of time to exploit this new freedom and do several of his arcs. In practice, his first two story arcs – one establishing the new status quo and one involving Robotnik’s takeover of Knuckles’ home of Angel Island – were split by a three-parter of rewritten inventory stories, and then followed by three more filler strips before a change in editorial direction. Bollers would depart soon after. Afterwards, his unfinished reboot was mostly remembered by irritated fans for breaking up Sonic and Sally. Can this be averted? At the very least, it would be easy to prevent three months of filler by having them run before the reboot. This would mean Bollers’ stories follow each other and give him at least three more months to play with. The more time he has before the editorial changeover, the more his plans are embedded. Fan umbrage would likely have calmed down if his approach had gotten further without disruption. (And it doesn’t appear to have impacted sales. Based on the statistics recorded by Comichron, North American direct market sales had gone up by a moderate amount at the start of the new run and stayed up.) If more of the reboot can come out and be accepted, more will stick. One thing won’t stick: incoming editor Mike Pellerito wanted to reverse the Sonic/Sally breakup. Now, one thing that dominated American Sonic fandom at the time was shipping wars – whether Sonic should date Sally Acorn, or Amy Rose, or someone else. If Sonic is hooked up with Amy for any amount of time, or was in a story that was clearly going that way, and then he goes back to Sally, the shipping wars will continue to dominate American fandom for a good while yet! The most crucial change, however, is that in our timeline, the changes behind the scenes meant Ian Flynn became head writer of the comic on the strength of his then-unpublished backup strips. He would go on to write almost the entirety of Archie’s Sonic output from #160 until they lost the license, and then develop IDW’s current Sonic from the ground up; in the process, he’s created dozens of new characters and is the definitive Sonic comic writer for younger fans. In true alternate history fashion, this history is for want of a nail – when talking about how to break into comics, Flynn said “my timing just happened to align with a change in editors and a shuffling of the creative team.” Now, it’s likely Bollers still departs and Penders a year later in this timeline too, but what if the timing is even a few issues different? Is Flynn still the head writer as early as in our timeline? If so, what does he write when he inherits a different status quo? The Sound of The Underground
The cartoon Sonic Underground is one of the oddest things to have Sonic’s name on – Sonic is now a lost prince and has two siblings, Manic and Sonia, (and they’re all voiced by Jaleel White including the sister), and they are prophesised to overthrow Robotnik’s tyranny. The royal hedgehogs will do this using musical instruments! They travel as a band and perform a plot-relevant song every episode. Executive producer Bobby London (and writer of the theme song) said in a DVD documentary that the music angle was inspired by the success of Alvin and the Chipmunks the previous decade. Ben Hurst, who worked on this cartoon and was showrunner for half of “SatAm”, told fans on the alt.fan.sonic-hedgehog newsgroup in 2005 that DIC’s plan was to “collect extra residuals” from the songs, and he paints a picture of production being a rushed mess. It came out in 1999, the same year Sega was releasing Dreamcast with an all-new revamped look for Sonic – but Sonic Underground still used the original Mega Drive era look, or at least DiC’s version thereof, as it had started development in 1997. In our timeline, Sega took the money but – outside of a single special from Archie, which loosely bolted a crossover to another planned story – didn’t ask the comics to do any promotional work of it. (In fact, Sega of Europe didn’t even ask STC to use anything from the upcoming Sonic Adventure!) But what if it had? For both titles, this will cause obvious problems: Sonic suddenly needs to have two siblings out of nowhere. This might prove easier for STC to absorb than Archie, who had introduced Sonic’s missing parents a few years before and would now need to have them explain why they never mentioned the two other kids they had. The royalty angle would’ve also proved a pain for both but especially for Archie – did Sally’s family depose Sonic’s back in the day? Is Sonic the bonnie prince across the water?? For STC, having Sonic Underground content mandated would be a pig as the first episode appears on GMTV’s Diggit magazine show in early May, which is seven issues into the Shanazar plot arc where Sonic is trapped in an Arabian Night style alternate universe. The mandate would abruptly curtail the plans – which would reveal this was actually Mobius’s ancient past, and Sonic would be hunted as a criminal – and send Sonic back home to meet the new siblings. Morale would be damaged. However, in our timeline those plans were shattered anyway. Egmont Fleetway, feeling any fan who’d been reading for five years would have stopped reading by now, had been steadily replacing original strips with older reprints to save money, which reduced sales, which meant more reprints. Spring 1999 was when only Sonic’s lead strip was original material. As editor Deborah Tate wanted to give work to both Kitching and Stringer, Kitching (as recorded in Sharper) altered his Shanazar plans to have a team of bounty hunters tracking Sonic down, who would always catch up to him in Kitching’s stories and not trouble Stringer’s. However, Kitching was then dismissed from the comic entirely due to a conflict between Tate and Kitching – Elson told Sharper “Deb and Nigel were obviously coming at things from different directions… it was inevitable there would be conflict at some point. It didn’t last, though, and they are good friends again now that they don’t have to work with each other.” In essence, an imposed Sonic Underground tie-in wouldn’t have ended anything that wouldn’t have ended anyway – not that this would be known, leaving the Shanazar arc as a fondly remembered what-might-have-been instead of what it is, which is remembered as a series of increasingly bad done-in-one strips. It’s also possible that if there’s an imposition from Sega itself, any conflict behind-the-scenes will be prevented (or delayed) because it’ll be Sega they’ll be focusing any frustration on. The comic format is, at this point, almost perfectly designed for SU-style strips and status quo – there’s no ongoing arcs to disrupt except Shanazar, which saw Robotnik return from apparent death anyway. If Stringer does become the solo writer, instead of inheriting a half-finished plot and setting with none of the regular cast, he would inherit an exploitable basic concept and some extra characters to work with. The early strips he did write, such as “Space Race” where Sonic is forced by aliens to race against a strangely hedgehog-like opponent, will work a lot better in this format. A tie-in could also help the comic gain some extra sales – Diggit had an audience and this would make the comic closer to what they were seeing on the telly. Stronger stories would also retain more existing readers. If STC is selling more comics, the comic isn’t turned full-reprint by summer of 2000 (though Egmont Fleetway’s apathy towards it mean it’s only on borrowed time). In contrast, Archie’s Sonic is going to have a far bigger hassle – because SU airs in August 1999, so Archie would need to be setting up its tie-in (in OTL the special came out in June ’99) right when Bollers is bringing Robotnik back from the dead to reconquer the world, with lashings of other plot developments! A story built up for over a year! And then three months later, it has to adapt Sonic Adventure! This can’t be as easily redirected. Strips would need to be rewritten, plot arcs delayed, the supporting cast making space for Manic and Sonia, and Sonic is off in a travelling band instead of hanging with his usual friends in a crisis. And then all of that has to be dropped too, to go to a whole new setting for the game adaptation! In our timeline, the comic was disrupted by the perfect storm of the adaptation, the cancellation of the Knuckles comic that saw Penders moved to Sonic’s backup strip and the Adventure adaptation take twice as long, and a long-resting inventory strip running. It would take ten issues to get back on track. Now add in that Sonic Underground had to be introduced. Any of Bollers’ plans would be left in complete disarray. At that point, it would be easier to junk half of it and start again. The easiest snip would be humans arriving from a deep space voyage, some of them related to Robotnik (as it is, it took eighteen months for their setup to pay off!). Their arrival dragged through #92-104, which will probably benefit from scrapping it, but also introduced a popular supporting character, the young girl Hope Kintobor, who stuck around until Flynn’s early years. In this timeline, however, both comics would have another problem – Sonic Underground ended in 1999 and didn’t get renewed. So at some point and likely within a year of Sega saying ‘give Sonic two siblings’, Sega’s going to say, ‘those siblings you spent ages working in? Take them out.’ You can hear the swearing of the writers from all those timelines away… Fast Times These are three possible timelines but there’s many more for both comics: from decisions Sega made, from which creators are in place when, and which stories are around at the right time and place. All of this goes on to affect the fandom(s) and what they perceive to be the real way Sonic is told. What if Sega had been able to get the unmade Sonic X-Treme game made for Sega Saturn? What if STC had run its own love triangle plot? And so on, so on. Licensed franchise comics are some of the most vulnerable to butterflies. Everything and anything could change. And as long as 90s Sega got money, it wouldn’t care!
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.