When the team at Archie began their long line of 48-page Sonic specials, the original intent was to make each one, well, special. Something so big, that it couldn’t be held in the main series. A bone-fide event, not to mention a way to increase sales. Sonic: In Your Face! was the first, focusing on Princess Sally and completing a story begun in the main line. Others followed, such as Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic Triple Trouble, and Sonic & Knuckles: Mecha Madness. Each one tried to up the ante, adapting games or doing storylines that the readership just had to get, not wanting to miss out on something that could be awesome.
When the 48-page specials were turned into their own quarterly series, there was an attempt to continue making each issue some big extravaganza. The oft-mentioned Brave New World. Return of the King, where the crystallized King Acorn was finally restored to his former glory. Even the Sonic Kids specials tried to examine facets of the mythology that the writers otherwise couldn’t. Sure, not every issue delivered, but those that did delivered in spades. That’s why there was so much hype about Knuckles: 20 Years Later. With how passionate Ken Penders sounded while talking about it to fans, the readers felt they were in for a treat. That’s why there was so much disappointment when it was postponed indefinitely after the cancellation of the Super Specials.
Before the announcement of Mobius: 25 Years Later, however, there was a brief tease of that future in Ken’s strip: the first appearance of Lara-Su, Knuckles’ daughter of the future. Thrown across time and space, the fans were finally able to see the character in action, to tide them over in anticipation of a storyline they still hoped for. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Reunification.”
Everyone loves a good disaster movie. A group of people living their normal lives, suddenly forced to deal with natural forces beyond their control. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, you name it. Some people watch them just so they can see famous landmarks explode. Others because they like to imagine themselves in a similar situation, wondering if they could get out of it alive. A classic form of the human struggle, people banding together against incredible odds.
Most of these stories don’t have a crazed antagonist behind them. There might be some selfish person who looks to capitalize on what is going on for their own personal gain, but rarely are they the one behind it. Not to say there aren’t movies where a crazy scientist has figured out how to make earthquakes and terrorizes the world for money. You just don’t find that in most fiction of this sort. That slips into science-fiction territory, which has entirely different goals in mind.
When you’re dealing with the type of disasters like the one presented in Mobius: 25 Years Later, however, you can’t just leave it be as something out of the character’s hands. If you are building the final chapter to a sweeping epic, you need an antagonist worthy of what is happening around the characters. Crisis On Infinite Earths, the DC maxi-series I cited earlier and a clear inspiration to the “crazy weather” plot, knew this. The weather was a precursor to the end of existence, but as the story unfolded, it was discovered that it was all part of a design by a character known as the Anti-Monitor. A being so evil that he wanted to destroy the universe, leaving only that which he controlled. There was something the heroes could actually fight against. A final chapter that stayed true to everything that had come before it. Not panel after panel of scientists trying to find a solution.
A lot can be said for having a character study in a strip that is otherwise full of action and adventure. While it’s fun to watch the hero punch the bad guy and save the day, you can only do so much. Without engaging characters at the center of the story, there’s no reason to keep on watching. Having one-dimensional hijinks from two-dimensional characters can only keep people intrigued for so long. Video games don’t have to be as great in the characterization department as a major motion picture, yes, but a person playing a game is expecting different things than the person sitting down and, say, reading an issue of Sonic the Hedgehog. I don’t need to know every detail of Eggman‘s motives as I run through the Green Hill Zone. In a comic, I need texture. Having 22 pages of Sonic running and jumping and saying nothing is not how you keep a comic book going for two decades.
At the same time, you can’t have a comic book about Sonic be just a bunch of talking heads. You need a careful balance of exposition and explosions. Having the occasional issue where the characters are able to sit back and talk is important. Being able to examine everyone’s motives, explore their hopes and fears, and even having them grow in some fashion can keep people interested. Then you can go back to Sonic popping badniks and throwing out one-liners.
Ken was acutely aware of this as he tried to shift the comic towards the Saturday morning mindset, having extended plotlines showcasing the heroes with both victories and failures, not to mention the occasional introspective moment. But whatever balance he had in those early days seemed to disappear long before he got to writing Mobius: 25 Years Later. Having a hundred pages of flimsy character study with nothing else does not inspire your audience to read on.
When Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog first started, it worked on an extremely simple premise. Freedom Fighters, striking from a hidden base, have victory after victory against the evil Dr. Robotnik, although the status quo never changes. With no concern to follow continuity, the light-hearted, pun-centric stories could do whatever they wanted. But looking at the ambitious scope of the Saturday morning cartoon‘s second season, Ken Penders was inspired to transform the comic into something that could be even greater than what was seen on the airwaves.
This was when Ken’s obsession with world building began. In a fictional universe, sometimes even the smallest details can help flesh it out. One look at the original Star Wars films, for example, proves just that. When Luke and Obi-Wan walk into the Mos Eisley Cantina in the first film, all these strange creatures from across the universe are sitting together, each with their own story, adventures that go far beyond what Luke Skywalker was doing. The audience didn’t need to know the name of every species or their occupations, simply the fact they existed gave it credence. This was a living, breathing universe that had existed long before the rebels stole the plans to the Death Star.
Introducing concepts and characters that could be revisited by other authors down the line was what Ken wanted to do. Build a living, breathing world where untold adventures and civilizations lay just beyond the horizon. He did this before Endgame, it was the expressed purpose of Brave New World, and the Knuckles series had new idea after new idea in almost every arc. Just coming up with a slew of ideas doesn’t automatically make them good, however. Sometimes, it can even bury the story you are trying to tell.
Looking at the comic book as a whole, it’s pretty clear that the entire staff – not just Ken Penders – had some trouble transitioning to the Sonic Adventure era of the franchise. After all, Sonic the Hedgehog was based primarily on the Saturday morning series, which featured characters and settings far removed from the video games. Even characters like Dr. Robotnik were extremely different, his visual appearance and chilling vocals as far removed from the Dr. Eggman design as one could get. Even though Robotnik had been briefly retired, when word came from the licensing department that the newest game was to be adapted in the pages of the series, the staff was given a tremendous challenge. How would one reconcile the anthropomorphic world of a polluted and corrupted Mobius with the human-friendly, pristine world of Sonic Adventure?
The answer? Not very well. Having Station Square be a human city hidden in a mountain and protected from the gene bomb that wiped out most of humanity millennia before, there was already an ominous cloud over everything. Intent on adapting the game as closely as possible, the most ridiculous plot devices were used. Alternate robot bodies, magic rings aging characters, and Super Emeralds somehow able to create buckles on shoes that didn’t already have them…
The hardest hit, though, had to be Ken. Here was a man who, regardless of how you feel about his work, had spent years creating this entire world for Knuckles the Echidna from scratch. Then one day, you’re told that your carefully crafted history has to be pushed aside to include the backstory for Knuckles as introduced in Adventure. The story of Pachacamac, Tikal and Chaos contradicted Ken’s take on the creation of Angel Island at every turn. Coupled with the cancellation of Knuckles’ solo series, it comes through that Ken was writing something his heart wasn’t in. His long-term plans for characters that weren’t even his had to be changed, and pet projects like the original Knuckles: 20 Years Later were put on indefinite hold. Having grown a garden in one place and then being told that you’re actually supposed to be making taffy? That has to take a toll on anyone.
It wouldn’t surprise me if, in some regard, Ken resents Sonic Adventure and the elements he was forced to play with.
With Endgame, the future of Sonic the Hedgehog was up in the air. The comic, which had relied so heavily on the concepts of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and the Saturday morning series, could no longer fall back on the status quo of those shows. With the defeat of Robotnik and the reclaiming of Mobotropolis, the future was suddenly unsure. With the 48-page special Brave New World, it was clear that the comic felt it still had life in it even if Robotnik wasn’t the main villain. The world of Mobius was not yet safe, one victory not suddenly making everything the way it was before Julian turned on King Acorn.
With Karl Bollers taking over as the main writer for the Sonic series, Ken Penders took on a new assignment – to focus on the brand new monthly Knuckles the Echidna comic book. Brainstorming all sorts of ideas for his new series, the seeds for the future were once again planted. Unlike the last time, however, it looked as though the licensing representatives at SEGA would allow Ken to explore the future of these characters in ways never before imagined…
In the early 90’s, the continuity of the Saturday morning series Sonic the Hedgehog captured the hearts of numerous Sonic fans. For many, it was their very first exposure to the blue blur. For others, it was the chance to finally see their favorite hero animated on the small screen, even if it didn’t match up with the world they played in the games. Beginning with the second season, a storyline evolved that those who tuned in each week couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. They wanted to know what the future held for these characters, and if they would be able to reclaim their childhood home of Mobotropolis and defeat the evil Dr. Ivo Robotnik.
Television, much like comic books, can be a fickle medium. After two seasons the show went off the air, many thinking the comic book would follow suit. After all, how many licensed comics survived their source material? But to the surprise of many in the halls of Archie Comics, the title became more popular once the television series had unceremoniously ended, the four-color pages being the only outlet for those who felt unsatisfied with the cliffhanger ending of the cartoon. Even if the details were different, the future of these characters could be followed. Princess Sally, Antoine, Rotor, Bunnie and the rest could live on.
The idea of being able to show the “happily ever after,” though, was still something impossible. If the heroes defeated Robotnik and took back the kingdom, it would mean the end of the comic book as well. Even if the book is its own unique story, it still exists to serve as an advertisement to the games. There was no way Dr. Eggman could vanish from the book completely as long as he was the main antagonist in the video games. Sonic and Sally could not ride off into the sunset.
That didn’t mean Ken Penders wouldn’t try to show it anyway.
Sonic the Hedgehog is not a superhero. Yes, Sonic is a hero in the sense that he fights evil and wants to save his friends. He has an arch nemesis, he has a sidekick, he has a friendly rival, he kinda has a love interest depending on how you look at it. Unlike the traditional American superhero archetype, however, Sonic does not fight Eggman because he feels he has to. The blue blur possesses a strong sense of justice, but at the same time lives a carefree existence based on his own rules. He did not have a tragic event in his childhood that made him realize he had to dedicate his life to fighting evil, or come to find he was the only being on the planet with a gift he had to use for the betterment of mankind. Sonic is, to quote a phrase, “just a guy who loves adventure.” His fights with Dr. Eggman are not just because the doctor put his nose in his friend’s business, but because it is something exciting to do. If Eggman had looked for the Chaos Emeralds elsewhere, or decided not to start capturing the animal friends on South Island? Sonic would never have gone looking for Eggman just because he was power hungry.
In most western-produced media, though, the idea of Sonic actually being some sort of superhero took hold, with secret origins becoming motivators for Sonic’s entire philosophy. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Ken Penders writing style doesn’t always work for what Sonic is supposed to be. Ken grew up on superhero comics. The works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby shaped in his mind how a comic is supposed to be written. He wanted to emulate his heroes, and used the world of Sonic & Knuckles as his canvas to do so, his first real writing job. Also trying to match the trends of modern comics with long-form storylines that are really meant to be read in graphic novels and not the monthly publications they are confined to, Ken wanted to do so much more than what he could. Not just because he was using other people’s characters, but because his writing just isn’t up to par with those great iconic comic book writers. His own ideas seem to escape him, and while there are moments of brilliance, I often get the sense Ken is desperately fighting with himself to reel everything back in.
To be fair, he never did make Sonic adopt a secret identity and wear a mask to fight crime. That was all Karl Bollers. But that’s a story for another day.
Hello and welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the world of Mobius: 25 Years Later. I am your host, David the Lurker, and I know you can’t wait to jump right into part three of this exciting series. After all, so much has happened up to this point, how could you not want to know what exciting twists and turns are around the corner? Ok, it’s more of the same, but remember, back when this came out, people had to wait a month at a time before they got their next six page fix, longing with anticipation the continuation of a storyline the readers had been waiting for since 1999. With the first part not seeing print until the end of 2003, the Archie devout waited four years to see the future of their favorite characters. You, the readers of Sonic Retro, only have to wait a week at a time before you deal with the longest review in the world about anything Ken Penders has ever put to paper.
When looking at Mobius: 25 Years Later as a whole, it is pretty clear just how important Ken Penders wanted this story to be for the readers. Running in the comic for over a year, coupled with its promise of wrapping up numerous storylines that had been running through his Knuckles narrative since nearly the beginning of his time writing for the title, it was meant to be this grand finale for a medium whose very nature would prevent an ending from coming about. If the series were to ever end, there might not be enough warning to give the comic any sort of closure, as has been the case for numerous titles throughout the industry, not just at Archie Comics. The publication of a licensed comic going for as long as Sonic the Hedgehog has is still unprecedented, and only in recent years have Archie and SEGA really begun to comprehend this. It’s been said more than once that SEGA’s input in the series currently far surpasses anything they did during Ken’s tenure, quite possibly wanting to avoid a situation where the interior of the comic book is in stark contrast with how the franchise is being portrayed in the games.
Though it’s uncertain if Ken ever thought about the possibility of his work being collected into a trade paperback, Mobius: 25 Years Later certainly feels like something that was meant to be released as a single volume at some point down the line, similar to how Archie have recently been collecting the Sonic the Hedgehog comics in its Archive and Selects books. While the issues 25 Years Later appeared in are still a ways away from being considered for inclusion, it wasn’t that long ago that almost the entirety of the storyline was published together in Issue #4 of the Sonic Super Special Magazine, a quarterly publication whose goal seems a bit all over the place, collecting random arcs of various quality.
For anyone who owns a copy of Issue #4, those in the know may have noticed two parts of the story missing: “Prologue,” which was covered in detail in our previous installment, and “Father’s Day,” the penultimate chapter which we’ll get to in due time. So for those who have only experienced the saga in magazine format, we’re reaching territory you are now familiar with as we once again journey into the world of Mobius: 25 Years Later…