Sonic Comics: My Thoughts On The Current Fan Division

Much like any fandom, the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom has a bit of a bad reputation. Also much like any fandom, it’s not really fair. The thing is, a lot of the time, fandoms start to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths due to a vocal minority rather than the majority of members. And, of course, the vocal members sometimes like to argue with each other too.

Now, with the Sonic fandom, a lot of clashes arise due to the games. That makes sense, as it’s where the franchise started. In particular, whether you like specific titles or mechanics can be an issue for some. The big clash though is over the comics.

If you’ve kept up with my regular reviews, you’ll know that I’m enjoying the Sonic comics. Not everyone does though, and that’s fine. The problems arise when it turns into an online mud-slinging match. So, what started all of this, and what do I think of it all? Well, believe it or not, the start of the arguments can actually be traced back to the early 2000s. I’ll start by detailing the events leading up to the fan clash and then move on to where we’re at and what my views are.

A Brief History Of The Lawsuits

The Archie imprint Sonic the hedgehog comics began as a four-issue mini-series that ran between 1992 and 1993. In July 1993, it started running full time and would go on to be the longest-running video game comic in history.

The comics were actually based on a spin-off, the 1993-1994 Saturday morning known affectionately as Sonic: SatAM. In April 1994, the imprint released issue 11 of the series, and in doing so took on its first long-term writer in the form of Ken Penders. Throughout his time writing for the series, Ken placed an emphasis on there being more character interaction and dramatic storytelling than we saw in the games (at least up until Sonic Adventure). This meant creating a vast wave of new supporting characters and penning a whole bunch of complex relationships between the cast members. He also wrote the entire Knuckles the Echidna spin-off, fleshing out the Echidna race’s backstory in the process.

And so Ken continued to work on the series until he was succeeded by Ian Flynn, starting with issue 160 in March 2006. At this point in time, Ian was essentially stepping into a pre-created universe with an overwhelmingly large cast of characters to draw from. Of course, some people preferred Ken’s writing style and thought that Ian was doing a poor job with his creations. Others thought that Ian did a better job with the characters. That sort of split is fairly natural when you replace long-term writing staff, so in a way, it wasn’t unexpected. As such, everything was mostly fine. Until the release of a video game in 2008.

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is, in my opinion, an underappreciated title. But that isn’t up for debate here. What matters is that its release in September 2008 kickstarted a chain of events. You see, shortly after, Ken Penders started filing for copyrights relating to his stories, characters, and artworks as it pertained to the Archie imprint Sonic comics. This process ran from January 2009 to April 2010, when the US Patents office began recognizing the work as Ken’s intellectual property.

Once that was all cleared up, he made a move against EA and SEGA, citing that the characters and storylines in Sonic Chronicles were too similar to his own Dark Legion arc. This was, again, a long process that spanned several years – 2011 to 2013 – and essentially ended in a stalemate. The Statute of Limitations meant that Ken couldn’t push it further unless the characters and concepts were used again, but that was enough to kill off the sequel that the game set up in its ending.

This also had ramifications for the comics. You see, given that the comics feature a licensed franchise, the obvious thing for Archie to do was to say that Ken was working on a ‘work for hire’ contract and that all creations actually belonged to SEGA. And so they did in 2010, but by 2013, they had failed to produce a copy of said contract, and so ended up settling with Ken.

But Archie were undoubtedly aware that this was going to happen. This is evidenced by their decision to effectively hit the panic button. In late 2012, Archie removed all reference to Ken Penders related characters from the series. That meant having to rewrite issues 244 to 246 of the main comic and issues 46-47 of the spin-off, Sonic Universe. Even the reprint specials removed old arcs that featured Ken’s characters. Then, in September 2013, issue 252 was released and we hit the ‘Second Super Genesis Wave’ arc, which effectively reboots the entire comic universe.

The consequences of this were far-reaching. SEGA introduced a new mandate that placed a lot of restrictions on what official creators could do with the Sonic franchise in not only comics but games, TV series, films, and toys. The full list can be found here, but among the restrictions were not allowing characters to have familial relationships unless previously established by SEGA (e.g. Cream and Vanilla), not using any of Ken’s characters or content, and not using material from Sonic Chronicles. Character restrictions were also put in place preventing Sonic from ‘losing’ and barring intimate/love relationships. Given the amount of relationship drama that the previous era of the Sonic comics portrayed, that last one meant a complete shift in tone.

So, the comics erased the history of the previous issues and implemented redesigns to make the characters look more like game characters than their original versions. The stories began moving more towards being game style stories too, with Ian attempting to keep things within the mandated guidelines. Again, this was divisive. Some hated the new direction of the comic, some loved it. Some blamed Ken, others didn’t. Hate and love were thrown about on all sides, and the team essentially had to weather it and continue with their job until the most recent reshuffle in licensing.

Moving On And The Current Division

The Archie comics were eventually canceled, and the series moved to IDW Publishing. This was essentially another reboot. No longer would we be following Sonic and the Freedom Fighters from Sonic: SatAM, but rather we would be visiting a new comic world and a timeline set after the events of Sonic Forces. This meant only game characters and a handful of new faces present.

Ian Flynn was hired to continue writing the series, once again with the intent of creating stories more closely aligned with the game universe. He has continued to do so since the beginning of the run, though he will be temporarily replaced by Evan Stanley after the cessation of the Metal Virus arc. If you don’t know, Evan has been the artist on multiple issues of both the Archie and IDW Sonic series, as well as having written for both versions, so she is definitely not a newcomer to the role.

As it stands, the IDW comics are outselling the Archie comics by a considerable margin and have been generally well-received. But, of course, not everyone is happy.

Here’s where things get a little messy. You see, there are currently plenty of fans that are happy to just enjoy Sonic media. I would even go so far as to say that the majority of fans are like this, simply enjoying what they enjoy, and disregarding what they don’t. But, like I said at the start of this, with any fandom, you will have those that wish to shout very loudly. And so, we come to the current comics split.

There are some very vocal parts of the fandom that are pro-Ken Penders and anti-Ian Flynn. They miss not only the Freedom Fighters but the characters Ken created and that style of storytelling. They tend to make this very clear, criticizing Ian’s work and often calling for the IDW series to be canceled so the license can go to another imprint. They also criticize fans of Ian’s work and claim that Ian is lying about the mandates, or that his ego is killing the series.

On the other side of things, there are also those who spring to Ian’s defense. Some will state the same things that Ken has been criticized for for years, including storytelling style and art quality. Others throw out sales facts. Some even create fan art of pro-Penders fans’ OCs coming to harm.

And then the arguments go back and forth with people essentially just shouting at each other and making the same points over and over again. Unsurprisingly, this resolves nothing. The fights just escalate until someone steps over a line and people start criticizing people on their own side of the argument. Then, they start over and repeat.

My Views On All Of This

So, let’s start with the lawsuits. I’m a big fan of Sonic Chronicles, and to see the sequel canceled as a result of this saddened me. However, my understanding – and I’m open to being corrected on this – was that Ken initially raised the lawsuits because he wanted to be paid for his work. He viewed the game as essentially ripping him off and took steps to correct this.

As an author who has seen their work appear on pirate sites before, I can tell you that it is a terrible thing when you know you’re not going to be paid for your creations. So, in that regard, Ken was within his rights to be upset.

The Work For Hire contract issue is the crux of it though. Archie claimed he signed one and that they didn’t have a backup. If that’s true, then Ken wouldn’t have a leg to stand on legally, as he would have known what he was signing. Ken maintains he never did sign one though, and if that’s correct, he was simply defending his intellectual property.

As far as I’m concerned, it was a shame that all of this happened. Like I said, the selfish side of me would love to see the game sequel. At the same time though, I cannot view Ken as being entirely I the wrong here. The consequences of his actions were far-reaching, sure, but that’s not really his fault. All he needed to – and all he did – care about was his own work. And that isn’t wrong.

And, if we’re being honest here, there are similarities between his Dark Legion and the game’s Nocturnus Clan. The same could be said for Knuckle’s Archie comics girlfriend Julie-Su and his love interest in the game, Shade. Which version of the story you prefer doesn’t really matter in that regard, because the similarities are such that the case couldn’t just be thrown out. That should tell you that he wasn’t entirely in the wrong there.

Moving on to Ken’s work on the comics, my own history is a little different from some. In terms of Sonic comics, I didn’t start with Archie. In the UK, we had the Fleetway imprint Sonic The Comic, which ran from 1993 to 2002. I mention this because, when it comes to nostalgia, that is the series that makes me feel it. I have no long time love of the Archie comics because they simply weren’t the main releases here.

My introduction to the Archie version of the comics came when I ordered some TPBs in 2014. These all covered issues that were written by Ian Flynn, but were still within the Ken Penders timeline. I have since read a few of the Ken Penders issues too, though I will not claim to be an expert on his work by any means.

When it comes down to it, I will say that I prefer Ian’s writing style. I don’t actually have any major issues with the quality of Ken’s work in that regard. He was in his role for so long for a reason, and while plenty of criticisms against his work certainly have legs, the general quality was, in my opinion, fine. I just find Ian’s work to be tidier. That is entirely a personal preference though, and I’m certainly not going to knock anyone for feeling the opposite.

I would also say that I’ve had a few small Twitter exchanges with both Ken and Ian and found them both to be amiable in conversation, so neither seems like a bad person to me.

When it comes to the changing face of the comics, I’m fairly neutral. I liked all the relationship drama if I’m being honest. The new characters were fun and the interplay between the various cast members was enjoyable. In particular, I loved Fiona the Fox and Scourge the Hedgehog, and their place in the series. The mass of lore that was built up over the pre-reboot Archie run had a lot going for it too and seeing a different take on the Blue Blur and his world kept me thoroughly entertained.

The reboot felt a little forced into place, but I do understand why that happened. Once it settled in, I thought the post-reboot Archie comics were great. It was a big tonal shift, but it still felt very Sonic to me. And the redesigns? I loved them. If anything, I preferred them to the pre-reboot character designs simply because the characters felt more like game characters. There was nothing wrong with the original Sally Acorn design, for example, but the new look felt more on-brand for the franchise as a whole, even if it differed to the SatAM cartoon.

Which brings us to the IDW comics. As previously mentioned, if you’ve been reading my individual issue reviews you’ll know that I love these, new characters and all. Ian Flynn and the team are, in my opinion, doing some great work here. The new characters are awesome, the storylines have been entertaining, and the issues have all felt like strong, all-ages releases. For me, Ian was the right choice to write the comics, and Evan will no doubt do great too with her run in charge. Meanwhile, IDW remains one of my favorite comic publishers and are yet to let me down with this series (with the exception of some release date slips, of course).

Overall, I would say that the current IDW comics are probably the best we’ve had in terms of Sonic. I still love the Fleetway stories, I still enjoy the Archie stuff, but IDW have, in my opinion, nailed it. The comics fit nicely with the current gaming world, and that is something I like.

Basically though, I’ve generally just enjoyed it all. I like what once was and what is. It’s that simple.

And finally, we have the fandom clashes. Okay, so this may not be a popular opinion in some groups, but at this point, I feel like I need to say this:

The fighting is ridiculous. Frankly, with all the things going on in the world – ranging from COVID-19 to global warming to human rights infringements – the fact that people think their priority should be to fight about who wrote comics about an anthropomorphic, high-speed blue hedgehog better seems ludicrous to me.

I’m not saying don’t have an opinion. We all have our own tastes. We all have things we love and hate. That’s fine. I’m also not saying to not discuss it. I’ve spoken to fans both pro and anti both key writers, and you know what? We were able to agree or disagree in a civil manner and move on. You can support things you enjoy and lament those you don’t in a reasonable manner. The big issue here isn’t ‘which side’ you’re on, it’s how you choose to present your view. Intentionally inflammatory posts, verbal attacks, and screaming at each other over social media achieves nothing but creating more conflict.

If you’re the sort to engage in all of this, then please, take a step back and consider this final message. I hope some of you can take it to heart, because honestly, you’re making things harder for yourselves sometimes:

We are all Sonic fans. Some of us have been there since the beginning, others are new to it all. Some people love the games from one era or another, others don’t. The different sonic cartoons all have fans, and so do the various versions of the comics. But one thing remains consistent for all of us. We all love this world that SEGA created.

Being a Sonic fan can be frustrating at times, sure. And the likelihood of enjoying everything related to the franchise is extremely low. But that doesn’t mean we have to attack each other over every little thing. Stop focussing on what you hate, and hold on tight to the things you love. Because here’s the thing. Whichever comic writer you love, whichever era of the games you love, whichever series you love…it’s all still there, even when someone else takes things in a different direction.

Be here for the Hedgehog and his pals. Be cool to each other. And enjoy the fact that we have a franchise with the power to make us this passionate in the first place.

4 thoughts on “Sonic Comics: My Thoughts On The Current Fan Division

  1. I do have one or two things you missed to say.

    Those so-called “mandates” have never been confirmed by SEGA. a Single representative came out during an IDW press event and said, when asked about mandates, that “There are no HARD rules that we have to follow”. And it’s my understanding that a mandate is something you can’t just brush off without the threat of losing your job for disobeying it.

    From the info I’ve gleaned from various conversations, the mandates were something ARCHIE created in order to avoid another incident like that with Ken Penders.

    Here’s the thing, though; Ken wasn’t the only one who sued, and his wasn’t the only Work-for-hire contract they conveniently “lost”. Scott Fulop, whom is credited with creating mammoth mogul, Lightning Lynx, and other characters, also sued them for royalties/risifduals, and they ~rather conveniently~ couldn’t find ~his~ WFH contract, either.

    And let us not forget that Archie has had a storied history of screwing over artists and their families.

    Josie and the Pussycats comics were canceled over copyright and royalties. They lost, so they canceled the series, rather than pay what they owed.
    A character designer/writer for Betty and Veronica was also done dirty after he died and Archie continued using his characters. The creator’s widow sued for the royalties they were owed, and won, and in order to avoid paying royalties anymore, they changed that character’s name and hair color.

    Then came the Penders lawsuit..and we all know how that panned out.

    So Archie has had a very long history of trying to fuck artists and writers over and not give them credit, or monetary compensation, where it’s due, and screwing fans over because they’re greedy corporate shills. They only care about the money, not the work or the fans.

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    1. Thank you kindly for the in depth comment, ’tis much appreciated.

      In terms of the mandates, if they were indeed an Archie creation, it would certainly tie the artists hands just the same as if SEGA had made them. With the focus on Sonic right now though, I can’t imagine SEGA wouldn’t have a say at all. I think Ian Flynn may have mentioned having to clear story ideas with them when it comes to the IDW stuff, though I may be misremembering that.

      You are correct with regards to Scott Fulop. The reason I didn’t go into that is simply that I don’t often see it thrown into the arguments online. The ones I’ve seen tend to be pure Penders vs Flynn. Though I suppose Ken’s lawsuit is usually cited as inspiring Scott’s, so it may have been worth noting. That’s my bad.

      I wasn’t aware of Archie having a history of royalty disputes though, so thank you for that, it’s good to have some new info. I do know they weren’t great at locking down copyrights on characters though; Ninjara from the Archie run of TMNT actually ended up with a solo series elsewhere, I believe.

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      1. I’m glad that I could help clear a couple of things up/shed some light on some things you weren’t aware of.

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