Based on the spoilers that have already been posted about this story, I formed the preliminary conclusion that the opening sequence (how Uncle Chuck roboticized Sonic's father) was a good premise wasted on the wrong story. Now that I've seen the sequence for myself, I've revised my opinion: this is a GREAT premise wasted on the wrong story! Ortega's artwork is surprisingly strong, and the pacing is a jolt. As to the identity of the hedgehog being roboticized, only a clueless newbie would miss the following hints:
Ken Penders, speaking in his own defense on this point, has stated that the last time he tried introducing a similar angle in the Sally miniseries concerning Sally's mother, he was promptly slapped down by Sega, probably by some business school grad whose only experience with creative writing involves submitting expense account reports. Since then Ken's admitted to being more circumspect in introducing controversial plot angles. All well and good, but better that the issue should never have been raised at all than the Knothole characters end up behaving like actors in a movie with an Idiot Plot.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, film critic Roger Ebert coined the phrase "Idiot Plot" to denote any motion picture where the action can only proceed according to the story line if all the actors are complete idiots. Slasher films are prime examples of Idiot Plot movies. Everybody KNOWS about the serial killer lurking in the woods around Camp Whatchamacallit, but there's always a group of idiot teenagers who have to follow the Idiot Plot outline and head on up to the camp because it's the perfect make-out spot. Why? Because if they DIDN'T act like idiots -- if it occurred to them that looking for another venue or maybe going bowling would be a better idea -- the movie would be over. So a fantastic angle turns into a waste of space because the right story isn't going to be told.
We now rejoin the cast of "Clueless in the Great Forest." Sally's idea of a retreat is not to run away; rather, it's more like a camp-out than a bug-out. But instead of singing a couple choruses of the Mobian equivalent of "Kumbaya", we're treated to more self-criticism from Uncle Chuck. He continues to avoid the question he himself raised in the beginning, instead giving a brief resume of his official duties in an effort by Ken and Kent to meld the DiC Canon with the Archie Received Version (not entirely successfully; Dic has never even HINTED that Uncle Chuck was ever a short-order cook. That was the version quoted in the original 4-issue series). And while he was in the process of confessing his sins, why didn't Uncle Chuck mention what it was like to be a single parent to Sonic? Ken and Kent manage to avoid that angle entirely, but how many of you reading this would like to know THAT story? Show of hands, please. I thought so.
Enter mystery guest and sign in please: yes, after way too long, one of the few guest characters of the cartoon series to really make an impression finally puts in an appearance in the comic: it's Lupee, accompanied by several members of the Wolf Pack. (Note: I prefer spelling it "Lupee" until I can figure out a way to insert a grave diacritical mark above the "e"). After a white wolf named Drago (impressive name but it screws up the Native American motif of the Wolf Pack entirely) mentions a new kind of bot under development, he begins casting aspersions on Uncle Chuck by accusing him of being a spy for Robotnik. Sonic tries to defend his kin but the accusation is second by yet another mystery guest: Geoffrey St. John. Since his debut in "Deadliest of the Species" when he was mysteriously heroic and suave, he seems to have undergone a personality transplant. Unfortunately, the donor must have been a total jerk. His first act is to start sucking on Sally's face...well, it doesn't look like a kiss to me, Nelson. His gratuitous mention of the competitor's product ("This isn't a GAME, BOY!) earns him a well-deserved punch in the mouth from Sonic. He retaliates by firing some kind of bolo that binds Sonic to a tree. Before he can reprise his attempt in "And One Shall Save Him" to put a crossbow bolt through Sonic's head, we pause for the Fan Art and Find Your Name pages. Matt Burt's drawing of Sonic and Tails wearing baggy clothes is interesting, especially when you consider that as furries Sonic and Tails are usually buck nekkid anyway.
OK, fans, close all the doors because logic is gonna fly out the windows. Sonic is spared, not by a boot to Geoff's head from Sally (as in "Mecha Madness" when she decked Knuckles) but by a left hook from...Antoine!? Yes, everyone's favorite pain in the butt now gets a chance to demonstrate his loyalty and to launch into an exposition of his own. According to this abridged version (which itself demanded the richer detail and steadier pacing of a solo story, something along the line of "Fathers and Sons") Antoine was a mere cadet in training when Robotnik took over and the REAL founder of the underground -- Antoine's father -- went to the roboticizer, no doubt singing the Mobian equivalent of the "Marseilles". Antoine and Geoffrey mix it up some more, and Sally breaks it up so Antoine can supply additional exposition. I know that Ken has said that he writes stories as if the comic were attracting new readers all the time, but this much exposition is getting ridiculous. In "Knuckles' Quest #3", f'rinstance, we were treated to an eight-page story with two pages of exposition: that's a staggering 25%! I guess it's better than repeated editorial boxes courtesy of Justin or Freddy or whatever name he goes by.
So anyway, Bunnie takes over the exposition (keep in mind that NONE of this has ever so much as been hinted at in either the comics or the SatAM series, and we just have to take Ken and Kent's word for it, so there!) and adds the angle that Antoine is, in addition to being a "dashing hero", a victim of unrequited love for Sally. Yeah, him and a whole lotta drooling fanboys! Bunnie promptly rectifies this situation by going up to Antoine and declaring her own feelings for him, complete with a heart iris. So it looks like Bunnie and Antoine could be an item! Who could have predicted this turn of events? Who could have seen it coming? Who...who am I kidding!? This angle has been a staple of Robert Brown and Francis Tolbert's fanfic from the very beginning. Made it easier for ME to believe it!
Meanwhile, back at the campfire, things are heating up within the Wolf Pack as Lupee wonders out loud why Drago has been absenting himself so frequently lately. So now we've got Lupee suspicious of Drago, Drago suspicious of Sir Charles, Geoffrey suspicious of Sir Charles and Sonic, and Antoine suspicious of Geoffrey. Sally finally gives the lot of them a time-out, and the story ends with a rather weak segue to...
After some MORE exposition, and bumping into an out-of-place humanoid skeleton (probably the remains of some poor soul who's STILL waiting to receive SonicQuest by mail!), Knuckles goes spelunking until he runs across two "weird dudes" -- yeah, like everybody else he's run into to date has been normal! After identifying them as Mathias Poe (raven) and Damocles the Elder (goat), Knuckles makes a rather undignified entrance. In response, Knuckles is attacked by something conjured up by Mathias: quoth the raven, "a golem made of metal." It's basically a really tough bot and bears no resemblance at all to the legendary creature conjured up by Rabbi Judah Lowi of Prague to protect the city's Jews from Christian mobs incited by allegations of blood libel. Trust me, I know from the legend of the Golem of Prague. Anyway, Archimedes (who apparently had been goofing off in Knuckles' backpack the whole time his buddy was slaving away for the Enchantress in Quest #3) tells Knux that a golem needs "a constant supply of magic life" -- in the case of the Golem of Prague it was a slip of paper on which was written the one name of God which people weren't supposed to pronounce, and since it's basically a word composed of four Hebrew vowels pronouncing it is quite a trick anyway! Archimedes uses his fire-breathing shtick to distract Mathias (quoth the raven, "ARRKK!"), cutting the channel to the golem. This sets up not only the golem's destruction, but a stupidly predictable Arnold Schwarzenegger joke. As for Damocles, he begins to melt thanks to a handy chemical spill. But before a HazMat Team can arrive on the scene, the figure of Damocles either turns into or else melts to reveal (it isn't spelled out all that clearly) the long-sought-after sword. Remember the sword? Knuckles bears it aloft, commands it to take him to the Hall of Limbo (remember the Hall of Limbo?) and the Crown of Acorns (remember the Crown?). And...
A lesser character might have asked Mathias where he's put the Owner's Manual; at the very least, he'd have started looking for the URL for the "Use and Maintenance of Your Magic Sword" page on the World Wide Web. Instead, Knuckles demonstrates his recently-acquired intelligence by NOT beating the answer out of Mathias. Forgetting about the bird altogether, he decides that exactly how the Royal Toad Sticker works is now Someone Else's Problem and figures he'll let Sally worry about it. That's the kind of ruthless corporate logic that would impress Dogbert! Nelson Ortega's artwork is uneven but serviceable; I can't remember the last time Sonic's head looked that big. The roboticizing of Sonic's father was the most impressive sequence while his rendering of Geoffrey varied. And Manny Galan has FINALLY found his calling! After horrible renderings of the Knothole crew, his drawings of Knuckles and Archimedes are as close to Art Mawhinney's excellent work in "Rites of Passage" as you can get. The stories, which seem to be on the brink of converging in #47, were well-paced (aside from some jumpiness in "Countdown" what with all the expositions). "Countdown" even managed to overcome the problem of Ken and Kent trying to shoehorn too much material into too few pages (obviously for the sake of setting up the "Endgame" arc). It was a good issue with many laudable points.
So why, when it was all over, was I left feeling so depressed?
One of the charms of the Sonic series (for me at any rate) was the fact that these kids -- remember, they're the Mobian equivalent of teenagers -- weren't members of some macho elite fighting force. This was never "Red Dawn" with fur -- that feeling was never there. Instead, the Knothole crew was a surrogate family. It was a scenario which advertised itself with every use of a familiar name: Aunt Sally, Uncle Chuck, "little bro". It isn't just Sally that's going to die in the next issue; according to therapists like John Bradshaw or Claudia Black who have studied family dynamics, when one member of a family is gone or is an addict the entire family is thrown off. Ken and Kent seem to understand this but appear to want to aggravate the process. It was no fun watching the charges and countercharges of espionage and treason flying around because instead of building up tensions and creating false leads in the name of story structure, we get treated to the sight of watching the Knothole "family" unravel like a cheap sweater. Who needs THAT? Ken has stated that the "new age" of Sonic comics begins with this issue. Given the way I feel, it's not a prospect I welcome. He seems to know where he wants to go and doesn't mind trashing the things that made the Sonic story worthwhile (to at least some of his readers) in the first place. If reviewing these stories continues along this rather unsatisfying path, I may simply let my subscription lapse when it runs out and go back to scanning issues on the newsstand, taking notes, and writing up short plot summaries. This job is losing its emotional payoff. Some new age!
"The Archie Wrestling Federation: the revolutionary force in preadolescent humor as enacted by adolescent cartoon characters! "Knuckles! Guardian of the Floating Island! Fresh from his quest for the Sword of the Acorn Kings! "Mammoth Mogul! Judged the Worst New Character of 1996! In his first appearance in the AWF, he faced the combined might of the Chaotix tag team! Despite his claims of possessing "limitless power" he left the ring after the first lock-up and lost the match by a controversial countout! Now he wants that sword! Don't ask me what a being with "limitless power" needs a magic sword for, he just does! He's tanned! He's rested! He's ready! Well, he's rested anyway! "Sonic the Hedgehog! Freedom Fighter! Corporate shill! Eligible bachelor! We don't know exactly WHAT he's got to do with this scenario but we're tossing him into the stewpot anyway! "Princess Sally! Beloved cartoon character! Slated for death! What's she doing here? In fact, why is the dummy cover nothing but a paste-up of old Sonic comic artwork? Who knows! Who cares! Because it's ONLY AVAILABLE ON PAY-PER-VIEW!! (Until some wise guy posts the spoilers on the Net!) "SONIC VS. KNUCKLES: BATTLE ROYAL!!! Lllllllllllllllllllllet's get ready to rumbllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll..."
Forget it. Yeah, there are letters and a Note from the Net, but I'm too bummed to deal with them. Sorry, people.
Way to go, Ron.