Pat Spaziante/Ken Penders computer-rendered cover. Looks WAY more impressive than the images I've seen online. One MORE reason not to trust the preview publications.
FOR THE NEWBIES: If you're just joining us, please keep in mind that Ken Penders designed this story to run 40 pages, as part of what was planned to be a 48-page "Special" for Sonic #50. SOMEWHERE along the way, though, that number got cut back by something like 40%! PLEASE keep that fact in mind as it will help explain some of the...uh...UNIQUE aspects of pacing, timing, and plotting in this story.
Ladies and gentlemen, this match has a 27 page limit. Let's get ready to FUMBLE!
First on the card is the Art Mawhinney/Andrew Pepoy splash page. No, I didn't bother reading it. Yes, I tried following the ComBot's 4-bank shot that set Antoine's toupee on fire. Why does this remind me of a "Mad Magazine" PARODY of a Sonic comic? The artist might as well have been Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, or Sergio Aragones. Then again, given the number of artists taking part in THIS turkey shoot, maybe one of Mad's "usual gang of idiots" DID draw this.
First into the ring on page 1: the team of Penders (story), Spaziante (pencil), and Pepoy (ink). You think Robotnik had a cheesy moustache before, wait'll you see the one he's sporting here: looks like he's got a couple mice jammed up his nose. He's apparently on the run from two humanoids with names (one borrowed, one botched) from "Babylon 5". ALREADY with the in-jokes! Could've been worse; they MIGHT have been named Sculley and Muldar. Anyway, they're hunting "Julian, son of Ivo" to bring him back to "the minister", and I don't think it's because he stood up the bride at a wedding. He lands face-first in a mud hole and manages to avoid being noticed by the two humans (neat trick for something THAT bulky!) but he IS found by Jules and Charles, a couple blue hedgehogs. Jules is the one with the improbable shock of brown hair growing out of his forehead like a unicorn's horn. Against Charles' better judgment, Julian is presented to the King and (in a thankless cameo) the Warlord Kodos last seen in "The Dream Zone" (#43). Fat Boy appears ready to spill his guts (no small task) concerning what he knows about the humans with which the animals are at war. That's right: the Great War was Overlanders vs. Mobians, Skins vs. Furs. The Mobians take this sizable serpent into their bosom; Julian grows a bad moustache.
Well, THAT was interesting. And pointless! Fact is, that little 3-page digression had NOTHING AT ALL to do with the Endgame story arc to date, let alone this installment. It's three wasted pages, and since Ken had so many pages cut out from under him he needed all the help he could get. Leaving them in was a huge mistake. The sequence served about as much purpose (in this context) as would a scene of Bunnie dropping her top and flashing her hoo-ha's: maybe it's something a number of fans would like to see, but what business does it have HERE?
Page 4: Penders tags in Mike Gallagher and Spaziante tags in Manny Galan. We're back where we left off last issue (which REALLY underscores how useless that Great War bit was). Sonic tries to talk Knuckles into helping him, but Geoffrey St. John tells Knux that Sonic is "Princess Sally's assassin." Sonic eludes Knuckles but Espio decloaks and seizes him so Geoff's gopher henchmen can tie him up. Their names, BTW, are "Smiley" and "Fleming"; great, we're using allusions to spy novels now! Anyway, Dulcy (whom Knuckles clobbered in the last ish) comes to and puts her foot down. Her word is instantly taken as gospel truth and Geoff finally realizes there's a divide-and-conquer thing happening here.
Page 7: Nelson Ortega in for Galan, Brian Thomas in for Pepoy. Tails and Rotor manage to elude the furry round-up back at Knothole. They climb down a ladder (in a VERY nicely drawn panel, BTW) to the underground pier, only to find that Drago got there first and scuttled the Sea Fox and Rotor's bathysphere.
Meanwhile, Robotnik is informed by an off-model CrocBot that despite the fact that "the mineral ore" is on its way to him there's been a riot at the prison camp. Hope you were paying attention just now because that about ALL the exposition you're going to get to explain what happens to the Downunda subplot. Couldn't have spared ONE LOUSY PAGE from the Prologue to help the narrative along? Might as well not have sent Antoine and Bunnie there at all.
Rotor and Tails are being herded into Model A roboticizers -- the kind from the first Sonic game -- when Sonic, Knux and Geoff get the drop on their captors by jumping out of a plane. Knuckles wins the Iron Man title by NOT using a parachute.
Page 10: Brand new team (Karl Bollers for script, Sam Maxwell for pencil, Pam Eklund for inking) but the same old fight sequence. Maxwell's style is, of course, a kick in the old continuity; Knuckles looks like he's reverting to ancestral type and is about to turn into an anteater. As for the balloon-headed Sonic, he decides to single out Drago for no particular reason; lacking any real exposition, we can only ASSUME that Geoff clued Sonic in on the way back. The wolf beats feet...
Page 12: and becomes WAY more detailed as Dave Manak tags in for Sam Maxwell. Before Sonic can bring Drago down, however, the wolf's hit in the head with a rock thrown by...Hershey! With no apparent motivation, she's suddenly stopped being Drago's punching bag. Gee, it took someone in my family six months of sobriety and a LOT of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings before she could stand up to HER abusive spouse. Hershey then confesses her part in Sally's demise to Sonic. Frankly, her confession would be more convincing if she didn't look like she was trying to worf up a hairball. Two words for Manak's depiction of Hershey: "Ugh lee!" Let's see, she went from Mawhinney/androgynous in #47 to Galan/large-eyed and babe-ular in #48 to Maxwell/rubbery in #49 to Manak/what the cat dragged in here. This kid's had more changes of appearance than Michael Jackson! Anyway, Sonic decides that Hershey's not to blame. Robotnik, meanwhile, gets the old good news/bad news routine. The good news is that the Downunda ore has arrived; the bad news is that we get to see an extreme close-up of his face.
Page 14: Penders back in to relieve Manak, and not a moment too soon. Robotnik's not only got bats in his belfry, but a bunny in his rafters. Bunnie and Antoine offer only a tenuous exposition as to how they went from being chained up in Downunda to back in Robotnik's HQ. Let's not dwell on this and move along. Speaking of moving along, Sonic is seen approaching Robotnik's fortress or whatever it is. The events of the story arc have so addled his brain that he begins speaking in tongues: "If I modulate the frequency of my speed while I run real fast...I should be able to create after-images of myself" in order to confuse the incoming missiles. All this Treknobabble could have been avoided with a simple: "Hey, I'm SONIC; I'll just outrun those slow-mo missles!" But by now it should be clear that NOTHING is going to be simple about this story.
Page 16: Once again a whole new team: Kent Taylor in for story, Sam Maxwell in for pencil, Harvey Mercadoocasio in for ink, the reader in for a hard time. Sonic (I guess) crashes through a door and (I think) gets tangled up by (what I guess are) flying gloves with cables fired by Snively (or something) who's also shooting Sonic with some liquid that looks like either pea soup or pea soup. Pages 16 and 17 are just a mess; I haven't been this confused since the last time I tried constructing a macro in WordPerfect 6. Sonic knocks Snively out anyway and runs into a VERY underdrawn Bunnie and Antoine; it's almost as if Maxwell didn't so much draw them as squeeze them in. You can only see half their faces at any given time if you see them at all, but considering that this is Sam Maxwell we're talking about, count your blessings. The two inform Sonic that they've planted a bomb in Robotnik's war room; Sonic tells them to scoot while he continues on toward his F2F with Robotnik. We are once again treated to an "uncharacteristic" Sonic "devoid of humor" -- translation: Kent Taylor couldn't think of anything funny to write.
Page 19: Spaz back in for Maxwell, Sonic in for a beating. He can't do much against Robotnik at close quarters (it says here), but when Robotnik tries activating his wonder weapon it tells him that the system is going down, it will destroy the war room instead of Knothole, and he'd better save his work to a different file. Despite our being told that "all is said and done" between the two, they keep on doing anyway: i.e., beating on each other in a blur of speed lines and jazzy visuals as likely to give the two of them (and the reader) a headache as much as anything else.
Page 22: OK, THAT was a mess! Let's bring in Penders as writer, Art Mawhinney as penciller, and Rich Koslowski as inker and try to bring order out of this chaos. Sonic gets sucked into some vortex or other, complains about being tired and passes out. Someone observes that he needs medical attention. Duh!
Page 23: Hmmm. Let's bring in Jim Amash to substitute for Koslowski and try again. Pay close attention, PLEASE, I don't want to have to repeat myself. Sonic may have needed medical attention but he has to settle for Dr. Quack instead. He tells Sonic that he's in the "medical facility" back in Knothole -- said facility is looking WAY more rustic than it did back in "The Dream Zone." Sonic says he "saw Knothole destroyed!" Hang on a sec...gee, I guess he was the only one. *I* didn't see any such thing...unless said destruction found its way to the cutting room floor. Now it's Rotor's turn to start with the Treknobabble: According to him [and this kind of cockeyed explanation DESERVES to be quoted at length], Knothole now "exists in a temporal rift three hours in the future". I guess that means Sonic will have to watch his show on the USA Network at 4:00 in the morning instead of 7:00. Or something. HOW Rotor came to this hare-brained conclusion is never explained. He also states that "many zones were created when Robotnik unleashed his device." Presumably he means the device that had its wires crossed and blew up the War Room instead of wasting Knothole. This script had FOUR writers working on it; my guess is that by this point J. Freddy Gabrie was just as confused as we are and in his capacity as editor didn't catch the apparent contradiction. Anyway, you might want to keep that business about the many zones in mind; I think they're going to use that as a handy excuse for some future plots.
Quack now supplies a LOT of exposition which, when you boil it down and remove the scum from the top, goes something like this: back in #43 when Quack used the Glorified Gumball Machine in "The Dream Zone", Robotnik was somehow able to home in on the "neutron chip" inside and finally get a fix on Knothole's location. While we were diverted by looking at Sam Maxwell's abominable artwork in "Battle Royal", Robotnik's bots showed up, switched the King with a bot double and kidnapped the doc. With his family as hostages, he had to play along. At the same time, he noticed that Drago was setting up Sally to buy the harp farm and...OK, I'm not sure what the following means but here it is in full:
[Robotnik's] nephew Snively had other plans. I noticed he altered the neutron eradicator to affect only one organic pattern out of the many originally programmed...only Robotnik could now be affected by the device.
So that means that...frankly, I don't know WHAT that means or WHERE this "neutron eradicator" (which MAY or MAY NOT be the same as the "Ultimate Annihilator") fits into the plot. Anyone with the slightest idea PLEASE contact me at email@example.com. Sonic is just as confused as I am and, to change the subject, asks about Sally.
Page 25: Koslowski back in to sling the ink. The doc tells Sonic that she "nearly died" from the fall (looked convincing to ME!) and has been placed in a "stasis tube" "so she could heal and recover." Sorry, Ken, but I went straight to The Good Book at this point: Michael Okuda's Star Trek Encyclopedia, wherein I learned that a "stasis unit" "hold[s] a patient in a state of suspended animation UNTIL MEDICAL TREATMENT COULD BE RENDERED." [Emphasis mine] So Sally wouldn't be getting better OR worse inside the thing. The doc then goes on to tell Sonic that she's in a coma "and I couldn't tell you when or even if she'll come out of it." Sonic is tired of Quack talking out of both sides of his bill and dashes off.
Page 26: HOLY MOTHER OF DISNEY!!! We're in the middle of a "Snow White" remake! Sonic has apparently seen the movie so he opens the stasis unit, gives Sally a peck on the cheek, says "I love you, Sally! Please come back"...
...and she wakes up.
That's IT?? The culmination of all those months of teasing the angle, all those flames, all those posts, all that speculation, all that fan art of Sally with wings and a halo, all those tributes sent to the Cybershrine? It wasn't even a KISS, furcryinoutloud! I happened to get my copy of #50 in the mail on June 16 [the most timely I've ever received it, I might add], the same day USA reran "The Doomsday Project." THAT episode culminated in Sonic and Sally engaging in a kiss that was a KISS! Eyes closed, lips locked, Sally with one foot raised off the ground, an unmistakable unambiguous spit-swapping tongue-probing tonsil-poking I'm-about- to-lose-control-but-I-think-I-like-it communion of SOULS!!! Here, Sonic gives Sally the kind of kiss she would have gotten from her GRANDFATHER! And you know what was the most infuriating thing of all? Mawhinney's drawing of Sonic. I can't believe I'm writing this, but Mawhinney totally dropped the ball here! No tear in Sonic's eye, no turning away from the sight of Sally laid out because it's just too painful; all we get is Sonic with a basically flat affect. Mawhinney is TOO GOOD of an artist to have missed the chance to really bust out with something heartfelt and operatic, something that would have cranked the intensity a couple notches above even the Spaziante fight scenes on pages 19-21! Personally I blame the Sega Superego for keeping the lid on tight and ruining what should have been the crowning moment of the whole sorry story arc.
Page : The Sega Thought Police drag Mawhinney away kicking and screaming before he can produce some artwork that might actually get an emotional rise out of the fans, so Spaziante steps in and Ken handles both the writing and the inking on your basic Dragnet/American Graffitti-type ending. Sonic and Sally are shown trying to embrace while keeping at arms' length from each other, like a couple of preadolescents at a Catholic school dance; apparently the Sega chaperone nuns are all over the place with rulers at the ready. The ending tells you what loose ends got tied up and ignores the ones that didn't. Freddy once again hews to the party line and calls this story arc a "runaway roller coaster ride." I'll have more to say about THAT in a little bit, but first, after having looked at Scott Shaw!'s contribution to this issue (one drawing; thanks a lot, Scott), allow me to preface my comments about "Endgame" with the following excerpt from Jean Kerr's The Snake Has All The Lines:
So what DID happen? I don't expect anyone at Archie to post something to the lists saying "OK, we blew it big times and here's where we went wrong...." Besides, if they did that we critics would be out of a job! So let me count the ways:
1. THE HOOK. "Endgame" had a hook, something to grab the reader's interest and keep it focused throughout. In this case the hook was supposed to be: "Did Sonic really kill Sally?" Unfortunately, by the end of #47 it was plain that the readers were ready to answer "No way!" The absence of the backpack straps on the "Sonic" who did the nasty was a (forgive the pun) dead giveaway. So the focus shifted to another hook: "Is Sally really dead?" That, too was a good hook. A VERY good hook. In fact, it was TOO good of a hook. It shifted the focus for a lot of fans OFF OF SONIC ALTOGETHER! They KNEW he would elude capture; it was only a question of HOW (or, more specifically, how LAME would the means of escape be).
But the ambiguity over Sally's demise created a fan frenzy in some quarters. I certainly sensed it at THIS end of the Net, and that's why I set up the Princess Sally Memorial Cybershrine: as a place for fans to vent their grief and loss. Frankly even I was surprised at times at the intensity of feelings expressed. But only now is it clear that by fudging on Sally's death, Ken inadvertantly moved it to center stage. It was self-sabotage, pure and simple.
2. PACING. "Endgame" should have followed the elementary three-step progression of so many stories of this kind:
I. Something bad happens to the hero
II. Hero gets it together III.
All neat and tidy in three acts.
So what happened here? For one thing, despite the much-touted roller coaster analogy, "Endgame" ended up more like one of those thrill rides which hoist you hunderds of feet to the top of some tower or other and then you DROP until you level off back at ground level. There was no rise and fall, no emotional flow here, or if there was it was mostly in one direction. The four parts of the arc can be summarized thus:
I. Something really bad happens to Sonic
II. Bad stuff continues to happen to Sonic (and to his friends)
III. See II
IV. A WHOLE LOTTA stuff happens to Sonic and everybody and then the story just kinda ends
Which brings me to my next point:
3. EDITING. I don't know the circumstances under which Ken went ahead and planned a 40-page finale for "Endgame" only to have it cut back by almost half. When I first heard of this development, I couldn't help but think of Ronald Reagan in one of his better film roles, as a soldier waking up in an Army hospital who realizes that both of his legs have been amputated and who begins screaming: "WHERE'S THE REST OF ME!?" Ken then had to fall back on what he called in one post "judicious editing" to turn the jigsaw puzzle that #50 had become into a coherent climax to the story arc. From some of my comments above, it would appear he wasn't totally successful, which should come as no surprise.
And then there was the "a priori editing" that took place (my little euphemism for Sega's censorship of the stories). It really showed up in what was supposed to be the showpiece of the story: Sonic and Sally reunited. Sonic's flat affect, the tentative kiss, the arm's length embrace; this was no way to reunite two creatures supposedly in love with each other no matter how unsure they may have been about expressing it in the past. I kept thinking of a line by Bart Simpson: "Milhouse, we're living in the age of cooties; I can't believe the risks you're taking!" Can ANY of the Archie writers turn out believable material with THIS kind of mentality leading the way?
4. GIMMICKRY. I first had a bad feeling about #50 when I heard about the tag team...er..."all-star jam" approach taken toward illustrating the story. It wasn't THAT bad, as it turned out, but it was bad enough in some cases; Hershey in particular was ill- served. Likewise the interplay of four writers on this story, as well as having two writers team up each on #48 and #49. This was the last nail in the "Endgame" coffin.
This story arc required...DEMANDED...a steady and consistent hand, a unified vision of where it was going and an unwavering visual approach. The trade-off of writers and artists subverted that requirement, replacing basic meat-and-potatoes narrative structure and artictic unity with what resulted in a free-for-all. Team efforts have worked before: much of Ken Penders' collaborative work with Mike Kanterovich was brilliant. This, however, was a failure of the collaborative process. Instead of a reasoned, coherent approach to the material, the reader saw one bad angle piled on top of another: Sally was killed by Hershey wearing a phony-looking Sonic mask; Sonic escapes certain doom by running across a bridge made by a handful of dirt; Sally survives a fall that was supposed to have killed her and goes into a coma which is so mild she's awakened with an equally mild kiss. Readers can suspend disbelief for only so long.
And as I've pointed out before, the irony is that the same Ken Penders who put THIS together seems to be producing coherent, powerful work for the Knuckles line. I have no idea what the "Brave New World" will hold for Sonic, but I have a bad feeling about the High Concept "Mask"-meets-"Casablanca" plot for #52. That kind of storytelling signals a drift away from the basics, away from the ability to produce readable, engaging stories in favor of cheap jokes and cultural grave-robbing. It had better NOT be an indication of a long-term trend, or else Sonic WON'T last another 50 issues.
So, what's the last word on "Endgame"? Well, a good writer should always
be ready to admit it when someone else has said something far better than
he/she ever could. So I'll let Ken Penders have the final say here (with
an assist from Messers Kanterovich and Mawhinney). If you're reading this
on my Sonic Website, you'll find it in the Archives section of the "Knothole
Knews" where I've stored some of my past reviews. If you can't get there
or it you prefer to deal with hard copy, just look in the second issue
of the Knuckles miniseries "Rites of Passage", page 11, panel 8.