Sonic the Hedgehog has gotten a pretty bum rap in the 21st century. From crummy video games that were rushed out to meet a deadline like the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog game release to games that desperately tried to do what fans asked, like the 2017 game Sonic Forces, it’s fairly easy to get the impression that Sonic has always been a trainwreck rolling around at the speed of sound.
That wasn’t always the case.
When the arcade and console manufacturer SEGA was looking for a new mascot, a company-wide contest gave us a little speedy rodent with attitude. His name? Mr. Hedgehog.
It would be workshopped into Sonic the Hedgehog later, and his game’s release in 1991 on the SEGA Genesis (or Mega Drive for those in Japan and PAL regions) would produce a lot of hype for the console. Indeed, the first Sonic the Hedgehog video game would actually sell over two million copies before the end of 1991 worldwide, eventually selling over 15 million copies according to SEGA.
Needless to say, Sonic helped make SEGA a household name as the Genesis would even make the first Sonic game a pack-in title from a time when game consoles used to include games when you purchased them. It didn’t hurt that the game was a cute and clever platformer, with the opening levels using a vast amount of speed that seemed almost impossible at the time of release.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 would come out the next year, selling over 3.2 million copies in just a few weeks and introducing Sonic’s pal Tails. Obviously, SEGA had a hit on their hands, and possibly even a rival to Nintendo’s own mascot Mario. It was incredibly popular in America, so SEGA wanted to have even more of a presence. 1992 would see SEGA license two different cartoons for the blue blur with DIC Animation, both ultimately released in 1993. The first was a mostly nonsensical cartoon set in a Warner Brothers world where cartoon physics and antics took precedence, called The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. The other?
As this cartoon aired on Saturday mornings, fans would nickname this one SATam to avoid confusion.
This was a little more serious. Aside from the rather excellent opening theme, Sonic the Hedgehog would feature a new cast of anthropomorphic animals all fighting for freedom against the vile Doctor Ivo Robotnik. Sonic, while the main character, wasn’t even the one in charge. That went to Princess Sally Acorn, the one swinging from the rope in the opening theme. Other characters filled in typical team roles, like Rotor the Walrus being the tech guy, Antoine d’Coulette being the French coward, and Bunnie Rabbot as the Rogue-like half-robot southern belle.
At the same time, SEGA of America was using the early sketches and promotional material from those two cartoons to approach comic companies and see if they could come up with a solid comic book to also push the cartoon and games. Video game comics were experiencing a brief renaissance at the time, thanks to the shockingly good Nintendo comics from American publisher Valiant.
However, despite the sales of Sonic and the pending cartoons, SEGA and Archie couldn’t be sure a comic would be a blockbuster. Archie did have experience with licensed works, as their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic was an all-ages hit, so someone between them suggested a mini-series to test the waters.
Archie staff writer Michael Gallagher would be put on the comic for the mini. Mike has worked on comics with both Marvel and MAD Magazine, and was no stranger to the licensed comic. He’d done work on ALF under Marvel’s Star Comics imprint, and his time with MAD Magazine was great for the slapstick humor that Archie was aiming for. Oh, and superhero comics were also in his wheelhouse, as he had also worked on the earlier incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel.
Artist Scott Shaw! was brought on as the first artist, and would draw the mini-series. He already had a rather impressive career, being a storyboard artist and director with the Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies cartoon and even co-created Captain Carrot and his Zoo Crew with comics legend Roy Thomas. In retrospect, he was a perfect choice for a cutesy comedy animal comic.
Bill White would ink the book (with an assist from Jorge Pacheco on the 0th issue), while Barry Grossman would color the pages. Dan Nakrosis would letter the book with a flair that was both perfect for Archie and Sonic.
But first, a promotional issue!
SEGA and Archie would produce a quick six-page comic that would be stuffed into the magazine SEGA Visions. Funded by SEGA, SEGA Visions acted as SEGA’s own internal hype machine, much like Nintendo’s own Nintendo Power. As such, it was a perfect vehicle for Sonic’s launch, even if the magazine itself only lasted 25 issues over the course of 5 years.
Poking fun at the trend of comics to have 0 issues and promotional first issues, this comic would be numbered ¼, and literally just contained the first part of the first story from the first comic… the same issue 0 that would be released in November of 1992. The 0 issue would again be poking fun at comic trends of the day, and would act as the full introduction to the cast. As the cast was based on preliminary sketches from Sonic the Hedgehog’s Saturday morning cartoon, some of the colors were off and personalities were different.
Mainly with Princess Sally. She would undergo a lot of color changes in the early days, becoming pink fur with black hair before finally settling on her final color scheme seen in the cartoon’s intro sequence by issue 16. The zeroth issue would also introduce another long-standing main character from the cartoon’s early sketches: Uncle Chuck.
Uncle Chuck may-or-may-not have been biologically related to Sonic, but he is basically Sonic’s Uncle Ben figure: a kindly older guy who takes care of Sonic. And like any cool teen (as Archie Comics knows them at least) had to have a cool dog. Sonic had Muttski. Unfortunately, both of them would be first hypnotized by the evil Robotnik and then turned into robots through a process hand-waived as robotization. Basically, flesh was turned to steel… somehow.
Since it was very early days for not just the Archie Comics branch of the franchise, but also the franchise as a whole, the comic was allowed to take multiple liberties with the canon so long as things stayed mostly sane. The Chaos Emeralds were at one point somehow nicknamed the Freedom Emeralds, and were part of the Crown of Acorns that Sally’s father owned before he was sent into exile. Until they were Chaos Emeralds again, anyhow.. Most of the stories in the miniseries were slapstick adventures that were quick and easy to digest reads, considering the younger intended audience.
However, the one thing Sonic’s comics had no issue doing? Skewering the competition with parody.
The fourth and final issue of the initial mini-series… issue three… was released in February of 1993, and I actually have a fondness for this comic. Thanks to Archie Comics using the newsstand method of distribution, you could find Archie branded comics in nearly any grocery store or corner market. Specifically, I found this at a nowhere gas station in Pullman, Washington when my grandmother visited and the cover caught my eye.
Sonic would reach into the DNA of comics and make up an imaginary story where both he and Robotnik were kids together, not too unlike Superboy and Lex Luthor of DC Comics.
The only real difference here is that Robonik was always evil, rather than swearing revenge on Sonic after a misunderstanding.
While sales are basically impossible to find for Archie Comics during the 90s, thanks to them not making use of the typical direct market companies that are archived, the comic sold fantastically well. Sonic was a media marketing juggernaut like Mario had been the previous decade and the children devoured it. Sonic’s American comic was renewed for a monthly ongoing series, and was even announced to be one with issue 2 in the letters page.
The first issue of the ongoing series would be published April of 1993 with a fresh number 1, but continuing the limited continuity that the book had crafted. While the cartoon series it was loosely based on would end in 1994, Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog would go on to literally set a Guinness Book of World Records record for the longest-running licensed comic book, running until December 2016 uninterrupted with 290 issues, multiple spin-off comics, and more one-shots and specials than you can bother to shake a gold ring at.
Strap on those shoes, kids, because we’re in for a wild run. Welcome to Lightspeed Reading.