Sonic The Hedgehog #60 Review by Dan Drazen
"Arsenal Of the Iron King"
"The Ultimatum"

Frank Strom And Ken Penders(W)
Frank Strom And Manny Galán(A)
Spaz/Hari cover: I've got mixed feelings about this one. There are some great bits here. I'm most impressed by the rendering of the Iron King in the background; he appears to have been inspired by the design of Chernobog the king of demons from the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of "Fantasia." Equally impressive is Tails. Only two issues ago, on the cover of #58, his facial expression was a Spaziante cliche. Here he's got a classic "Uh...guys!..." look on his face and its rendering is genuinely delightful. Monkey Khan, unfortunately, looks as if he's borrowed Jerry Lewis's buck teeth from the original "Nutty Professor." Not a good look for you, MK. And the glitz -- the highlights and the transparencies and the stuff swirling around Khan's staff -- border on the excessive. But the worst fate is reserved for Sonic. You may wonder what the problem is, since he looks pretty much like he always does.


Sonic's getting into a visual rut here. Face it, what's the difference between the Sonic depicted here and the Sonic on the cover of #57? If you said "His mouth goes up on one and down on the other" you've pretty well summed it up. And as an analysis of the contents of this issue will demonstrate, Sonic is fast becoming an irrelevancy to the comic that bears his name.

Before plunging headlong into this story, let's pause for a little education. When Frank Strom informed me that he was doing a Princess Iron Fan story, my twin brother faxed me a portion of David Kherdian's retelling of the story of the Monkey King. I'll try to hit the high points:

Monkey King got that way because as an ordinary monkey he perpetrated a lot of mischief including stealing and eating the Peaches of Heaven and drinking the Elixer of Lao-Tsu. He was thus rendered indestructible and immortal. To make up for his transgressions, he was sent by the goddess Kwan-Yin to accompany the Buddhist monk Hsuan-Tsang on the latter's pilgrimage to India so he could bring Buddhist scriptures back to China. The two are accompanied by a human with a pig's head and a demon, but you don't have to worry too much about them. They arrive in a land where the temperature is unbearably hot, and are told by an old man that Flaming Mountain blocks their path to the West. The only way the climate is ever moderated is by paying tribute to an Immortal named Iron Fan, whose magic palm leaf fan can put out the fire and bring on rain. Iron Fan lives in Palm Leaf Cave, part of Mount Emerald Cloud. (This story contains some of the most heavy-handed use of proper names this side of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," but anyway...). Upon arriving at the cave, Monkey learns that Iron Fan is really Princess Iron Fan, wife of the Bull Demon King. A first attempt to steal the fan ends in failure because Princess Iron Fan gives Monkey the wrong one. He learns that the Bull Demon King is off at Cloud-Touching Cave in the Mountain of Gathering Thunder. This is the home of his mistress, Princess Jade Countenance. No, there's not going to be any of THAT in the story. Frank Strom may draw inspiration from these myths but he's not stupid! Monkey tries intimidating Princess Jade Countenance who summons the Bull Demon King: "The last I heard," he says to Monkey, "you were chased out of Heaven and pinned beneath the Mountain of the Five Phases by the Buddha." So they start to fight. What starts out as a best- three-out-of-five match drags out to a best-sixty-out-of-one- hundred match with no clear winner, until the Bull Demon King stops fighting in order to be on time for a dinner party. He tells Monkey to cool his jets, changes into a green dinner jacket and rides his "water-cleaving steed" into a lagoon. Monkey figures that the dinner host is a dragon so he changes himself into a thirty-six pound crab. He tries to crash the party but thinks better of it; instead, he steals the Bull Demon King's horse and, assuming the shape of the Bull Demon King, goes back to Princess Jade Countenance, gets her drunk and steals the real fan. When the Bull Demon King realizes someone's stolen his ride, he rides a cloud back to his concubine's cave where he discovers that the fan has been stolen. Promising to "gouge out his heart and his liver and serve them...on a platter" (Yum, yum!), he goes after Monkey. Assuming the shape of the pig-headed human, he tricks Monkey into handing over the fan and they start fighting each other in the old Sonic-Knuckles tradition. The battle is joined by the monk and Monkey's traveling companions, as well as a supporting cast of deities with names like "Diamond Guardian Diffusion of the Mysterious Demon Cave on Mount Wu-t'ai." Try fitting THAT on a driver's license. Monkey and his friends and the deities gang up on the Bull Demon King and after a battle of transformations (like the duel between Madam Mim and Merlin in Disney's "Sword In The Stone") Monkey finally gets the fan so he can put out the fire and he and his companions can resume their pilgrimage, and all the bad characters convert to Buddhism. Whew!

OK, here's the kiddy version:

Sonic and Tails are flying around looking for Naugus. The old "Winged Victory" must have run out of gas because Tails is doing the flying and Sonic is just hanging on. They then come upon a mountain that's on fire. They spot a village at the base of the mountain and are met by a Mobian of undetermined species; I think she's supposed to be a red panda, I'm not sure. The heat must be getting to Sonic because he completely forgets his usual hip-cool argot and ends up sounding like Pa Jode from "The Grapes of Wrath": "Hi there, little lady," Sonic says, "think you could see it in your heart to help out a couple of tired and heat-striken travelers?" According to Li-Moon, the Mobian lass, Mount Storm-Top has been on fire for the last 100 days. In answer to Tails's question of why the residents don't resettle some place cooler, the girl's grandfather, an impressively-designed lion named Li Yuen, makes his entrance. "Would you be so quick to leave the place you've always called home?" he asks.

Sonic's bland reply, "OK, fair enough, old man," was absolutely infuriating. Because that's what Sonic and Tails DID do three issues ago. That line should have hit Sonic like a punch in the mouth but he just shines it off. I know Frank Strom had no way of knowing what the Sonic scheme of things was going to be, but this is just about as bad as the emotionally-neutered climax of "Endgame." It's as if Archie and Sega have conspired to rid Sonic of any vestige of an internal life. In that one exchange I could see that if something isn't done to shore up Sonic's characterization he'll soon be so bland that nobody will care any more. Over-reacting? I think not.

Li Yuen informs Sonic and Tails that the mountain is burning because the people refused to yield to the "dictatorship" of the Iron King and his wife, "the sorcerous Iron Queen." That's "Sorceress" but let's move along. The Enchanted Fan of Fen Xing is the only thing that can extinguish the fire, and it's in the Iron King's Arsenal. So guess where Sonic and Tails are headed.

We are then introduced to the Irons, King and Queen. The King is a shadowy presence while his wife combines elements of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West with more than a dash of Rita Repulsa from "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers." I still have a grudge against that show for getting better ratings than the Saturday morning Sonic cartoon and no, I don't care if they HAVE bought advertising space in this comic (see inside back cover for latest incarnation -- talk about sleeping with the enemy!).

Sonic takes a break from heading toward Mount Storm-Top because of the heat. Before anyone can say "But it's a DRY heat," Monkey Khan makes his entrance. I want to commend Frank Strom for resisting the temptation to work Monkey Khan's name into the same balloon as the word "wrath," and I'm sure every other Trekker feels the same way: "I knew Khan Noonien Singh, I was a friend of his, and you sir are no Khan Noonien Singh!" Firing lightning bolts, Khan pursues our heroes as they try to lose him by hiding behind...

The Fan Art: While John Russell's drawing depends on a LOT of models taken from a LOT of different issues (Bunnie from "Rabbot Deployment," Sally from "Sonic Blast"), there's been some comment from fans WRT the drawings from Joel and Aaron Valentino. I've checked and my sources tell me that, yes, their father IS Image Comics co-founder Jim Valentino who collaborated with Ken Penders on a Sonic drawing toward the end of this issue. I'd like to think that the fan art showed up first and then someone at Archie contacted Jim and discovered that Joel and Aaron are Sonic fans in their own right, and suggested the drawing by Ken and Jim. It struck other Sonic fans as too reminiscent of having fan art by Stephen and Jessica Penders appear in the Sonic Live special. The truth is out there, but I don't feel like looking for it.

Monkey Khan gives chase. You can tell he's been enchanted because his eyes are weirded out. Speaking of weird, his proportions are kind of messed up on page 7. I know Ron Bauerle is sensitive to Antoine's invoking the name of the Deity in French, so one has to wonder how Frank got away with using the word "hellatious." Guess code enforcement ain't what it used to be. As Sonic and Khan battle it out, the Iron Queen conveniently stops by to watch the fun first-hand and to suggest that they drop as many pro-wrestling references as possible. She appears to be a fan of the WCW but so far this comic's New World Order (i.e., the last three issues) makes me yearn for the old days when Sonic and his tag-team partner Tails were back in the Knothole Freedom Fighter Federation. Tails manages to get behind Queenie and fly into her staff. It falls apart and Queenie's hold over Monkey Khan is broken. The good news: that fight sequence only lasted TWO pages. The Queen's reaction: "Darn your socks!" Considering that Frank was able to get away with "hellatious" I thought she'd have used something stronger. According to Kherdian, the Bull Demon says at one point: "I would like to swallow [Monkey] whole and turn him to s--t to feed the dogs." Now THAT's a threat to be reckoned with! Queenie then flies home and Sonic, Tails and Khan follow.

By using the clever tactic of walking in the front door, they enter the Iron's palace only to run into the Iron King (rather impressively drawn, I might add). While Sonic and Khan keep the King busy, Tails retrieves the fan which Sonic then uses to blow the King away, literally. Well, THAT fight lasted about as long as Mammoth Mogul's first attempt at conquest in "Don't Let The Island Hit You On The Way Down" (Chaotix special). On their return to Mount Storm-Top, Queenie is waiting for them but aside from some lame pyrotechnics she puts up even less resistance than her hubby. Sonic puts out the burning mountain in a single stroke (in the original story it took 49 consecutive waves of the fan--I'm sure it had some numerological significance), and the Queen stages another lame retreat. Li Yuen cites some prophecy about a "great monkey king," which leaves Sonic predictably cheesed off at Paul Castiglia -- well, he IS talking about getting a new publicist!

Rating: Rings

OK, it doesn't follow the legend of "The Monkey Who Went To The West" point by point, but it's still a valiant effort at working in material from a narrative tradition that may not be well known in this hemisphere. The art is passable, though the inking by Ken Penders in "Monkey Madness" (#55) felt more definitive than Jim Amash's work here. I felt sorry for Tails's off-model rendering: his eyes were drawn WAY too big! And while Queenie got a lot of good dialogue, her hubby wound up as yet one more weak villain who could talk the talk but who couldn't walk the walk.

And then there's Sonic. At least he didn't get upstaged by Khan as in their last outing. But the old problem remains: It's yet one more fight story that really doesn't get our heroes anywhere. Don't think this development has gone unnoticed by the cyberfans; one recent thread was titled "Sonic Is Slipping Away." It may be too early to say at this point, but the three stories so far where Sonic and Tails have been on their own have lacked a certain something. But let's take a look at how it's done right:

Backup Story: Sally and her father, King Max, are having a long-overdue face-to-face, but don't look for any Kodak Moments here. For one thing, father and daughter differ on the status of the Roboticized Mobians with Max implying that he's content with the present arrangement of having them all live in Knothole...heck, let's just be up-front about it and call it "apartheid," a policy which Sally opposes. But the whole point of this little gathering is to initiate Sally into the Family Secret.

Max opens a nearby closet: no relatives are inside waiting to come out, and neither are there any visible skeletons. Instead there is a passage leading down to what Sally has to think is the weirdest looking hottub she's ever seen. She was supposed to have been brought down here when she turned 10, but of course she was in Knothole with a bunch of other kids and Max was in the Zone/Void. From her expression near the top of page 4 we get the impression that she's not taking this as seriously as her old man is. When Max implies that this is also the way her mate will be selected, she voices her doubts while admitting that the last time she looked Sonic was still trying to outrun puberty. At this the King goes nuclear, stating that his OWN marriage to Sally's mother had been arranged by the Source when they were 11 though they weren't formally hitched until they were 18. Great: the Source of All turns out to be a cosmic yenta, like something out of "Fiddler on the Roof":

"Matchmaker, matchmaker, can it be true?
You're just a big
Puddle of goo.
My heart to Sonic has always been true
So you'd better get a clue!"

And then Ken Penders drops one of those bombshells that really cheese off the fans and, let's face it, keep us interested: according to Max, the Source has told him that Sally's intended hubby is...Antoine! Now it's Sally's turn to blow a gasket. Max counters by saying that Sally will lose her place in the line of succession if she doesn't go along with the arrangement. The two part, not exactly on the best of terms.

Rating: Rings

Needless to say, the Sonic list was jerking around like a live wire when word of this development got out. One gets the sense that whether it's residual damage from crystals on the brain or the after-effects of spending ten years in the Zone, Max has definitely lost touch with reality. I agree: this has to stand as the single greatest miscarriage of romance since the hand of the fair Ellen was promised to "a laggard in love and a dastard in war" instead of to the brave Lochinvar. [For the benefit of those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, it's poetry. Sir Walter Scott. "Marmion". Canto 5, poem XII]. Besides, I wouldn't want to be around when Antoine's girlfriend, Bunnie, gets wind of this development. Antoine himself strikes me as someone who's too much the romantic to enter into a forced marriage with someone whose heart belongs to another. And then there's the problem of Sally's prospective father-in-law. You remember him: metallic, bad moustache, acts like a tyrant, calls himself the High Sheriff now, supposedly got blown up with his castle. Somebody ought to whack that pool on the side to see if they can clear up the reception. And smack Max upside the head while they're at it.

Here we have one of the classic confrontations of the ages: not between father and daughter so much as between Determinism and Free Will. Max, in his devotion to the Source, is obviously a Determinist, believing that a power beyond his own has ordained the way Mobius works. Determinists, however, make lousy Freedom Fighters and it's clear that Sally represents Free Will to the extreme. She's never needed to recite the Serenity Prayer to ask for the courage to change the things she could--that she had in abundance.

But it's more than a philosophical difference that raised the level of ire among Sonic fans. They CARE about Sally, they want to see her and Sonic tie the knot (see fan mail below as well as the fan art by Rachel Tschauder in #59). This may seem a burden to the writers who wanted to lose Sally and leave the rest of the cartoon continuity behind, but Sonic without Sally would be...well, it'd look a lot like the crop of cover stories we've had to wade through for the last three issues. Sonic meets a Robin Hood clone and helps rescue the echidna tribe: that's OK. Sonic and Tails are forced to fight each other by a couple of mecha: shrug. Sonic fights Monkey Khan and the Iron King and puts out a burning mountain: so what! The Sonic-Tails buddy-buddy premise is going nowhere at Mach 2. None of the villains have been able to fill Robotnik's sizable wingtips, and without Uncle Chuck or Sally or any of the other Old Comrades to relate to the fights get pretty old pretty fast. Maybe the rugrats have a higher tolerance for this stuff but this is what I meant when I said that Sonic was becoming increasingly irrelevant to his own comic book. Whatever the merits of the stories in the Sonic Kids special, they LOOKED better simply by comparison to what we're having to put up with now because the pint-sized Sonic and Tails were back where they belong: in the context of the group. It's proven to be much more fertile soil from a narrative point of view. I'm sure that Gallagher and Strom and Bollers and the others are all good writers, but they have been saddled with a premise that has yet to get traction. The "World Tour" premise didn't work on "Gargoyles" and so far the feeling is it's not working here, either. Either ratchet up the quality of the cover stories to the level of the writing of the back stories (and fast!), or else the fans will start doing the anti-Vietnam War number and petitioning Goldwater, Gorelick and Gabrie to BRING THE BOYS HOME!

I found myself wondering whether the comic's present editorial structure [Sonic-Tails story up front, and the really interesting stories in the back] wasn't part of some conscious management design. Do they, too, sense that the cover stories aren't as engaging as the back stories? Maybe the letters received by Archie Comics from the non-cyber fans tell a different story but there is one factor to consider: preadolescent boys eventually become adolescents. Without really engaging stories the readers may start dropping Sonic along with other "childish things" (such as walking around with one's shoelaces untied and listening to Hanson records). I can't speak for anyone but myself but the back stories are the ones that keep me coming back for more.

Overall Rating: Rings