Hedging Your Bets #15: The Great Chaos Caper
With almost 300 issues in the core series, Archie's Sonic The Hedgehog stands as the longest-running uninterrupted American monthly comic book that's currently being published. In Hedging Your Bets, I attempt to get up to speed on Sonic the Hedgehog, challenging the odds to hopefully make it all the way to the finish line.
This week, Knuckles takes the spotlight, and seriously: Does everyone in this book except Sonic have a friggin' gun?
Sonic Universe #63 - 66: "The Great Chaos Caper"
Over the past few months of talking about Sonic the Hedgehog, I've mostly focused on the plot. The reasoning there should be obvious --- there's plenty of stuff going on there to sift through, especially when there's a reboot every couple weeks --- but there's a lot happening in comics that goes beyond just trying to figure out why the heck there are so many human beings in a world that's apparently ruled by big-eyed chipmunks.
There is, however, a lot more to a comic than the plot, and the thing that stuck out to me the most as I was reading through "The Great Chaos Caper" --- a story that has a disappointing lack of caper and/or heist tropes --- was panel structure.
I've mentioned before that one of the elements that really speaks well of Sonic and Sonic Universe --- and Ian Flynn's work in general, if you want to extend it to Mega Man --- is how much he can get done in each issue. Even in stories that feel like they're essentially operating in a holding pattern, there's a lot going on. "Genesis," for instance, had like three games' worth of action playing out in the story, and "The Chase," a holding pattern if there ever was one, was largely built around a pretty cool Great Train Robbery sequence that saw Sonic and Company fighting from car to car with a different threat or challenge every time.
And because there's so much happening in each issue --- whether or not it advances the larger plot --- that changes the way that it has to be presented. You end up with these action sequences and fight scenes that are crammed into five-, six-, sometimes even seven-panel pages, and where the page layouts are all built to emphasize action by breaking out of a grid. Here's two examples from different issues:
There's a lot going on in these pages, quick sequences that go moment-by-moment to flesh out fight scenes and action sequences. It gives you a full beat on a single page --- always a good idea, since comics are punctuated by page turns --- but I'm not sure that it works as well as it should.
That's not a knock on Tracy Yardley, or any of the other artists that have worked on this book and take a similar approach to crafting Sonic's adventures. It's a reliable technique, and if nothing else, there are a lot of great examples of the artists using a single panel for multiple distinct moments, which is very difficult to pull off. The problem is that it's also occasionally difficult to read. The pages are so full that they're often overwhelming, and the tradeoff of having everything happen at a breakneck pace is that a lot of those moments don't have the space to breathe and let readers catch up.
It's something that really comes through in this story when you compare it to the last entry in Sonic Universe. Even though "Shadow Fall" had Shadow, Rouge, Omega, and a unit of GUN soldiers as its protagonists, that's still a relatively smaller cast than we're used to dealing with, and they were all directed towards a single mission against a single group of antagonists. It's one of the reasons I liked that story so much, that its Aliens-With-Hedgehogs structure had a tight focus. Every other story we've seen has multiple casts, often divided up into multiple locations, dealing with threats on multiple sides.
And this story, as straightforward as it might seem at first, is a prime example.
"The Great Chaos Caper" is essentially the story of what Knuckles is doing during the big Shattered World crisis that's going on in the main title, and it's nominally about Sonic being sent by a mysterious spirit to go recover and protect a different spirit that will help them patch up the world before it breaks into pieces. Simple, right? Except that it's not.
First, he needs to find someone to watch over the Master Emerald, which may or may not be one of the seven Chaos Emeralds? It's never explained. This job falls to Relic the Pika --- did you know a Pika is an actual animal because I did not! --- and her robot sidekick, who then have their own unrelated adventure interspersed with Knuckles'.
That's not actually a bad thing, either. For one, Knuckles' interactions with Relic actually gave him a lot of personality right at the top of the story and I like that he's as good at asking for help as I am at admitting my mistakes:
For another, in terms of story structure, it's always good to have a B or C plot to cut away to to build tension in the main story. It's the big trick of Walt Simonson's masterful run on Thor, that you'll have these issues built from two-page sequences that cut to something else whenever the tension starts to ratchet up.
The thing is, instead of Knuckles Goes To Find This Spirit, the story then quickly turns into Knuckles Teams Up With The Chaotix, who have been hired by Princess Sally to track down a missing Chaos Emerald. I'm vaguely familiar with the idea that these are essentially Knuckles' versions of the Freedom Fighters who originated as his supporting cast in the games, but they're characterized here as private detectives, which is weird.
I'm honestly not sure what's weirder: Shadow having guns and nuclear weapons, or the fact that this funny animal comic for babies has a wisecracking alligator whose job is following cheating spouses and getting evidence of their infidelity so that it can be proven in divorce court.
You know, for the kids.
Complicating matters even further is that once Knuckles' mission to find the spirit dovetails with the Chaotix's mission to find the Emerald, they're opposed by another group of antagonists: The Hooligans.
More guns! Why doesn't Sonic have a gun?! That would make those games way easier!
So at that point, we've got seven characters in the main story --- eight, once Chip, the spirit in question, shows up --- and then three more characters --- Pika, Fixit, and Eclipse --- in the B story setting up the book's next arc.
Oh, and there's also the same weird mutant Shattered World monsters that were showing up in Sonic:
With that much to juggle, it's no wonder that the fight scenes are built around such dense panel structure.
With the Chaotix and the Hooligans butting heads as they go after the Emerald --- with Knuckles correctly assuming that his ability to sense the Emerald will also lead him to the spirit he's looking for --- the story wends its way through an underground labyrinth re-created from one of the games. And to its credit, Flynn, Yardley, Amash and Herms take plenty of opportunities for some interesting character development. Bean the Duck in particular gets a lot of chances to shine beyond his one-note love of (ugh) "shinies," doing some interesting fourth-wall breaking that has led me to think of him solely as Duckpool:
Eventually, it turns out that this whole thing was another adventure that was sparked by Tikal the Echidna Who Is Also A Ghost, who seems to be doing a lot to drive this story.
But really, the most important thing here is that the Duck makes a reference to the TV edit of The Big Lebowski.
This book's wild.
This Week's Odds:
- Chris finishes the entire project: 30 to 1
- Chris takes a good, hard look in the mirror and accepts that he is looking at someone who has Opinions about Knuckles, Amy Rose, and Shadow the Hedgehog: 10 to 1
- Chris Googles to see if there's a Sonic character named "Mister Falcon": 1 to 1