Hedging Your Bets #19: Spark Of Life
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, I hope you're ready to have Some Opinions about Nicole the Holographic Lynx, because I was definitely not prepared for this development.
Sonic Universe #71 - 74: "Spark of Life"
So here's a weird thing about comics: They change. They change a lot, actually --- if you look at stories from fifteen, sometimes even ten years ago, they don't look like the ones you're picking up this week. Even when they're focused on the same characters and settings, design aesthetics change --- the phones that people are carrying in comics from 2007 don't look like the ones they carry around now, and the cars they drive around in don't either. Even if you're divorcing your story from reality by leaning hard into fantasy or sci-fi, spaceships and dragons have those same kind of prevailing aesthetics that change from one year to the next.
But --- and this is the weird part --- there's one thing that pretty much just looks exactly like it did 25 years ago: the internet. Or at least, what the internet looks like when you jack into the digital world and go adventuring... in cyberspace.
When the X-Men went into virtual reality in those Pizza Hut comics from 1993, cyberspace looked pretty much the same as it did when Batman fought crime in "Internet 3.0," and it's a weird little bit of visual shorthand that goes beyond comics. I think it has its roots in Tron and the grid map walls of the Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it's really weird to see that idea remain crystallized as computers and the Internet became exponentially more prominent in society. It's that same kind of crystallized deprecated iconography that you can see all around you, like how the "Save" button in a word processor still looks like a floppy disk, or how the "phone" button on your phone looks like a rotary handset instead of the glass rectangle you're actually looking at.
And you can see it in Sonic the Hedgehog, too.
"Spark of Life" is, of course, focused on Nicole, and it's got that same kind of aesthetic, which is actually pretty weird if you stop to consider that this entire story is taking place in a comic book version of a video game world. But, y'know, if we go down that weird little knothole, I'll wind up on the verge of an existential crisis.
Not that I'm not there already. I've mentioned this before, but we've gotten to the point where I'm actually really invested. I mean, I knew this was going to happen --- I've done enough of these deep dives over the years to know that for me at least, familiarity breeds affection way more often than contempt. But I'm still kind of surprised that I now have to type the sentence "I have a lot of strong opinions on Nicole the Holo-Lynx."
So here we go: I have a lot of strong opinions about Nicole the Holo-Lynx.
It makes sense that I would. Back when we started this thing, Nicole was the first character whose story really interested me --- this sentient artificial intelligence who had absolute control over an entire city, who was lauded as a hero for her actions in a war but then immediately turned on by the public when her power was no longer useful enough to outweigh their fear.
That's a really interesting and compelling story --- and one that dovetails a lot with what Ian Flynn was doing on Mega Man, a book that I loved --- but it's also something that was completely scrapped with Worlds Collide and the advent of the (allegedly) more streamlined universe. Since then, Nicole's been around, but she's never been the focus. Now, we're getting her origin.
Or... maybe her new origin? I'm sure I'll find out in the comments.
The basic idea is that Nicole was created by a scientist, Dr. Ellidy, in an effort to preserve the brain patterns of his dying daughter, Nikki, by scanning her into an artificial intelligence. When it didn't work, he gave the AI to Princess Sally as a gift, but over time, Nicole evolved into a full-on sentient AI.
And there's a level where that's disappointing. It's the kind of story that we've seen before, right down to the tragic dead kid, and I kind of liked the idea of getting away from that by having Nicole being just a sentient AI that, like a human, had the capacity to grow and evolve on her own, without needing that catalyst. It does, however, add a lot of really good elements to the plot.
Dr. Ellidy's resentment that he failed --- that Nicole isn't Nikki, that she's something else that used those brain patterns as a starting point and then became her own person --- is actually really well done, especially when Flynn and Baker give the characters the Dark Gaia energy as a reason to amplify those emotions into a shouting match.
It even gets played up in the "Digital World" part of the story, where Nicole tries to find out what's going wrong with all of Dr. Ellidy's experiments and ends up face to face with a new villain called Phage.
I actually really love Phage's design --- that sharp row of teeth behind the already-kind-of-scary mask is a really good touch --- but it goes a little beyond that. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it seemed to me like it was heavily implied that Phage was another product of Ellidy's experiments with Nikki's brain patterns, just one that was left in the Digital world and didn't have Sally's influence to develop her personality.
Or maybe that's just something I read into it. Oh Good Lord, do I have a headcanon about a Sonic character now?! Oh no. Oh no no no no no.
Okay, back to the story: In what's probably the weakest part of the whole thing, it comes to an end like Sonic stories seem to always end: With some mystical force drawn from the Chaos Emeralds --- in this case, Red Rings --- turning a character into a super-powered version of themselves.
In this case, Overclocked Nicole (which is a pretty solid joke of a name) essentially just gets Neo's The One powers and is able to manipulate the Digital World to lock Phage out of Ellidy's systems permanently, fixing the problem and leaving Phage out there for a future return.
It's an interesting way to re-establish a character, and Ellidy coming to some kind of acceptance of Nicole's existence while still being incredibly uncomfortable with and resentful of her is a nice way to end things without wrapping them up too neatly.
But, y'know, we're about to head into another Mega Man crossover, so who knows if any of this is going to stick.
This Week's Odds:
- Chris finishes the entire project: 20 to 1
- Chris begins to develop headcanons about other Sonic characters, like for instance that Knuckles is secretly super into Golden Girls and considers himself "a real Dorothy": 5 to 1
- Chris, in a minimum of six months, refuses to admit that he ever had any opinions whatsoever about Nicole the Holo-Lynx: 12 to 1