When Ken first wrote the ending to Princess Sally’s Crusade, it’s doubtful that he thought beyond that simple page of a happy ending. A moment where Sonic and Sally were able to find peace, years after their battle with the evil Dr. Robotnik had come to a close. Back when the Saturday morning cartoon still reigned supreme, before Sonic Adventure and the Japanese continuity became commonplace, even before most Americans realized there was another comic book being published in the U.K. that tried to be closer to the games, albeit the Kintobor storyline that no longer is considered canon by anyone who works in the halls of SEGA. It was a just a moment where Ken thought he’d be clever, coming up with an interesting spin on the origins of NICOLE, something the TV show never got the chance to cover.
By the time Sonic the Hedgehog #131 hit newsstands, no longer was the comic book storyline the simple tales of good versus evil. The main story had taken on numerous twists and turns, incorporating elements from other shows, other games, a hodgepodge of Sonic the Hedgehog that didn’t always gel correctly. If Ken were to make a comprehensive future of every single character, of every single possibility, he may have gone mad. Indeed, sometimes it felt like his own mental state was in danger, with all the rumblings of internal strife happening in the halls of Archie Comics. Sometimes, it was a miracle the book was published at all, regardless of the quality.
As stated before, when Ken’s final installment of Mobius: 25 Years Later saw print in Sonic #144, that was never the intended ending. Ken had not gone through all that effort to leave the future as a perpetual cliffhanger. There were plans for more, though they never saw fruition. The happy endings for Sonic, Sally, Knuckles, Lara-Su and the rest instead remained only in Ken’s mind, until Ian ushered his own interpretation of the future.
When Ian Flynn took over Sonic the Hedgehog as main writer back in 2006, his first task was to wrap up everything the comic had been doing for years. Strung out plotlines with little resolution had become the norm, and had definitely run its course. Sonic #160 through Sonic #174‘s primary purpose was to bring everything back together and reign it in so #175 could be an easy jumping off point, not just for the reader but for Ian to write his own stories involving the sprawling cast of the comic. Part of that spring cleaning was the initial resolution to Mobius: 25 Years Later, even if it had been two years since the storyline had been an ongoing feature in the book.
Though it is possible that revisiting the future would have been on Ian’s mind eventually, the two-part conclusion was not something he decided to write, but was instead editorially dictated by Mike Pellerito. Wanting to also wrap things up to make things easier for oncoming readers, he instructed Ian to find a way to end Ken’s futuristic epic in 22 pages, spread out across two issues. Not content with just having Ian come up with his own ideas, he demanded the young professional incorporate an element in the narrative that could be seen as coming from out of left field: the arrival of King Shadow.
Sometimes, long-running serials can become stale. If you’ve been hired to write for a comic book month after month for years, you can reach a point where you just can’t be as good as you used to be. Ideas get regurgitated. Fast paced action is slowed down. All the creativity of those first few years can dwindle, even if the property is yours. There’s a reason creatives are always looking for new valleys to explore – focusing on just one idea, one story, can drive someone mad. It can compromise the overall arc. It can feel like the story should have ended years beforehand, instead of half-heatedly lurching forward into the abyss.
American comic book companies are aware of this to a degree, oftentimes changing the creatives on a book in order not just to improve sales, but to prevent the material from becoming flat. The hope being that if new minds are always bringing in fresh ideas, the 70+ years of Batman adventures won’t continue to repeat themselves. Very rarely in the modern industry do you get someone on a title for more than a handful of years. Extremely rare is the tenure that Ken Penders enjoyed, writing on Sonic the Hedgehog and its related series for nearly 13.
When Ken was unceremoniously dropped from the title back in 2006, he was replaced by newcomer Ian Flynn, his first story seeing print in Sonic the Hedgehog #160. Though relatively unknown, there was a faction who was excited to see what he would bring to the table, him having been a fan himself, writing his own fanfiction about Sonic in the years previous. Even if sales of the title had gotten better when Ken took over from Karl Bollers as head writer, there was a certain stagnant feeling to the stories being provided. If you’d had gone on record saying that, in your mind, the battle between Sonic and Eggman was over and you were solely invested in the future tales of Mobius, what else would one expect?
With Ian at the helm, it didn’t take long for the new writer to revisit one of the longest running, incomplete tales that had taken hold of the comic since its early days. Dictated by management to wrap it up once and for all, Ian set off to finally finish Mobius: 25 Years Later.
While it has been mentioned before in these reviews, one of the biggest problems Ken seems to deal with is pacing his work for a mass audience. Filled to the brim with ideas, it isn’t hard for someone to get buried under them and lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish. Normally, a good editor should be there to hold you under the reigns, but if there’s one thing Ken Penders didn’t get through most of his time at Archie, it was a good editor. Justin Gabrie may have started with good intentions, but it became clear that at some point, he didn’t understand the material he was working with. He let a lot of mind-boggling plot points, awkward writing, and terrible art make it to the printing press without fear. He also seemed perfectly ok with the knowledge that Karl Bollers and Ken Penders were writing stories that sometimes contradicted each other, his desire for consistency being overshadowed by just wanting the comic to be released on schedule, quality be damned.
That doesn’t excuse Ken completely. I’ve also mentioned how most people point to Sonic the Hedgehog #36–#50 as some of Ken’s best writing in the series. Part of why that period may have been so strong is because of the self-imposed deadline. No one knew if the series would survive a few months beyond the cancellation of the Saturday morning cartoon, let alone make it to Issue #50. A lot of ideas and interesting concepts were thrown at the reader all at once, supported by mini-series and specials that built up to Endgame. There was a limit, and Ken was forced to work with it, leaving room for the other freelance authors to do their own thing as well.
When Ken Penders first started outlining what would evolve into Mobius: 25 Years Later, he took the title of the story seriously. While most comic book authors dealing with modern legends they neither created or owned liked to toy with the future, they knew in the back of their minds that the future was fleeting. Their ideas of how the fate of each character would play out could easily be changed, be it another writer down the line or even the whim of an editor. Ken, on the other hand, never thought he was writing an imaginary story or a possible future. To him, he was detailing the true and final fate of these characters within the Sonic Archie Universe.
As the series began to see print, the opinion on whether or not the story was canon or merely a possible future was suddenly called into question, much to Ken’s chagrin. An internal strife behind the scenes began, one that did leak onto the Internet in various fan forums and even some semi-official ones. Though it would be some time (and a change in editor) before Ken would be forced off the series, they were the first cracks in the wall to show that Ken’s position in the echelon of Archie scribes was not as strong as he would have liked to think.
When the team at Archie began their long line of 48-page Sonic specials, the original intent was to make each one, well, special. Something so big, that it couldn’t be held in the main series. A bone-fide event, not to mention a way to increase sales. Sonic: In Your Face! was the first, focusing on Princess Sally and completing a story begun in the main line. Others followed, such as Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic Triple Trouble, and Sonic & Knuckles: Mecha Madness. Each one tried to up the ante, adapting games or doing storylines that the readership just had to get, not wanting to miss out on something that could be awesome.
When the 48-page specials were turned into their own quarterly series, there was an attempt to continue making each issue some big extravaganza. The oft-mentioned Brave New World. Return of the King, where the crystallized King Acorn was finally restored to his former glory. Even the Sonic Kids specials tried to examine facets of the mythology that the writers otherwise couldn’t. Sure, not every issue delivered, but those that did delivered in spades. That’s why there was so much hype about Knuckles: 20 Years Later. With how passionate Ken Penders sounded while talking about it to fans, the readers felt they were in for a treat. That’s why there was so much disappointment when it was postponed indefinitely after the cancellation of the Super Specials.
Before the announcement of Mobius: 25 Years Later, however, there was a brief tease of that future in Ken’s strip: the first appearance of Lara-Su, Knuckles’ daughter of the future. Thrown across time and space, the fans were finally able to see the character in action, to tide them over in anticipation of a storyline they still hoped for. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Reunification.”
Everyone loves a good disaster movie. A group of people living their normal lives, suddenly forced to deal with natural forces beyond their control. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, you name it. Some people watch them just so they can see famous landmarks explode. Others because they like to imagine themselves in a similar situation, wondering if they could get out of it alive. A classic form of the human struggle, people banding together against incredible odds.
Most of these stories don’t have a crazed antagonist behind them. There might be some selfish person who looks to capitalize on what is going on for their own personal gain, but rarely are they the one behind it. Not to say there aren’t movies where a crazy scientist has figured out how to make earthquakes and terrorizes the world for money. You just don’t find that in most fiction of this sort. That slips into science-fiction territory, which has entirely different goals in mind.
When you’re dealing with the type of disasters like the one presented in Mobius: 25 Years Later, however, you can’t just leave it be as something out of the character’s hands. If you are building the final chapter to a sweeping epic, you need an antagonist worthy of what is happening around the characters. Crisis On Infinite Earths, the DC maxi-series I cited earlier and a clear inspiration to the “crazy weather” plot, knew this. The weather was a precursor to the end of existence, but as the story unfolded, it was discovered that it was all part of a design by a character known as the Anti-Monitor. A being so evil that he wanted to destroy the universe, leaving only that which he controlled. There was something the heroes could actually fight against. A final chapter that stayed true to everything that had come before it. Not panel after panel of scientists trying to find a solution.
A lot can be said for having a character study in a strip that is otherwise full of action and adventure. While it’s fun to watch the hero punch the bad guy and save the day, you can only do so much. Without engaging characters at the center of the story, there’s no reason to keep on watching. Having one-dimensional hijinks from two-dimensional characters can only keep people intrigued for so long. Video games don’t have to be as great in the characterization department as a major motion picture, yes, but a person playing a game is expecting different things than the person sitting down and, say, reading an issue of Sonic the Hedgehog. I don’t need to know every detail of Eggman‘s motives as I run through the Green Hill Zone. In a comic, I need texture. Having 22 pages of Sonic running and jumping and saying nothing is not how you keep a comic book going for two decades.
At the same time, you can’t have a comic book about Sonic be just a bunch of talking heads. You need a careful balance of exposition and explosions. Having the occasional issue where the characters are able to sit back and talk is important. Being able to examine everyone’s motives, explore their hopes and fears, and even having them grow in some fashion can keep people interested. Then you can go back to Sonic popping badniks and throwing out one-liners.
Ken was acutely aware of this as he tried to shift the comic towards the Saturday morning mindset, having extended plotlines showcasing the heroes with both victories and failures, not to mention the occasional introspective moment. But whatever balance he had in those early days seemed to disappear long before he got to writing Mobius: 25 Years Later. Having a hundred pages of flimsy character study with nothing else does not inspire your audience to read on.
When Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog first started, it worked on an extremely simple premise. Freedom Fighters, striking from a hidden base, have victory after victory against the evil Dr. Robotnik, although the status quo never changes. With no concern to follow continuity, the light-hearted, pun-centric stories could do whatever they wanted. But looking at the ambitious scope of the Saturday morning cartoon‘s second season, Ken Penders was inspired to transform the comic into something that could be even greater than what was seen on the airwaves.
This was when Ken’s obsession with world building began. In a fictional universe, sometimes even the smallest details can help flesh it out. One look at the original Star Wars films, for example, proves just that. When Luke and Obi-Wan walk into the Mos Eisley Cantina in the first film, all these strange creatures from across the universe are sitting together, each with their own story, adventures that go far beyond what Luke Skywalker was doing. The audience didn’t need to know the name of every species or their occupations, simply the fact they existed gave it credence. This was a living, breathing universe that had existed long before the rebels stole the plans to the Death Star.
Introducing concepts and characters that could be revisited by other authors down the line was what Ken wanted to do. Build a living, breathing world where untold adventures and civilizations lay just beyond the horizon. He did this before Endgame, it was the expressed purpose of Brave New World, and the Knuckles series had new idea after new idea in almost every arc. Just coming up with a slew of ideas doesn’t automatically make them good, however. Sometimes, it can even bury the story you are trying to tell.
Looking at the comic book as a whole, it’s pretty clear that the entire staff – not just Ken Penders – had some trouble transitioning to the Sonic Adventure era of the franchise. After all, Sonic the Hedgehog was based primarily on the Saturday morning series, which featured characters and settings far removed from the video games. Even characters like Dr. Robotnik were extremely different, his visual appearance and chilling vocals as far removed from the Dr. Eggman design as one could get. Even though Robotnik had been briefly retired, when word came from the licensing department that the newest game was to be adapted in the pages of the series, the staff was given a tremendous challenge. How would one reconcile the anthropomorphic world of a polluted and corrupted Mobius with the human-friendly, pristine world of Sonic Adventure?
The answer? Not very well. Having Station Square be a human city hidden in a mountain and protected from the gene bomb that wiped out most of humanity millennia before, there was already an ominous cloud over everything. Intent on adapting the game as closely as possible, the most ridiculous plot devices were used. Alternate robot bodies, magic rings aging characters, and Super Emeralds somehow able to create buckles on shoes that didn’t already have them…
The hardest hit, though, had to be Ken. Here was a man who, regardless of how you feel about his work, had spent years creating this entire world for Knuckles the Echidna from scratch. Then one day, you’re told that your carefully crafted history has to be pushed aside to include the backstory for Knuckles as introduced in Adventure. The story of Pachacamac, Tikal and Chaos contradicted Ken’s take on the creation of Angel Island at every turn. Coupled with the cancellation of Knuckles’ solo series, it comes through that Ken was writing something his heart wasn’t in. His long-term plans for characters that weren’t even his had to be changed, and pet projects like the original Knuckles: 20 Years Later were put on indefinite hold. Having grown a garden in one place and then being told that you’re actually supposed to be making taffy? That has to take a toll on anyone.
It wouldn’t surprise me if, in some regard, Ken resents Sonic Adventure and the elements he was forced to play with.