Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Tails" of Archie: A Brief History of Solo Stories, Spinoffs and Adaptations

I'm running late with this (big surprise), but here we are!




The original intention was to do an issue-by-issue summary and commentary for the Tails Adventure arc of Sonic Universe. However, as I began writing this post, I started getting knee-deep into some of the Archie comic history about adaptations and Tails' earlier solo outings. Instead of trimming it down and getting to what I was supposed to write about... I decided to go in this direction and talk a bit of history instead. Just thank your lucky stars I'm not covering Knuckles... yet.

Anyway, without further delay, hit the jump and let's get things rolling!

Tails' earliest solo adventures for the Game Gear, Tails Adventure (left) and Tails' Sky Patrol (right), released in 1995.

Back in 1995, two Tails solo adventures were released for SEGA's handheld, the Game Gear. You read that right, TWO! First there was Tails' Sky Patrol, a game that wouldn't appear in any form on American (or European, for that matter) shores until the release of Sonic Adventure DX for the Nintendo Gamecube as an extra (along with a handful of other Game Gear titles to be released once more on the Gems Collection). A few months later, SEGA would publish Tails Adventure, and eventually release it to Western terriortories within months of the Japanese release, a traditional platformer set on Cocoa Island before Tails met Sonic. The story begins with Tails taking a nap in the middle of the forest when the island is suddenly attacked by the Battle Bird Armada and the forest is set on fire! Now it's up to Tails, armed with his mechanical prowess and his submarine, the Sea Fox, to rid Cocoa Island of this new threat.
The Battle Bird Armada as they originally appeared in Tails Adventure.

Personally, from what little I managed to play of Sky Patrol, I found it uncontrollable and frustrating. I could barely get through the opening tutorial level before I decided to load up something else. I'm not sure if that says more about me or the game itself, but maybe I'll give it another spin a day (I'm not exactly rushing to it though). Tails Adventure, on the other hand, was a game I remember buying back when I was a kid. I never beat it, and the Game Gear's tendency to suck batteries dry and the use of the way past outdated password-save system didn't help matters any. Not to mention my Game Gear, much like my 32X, is completely out of commission now. However, thanks to its inclusion on Sonic Gems Collection, I plan to give it another go. While not nearly as fast-paced as the regular Sonic series, it's a fun little game that focuses on platforming and using Tails' various inventions to explore the island and defeat enemies.

On the comics side of things, Tails was striking out on his own too! His first solo story was featured in the Sonic In Your Face special issue (which also happens to be the first number 1 special of the Archie series). In this short story, written and penciled by Scott Shaw! (who previously handled penciling duties on the first three issues of the original Sonic the Hedgehog mini-series), our boy is making his way through the Great Forest... to attend a Sonic convention! Robotnik suddenly attacks and Tails is the only one who can stop the mad doctor from hurting any innocents. Next up, in the Triple Trouble adaptation, Tails receives his submarine, the Sea Fox, as a gift from Rotor. Though he isn't allowed to actually leave the harbor (Sally wouldn't allow Rotor to give it the oil it needs to work), Tails can't say "no" to an oil-covered seagull that needs help! Octobot, Robotnik's underwater sub-boss, is capturing aquatic Mobians and roboticizing them for his master! However, Tails, after fueling up the Sea Fox with the oil from the seagull, makes short work of Octobot and saves the day.

In issues 28 and 29 of the regular Sonic the Hedgehog comic series, Tails, angry with Sonic and the Freedom Fighters for treating him like a little kid, hops into the Sea Fox and heads out on a solo adventure. While out on his own, Tails comes across a deserted island where he meets Fiona Fox, his first love. Unfortunately for Tails, this is a trap set by Dr. Robotnik and the "Fiona*" he fell for is nothing more than an automaton created by Robotnik. Tails attacks the doctor out of anger, but is quickly stopped by "Fiona," who attempts to drown him in the ocean, allowing Robotnik ample time to get away. Before "Fiona" can finish our young hero off, she rusts. Heartbroken, the young fox then learns of Robotnik's plans in Downunda and heads out to stop him and his sub-boss all by himself, leaving the rusted "Fiona" behind, as a symbol of his "lost youth."

(*The real Fiona would eventually appear in the Mighty backup story, loosely based on the SegaSonic the Hedgehog Arcade game, in issues 26-28 of the Knuckles the Echidna series. She would later become a recurring character in the comic.)

The Tails mini-series, written by Mike Gallagher and illustrated by Dave Manak, released from December 1995 to February 1996. Covers by Patrick "Spaz" Spaziante.

And so begins Tails' first big solo adventure! A three-part mini-series set in Downunda. Tails would meet the Forty Fathom Freedom Fighters, a group of aquatic Mobians trying to keep the oceans clean from Robotnik's pollution; the Downunda Freedom Fighters; Athair, Knuckles' estranged ancestor who tells Tails about his role as the "Chosen One", and do battle with Crocbot, Robotnik's regional sub-boss.

Tails has easily become one of the most dynamic characters in the entire series, growing up from a mere sidekick to a full-fledged hero in his own right (Chosen One, indeed!). Originally, Tails' high intelligence and mechanic skills were rarely, if ever touched upon, probably because it wasn't clearly shown in the earlier games (outside of his repairing the Tornado back in Sonic 2 for the Genesis and his workshop in Tails Adventure). By the 3D-era, the Archie team slowly started working more of that in to his story. He eventually becomes more confident, if not outright cocky at times, capable of holding his own, not needing to rely on Sonic and the others so much. There was even a time when Tails fought with Sonic! He got a few good hits in, too (see issues 178-179, "House of Cards" for all the details). I have to admit, I didn't think I'd enjoy seeing the little furball beat up the real hero, but that is probably one of my favorite stories in recent years!

 Tails sucker punches Sonic! From issue 178, "House of Cards Pt. 1". Art by Tracy Yardley!

It's surprising to me that Archie didn't make an adaptation of Tails Adventure earlier. Unless, of course, they consider their mini-series a psuedo-adaptation to the game... even though it had almost nothing to do with the game (outside of starring Tails and having his submarine...). I don't really fault Archie (or, more accurately, its writers) for this. I assume most, if not all adaptations they did, were requested by SEGA to promote current games and to add new characters/story elements to better flesh out the canon at the time or to tie the series closer to the games. As the comic moved forward, this probably became more difficult, and may explain why most adaptations later were relegated to non-canon backup stories that served as advertisements for the games. Let's face it, the Archie Sonic canon is HUGE. The book tends to rely heavily on the readers' knowledge of past issues, so missing one book or more could leave a reader in the dark. Injecting every new character and storyline from the games would do little more than further complicate an already complicated storyline.

That's what makes the new Tails Adventure story arc such a surprising addition to the Archie Sonic mythology. Just last year, Archie managed to tie up a loose end from nine years ago: Sonic Adventure 2. The story was never fully adapted--though Shadow's survival after the battle with the FinalHazard was explained (rescued by a race of aliens called the Bem). Originally running in issue 98 of the regular series, it was a loose short story following Sonic's arrest and escape up until he was chased by the famous truck from City Escape. It took almost 100 issues, one series ending (Sonic X) and a new one beginning to finally bring it to a close (in Sonic Universe issue 2; the story is told in a series of flashbacks told from both Sonic's and Shadow's perspectives while they disarm Eggman's latest weapon). And now, Tails is back in the spotlight, in an all-new story updated to fit into the current canon. It may have taken 15 years to do so... but, hey, better late than never, right? And it's not like Tails hasn't had his fair share of panel time.

While I think the Archie comic has certainly improved over the years in the writing department, I think it still has a long way to go before it's a perfectly accessible comic book series. It's a bit easier these days, thanks to writer Ian Flynn breaking larger arcs into smaller mini-arcs that are easier to digest, but it's just as easy to get lost trying to understand the complex world Archie's writers of the past and present have crafted, with many disagreeing and reshaping the canon as they see fit during their tenure. But when you've got an easy to read, one-off story that doesn't require the reader to be too familiar with the universe, even inviting them in and turning them into fans, there's nothing like it. And even though it's Sonic's series, I think his supporting cast deserves the occasional nod too. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go get the next issue, I'm terribly behind!

Coming up: The Tails Adventure saga! Until next time, later!

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