By 1998, just a few years after Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut, the blue blur was in trouble. Sega’s follow-up to its Genesis home console, the Sega Saturn, was a total bust, and both Sonic cartoons had been canceled several years prior. To many American children, Sonic and his friends now existed primarily as comic-book characters. And the comics were weird: in an issue of Knuckles the Echidna from the era, an armadillo quotes Bugs Bunny and hoists a hospital bed over his head as he trips on acid.
By the late 2000s this series and its hundreds of characters would be at the center of a grueling legal battle, one that has sparked outrage in the Sonic fandom and forever changed the course of the long-running franchise. How did it get to this point? The upheaval all comes back to one influential contributor by the name of Ken Penders.
Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog was a spinoff of a spinoff, its premise taken loosely from the 1993 Saturday morning cartoon of the same name (unofficially dubbed “SatAM” by series fans), which itself is based on the video games. Longtime antagonist Dr. Robotnik became a techno-fascist dictator, while Sonic belonged to a team of anthropomorphic freedom fighters creatively named “the Freedom Fighters.” But when SatAM was canceled after two seasons, Archie’s team thought the comic’s days were numbered. In 1997, writer Ken Penders attempted to send the series off with its 50th issue in the “Endgame” arc, a climactic finale in which Dr. Robotnik was killed and the planet was freed. Except there was a problem: Sega wanted more.
Archie’s various writers were left scrambling for new ideas. One month, you might find a story from future Valiant editor Karl Bollers hinting that Sonic’s home planet of Mobius was actually a post-apocalyptic Earth. Or perhaps you’d find a parody of Casablanca. At one point, future Spider-Man scribe Dan Slott parodied Sailor Moon and introduced an alternate version of Sonic who was an interdimensional cop — both within the span of a few pages.
While Sonic was a hodgepodge of ideas from many different writers, sibling series Knuckles the Echidna (following Sonic’s longtime rival-turned-friend) was entirely the brainchild of Penders, and he had so little creative oversight that he got to write whatever he wanted. The result was a heavily serialized story that slowly unraveled the mysteries surrounding Knuckles’s origins, his enormous family tree, his ever-expanding array of superpowers, and his heroic destiny. While it had almost nothing to do with the video games, this was the definitive take on the character for fans craving backstory on the character.
The Knuckles stories were just as weird as the mainline Sonic series. In the fourth issue, Knuckles was given a love interest named Julie-Su, whose soul had become linked to his the first time she laid eyes on him — this is apparently how echidnas mate in Sonic’s world. Several arcs would attempt to tackle the subject of fascism, which infamously led to Penders rewording Martin Niemöller’s “First they came …” to be about Dr. Robotnik persecuting hedgehogs and echidnas. There was also the issue where a friend of Knuckles’s ally Charmy Bee dies from eating a chili dog laced with “Lemon Sundrop Dandelion.” While investigating the LSD epidemic, Charmy and friends absentmindedly eat more of the tainted food and get high as a kite. This leads to a hospital scene in which an echidna doctor operates on Charmy and his insect blood spurts all over the place. Remember: these comics were ostensibly aimed at preteen kids.
Knuckles was canceled in 1999, but Penders’s story was incorporated into the pages of the main Sonic comics. In the “Chaos Knuckles” saga, the echidna turned green, gained the godlike ability to manipulate the fabric of reality, putzed around the series for a couple dozen or so issues, and then died. And in “Mobius: 25 Years Later,” readers got a glimpse of the normally teenage Sonic heroes as adults — who spent most of their time gossiping about their kids or deciding what to have for dinner.
Reactions to Penders’s work and his significant additions to the series canon were mixed throughout the broad constellation of fan sites and forums. (Whereas contemporary fandom and its ensuing controversies mostly happens on centralized hubs like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, the Sonic fandom predates the centralized web.) Contemporary reviewer Dan Drazen commended the story arc “The Forbidden Zone” on his personal website, saying the web of characters “formed a complex whole worthy of a novel.” Some liked the mature themes, saying that the comics “didn’t talk down to kids.”
Others were less impressed. “All the elements should have been there, and with so much hype and foreshadowing, it could have been something truly great,” reads Sonic Retro’s review of “Mobius: 25 Years Later.” “But instead, it was a meandering, overblown, ill-planned mess.” Similarly, fan blog Hedgehogs Can’t Swim described the pivotal Knuckles #25 as “another heaping load of exposition and another excuse for Ken to masturbate his ego.” And in the broader fandom, many Sonic fans simply couldn’t reconcile the drastic differences between the comics and games.
Penders eventually moved on to other projects in 2006 (including storyboards for two episodes of King of the Hill) and was replaced by newcomer Ian Flynn, who had been a fan of the series since childhood. Flynn began making big changes — the dialogue got snappier, half-finished story lines were neatly tied up, characters fans hated were killed off, and things were brought a bit more in line with the games. Looking back on comments from 2010, many thought this was an improvement: “Honestly, I have enjoyed the comics a LOT more since he came on board.” “No offense Ken, but honestly. Ian is doing a much better job than you did. He’s clearing things up and giving characters more depth.”
There was one person in particular who wasn’t pleased with Flynn’s work, though, and that was Penders. The writer took pride in the fact that his stories hadn’t built off of the work of other Archie contributors, and viewed Flynn’s continued use of his characters unfavorably. “[A]ll Mike and Ian are doing is living off the work done by others that came before them instead of allowing SONIC to grow and evolve in a similar organic manner when I was on the book,” he said in a February 2010 post to his now-defunct personal forum. “I especially don’t consider anything either does with any of the echidna characters — especially [Knuckles’ father] Locke — to be canon as neither created the characters nor established them in stories as the viable fan favorites they’ve become.”
Penders did more than simply declare the unapproved use of his characters “non-canon,” though. He took legal action over it.
In 2009, Penders began copyrighting his Sonic work, with the intention of independently continuing “Mobius: 25 Years Later.” In 2010, the copyrights were approved. This was a problem for Archie and Sega, who were still reprinting Penders’s old stories and using the 200-plus characters he had introduced. On November 23, 2010, Archie filed a federal lawsuit against Penders, claiming he had breached his contract. (Archie Comics declined to comment for this story. As of press time, Penders had not responded to messages seeking comment.)
Suddenly, Penders was catapulted into the spotlight, and his image among fans wasn’t flattering. Some agreed that Penders deserved compensation for his reprinted work (comic-book creators are notoriously exploited and underpaid). Others thought the whole ordeal was absurd, not understanding how Penders could possibly copyright characters such as an evil version of Sonic from another dimension, or the older versions of the established cast. His comments about Flynn made him appear as a man with a vendetta, one who was taking his ball and going home.
To complicate things further, Penders filed a separate lawsuit against Sega and video-game publisher Electronic Arts in 2011. Several years prior, EA studio Bioware had released Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, a Nintendo DS game with new echidna villains clearly inspired by the comics’ Dark Legion. Penders argued that without his blessing, this homage was a form of copyright infringement. The case was dismissed (twice), but the threat of further legal action means that the cast of The Dark Brotherhood will likely never be seen again, bolstering some fans’ perception of Penders as a copyright troll. (Penders also has a habit of requesting fans include a copyright notice when posting fan art or fan fiction of his characters.)
The comics continued under Flynn’s direction as if nothing happened, but things started looking grim in late 2012, when Archie suddenly fired its entire legal team. The company had been unable to produce Penders’ work-for-hire contract, which would have given control of his creations to Sega. Penders claimed the contract had never existed. A heavily circulated Tumblr post outlining the case (which has been corroborated as a reliable source by Penders) explains that while Archie did provide a photocopy of a contract allegedly signed by Penders in 1996, Penders claimed that the document was a forgery. That it was neither an original copy nor a contract from the beginning of the writer’s tenure at Archie meant that its validity was questionable. Making things worse, Archie couldn’t produce an original copy of any previous contributor’s contract, meaning that any writer or artist who had worked on the Archie Sonic line could potentially follow in Penders’s footsteps and reclaim their work.
“So are you saying prior counsel blew it?” the presiding judge asked Archie counsel Joshua Paul in a May 2013 court session.
His reply was unequivocal: “Absolutely, your Honor.”
After a string of Sonic issues in which Penders’s characters were hastily edited out — some quietly replaced, others dramatically banished to an unknown dimension in-fiction — it seemed possible for the story to continue with a slimmed-down cast. But in 2013, fans learned the truth: the world of the comics would be rebooted, and every character introduced by the previous writers was gone. By the Sonic wiki’s count, over 244 characters were removed from the series, ranging from minor extras to fan-favorite members of the main cast, such as Knuckles’s girlfriend Julie-Su and Sonic’s over-the-top evil doppelgänger Scourge the Hedgehog.
The creative team made the most of the constraints. SatAM’s Freedom Fighters, who had managed to stick around all these years, got modern redesigns. New additions such as Cassia and Clove, two pronghorn sisters indebted to Dr. Robotnik, showed potential. It took some getting used to, and some fans never did, but the quality of the work following the reboot meant that many eventually accepted the changes.
But in 2017, just as this new incarnation of the comic was getting ready to enter its second phase of stories, the series was canceled. Fans were distraught (as were the Archie contributors who had been left high and dry). The comics had been a staple of Sonic media, running for 24 years, and many had been reading it for most of their lives. It wasn’t just a cash-grab tie-in, but a piece of Sonic media with a rich fiction and varied cast of its own. In 2015, the main title had become the longest-running comic ever made based on a preexisting intellectual property. While the Sonic games constantly shifted direction and cartoons came and went, the comics seemed like they would never end. (A new Sonic series, also written by Flynn and with many of the same artists, was announced later in 2017 from publisher IDW.)
Lacking any official explanation, most fans were quick to point the finger at Penders and the damage done by the legal battle. He had become an easy scapegoat over the years. Even those who agreed that he had deserved royalties for his work often disagreed with his actions. In a positive retrospective on the Knuckles comics published in 2019, one writer for The Sonic Stadium wrote: “I think every artist should be compensated for reprints of their work, and I wish Archie had worked something out with Penders to make that happen … I also think that, by copywriting the characters he created, Penders effectively destroyed this comic’s legacy.” There was also a small but vocal group of Penders loyalists who saw things differently — fans who disliked the creative decisions Flynn had made, and who would prefer for the former writer to return to Sonic. To them, the series had already died in 2006.
Penders’s own Twitter presence and his tendency to take pot shots at other Sonic writers and artists only fanned the flames of the discourse. When fans realized that the Freedom Fighters would not appear in Flynn’s new Sonic series at IDW Publishing (for the time being, at least), Penders argued that Flynn disrespected the Archie series and its characters, and gave fans his own pitch for his hypothetical return to Sonic. Some believe that Penders was the writer Sonic needed, others questioned his judgement (he once attempted to kill off the leader of the Freedom Fighters and Sonic’s main love interest, Princess Sally Acorn, because she “cramped [Sonic’s] style”). Other inflammatory tweets continued to drive fans away as well — such as his shocking comments about how he thinks the underage Sally Acorn lost her virginity and his subsequent doubling down, which set Sonic Twitter ablaze in early 2019.
While fans of Penders’s work come from all across the political spectrum (Penders himself is an outspoken Democrat), it’s hard to ignore the reactionary tone among some of his most ardent defenders. On YouTube, a handful of frustrated fans and numerous videos with admittedly low view counts exist accusing Flynn and co. of being “social justice warriors” who ruined the series with their liberal agenda. “Behold, the worst comic ever written,” one YouTuber says in a reading of the post-reboot “Spark of Life” story arc (which was very well-liked by many other fans). These critics take particular issue with the fact that Flynn and collaborators snuck hints at a lesbian romance between Sally and her AI companion Nicole the Holo-Lynx into the post-reboot comics. To them, this was a sign that Flynn was attempting to undermine the series. (Not that Sally could ever date Sonic again anyway. The hedgehog’s love life was reportedly declared off limits after the reboot.)
It’s a story we’ve seen with everything from Star Wars to She-Ra: a vocal minority of fans lashing out at anyone they see as tarnishing their rose-tinted memories of the good old days — even if “the good old days,” in this case, were a series of comics that turned Knuckles the Echidna into a Christ allegory.
For all the negativity, fans still show a lot of love for Archie’s Sonic. To this day, the characters live on in fan creations. An unofficial continuation of the pre-reboot story, dubbed Archie Sonic Online, has seen several issues released. Likewise, fans have taken it upon themselves to finish several of the scrapped post-reboot comics that had been penciled before the ax came down.
Meanwhile, Flynn and co.’s new Sonic comics at IDW have been well-received and sold well, reaching their first milestone this month with the release of issue #25. New stars Tangle the Lemur and Whisper the Wolf immediately became fan favorites, even getting a four-issue miniseries of their own. But the bizarre, experimental spirit of the Archie series lives on — IDW’s current story arc is zombie apocalypse themed, and has been compared tonally to The Walking Dead.
As for Penders’s continuation of “Mobius: 25 Years Later” — the project that led to the copyright lawsuits in the first place — small snippets have been shared online and at conventions to highlight its progress. It has also been widely derided for its unorthodox new art style. A few names have been changed and the echidnas are now “Echyd’nya,” but it’s unmistakably more of Penders’s Knuckles. Nearly a decade after its announcement, however, the first volume of The Lara-Su Chronicles remains unfinished. Perhaps someday, decades after it began, Penders will be able to complete his story, and fans will finally be able to look back and decide whether or not it was all worth it.