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How did Sonic the Hedgehog become America’s longest-running comic?

Gotta go long

Sonic the Hedgehog #256
| Archie Comics

In an era when most mainstream comics barely make it a year before being rebooted with a new #1, a truly long-running series can be a difficult thing to come by. Even big-name titles like Detective Comics and Action Comics, which have been around in one form or another since the 1930s, technically don’t count, as they were both given new first issues when DC relaunched their entire line in 2011. There is, however, one title that has managed to avoid that particular quirk of the comics industry for the past 25 years, racking up 290 issues since its debut in 1993.

The longest-running monthly American comic to never be relaunched is Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic the Hedgehog #290, the last of its name?
Archie Comics

Or at least, it was. There hasn’t been a new issue of Sonic since last December — the third part of a four-part story, no less — leaving readers with plenty of questions about the status of the book and whether it’s going to continue. Still, the question remains: How did a licensed comic about a video game hedgehog from the people that brought you Archie wind up outlasting every other series in comics?

It’s worth noting that the title of “longest-running American monthly comic that hasn’t been relaunched” is so specific that it only really exists in a technical sense. If you want to expand beyond our shores, Britain’s 2000 AD blew past 2,000 weekly issues last year, Japan’s Weekly Shonen Jump has been running since 1968, and if you don’t really care about the number on the cover, then Detective’s more-or-less uninterrupted run since 1937 puts almost everything else to shame.

But at the same time, that number on the cover does matter, if only because it speaks to the way that American superhero comics try to strike a precarious balance between legacy and revision. In a world where we’ve seen DC’s flagship titles throw a 900-issue back catalog out the window for the sake of a new #1, only to get those numbers back five years later, the fact that Sonic was able to run (fast) for almost 300 issues for almost 25 years, outlasting every other title that was beside it on shelves in 1993, is pretty notable — and there’s an interesting combination of factors that made that possible.

From a purely technical standpoint, a lot of Sonic’s longevity can be chalked up to the way Archie’s publication strategy differed from its superheroic counterparts. Until very recently, they shied away from the usual sales-boosting tactic of cancellation and reboot that you’d see with superheroes. In fact, after Action and Detective got their new #1s in 2011, the “longest running” title shifted down to Archie, and when that book finally ended at #666 to make way for a rebooted Riverdale, it was Betty and Veronica that briefly held the title.

That makes a lot of sense, too. For years — decades, even — Archie’s major strength as a company was the way it used its long history and its seemingly endless back catalog of stories, reprinting them in digests that kept its characters visible in grocery store checkout lines even as other comics were exiled to specialty shops. If those digests are your bread and butter, then building that back catalog within a single series makes a lot more sense than restarting it for a short-term sales boost — especially if that single series ends up being a huge success, which is exactly what Sonic was.

One of the more interesting things about Sonic’s 300 issues — more, if you count spinoffs and companion titles like Knuckles the Echidna and Sonic Universe — is that they’re primarily the product of very small group of creators. In the past 25 years, the book has really only had two major writers: Ken Penders and Ian Flynn.

From Knuckles the Echidna #4
Archie Comics

Penders arrived on the book at #11, in 1994, when the title was a pretty straightforward lighthearted action-comedy. Over the next 150 issues, he’d give the book the kind of complicated continuity and extensive roster of original characters that most readers would expect from a superhero soap opera like the X-Men. The only big difference was that rather than time-traveling mutants and twisted family trees, Penders tended to focus on ancient societies of echidnas. Lots and lots of echidnas.

Flynn, on the other hand, took over in 2006 with Sonic #160 and has stayed on the book in the ten years since, alongside artists like Patrick Spaziante and Tracy Yardley. He has a gift for long-form plotting and arranging pieces for a grand payoff — something that was probably best on display in his genuinely fantastic 50 issues of Mega Man, another improbably long-running video game adaptation from Archie. Taken together, that combination of complexity and long game plotting makes for the same kind of stories that provide an irresistible hook for the kind of reader that gets obsessed with superhero minutia, especially if it all revolves around a character kids are already primed to like.

Regardless of how you feel about the games, the one thing you have to say for Sonic is that he’s always had character. From the moment that his idle animation kicked in and he turned to the player with an impatient look, tapping his foot while he waited for you to send him careening around Green Hill Zone, there was something there that set him apart from rivals like Mario, whose personality was mostly limited to “jumps pretty good.” Whatever it is that inspires fans to the point where you can always Google your own name plus “the hedgehog” and wind up with a truly bizarre OC — mine is, of course, the one being inflated like a helium balloon — Sonic has it, and probably has more of it than anything else in pop culture.

And because of that, while Mario faded into being a purely video game icon after a brief, Lou Albano-based period of cross-media notoriety, Sonic managed to thrive outside of video games as much as, and arguably even more, as he did within them. He’s been a perennial presence on television, including in Sonic Underground, a series where he and his heretofore unseen siblings, all of whom were voiced by Jaleel White, had to form a rock band in order to rescue their mother, the Queen. That is a thing that actually happened, and if Sonic’s popularity can sustain that, even for a single forty-episode season, then propping up a comic book doesn’t seem that far fetched.

Because that’s the trick of licensed comics: When a single property exists in different forms of media, each one acts as an advertisement for the others. It’s one of the reasons why comics like Transformers and GI Joe were so successful in the ‘80s, and why Joe, at its height, had twice as many subscribers as Marvel’s second-place title, Amazing Spider-Man: They were the only comics that came with a half-hour commercial every day on television, and the only ones that had a toy line that made them inescapable for kids. That kind of omnipresence leads to familiarity, and that’s a commodity that Archie — the company that built itself on the friendly archetype of its namesake character and his pals — knew how to capitalize on.

It also gave the comics a lot to work with. Each new incarnation of Sonic in video games or television brought something new. Villains, plot points, characters like Knuckles, they were all folded into the story being told by the comics in one way or another, adding entirely new layers of complexity to a story that was already expanding to fill a 25-year run, something that wasn’t always for the best.

From Sonic the Hedgehog #171
Archie Comics

As intriguing as that complex continuity can be, it can also provide a weirdly difficult barrier for entry. Trying to find out more about this book and the weirdness of its story is an exercise in trying to figure out if the people you’re talking to are just messing with you. Just skimming the fan wiki for answers leads to stuff that’s hard to believe, even if you’re rooted in the complicated weirdness of superhero comics. Finding out that Mobius, Sonic’s world, was meant to be a far-future version of Earth after some kind of weird Planet of the Apes-but-with-cartoon-echidnas situation, or that Eggman is is actually the book’s second Eggman, who came from another dimension after killing the Sonic the Hedgehog of his world? That stuff’s fascinating, but kind of unexpected from a book that’s aimed at younger readers.

Unfortunately, that complexity put the book in a rough spot in recent years, too. When Penders left the title, it wasn’t exactly an amicable handoff to the next team. Instead, Penders launched a lawsuit for ownership of the characters he created for Sonic, leading to a “soft” reboot that, while it didn’t end the series, definitely streamlined the cast dramatically, cutting it back to characters who either originated in the games or predated Penders’ run on the comic. The in-continuity reason for this, incidentally, is that Sonic is just really terrible at wielding the kind of cosmic power necessary for rebuilding a universe, but in practice, it meant that characters and plot points were abandoned without any fanfare or explanation.

From Sonic the Hedgehog #252
Archie Comics

With all of that complexity removed, the book felt aimless, even to a new reader who had only started reading in an effort to understand the book’s long-lasting appeal. While it struggled to find its footing without being able to draw on that complicated and weirdly fascinating history, it ended up going through the motions of adapting the events of the video games in three separate stories — including the one that remains unfinished right now, “Genesis of a Hero.”

And that leads us to the current, weirdly mysterious status of the Sonic books, with both Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe slamming to an unexpected halt, both on the third issues of four-part stories. The next issues have been announced and can even be pre-ordered on Comixology, but their listed release dates are for December of 2017, a full year after the last ones. Issues were scheduled up to #294, but Sonic, along with companion titles Sonic Universe, Sonic Super Digest, and Sonic Super Special Magazine have been absent from Archie’s upcoming slate since February. Even a planned Free Comic Book Day special was replaced with one promoting Riverdale.

Without an official word, the rampant speculation among readers is that after 25 years, Archie might be losing the license, bringing the story of comics’ longest-running title to pretty ignominious end. At the very least, that “uninterrupted” part of its title is certainly gone (ceded, weirdly enough, to Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon at #226 or Archie Double Digest at #278 ... if you only count Archie’s standard-sized 20-page pamphlets), but it remains a pretty interesting artifact, especially since it’s one of the few long-running titles where every issue is available digitally.

For now, every piece of the story that allowed Sonic to become comics’ longest-running monthly title is out there to be examined, and the end result is that it might not be as improbable as it seems.

Chris Sims is the former senior writer of the Eisner Award-Winning ComicsAlliance. He has written comics for Marvel Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, and Oni Press. He maintains to this day that the best Sonic the Hedgehog game is not as good as the worst Mario game.