Review: Countdown to Chaos

Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be a Mobius-Shattering Kaboom!

The reaction everyone had to this arc.
The reaction everyone had to this arc.

Let’s get things clear; the last year of the Archie Sonic comic has been like no other. Following some rather bitter endings in Endangered Species way back at #243-#246, we got “At All Costs”: Part 1. This led us on the hunt for Mecha Sally up in the Arctic region, and team Fighters, together with the Arctic Freedom Fighters and Silver, had her where they wanted her. Team Freedom, meanwhile, had a rather abominate-looking Tails Doll to deal with.

That’s where the normality ends, though. Right on the cliff-hangers of these shenanigans, the planet was warped by a reality-altering wave, which allowed for the headline-grabbing “When Worlds Collide” crossover between the Mega Man and Sonic franchises. After dealing with allies and enemies alike, the two blue heroes teamed for a final assault against nefarious doctors Eggman and Wily. Mega Man’s attempt to alter reality back to normal went smoothly, with his comic resuming just about where they left off before the crossover. Sonic on the other hand, suffered a bit of a hiccup thanks to Eggman, and here is where the review truly begins.

Be warned, as there are detailed spoilers for issues #252-256. The last is especially important as it isn’t even widely available yet.

The Story of New Beginnings

Sonic the Hedgehog #252 is where this story really begins. Technically speaking, the story in the issue is the second part to the one started all the way back in #247. I’d personally also call it Countdown to Chaos: The Prologue. While a bit disorientating at first, it does quickly reveal itself to make a nice bridge between the realities. You have the wrap-up of Naugus besieging the throne, the Tails Doll monster still wreaking havoc in not-new Mobotropolis and the Death Egg still being in Artika (new name for the Northern Tundra), which sets up the side story for Eggman neatly since he’s stuck way down in Efrika with a broken Egg Mobile.

Tails' game tendency of exposition on the plot in the most obvious manner is carried over.
Tails’ game tendency of exposition on the plot in the most obvious manner is carried over.

Speaking of set-up, much of the issue is dedicated to setting up points which will be referenced often in the true Countdown to Chaos (CtC) arc. Naugus gets a memory jolt from NICOLE, which not only sets up the fact that NICOLE has memory restoring energy in her, but also the fact she’s broken. Tails having a jolt sets up the point that the restoration of memory slowly fixes her, and gives the readers an idea of the plan of action to follow. The numerous game references strewn into the narrative makes clear that this is not exactly the same world we once knew, which is only further reinforced as Sonic’s memories of King Acorn (not Max any more) trusting Dr Robotnik are altered to be more attuned with the world he’s landed in. Mix this in with new characters and snappy game-influenced action when Sonic and Tails take on the Tails Doll, and this makes for a great link between old and new while beginning its own mysteries.

The four issues that form CtC itself have a defined but flexible narrative structure to them, and how much you’ll notice really depends on the issue. The basic framework is that each issue has some sort of breather period for exposition and contemplation for the characters, an introduction to each freedom fighter in turn, a couple of Eggman intermissions where he gets to strut his stuff, an action piece and a scene where the Freedom Fighter introduced earlier has their memory restored, although not necessarily in that order. This uniformity is quite an ironic echo to the growing chaos that approaches the world, but the purpose of this arc is to reintroduce readers into the changes that have occurred so the organisation seen is to be expected.

#253 and #254 are quieter arcs that are more focused on Sonic and Tails getting to grips with new locations (for example, the Sky Patrol that gets used for the base of operations was parked in the Mystic Ruins, and Knothole is now located in or nearby the scrapped Wood Zone from Sonic 2). Even though it is quieter, it does skip by a lot. In #253, Silver Sonic (one of the big threats of the comic circa Sally’s transformation) isn’t even dealt with by Sonic, it’s left to Big in quite a comical fashion. And the rediscovery of Knothole, Sonic’s home for much of his childhood prior to the Super Genesis Wave, is relegated to an off-screen event. It doesn’t knock the stories overall, but they might be little things you notice when you think about it afterwards. Otherwise, the narrative in these issues flows like a charm, with more than a few hints to what’s going to happen at the end of the arc.

#255 and #256 are the issues that ramp things up a bit more in the action department. #255 is action set pieces for our heroes interlaced with exposition, as the plot demands both high stakes wrapping up Bunnie’s mission and revealing some of her new backstory (since the last time we saw her, she’d had her robotics removed by magic way after the Bem had failed to because she got upgraded and the parts were incompatible and…it required quite a bit of prior knowledge). The way the comic goes about this feels rather clunky though. The transition between action and exposition isn’t smooth and the quiet parts especially drag on a bit too long. #256 handles it much better, with the action piece having good pacing despite its length, and any explaining to the characters and readers being succinct enough to get the job done while delivering on actual interaction.

And then the arc ends…with a cliffhanger, as the world is beginning to really fall apart. It really is the countdown as it turns out, since the damage has only just begun!

This Review Has No Maximum Character Limit

In CtC, a big part of what holds it together is the character writing. If we didn’t empathise or care for the Freedom Fighters and baddies caught in the ruckus, there would be pretty much no investment. Fortunately, Ian Flynn is on the ball in this department. There wasn’t a single character who overstayed their welcome, and everyone had their part to play in the show.

  • Sonic, of course, is our main focus here. Thus, he gets the most elaboration on his reaction to the new reality. Shaken up at first due to unfamiliarity, he quickly hits his stride as the adventure-loving, robot-busting hero everyone is familiar with. Aside from getting in on the action with his trademark speed, he has plenty of slow moments where he gets to contemplate what’s going on and have emotional reunions with all the friends he comes across. Between kicking Metal Sonic to pieces and meeting his “uncle” Chuck, Sonic reacts to each situation as you would expect him to, without ever losing his defining traits.
  • Tails is Sonic’s sidekick almost from the word go, and does everything he can to support Sonic. Due to being relatively fine before the Wave hit, he’s the least affected by the memory jolt, but he still reacts like a kid would to it. It’s here, and various moments like it, that really show how close their brotherly bond is. The whole bout against the Tails Doll and the scenes where he has to fly to rescue someone in #254 and #255 cement his usefulness as an active Freedom Fighter.
  • Eggman, Orbot and Cubot don’t get emotional moments in their little side plot. Their job is to give the reader a brief guided tour on what’s changed in the new world, as well as demonstrate the memory overwrite and the planet splitting apart gradually. Of course, given that this is Eggman and his robot lackeys we’re talking about, this tour is ever so entertaining. Eggman never misses a moment to ham it up, even when he has to improvise his plans and questions, and his Weapons Bed assault in #254 is a highlight for his sheer awesomeness. Orbot and Cubot provide the cutting cynicism and dense naiveté for Eggman to bounce off, and have their own little funny moments.
  • NICOLE, despite being the other character appears in every issue of the arc, doesn’t really get as much to work with as the others. She does her job as a plot device fine, and she gets her moment to sass off Naugus, but otherwise she’s stoic exposition regarding the memory jolts. If you were expecting her to get into the fray herself based on the cover of #255, you will not find it here.

    Every character is likeable here. Bloody miracle, I'd say.
    Every character is likeable here. Bloody miracle, I’d say.
  • Rotor gets repurposed as the genius bruiser here, helping Tails build the Sky Patrol and keeping systems running as well as pounding the innards out of Badniks. His flippant response to getting his memories back (probably especially to the fact his back was injured) demonstrates his dedication to his work as he refuses to let the shock get to him (although he is a bit agitated).
  • Antoine keeps up the character traits we’d seen after 20 years of development. He’s haughty with the accent, but is still a brave soldier willing to put his life on the line. Even though he’d seen himself brought into a coma with his memory jolt, his first concern is seeing Bunnie again, reinforcing his dedication to his marriage.
  • Bunnie, while being in an issue that was less than brilliant, doesn’t suffer for it from a character writing standpoint. Her exposition dumps might be a bit too long, but she’s thoughtful as well as a good complement to Sonic’s hasty attitude. The shock of the memory jolt sends her into an emotional breakdown that Antoine has to support her through (finding out that you had been turned flesh but were contemplating reversing it due to your husband being in a coma does that), but she demonstrates her sisterly traits an issue later when she does the same for Sally.
  • Amy has a slight leg up on the other characters, as she already had a full arc under her belt by the time #256 came out. As such, the issue of introducing her isn’t covered here. What is on show is her sisterly bond with Sally as they work together to beat down Metal Sonic. She still has her crush on show, but they still work together great and manage to bounce off each other. She doesn’t have such a strong reaction to her memory jolt, but she’s only confirmed to remember a game event and beating up Fang so far. She didn’t have that much to lose.
  • Sally has probably been the character a lot of prior fans have been waiting for, and she comes back kicking! Packed with new energy blade ring things, she cuts into the action more than she ever has. Aside from being shown as a stealth member from #252, she gets most of her time to shine with Amy as they use combos and banter to leave Metal Sonic vulnerable for when Sonic arrives. She does get a small reunion with Sonic, but it’s mostly emotion from him as he recalls last seeing her as a robot, and she doesn’t have the relationship with Sonic that she had prior to the wave (and I’d say that’s a good thing). We see her break down when recalling her stint as Mecha Sally, but we can’t really see her after that because the end of the world is a-knocking.
  • Naugus isn’t really used that much, but he sets the memory jolt plot in motion and demonstrates the effects such a jolt can have. It also gives a very loose closure to the King Naugus plot from before the wave.
  • Metal Sonic takes hits much better now, so he isn’t destroyed at the end of the issue fully for once! He stills, albeit not as much as before, and his attitude is very similar to Sonic’s. Not unexpected from the metal doppelganger.

The other characters aren’t really there enough to expand on, but all have some relevance to the advancement of the plot. Axel, Mordred and Tundra, for example, re-establish the Egg Army and how it’s shaping up, and side protagonists like Cream, Big, Chuck and Ben give support to the main characters and provide interaction outside of the core. Also Ben being new Muttski is the biggest surprise of the entire arc.

Beauty in Anarchy

Firstly, we have to judge the cover by the book. #252 stands alone on this front, as the regular cover is a single piece as opposed to the official CtC issues which are connected. The regular cover demonstrates Sonic pulling off his flashy stomp maneuver, with dynamic colouring and posing to match. Ben Bates puts in a fine effort with this one, and even though it doesn’t match the scope of the next ones it holds great on its own.  The same cannot be said of the variant, though. Although the Sonic render provided is at least in a more action-orientated pose, it’s still just pasted over Green Hill Zone quite lazily. This is a trend in a lot of SEGA variants, unfortunately.

#253-256 (the regular covers, anyway) do something very different. Just take a look at it for yourself;

If's that's not just awe-inspiring, I don't know what is.
If’s that’s not just awe-inspiring, I don’t know what is.

All the covers in the arc form one single piece of artwork when put together. This art by Ben Bates is meticulously pieced together so that each individual issue looks dynamic on its own, but looks really spectacular when all the covers are put together. Granted, this little cover trick isn’t new by any stretch; the Knuckles comic series did this with three issue arcs on a regular basis. In Ian’s run, “Darkest Storm” and “Bold New Moebius” did the same thing. But this is certainly the largest scope that’s been done across, and is probably the best example of it in the Sonic comic’s history. I would urge anyone to get the regular covers if they were to get the individual issues. But for the sake of fairness, here’s what I think of the variants as well;

  • #253’s variant is easily the best variant of all of them. Taking the otherwise under-utilised Silver Sonic and giving it a schematic drawing style that’s vivid and in stark contrast to every other cover, T.Rex really knocks it out of the park.
  • #254 is great for Eggman enthusiasts, but it follows the same style of #252 in which it’s a SEGA variant with a render pasted on top of a background. That said, the background this time has a few little details and shout-outs that make it somewhat interesting.
  • #255 has a layout and concept that would be cool to look at…except the character art is too off-putting for that. The characters have these weird lanky proportions for some reason, and it doesn’t look good. It wouldn’t be too far to presume that Tyler Capp, the one who did the cover, isn’t used to working with the Sonic style so much. This is a running theme with this issue.
  • #256 just boils down to a personal opinion for me. From a technical standpoint, it’s a great cover. It conveys the destruction that you’d expect in a variant called “The End of the World” variant and has some great colours to it. However, I think that Sonic himself doesn’t exactly gel too well with the rest of the art on the cover, and thus it has a bit of the SEGA variant stiffness underscoring it, albeit with a much better execution. This cover was done by Tracy Yardley, Phyllis Novin and Dustin Evans.

For the most part, the artwork throughout CtC is at the very least pleasing to the eyes. That said, the artwork in this arc is very inconsistent, which is slightly jarring when it’s supposed to be the big arc that redefines the world.

This is what you have to look forward to in #253 and #254.
This is what you have to look forward to in #253 and #254.
  • #252 has an art team consisting of Evan Stanley, Terry Austin and Matt Herms. The colours are nice, and the lines and inks are fine for the most part (although there are certain times when characters, especially Tails, look off). If there was one major negative I could note, it’s that the outdoor backgrounds were very simplistic, with most additional detail being larger building shapes. As a side note, the Tails Doll monster has had a significant redesign since it last showed up in #247. If you’ve read that issue, it’s not hard to guess why.
  • #253 and 254 have Austin and Herms back, but pencils are provided by Tracey Yardley and Lamar Wells. These issues are just fantastic for art, with pretty much everything being on note. The landscapes and details are lush, the characters look lively and on-model, and the action is given extra oomph throughout. Truly feasts for the eyes, it’s best to see them for yourself.
  • #255…unfortunately goes to the other end of the quality scale. Just like the variant cover for this issue, the art here is pretty terrible in comparison to what went before. Featuring the début of Jerry Gaylord and Kent Archer, I would say that it might have been better to let them practice in more side stories instead of slotting them into such a linchpin story arc. The colours are nice as always (Herms is still here), but the proportions of the characters vary all over the place, and the outline inking of them is also inconsistent. It goes so far as to affect the impact of pretty much every scene. I’ll bring this up again in the part where I talk about the emotions of the issues…
  • #256 has Yardley come back for the pencils, and switches up Herms for Steve Downs. While the line art looks good, and the backgrounds are nicely detailed, the colours look flatter in this issue than any CtC issue before it (aside from the odd panel where the colours go deeper for dramatic effect). That doesn’t make the art bad at all, it still looks good. It just makes the art look a little less polished.

Jack Morelli did the lettering for #252, while John Workman handled it for CtC. It’s easy to tell them apart, but both styles compliment the art and action around it. Nothing particularly stands out as being bad, at least.

Emotions Run As High As Stakes?

The meat for the arc lies in the emotional journey that our protagonists have to face in  order to restore their memories. In every issue, there’s at least one memory restoration, and each one is given the panel space needed to really convey the pain that the character is feeling from a psychological standpoint. These little money shots, while not big, are the payoff for the entire arc as characters relive memories from their past and have to reconcile it with the memories they had already. One could argue that these don’t last long enough in fact, given that there’s more action than reaction. The only issue where it felt a little cut short was #256, and that was because of that thing we keeping referring to known as the end of the world. What also has to be said is that #255’s moment is heavily affected by the art quality. What should be a heart breaking moment where Bunnie learns of her regained robotics and how Antoine was before the wave is more funny than anything else because of how skewed the proportions are and how stiff the expressions are. It completely broke the moment for me, but that might vary between different readers.

Sonic gained Antoine's leg length?
Seriously, what is wrong with their legs?!

Of course, that’s not where all the emotion lies. There’s some joy to be had when Sonic’s face lights up upon seeing a fellow Freedom Fighter for the first time since after the wave, especially with the knowledge of how they were immediately prior to the wave. Sonic rushing up to “uncle” Chuck because his closest family figure after Tails is safe (let’s not bring up Jules and Bernie) is a very sweet moment, and Sonic rushing up to Sally to give her a tearful hug is completely understandable; you’d do the same if your close friend was being controlled by an evil scientist and you had to knock them out to stop them killing anyone last time you two met. There’s also plenty of fun in arc, as Sonic and Tails get accustomed with everyone’s little quirks and differences. Their reaction to Sonic’s pet dog now being an anthropomorphic research assistant is one for the ages, and Antoine’s reaction to the reunion in the same issue is probably the best of all the Freedom Fighters.

There’s one emotion that stays quiet for most of the arc, and that’s the sense of utter futility in the face of imminent danger. This is introduced in #253, and is slowly built up throughout until the chaos finally hits. While Eggman doesn’t have any emotional moments aimed at himself, his plot is the best demonstration for this element as he watches the cracks spread around the globe as he travels and realises there is nothing he can do to prevent it, all while his old memories are slowly overwritten at the same time. The protagonists have to deal with it on occasion as well, although not as centrally; one of its earthquakes is an action piece in #254, another one affects the heroes’ escape from the Metropolis Zone base in #255 (although, again thanks to the art, it doesn’t have the impact it should). That way, NICOLE’s analysis of the situation being complete anarchy with the multiverse collapse and the planet splitting itself apart is expected but still a rather large revelation at the end of the arc, and the final panels where she and Eggman proclaim that there is no fix and the heroes are left to helplessly watch the cracks get more intense are really good to end on. Although since the games had the world splitting apart once before, there’s no doubt that there’s at least some way to fix it…

There is one final disclosure that has to be made regarding emotion, and this is aimed primarily at the older readers who came in with likely years of comic experience under their belt. Some of you may find yourself disappointed with what you read. As referenced in the off-panel of #252, there were quite a lot of plot points that were left hanging before the crossover occurred. And because of the new universe, a lot of these hanging points will never be covered within the pages of the comics. There are quite a few characters from before the crossover that won’t make the transition to the new reality. Emotionally, this could affect how invested you are with the new plights given that the old plights are gone. For those readers who are fans of said plots and might miss their personal favourites, I’d suggest to treat this as a new slate, where new favourites and mysteries can be found. If all goes to plan, there will be something that will quench your curiosity later in the year.

In Conclusion

Countdown to Chaos is a very solid arc overall. It presents its purpose with clarity and a sense of steadiness which propels it forward despite it essentially being a four (or five) issue introduction. Certainly not without its weaknesses, but with a neat narrative and some great visuals to carry the reader along, this first look into the new world is an interesting one that’s likely to keep you hooked for the ride.

Best issue: #254. This issue has the best blend of elements in my view, and makes a perfect snapshot of the tone that should be in future stories. Emotional moments that hit home whilst being short enough to fit into the narrative, some unexpected twists and good, fun action to boot. The fact that the art is great here isn’t to be snuffed at either.

Worst issue: #255. The art is by far the worst thing about it, but whether it’s enough to break the emotional core of the issue depends on the reader. Art isn’t the only thing that works against it, since the dialogue feels more jilted here as well. It’s best to get this for a complete arc narrative as opposed to what it offers as a standalone issue.

But even with Countdown to Chaos out of the way, it doesn’t mean that reintroducing the characters of old is done. Far from it; we’ve only just begun. And we all know who everyone wants to come back into the fray as soon as possible, right?

Who wouldn't love a face like this?
Who wouldn’t love a face like this?

Source: DeviantArt (for Countdown to Chaos full art)