Ken Penders, Steven Butler, and Patrick “Spaz” Spaziante,collectively known as, The Sonic Team, agreed to a group interview with Silver Bullet Comicbooks as Sonic races towards issue 150.
Rik Offenberger: What type of training did you have?
Ken Penders: I have been drawing ever since I was about 4 years old, and didn’t get any formal training until I took some art classes in high school,followed by a 4 year stint as a tech illustrator for the US Air Force, upon which I then applied to a formal art school, The Art Institute of Boston, as an advanced student. While not a formal education for the comics industry in particular, many of the courses formed the basis, which I applied to my comics work as both a writer and an artist.
Steve Butler: I received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1987. I have been freelancing as a professional comics artist since 1989, for more companies than I can even remember. Most of my training comes from “on the job” experience and I find that I am still learning new things about this craft almost daily!
Patrick Spaziante: Most of my training was informal, although I did spend a year in an art college, majoring in film studies. For the most part I have been self-thought.
Offenberger: How did you break into comics?
Spaziante: I started as a production artist on Archie Comic’s varied titles. From there I went on to work as a production artist for the Sonic the Hedgehog comic book, which I was interested in penciling. After a few tries, & many preliminary sketches, I was allowed to do two pin-up pages & a 2-page story in the Sonic “In Your Face Special” 48-page book.
Penders: While working for various companies after college, I began putting together samples for submission to various comics editors, who would then send back their critiques of my work. As a result of being a finalist in the Marvel Try-out Contest that was held back in the mid-1980’s, I was able to land my first professional assignment at DC Comics, which is a story in itself. While doing the occasional odd job, DC Creative Director Dick Giordano recruited me for his in-house apprenticeship program with the intent of securing me more work on a regular basis.
Butler: I sent submissions through the mail to a lot of different companies, got a lot of nice rejection letters before getting a call with my first assignment from First comics. I drew a book called “The Badger” for them, before joining Archie,
Offenberger: I was a Badger fan all the way back to you issues a Capital Comics.
Offenberger: You guys have worked for Marvel, DC and Dreamwave as well as Archie, is there any difference between the publishers?
Penders: The overall work atmosphere at DC was considerably different from Marvel, which was the more informal of the two, but basically you had to deal with a lot more personnel at either one, as opposed to Archie, which has more of a streamlined operation and less people involved in order to make a creative decision. At Archie, I have worked under four editors over 11 years, whereas at DC or Marvel it is not that unusual to deal with that many editors over the course of a year, sometimes on the same series. I once dealt with three editors while working on DC’s Star Trek titles during one twelve-month period.
Spaziante: Archie is a much more informal feel, as they are local, for me, and I had worked in house for an extended period, so I was able to develop personal relationships with most of the employees. Marvel is much more formally structured; and Dreamwave was some where between the two.
Butler: For me, there’s always been a sense of freedom and fun working on Sonic at Archie, but even more than that, I, as a father of four, appreciate the strong sense of wholesome entertainment and family values that Archie Comics espouses. These are comics I can actually READ with my kids and feel good about!
Offenberger: What brought each of you to Archie?
Spaziante: I had been looking for a job in the art field, and Archie had been hiring for a Production Artist. Basically, right place, right time.
Butler: Actually, I have been an Archie Comics fan since I was a kid, but it was inker Pam Eklund, who I worked with at Marvel on Silver Sable, who nudged me to make the call to the then Sonic editor. Speaking of which, it’s about time I said this in public- “THANKS, PAM!”
Penders: I initially had submitted an art sample to Victor Gorelick during the late ’80’s, but it was immediately apparent I was no Dan DeCarlo. It wasn’t until Sonic came along that an opportunity opened up when then-editor Paul Castiglia (who is still working with Archie)was soliciting stories in anticipation of then-regular writer Mike Gallagher (who is also still working with Archie) going over to work for Marvel. What started out as a temp-gig quickly evolved into a long-term commitment.
Offenberger: Were you a Sonic fan before you started on the comic?
Spaziante: Yes, I have been a Sonic fan since the first game.
Pender: To the extent I was you’d have to credit my son Stephen, due to his interest in the original Sega Genesis game. Shortly afterwards, I discovered the first issue of the regular ongoing Archie series for sale at a local comics shop. Needless to say, each issue became popular bedtime reading for Stephen and I. Once I started working on the series, the fun was in seeing the stories I created at home actually published.
Butler: I had never played the games, but I had seen the comic and was already a fan of Patrick Spaziante’s work on it. I remember a special called “Mecha Madness” being my favorite issue, still is, too!
Offenberger: Sonic has a strong fan base similar to Star Trek, what type of feedback do you get from the Sonic fans?
Spaziante: In general it has been positive, and for that, I am very thankful.
Butler: Most of the feedback I get is from the fans I meet at conventions, and several folks who’ve e-mailed me; their feedback is generally positive, but they sure know how to keep me in line if I draw Antoine’s epaulets wrong, or if I forgot to draw the buckle on Sonic’s shoe in one panel! They keep me in line, which is always a good thing!
Pender: I’ve experienced the gamut from “you’re the greatest” to “your stories suck cause they’re not (take your pick) the games or the SegaSonic version or true to the SatAM version”. For the most part, though, the majority of fans have been pleasant, polite and very supportive, especially those I’ve met in person at various conventions across the country.
Offenberger: Do the fans influence the storylines?
Butler: I’m sure they do! Not the storylines necessarily. But when fans want something, we give it to them! Their sheer enthusiasm for the series definitely influences ME to do my very best work on each and every issue that I illustrate!
Pender: To some extent, yes, when they talk about what they like or don’t like about the characters and stories. To give an example, I decided that a lot of Knuckles’ attitude came as a result of coming from a broken home, which was the result of talking to a number of readers in a similar situation when they explained why they read Sonic. In this instance, I wanted to give them a character they could embrace as their own. The same applies in my attitude towards Bunnie Rab-bot, as a number of handicapped readers have voiced displeasure at the prospect of seeing her “cured” of her condition. On the other hand, I’m constantly being offered characters and stories by the readers who simply want to be involved in the series in some way, which puts me in the position of having to explain why I can’t look at their creations, mostly to avoid any accusations of stealing ideas. It’s a tough balancing act.
Offenberger: You have added things to the Sonic Universe above and beyond what is in the comics. How do the fans react to original concepts?
Butler: Ask Ken, HA!
Penders: I’ve been lucky in that having been involved in the series for so long that many of my concepts and characters have been accepted by the majority of fandom. I can’t think of any character, for instance, that the readers have outright rejected. On the other hand, I can name several characters that have become huge fan favorites, such as Julie-Su and Geoffrey St. John.
Spaziante: All in all, that depends upon the strength of the concept. Original characters are usually an amalgam of the writer and artist’s talent. In the end, it depends upon the characters strength if it is accepted as Sonic canon.
Offenberger: How does Sega react to original concepts?
Spaziante: As long as the characters aren’t too radical in design, for the most part they have been willing to accept most ideas.
Penders: Considering Sega has yet to veto any specific character I’ve created for the book, including Sonic’s parents and the cast of characters that populated the Knuckles series, I can’t imagine they’re unhappy with what I’ve done to keep the series viable and ongoing for such a long time.
Offenberger: What is it like working on a licensed property?
Butler: Pretty FUN! I mean, it’s not so rigid with Sonic. Every artist working on this book- whether it’s Patrick Spaziante, Art Mawhinney, Dawn Best, Ron Lim, J. Axer, etc.- has his or her own interpretation of the character that is unique in and of itself, but it’s still recognized as SONIC. I’ve worked on characters for other companies that had much more rigid guidelines to follow, and frankly, I like the freedom hat drawing Sonic has to offer.
Penders: It’s a lot easier to work on a title like Sonic after you’ve established to the editor, the publishers and the licensors, in this case Sega, that you’re not going to turn in material that presents the property in a damaging way. When I first submitted stories to Archie, it was pretty much like working on other licensed properties like Star Trek or The Green Hornet for other publishers. That is, you submit your script or artwork for approval and only after the licensor approves it does it have a shot of being published. If they’re unhappy with something, changes are requested that must then be made before the work can be published. Having worked on
Sonic for so long, I pretty much know what will sail through without any problems, thus keeping everyone happy.
Spaziante: Although it can be slightly restrictive at times, I don’t mind the restraint, as it is a challenge to me to create artwork comparable, hopefully, to the parent style.
Offenberger: What type of changes does Sega ask for?
Penders: In the early days, scripts would be gone over line by line just to be sure the stories conformed to certain expectations. After awhile, they pretty much learned to trust that I wasn’t going to portray Sonic in a negative or unflattering manner. The most extensive changes I can recall Sega ever asking for centered specifically on the
Princess Sally mini-series due to the fact they were interested in developing the title aimed primarily at the young female market.
Spaziante: Mostly small details, i.e.: Sonic’s nose, eyes, etc. Although at times, I have been asked to change certain Easter egg images, background elements and characters.
Offenberger: Are the changes usually in the art or the script?
Spaziante: Depends upon the situation. However, Sega and Archie are great to give us so much creative freedom.
Penders: In the early days, it was a tossup for a variety of reasons, as even the artists had to be approved by Sega. Nowadays, any changes made are usually due to maintaining continuity with whatever has come before or in the planning stages. This can happen when an artist doesn’t have the proper reference for a specific character or if one
writer is not aware what another is working on. Or sometimes in my case, if I forget a story point that hasn’t been touched upon since way back when.
Offenberger: What are the types of things that you cannot do with Sonic?
Spaziante: Initially we where never allowed to show realistic anatomical features, Skeletal structures, etc., or violence, such as Sonic wielding realistic firearms or other types of weapons. There have been certain cases, where I had wanted to show a level of ‘Anime inspired cartoon action’, but it had to be scaled back due to violence concerns.
Penders: This is a tough question, as I’ve generally had free reign to pretty much do whatever I want, provided I observe certain guidelines. Having written stories that
involved talking about divorce, explaining the birds and the bees to one’s son, religion, politics, death, love and relationships, as long as one is sensitive and keeps in mind you’re dealing with primarily a young audience, it’s not so much a matter of what one wants to do but rather what one believes is appropriate to do. One of the hallmarks of the series is that it’s constantly evolving, which requires the writers and artists to explore different facets of the characters and set-up, unlike a number of characters that have to maintain a more rigid status quo.
Offenberger: How far along are you in the creative process, before Sega reviews your work?
Spaziante: Depending on the situation, they could review work as early as thumbnail sketches, or, due to time constraints, as far a long as finalized pencils.
Penders: Once I turn in a story, I’m usually on to the next one. I think only recently has one story been put on hold due to the use of a character from the Sonic X television series which from what I’m told will be a major player in the new Sonic X mini series due out this year. Where or when it will turn up in published form is hard to say right now, but everything else I’ve submitted is already slated for print.
Offenberger: Do they review every issue, or is it a random survey of the comics?
Spaziante: Every issue is scrutinized to some degree.
Penders: It was random for awhile, but now they’re back to reviewing every issue.
Offenberger: When the series first started out is was easy to adapt from the cartoon, but now that the series is on going, plots have been worked and the series has a direction of its own, how do you adapt to new cartoons and new video games?
Spaziante: When applicable, we try to work in the newer video
game, and or, cartoon elements, if possible.
Penders: It all depends on the game and cartoon. With Sonic Underground, for instance, nobody was really happy with that version, so we kind of acknowledged it in an alternative universe-type setting only once and haven’t revisited it since. As for the games, especially the most recent ones, we figure out the best way we can to fit many of the characters and elements into current series continuity, drawing upon them after the game adaptation issues when the stories warrant it.
Offenberger: Steve, is there any difference in working with a writer who is also an artist?
Butler: Yeah! A writer who is also an artist tends to see things from an artists point of view, and therefore it makes the script much easier to work from. Then again, I’ve enjoyed working with ALL theSonic writers, be they artists or not.
Offenberger: Is there a different approach to drawing a Sonic page than a page for Badger, Web of Spider-Man or Silver Sable?
Butler: Not really! The reason why is because I see the Sonic comic primarily as a superhero “action” comic which just happens to feature anthropomorphic animals as opposed to humans. So, I set up the panels and pages generally in the same way as I did way back when on the Marvel stuff. Sonic is definitely NOT a “funny animal” book. I see it as a prime example of a classic heroic adventure, and treat it as such.
Offenberger: Ken, you joined the Sonic team early on, how has the comic
changed over the years?
Penders: In the early days the series was a hybrid of the two animated series, basically taking the characters from the ABC-TV Saturday morning series and tossing them into adventures along the lines of those seen in the syndicated weekday series, where the emphasis was more on humor as opposed the sci-fi emphasis of the Saturday morning series. I was the first one to push the comic series more in the direction of the Saturday morning series, tying in specific elements from that series into the comics. Once both of those shows had been cancelled, both the editor at the time and I agreed that if Sonic were to survive long term, as most licensed titles usually were cancelled not long after the original product which spawned them was no longer available, then we would have to take the series in a direction that went beyond the shows. Since then, we’ve incorporated more manga elements into the series, long before other publishers picked up on the trend for their books, and the book is constantly reinventing itself, featuring a look at a future version of Sonic we’ve only briefly shown a couple of times over the years as well as dealing with some of the darker aspects of the characters. At this point, the book now has such a rich history that we have a wealth of material to have fun playing around with for some time to come.
Offenberger: You have both written and drawn Sonic, as a writer, is there ever a time when the art comes back and you think that is not how I would have drawn that page at all?
Penders: That was probably my attitude some of the time in the early days
when I first started, but with artists like Pat Spaziante, Steven Butler, Art Mawhinney and Dawn Best usually penciling my scripts, I pretty much have confidence any of them will nail what I have written and then some. It’s only now and then that I feel strongly enough about a certain script that I get the urge to want to pencil it as well.
Offenberger: When writing the comic do you use either the game or the cartoons to influence your stories?
Penders: I use a variety of influences whether visual or plot from the games, rarely from the 90’s animated series anymore as we’ve pretty much incorporated all the elements we’re ever going to use from them, reader comments and a variety of life experiences, whether my own, my son’s or any other person I come into contact with.
Offenberger: You had previously worked on the Comet, Jaguar (which we’re Archie characters licensed to DC) and Star Trek at DC. Those were also licensed properties. Is working with Sega easier or harder then working with other
Penders: From my vantage point, working with Sega initially was on a par with dealing with Paramount in regards to the various Star Trek series, but once I established a solid track record, working onSonic has to rank as one of the easiest licensed product assignments. I sincerely doubt there’s any other comics title currently being published that allows a writer as much creative freedom as I enjoy on this book. As for Comet, Jaguar and theMighty Crusaders it would be great to see more of them besides the trade paperbacks.
Offenberger: I understand you are a big fan of the Mega Man video game, how did you end up working on the Mega Man comic?
Spaziante: After some prompting from some of my fellow employees at Archie, I had sent a sample to Dreamwave for scrutiny. They where pleased, and gave me the job.
Offenberger:Things must have gone well, you continued with Dreamwave on their Transformers comics, how did that come about?
Spaziante: The two main Transformers Comic writers had shown interest in my style, and offered the book to me. Unfortunately the project never came to fruition, because of reasons out of our control.
You worked for Marvel in Muties #2, how did you get the job at Marvel?
Spaziante: One of the writers on Sonic had connections to Marvel and offered me a single issue in a series of six to be penciled by up and coming artists.
Offenberger:Why just the one issue?
Spaziante: The series called for a host of artists, each taking one of the six books allotted.
Offenberger: You are doing a lot of Juvenile Books for Simon and Shuster, what are the difference between working on comics and working on children’s books?
Spaziante: Children’s books, although less panel intensive, can be just as demanding as comic books, and just as challenging.
Offenberger: Sonics coming up on issue 150 this June, not many comics make it to 150. What do you attribute Sonics longevity too?
Butler:Well, I could try to be smart and say that it has something to do with
“true iconic appeal that taps into a primal pulse”, but it probably has more to
do with the fact that the fans just LIKE the guy!
Spaziante: He is a great character, with boundless possibilities, and, of course, the fantastic fan base.
Penders: First and foremost, a loyal fan base. We would never have made it past issue 50, let alone this far, without them. Also all the support and hard work of Archie and Sega. As for why so many readers have stayed with us for so long, I attribute that to the following reasons: 1) we treat the characters with respect, 2) we’re constantly looking to improve and explore new aspects of the characters and 3) we always work to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Besides Sonic’s longevity as proof of that last point, there’s also the fact the series enjoys possibly the largest female audience of any non-Archie core titles appearing in comics today.
Offenberger: At a time when many writers and artist only stay with a comic for a few months to a year, what has kept you with Sonic?
Spaziante: Dedication to the character, great people to work with, and my love for the work.
Butler: Two reasons- #1- My kids LOVE the character, so it does me proud to be drawing it for THEM. #2- I have a soft spot for the guy MYSELF. Sonic is a HERO in the truest sense of the word, and he’s just a likeable guy! I hope I get to draw him for ANOTHER 8 years!
Penders: The main reason I’ve been with this series for so long is that it’s been my son’s favorite book ever since it first came out. It’s extremely rare a comics creator gets the opportunity to work on his child’s favorite character. My son started school when the book first came out and now he’s on the verge of graduating high school, so it’s been as much a personal odyssey as well as a professional one between Sonic and me over the years. I recently acknowledged how personal in the story “Father’s Day”, which appeared in SONIC #143. As long as I still have stories to tell, Sonic is just as viable a forum to do so as any other series being published today.
Offenberger: What do you have planned for Sonic in the future?
Butler: I would tell you but I’d have to… ahhh, never mind!!
Spaziante: Anything is possible. You’ll just have to wait and see.
Penders: I’d like to put some of the more dark threats behind and at the same time inject more fun and adventure into the overall tone of the stories, setting an example for the rest of the comics industry. More specifically, I’d like to throw Sonic into more situations common to teenagers his age, up the sci-fi quotient on his adventures and explore his family life a bit more. I’d also like to testSonic and Tails‘ relationship a bit, show how their friendship survives the difficult times. Let’s face it, how many 16-year-olds do you know hang out with11-year-olds? I’m also looking forward to resuming the adventures of Sonic as an adult set in the future.
Offenberger: Can we expect to see any more trade paperbacks or mini series?
Butler: I certainly HOPE so! I’ve read my copy of “Sonic The Hedgehog: The Beginning” to my daughters, Savannah and Lily Ann so many times, it’s about to fall apart! My Sonic “Firsts” is also pretty beat up.
Spaziante: I guess that is up to the discretion of the editor, Archie and Sega. Although I can’t say too much I think Sonic trade paperbacks are closer than you might think. Right now we are launching the Sonic X mini series, which I will be doing covers for as well as continuing on the current Sonic title.
Penders: I certainly hope so. I’d love to do a Shadow mini-series, not to mention a Knuckles mini-series or one featuring MOBIUS: 25 YEARS LATER. And that’s just for openers. And I know many readers are clamoring for trade paperback collections reprinting the early run of the series, as those issues are now so difficult to come by.
Offenberger: What other projects are you working on?
Penders: Outside of Sonic, I’m working on a graphic novel featuring my own creation THE LOST ONES, as well as working on storyboards for an upcoming animated series set to premiere on the FOX Network later this year. I also just completed work on a film script, which I’m also looking to adapt into a graphic novel format while shopping the script around to the various studios. When one lives in southern California, one finds that anything is possible. Finally, I look forward to chronicling the adventures of Sonic for some time to come.
Butler: Most of the other projects I’m doing now are ministry based. I just finished a trauma-counseling comic that dealt with the effects of the recent Tsunami in Asia. I also illustrate several Christian Comic book series “Powermark” and “Welcome To Holsom“, and a series of Bible Story readers for Parochial schools. Occasionally, I will do commissions of comic characters for individual fans, but, to tell the honest truth, the biggest thing I’m working on is just being the best husband to my wife, and the best father for my kids that I CAN be. Getting to draw cool comics like Sonic The Hedgehog just makes life all the more fun and exciting. Thanks, guys!!
Spaziante: Again, you’ll just have to wait and see. I plan to be working on both Sonic and Sonic X for quite some time so keep looking for my name out there. Thank you to all my fans, and I thank you for your continued support.
Offenberger: Thank you all for taking the time to chat and I look forward to seeing Sonic 150 soon.