[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon.]
Before I even understood the concept of fanfiction or shipping, I was glued to the pages of my favorite comic book, absorbing everything I could like a naïve sponge. The characters in Archie Comics’ adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog’s Saturday morning cartoon* (known as SatAM) resonated with an awkward, deeply-closeted grade-school version of myself. There was a magic period where I could read and re-read the pages each night, completely invested in the world of the Freedom Fighters and planet Mobius. I remember being lost in the detailed and colorful covers, wondering what adventure laid behind them. I carried the same thirty-something back-issues with me in protective plastic sleeves, like cherished little gospels. Even in the super religious part of Texas where I grew up, I couldn’t stop thinking about Knothole Village and Robotropolis when I should’ve been paying attention in youth church. Once we were given the assignment of drawing a stain-glass window with something Jesus preached about on it. Of course, being obsessed with drawing my own Sonic comics at the time, I drew only what I knew best. My own personal, cartoon religion. It did not go smoothly.
I didn’t understand what this feeling was called — being utterly devoted to a fictional setting and Disney-esque characters burdened with saving the world. In the comic books, Mobius was constantly under threat. It was a dystopian setting taken over by the evil Dr. Robotnik. And Sonic and the Freedom Fighters had one job: try and reverse the damage Dr. Robotnik had done by polluting the planet and destroying the environment. In other words, Mobius was already fucked to be begin with. And weirdly enough, that was a comforting thought for me. The world was already messed up so…what else could happen? At the time, I was growing into a gender and a puberty I later realized wasn’t my own, and the thought of a world that’d been spoiled by something evil and all powerful resonated with me. I didn’t have control over my body, so why would this fictional world of talking animals be safe either? The heroes of Mobius were a comforting escape from questioning myself as I drew a binder-full of fan comic-strips.
My favorite characters will always be Miles “Tails” Prower and Antoine D’Coolette (whom I’ll address later), for their compelling depictions of masculinity. Tails is of course Sonic’s loyal sidekick and partner in kicking evil robot ass. He’s a twin-tailed fox, and a running mate with “the mind of a four-year-old,” according to Sega in a 1992 US print ad for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Anyways, Tails was the cute, tech-savvy kid while Sonic was the cool blue hedgehog with a nineties attitude. In the weekend cartoon the Archie comics adapted, he’s depicted as Sonic’s little brother figure, always wanting to be as brave as his elder, with mixed results. Later in the comics, Tails would mature as a valuable member of the Freedom Fighters and a skilled inventor. However, even as a kid, it was obvious to me that Sonic and Tails’ relationship was deeper than that.
There’s a long tradition of homo-erotic tension between the macho male superhero and his effeminate, younger sidekick. A good example is the moral hand-wringing that eventually lead to the creation of new comic book censorship laws after Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham points out that, yes, Batman and Robin shared a bed and fought crime in colorful, beautiful tight caped costumes. While Wertham was of course wrong in his criticisms of the comics business corrupting the youth, most gays I know still see Batman/Robin as something more than platonic. At least, they recognize the sidekick’s deep admiration for the main hero as something potentially queer-coded. The same campiness lives on in Sonic and Tails’ now decades-old friendship.
From On Camp, Susan Sontag writes “the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.” Grade-school me saw this deep admiration Tails had for Sonic as romantic in the same way I crushed on my straight friends. I saw myself in Tails, in longing to be someone more genuine. Take note of Tails’ theme in the Sonic Adventure games: When all alone in my bed, I just go about yearnin’ / I wanna be cool, I also wanna be like him.Tails doesn’t just want to be Sonic’s best friend, but wants to be him. While all alone in bed. I didn’t relate to Tails because he wanted to be Sonic’s best friend. Because in all honestly, I couldn’t have cared less about Sonic and his reckless behavior. My empathy was with Tails, who wanted to be someone stronger, a better man — maybe even better than Sonic.
Tails was always building with his own tools, tinkering away at his inventions to harness the power of his surroundings. A good chunk of the technology used by the Freedom Fighters in the Archie series exists thanks to Tails. But because he isn’t nearly as fast as Sonic and expresses his masculinity differently, he’s seen by fans as the lesser of the two. While Sega never pits the two against one another, it seems that Tails has gained a reputation for being “the gay one” because of his less-than-macho traits. It always felt like a personal attack when people said they didn’t like Tails. “If only they read the comics!” I thought. Tails is a good example of what a guy can be when he chooses to follow his own path and seeks a different way of getting there than his predecessors. I’ve always been a sucker for the “friends to lovers” trope, and I guess it wouldn’t be much of a love story without some innocent pining.
But Antoine, as Sonic’s peer, doesn’t share the same privileges as Tails. He’s a character that’s grown on me as I’ve gotten older. He’s supposed to be a coyote, but it’s ambiguous. Antoine, much like Tails, underwent a significant amount of character development beyond his original appearance in SatAM. However, he was first written as a stereotypical cowardly French aristocrat. For a kid’s show, this is played up for laughs with a thick accent, but it’s also a weirdly specific manifestation of Francophobia for an originally Japanese intellectual property. Since SatAM was developed for an American audience, however, Antoine has less to do with the video games than Tails. This also makes him more interesting as a character — his effeminate qualities are not because of his sidekick status, but because he’s whatever the Mobius equivalent of a dandy is. Nowadays, it’s hard for me not to see Antoine as a campy, “disaster gay” character. He has more in common with cowardly Disney villains like Robin Hood’s thumb-sucking Prince John than the rest of the Freedom Fighters. Naturally, this also makes him the black sheep of the group and also the butt of jokes. If Antoine went to my middle-school, he definitely was the kid getting beat up and pushed into lockers. He desperately wants to fit in, and in all honesty, sometimes he’s just a sore loser.
My first exposure to the Archie universe was through the Sonic Mega Collection anthology. There was a gallery function of previous Archie issues that captured my imagination, where I first read a digital copy of the 1997 Sonic Firsts graphic novel. Around this time was when I finally got my hands on the original SatAM episodes, which also coincided with the time I first came out to my mom as “transgender.” Like the church episode, it did not go smoothly. The internet was a very different place back in the early 2000’s — there was no Tumblr, only defunct Geocities websites and webrings that only vaguely answered my questions. No one at school shared my interest in nineties comics while I devoured back-issues waiting for my Sonic subscription. I felt like I’d discovered some secret about my identity that felt horrible, perverted, and wrong. Something wasn’t right with me — I felt an awkwardness I identified with in Tails and his bizarre two-tails. I was too much of a coward to give it a proper name, though — like Antoine, I felt weirdly claustrophobic in my own fumbling search for the “right” type of embodiment.
Still, the Archie comics tried to resolve some of Antoine’s effeminacy with an on-going straight romance with one of the girl Freedom Fighters (a cyborg named Bunnie Rabbot). But it’s hard for me to parse out whether Antoine’s cowardice is a character trait or the consequence of being an effeminate man. Like Tails, Antoine is always trying to play the hero but is always being outdone by Sonic. But Antoine is still Tails’ senior and Sonic’s foil — because of this, he’s presented as a young adult who has grown up to be an unmanly man. Although Jack Halberstam writes this type of failure can be “subversive and productive” in The Queer Art of Failure, Antoine just seems like a throwaway gag, now that I’m further along in my transition into maleness. He isn’t subversive or productive in the slightest. He’s awkward and messy. While Tails gets away with effeminacy by being a sidekick, Antoine is repeatedly mocked for his masculinity-related shortcomings. If Antoine really is Sonic’s foil, then he’s meant to emphasize Sonic’s blue-for-boy manhood, and nothing else.
There’s one scene in SatAM involving Antoine that everyone remembers. In the episode Spy Hog, Dr. Robotnik’s cunning partner Snively has captured Antoine in a torture chair. At first, it looks like things might be going for the worst. However, Antoine begins to cry as Snively starts poorly cooking French cuisine. As Snively whips out the escargot, he announces he’s going to cook it with margarine instead of butter. Antoine begins to weep, and even after Sonic rescues him he continues sobbing. While this scene seems comedic, there’s a not-so-subtle message given Antoine’s fearful reaction to something as domestic as cooking. The behavior is inherently unmanly and even gets the leader of the Freedom Fighters, Princess Sally, to ask what’s wrong. Antoine then is whisked away in a large female dragon’s pouch like a baby kangaroo — the entire scene is not only emasculating but infantilizing as well. Ironically, Antoine calls Snively “animal” despite him being an anthropomorphic animal character, and Snively one of Mobius’ rare humans.
This scene reminds me of Halberstam’s analysis of the film Fantastic Mr. Fox. He comments that it “tells a tall tale of masculine derring-do in order to offer up some very different forms of masculinity, collectivity, and family.” Halberstam is referring a form of “gender politics of wildness and domesticity” not unlike the familial relationships the anthropomorphic Freedom Fighters form with one another. Mr. Fox’s son, Ash, is an approval-seeking “sissy” according to Halberstam and Mr. Fox’s loss of his tail is another means of emasculating a male character. These small gestures at an alternative form of masculinity are implicitly queer, because they “revel in the sheer animality of precariousness and survival” among the woodland critters allied against the film’s villainous farmers. The familial relationships among the Freedom Fighters are also a byproduct of Dr. Robotnik’s destructive actions. Halberstam concludes that one of the central conflicts of Fantastic Mr. Fox “is about survival and its component parts and the costs of survival for those who remain.” So, the question is — who remains?
Even in a dystopia ruined by corporate greed and pollution, characters like Antoine and Tails get to play a role in saving the world. Even if Antoine cries over something as simple as cooking, Sonic still rescues him and they live to fight another day. Tails, despite his role as the kid sidekick, still gets to tag along on adventures and learn from his superiors — including Antoine. Even when they lose, even when the hero breaks down in tears, or is different from everyone else (Mr. Fox has no tail…Tails has two), the black sheep of the family are still considered “component parts” in the fight for justice. The sense of “collectivity” and “family” is something a lot of queers I know personally want. Fortunately, Antoine and Tails still get to belong to a family of sorts without ever forfeiting their own alternative masculinities. It’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder taking back the world from a power-hungry tyrant with no consideration for people or the environment. I don’t doubt this is a sentiment a lot of queers also share, especially now, when the political and literal climate are in violent decline.
For a kid who didn’t know much about the world, I learned to read two different forms of masculinity from Antoine and Tails, in contrast to Sonic. But I never once doubted their belonging in the group, nor their competency as team players. In retrospect, it’s lucky that Tails and Antoine still get to “remain” in a world as screwed as Mobius. It’s even luckier that they get to fight back with friends on their side.
While Tails has Sonic to look up to as his masculine role-model, I began realizing Antoine really didn’t have anyone. Ironically, Antoine’s dead father (Armand) has a striking resemblance to Tails’ father (Amadeus Prower) in the Archie canon. I seriously doubt this is a coincidence, and while I assume the parallels are meant to deepen the lore, it’s interesting to consider how different Antoine and Tails are from their dads. While Armand and Amadeus are the epitome of macho masculinity, Tails is soft and cuddly, and Antoine is reluctant and painfully insecure. Despite having the potential to become military men like their dads, Tails and Antoine must earn their individual heroism and reclaim what that specific manhood means for themselves. They’re working on it.
I started re-reading the Archie comics after I began injecting testosterone in 2015. I knew I had a “blueprint” of masculinity to fit into, as a trans-masculine person who “should” act and speak a certain way. Antoine and Tails, who were always foils to Sonic and the military uniforms of their fathers, had a similar “blueprint.” I was set on my way to becoming a “real” man through hormones. At 19, I honestly thought I’d outgrown my childhood fascination with the Sonic comic lore — and I’m glad I was wrong. While I once thought of Tails as a relatable kid much like Wesley from Star Trek: The Next Generation, I began to outgrow his predictable story-arcs as I injected my shiny new puberty. I felt more like an Antoine in my realization that a natural growth into masculinity wasn’t a given. In most superhero comics, the sidekick eventually matures into the self-realized young man: Robin eventually becomes Nightwing, etc.
But Antoine never gets that promised arc — he suffers from ineptitude and fear, all faults of his “failed” manhood. Archie told me Antoine wasn’t a real man and I genuinely believed it. But re-visiting the comic and cartoons now, I realized how Tails’ love for engineering was coded for inevitable, successful manhood. Meanwhile Antoine’s reluctance to follow Sonic blindly into danger was framed as feminine, weak. It hurts me a little to see Antoine be the butt of jokes because of his cautiousness while Tails matured into a proto-protagonist all his own.
As the hormones started kicking in, I desperately wanted to reconnect with a less turbulent period of my youth. But I knew it was gone. I really wanted to live with the optimism and unlimited potential of Tails’ character — I needed it once I knew what path I’d chosen. Trans men are just as easily swallowed whole by toxic masculinity as “normal” guys, especially when trying to fit into a strict definition of what makes a gender identity respectable. But I still saw myself in Antoine, who was perpetually infected with imposter syndrome. Would I ever be a good man? In a way, Tails symbolized the boyhood I was explicitly denied; Antoine was a man without a successful boyhood. While Tails could invent his own killing machines, Antoine was clumsily swinging his sword and choosing to clean his wardrobe instead of fighting.
Even though I’m in my early-twenties now, I still wish I had a cool older brother figure like Sonic. I wish I could’ve been a “real boy” crushing on other boys rather than awkwardly falling into my gender identity. But now I see myself finally gaining ground, playing “catch-up” in this world of masculinity I’ve been trying to mimic my entire life. Have I succeeded? Of course not. I never said I felt like a failure — only that like my favorite character’s love for playing the hero, I love playing the role of a guy, no matter how badly I supposedly fail.
As a kid, I related so strongly with Tails, and yet refused to have anything to do with Antoine. But unlike the cartoons, the comics eventually got better about Antoine and gave him some serious character growth and real personal conflicts. The same can be said for Tails, who succeeds in his own ways without Sonic’s guidance. For me, as an isolated queer kid, I’d latch on to anything vaguely resembling myself. And while I loved Tails because he loved Sonic, I now adore Antoine because he was a hot mess and remains so. I still occasionally revisit my grade-school drawings of Sonic and Tails holding hands. And I’d like to think now that, just beyond the comic panel, Antoine is seething with jealousy because Sonic won’t hold his.
Nostalgia often colors over the media to which we once religiously devoted ourselves. But sometimes it’s better to just accept shortcomings for what they are. I’ve come to learn that a piece of media “growing up” with you ironically also means that you grow more self-aware of its faults alongside your own. It’s a double-edged sword — one I’m willing to take and play pretend with, to re-write my own lore and self-indulgent fantasies.
*Editor’s note: Some comments have contested this, stating that the cartoon series was adapted from the comic, not the other way around. Some minor research on this suggests this is sort of unclear territory — both series debuted around the same time, with the comics first and the cartoon a few months later, but many sources cite that the comic was adapted from the cartoon.