My friend Steph pointed out a critical omission from my essay on funny heroes. The subject of a successful comic, several spin-off series, an animated series and an underfunded live-action sit-com, Ben Edlund’s The Tick is too significant to ignore. The hero whose power set can be summed up as “nigh-invulnerable” + “I. Am. Mighty!” and whose moral compass always points to “Spoon!” is perhaps the greatest of all funny heroes. While the character himself is– and is partnered with– a lovable loser, he hardly belongs in the same category as Bananaman or The Inferior Five. He’s closer in spirit to The Venture Brothers (which Edlund has also had a hand in creating), though unlike VB his stories are not about failure but about unlikely triumph. I can’t think of another franchise that so perfectly combines loving genre-mockery with truly likable heroes. Cult hero? Most certainly. The Saturday morning cartoon was the highest profile product with The Big Blue Bug of Justice’s name on it, and it lasted 2 seasons. But oh, it is so good… and it isn’t even the best example of Tickness.
If your local library does not have The Tick: The Complete Edlund Edition then buy it for a loved one and then read it yourself. I’ll say nothing against the animated series and little against the Warburton live action, but nothing compares to those original issues written and drawn by Ben Edlund. It ends on a cliff hanger, which is sad but I understand it– Edlund started making TV money and has since written/produced for such luminaries of geekdom as Angel, Firefly, and many of the best and funniest episodes of Supernatural. The Tick comics were both a means to an end and a labor of love. Tracing the character’s path of development in the comics is as fascinating as it is hilarious, as he starts out as a super-powered mental patient (but, you know, funny), transitions immediately to nigh-invulnerable Daffy Duck (or, as Superman-spoof Clark Oppenheimer observes, Woody Woodpecker), before meeting his loyal sidekick Arthur and finding a kind of equilibrium. The Tick will never be in touch with reality or truly competent, but he is among the best superheroes in his world, the most competent in a world where superheroes are more of a burden than a blessing.
Why is The Tick funny? The character himself is magnetic– it’s obvious that he does have a sort of greatness to him. He’s more Powerpuff than Gadget, more Freakazoid than Ambush Bug. With accountant-turned-sidekick Arthur there to dilute his terrible enthusiasm, to provide reason to an unreasonable world, he can actually help solve real problems. He also looks like a superhero and acts exactly like he thinks a hero should– 7 feet tall and bulging with improbable muscles, nothing ever hurts The Tick for any appreciable amount of time. Doing things properly– witty repartee, letting villains escape so you can fight them again later, obeying convention at all times– is far more important to The Tick’s original incarnation than anything concrete like ending poverty or saving the world. He’s unimaginative but deranged, with surprising bursts of creativity applied to minor problems– fighting muggers with noogies– and bigger problems ignored or otherwise left to burn themselves out. He’s certainly Good, just in the least inspired way possible.
In short, he’s a typical superhero stripped down to bare bones, set down in a world as ridiculous as himself.
Edlund displayed an impressive mastery of superhero tropes from the beginning. His early pairing with ninja-teen Oedipus Ashley Stevens to take on an incompetent ninja clan was a parody of Frank Miller’s Elektra storyline in Daredevil, but not knowing that didn’t make the comics less funny. A bunch of ninjas disguised as a hedge sells itself. Likewise, the mad scientist filled town of Monolith, Iowa and over-the-top hero-hater The Chainsaw Vigilante were full of references and subtexts but required zero explanation to enjoy. Absurdism taken just far enough, they were easy to laugh at but also had a way of sticking inside the human mind, forcing us to think about all those gems Edlund effortlessly snuck into them.
There are signs in the comics that the original vision for The Tick was weirdly dark. Short mini-comics embedded in the issues– a weird post-apocalyptic version of “Yogi’s Ark” called “Perfect Place,” a horror comic about The Red Eye that is less parody and more unadulterated oddity, at least until Tick and Arthur pick up the titular character hitchhiking and give him the full Woody Woodpecker treatment. Then there’s the original intent behind Arthur. I read an interview once where Edlund confessed that he’d planned to kill Arthur after a few issues, to take the character and make him a voice in The Tick’s head. He was supposed to become a giant inside The Tick’s mind, Tick’s image of a perfect superhero directing Tick to do terrible and heroic things. Oh yeah– and there were hints that Canada was turning into an authoritarian evil, opening Amish internment camps. Stuff like that.
I’m glad the comic and character went in a different direction– by the late 1980s comics fans were already drowning in darkness and grit– but it’s interesting to know those layers are there. To know that even the airiest parody can have textures and angles best left unexplored. Clay Griffith actually created a near-perfect parody of grim 90s superheroes in the Tick spin-off comic The Man-Eating Cow. His reformed “too mean for prime time” hero, The Crime Cannibal served as both a stand-in for The Tick and as a naive hero trying to keep others off the dark path he started down. A combination of great dialog and skillful manipulation of tropes made this and Griffith’s Paul the Samurai series worthwhile reads. Unfortunately, they were short-lived, but they live on in my heart.
I’ve met Edlund and Griffith. When I was working as a library assistant at North Carolina State University, I had the good fortune to glance at the ID I was checking books out to and recognized Clay Griffith’s name. When I unashamedly asked the tall, bearded Southern gentleman before me if he had written the Man-Eating Cow comics, he soberly replied that he had. Over the years I’ve made a point of it to say hello at conventions, keep up with his writing. I’m not really a fan of the Vampire Empire novels he and his wife have authored, but I think they’re worth mentioning. I’m still looking for their Deadlands novel, Banshee Screams.
I met Edlund very briefly at Comic Con; he was signing books at New England Comics’ table. He looked tired, as tired as day 3 awash in a sea of nerds can make a man. There was no sign identifying him, no line. My late friend Christopher J. Reilly had written a Tick story and sent me over because he knew I was a big fan. Ben was gracious as he grunted and signed a book I bought specifically for that purpose– I was well past my autograph hunting stage at that point, but this was special to me. I told him that The Tick had inspired me to write comics, something he’d heard a thousand times before. He still gave me a small smile. I wish I’d mentioned that I thought “Smile Time” was the best episode of Angel, Firefly’s “Jaynestown” some of the best writing ever on television.
Ah well. We do what we do. Thanks for all the Ticks, gentlemen.
There was a more recent “New Tick” comic book series, written by Benito Cereno and drawn by Les McClaine in a convincingly Edlundesque fashion back in 2010. It deserves a mention, but I haven’t read it. It’s already over and was never collected into a trade so I’m probably not going to go looking for it. Arthur’s death was apparently a plot point in the series– a plot point that Edlund specifically considered and rejected– so there’s another reason not to bother. I am looking forward to the upcoming Amazon live-action series. The Tick’s absurd humor is different from most current superhero comedies– instead of over-the-top violence, The Tick typically brings bizarre banter and ridiculous non-threatening villains. Early press for the upcoming series does indicate that this series is going to be darker than its television predecessors. Obviously that could go in a bad direction but, as I’ve noted above, the original comics had their bizarro dark side so I’m hopeful. Especially with Edlund in the creative mix, the Amazon series could be the best Tick-thing in a very long time.
Man, I hope he fights Multiple Santa.