When Ben Edlund created his spoofy superhero The Tick in high school over 30 years ago, I doubt he imagined that it would follow him — [Tick voice]: “Latch onto him, old chum!” — throughout his life, producing multiple versions in print and on television. Of course, popular culture is filled with examples of characters and stories that slip the leash of their creators and take on endless lives of their own, becoming cultural phenomena and brands that reinvent and repackage themselves over decades: Sherlock Holmes, Popeye, the Lone Ranger, Superman, Star Wars, Alien. One of the many things that makes The Tick’s situation unique is that Edlund has been centrally involved with every version since the ’80s, including the most recent live-action series, which bows on Amazon on Friday. That means fans of Edlund’s universe can’t accuse this incarnation of being illegitimate or of somehow not getting what The Tick is “really” about. The originator of The Tick is not just the executive producer here, but the principal screenwriter, and the whole thing was his idea. Either you’re willing to follow along as the artist comes at the same material from a new, discombobulating angle, or you aren’t.
I’ll be transparent here and confess that during the first couple of episodes (all six premiering today were sent out for review, while the second half of the season will air in early 2018), I kept my arms tightly folded, thinking, “This is not my Tick.” It took a while to let go of what I expected (and maybe wanted) and give myself over to what was in front of me, but once I did, I was transfixed. Edlund’s latest run at the big blue lunkhead and his nebbish sidekick Arthur isn’t quite a “dark and gritty” reboot, thank jumping Jehoshaphat, but it’s tonally and structurally unlike any other. I’ve been following Edlund’s Tick stories since the early ’90s, when a fellow comics fan loaned me the inaugural run of comics. I adore the title character so much that I deadpan one of the Tick’s signature phrases “I don’t get it” at things I do get. While the print versions, the 1994 cartoon series and the 2001 live-action version (overseen by ace comedy director Barry Sonnenfeld, and starring the great Patrick Warburton) all stuck fairly close to a “Seinfeld meets the 1960s Batman” sitcom template — broad, cheerfully dorky swipes at superhero comics clichés, plus deadpan one-liners and stray moments of tenderness — this version seems strongly influenced not just by the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy (shot by Wally Pfister, the principal director here) but also by sitcoms like Master of None, Atlanta, and You’re the Worst, which focus on character psychology and try to envision a world that feels materially real, the better to make the bursts of surrealism, expressionism, and doofus slapstick pop.
The biggest change among many is shifting the spotlight from the Tick to Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman, formerly of Vinyl), the second banana in other versions. The show fleshes him out not as a charming variant of a familiar comic-book type, but as a person with a tangled, debilitating psychology. Arthur suffered a classic comic-book childhood trauma, losing his dad to a Joker-like bad guy called the Terror (Jackie Earle Haley, affecting a Christopher Lloyd–as–Doom vibe), who was supposedly killed years subsequently; he believes the baddie is still alive and secretly authoring the world’s misfortunes, and his obsession with proving it has turned him into an emotionally delicate fringe character who takes multiple meds to treat his depression, papers his walls with Terror-related material, and sneaks out at night trying to gather evidence that will prove that another supervillain, Ramses IV (Michael Cerveris), is a puppet dancing on the Terror’s strings. His sister, Dot (Valorie Curry), a medical student, protects him whenever she can, but for the most part he’s a man alone, ill-equipped to carry out his mission.
The first appearance of the nigh-invulnerable, nigh-idiotic title character (Peter Serafinowicz) is so fortuitously timed that we instantly start to suspect that we’re in a Fight Club scenario, wherein the Tick (whose name starts with the same letter as the Terror; innnnnnnn-teresting) is a projection born from Arthur’s psyche. Edlund and Pfister tease that notion actively, to the point of titling their second episode “Where Is My Mind?”, the name of the Pixies song that served as Fight Club’s closing credits anthem, and having a cover version of the song, performed by a spirited chorus of kazoos, follow Arthur around as he obsesses over whether the Tick is real.
Thankfully, though, the series doesn’t travel down the exact same narrative road as The Leftovers and Mr. Robot (both of which used covers of “Where Is My Mind” to cop to borrowing from Fight Club). The Arthur-Tick relationship is more of a Coen Brothers kinda thing: like H.I. and the lone biker of the apocalypse in Raising Arizona, or Barton Fink and Charlie in Barton Fink, the Tick-Arthur relationship hovers somewhere between metaphorical and actual. He was summoned like a golem by Arthur’s issues, but he’s a person who has issues of his own. This reconception of the Tick invariably turns him into one piece of the ensemble instead of the lead, and there are times where Edlund & Co. very nearly treat him like Godzilla, bringing him in whenever a dose of mayhem is required to move the plot along. We’re not really permitted any access into his mind, a space that I envision as a garage containing a chair, an empty gas can, and a paddle ball that no longer has a ball attached to it. There are intimations that he, too, is a victim of trauma — he confesses to having no idea who he is or how he became that way.
Fittingly, Serafinowicz’s performance goes in a different direction from Warburton’s immortal star turn in the 2001 live-action series: less thunderously oblivious, more serenely self-possessed, with a touch of Adam West’s Batman-Zen in the delivery. Over time, his demeanor starts to seem less confident than secretly terrified, as if the Tick has constructed an identity completely removed from who he really is, or was. The blue suit, which he wears at every moment, is something like a radioactive blast shield, protecting him from having to interact with a world that is emotionally toxic to him in ways he hasn’t begun to fathom.
I realize I’m making it sound as if The Tick has suddenly turned into a grim psychodrama about post-traumatic stress disorder, and it really isn’t that. Well, maybe it is — a little bit. But it is also, unexpectedly and endearingly, the best example I’ve seen of a filmed superhero story that asks what it might be like to live in a world that has superheroes and supervillains in it, fighting on the streets, blowing things up, waking us up from sound sleep, and so on. (The closest TV got to this recently was probably the first season of Luke Cage, which was populated mainly by non-super-characters, and gave us a sense of Harlem as something other than a place for gunfights and brawls to occur.) It’s funny some of the time; other times it isn’t funny at all and isn’t supposed to be. By the time you hit episode three, which puts Ramses IV’s disgruntled henchwoman Ms. Lint (Yara Martinez) front and center, you realize that what you’re watching is less of a lovable but one-note superhero spoof than a low-key, underground-comix-styled look at characters who are all fundamentally, profoundly dissatisfied with modern life and don’t have the tools to figure out why, much less correct the situation. I did not expect a new version of The Tick to provide some of the same prickly pleasures as BoJack Horseman, but here it is. I’ll take it.