The Tick’s Wild Ride From Obscure Comic to TV’s Smartest Superhero Satire

Arthur and the title character in The Tick. Photo: Jessica Miglio/Amazon Video

We march ever onward in the direction of Peak Superhero, and along the way, actors jockey to become the next spandex-clad champion of justice. They show off how jacked their abs are, how piercing their gazes can be, how well they can deliver barbed zingers, and other measures of charisma and strength. Then there’s Griffin Newman. When attempting to land the part of Arthur — the battle-suit-wearing co-lead of Amazon’s new superhero series The Tick — the actor sold himself to show creator Ben Edlund as something decidedly more beta than alpha.

“I said, ‘I think there’s something where, for whatever reason, people feel bad for me. They’re worried I’m not going to make it through whatever I’m trying to do,’” the svelte, 28-year-old Newman tells me on a sunlit day of outdoor shooting in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. That’s exactly what Edlund wanted: “Ben very quickly said, ‘Here’s what I need out of this character: It’s this guy they have to be very worried about, who has really been on the brink his entire life, but they need to still be able to root for him. He can’t be a joke, but they have to constantly feel like he’s still in danger.’”

The Tick is ostensibly a comedy, but its magic lies in the fact that it isn’t categorizable. It’s definitely a superhero show, but it whiplashes back and forth between Avengers-y quippiness, The Dark Knight–esque brooding, Punisher-ish violence, and Deadpool-ian parody — all while never quite resembling any of those pop-culture outings. It’s kind of a reboot of the previous comic books and TV shows that have borne the name The Tick (all of them helmed by Edlund), but virtually no plot elements from the previous incarnations have carried over. Amazon’s The Tick is, in other words, its own deliciously weird thing.

A thing, it should be said, that is sorely needed right about now. What’s perhaps most interesting about The Tick is the funny and incisive way it breaks down the superhero genre, itself, through specific riffs on famous characters and broader takedowns of tropes. Superhero fiction is more popular than it has ever been in its eight decades of existence, with acrobatic tales of derring-do clogging up multiplexes and streaming-video queues around the world. But there are precious few genuinely insightful satires of superhero-dom in the film and television market, forcing viewers to question the logic behind their own appetites for these sorts of chronicles. Any genre worth its salt needs entries that can entertain while also intelligently deconstructing, and The Tick is aiming to do just that.

The origin story of The Tick can be traced back to Edlund’s own bug-infested childhood. “We were constantly pulling ticks off our dogs, and we were always pulling them out of our own heads, too,” the 40-something writer-artist says of his early years in semirural Massachusetts. “My dad kept them in a Mason jar full of gasoline in the kitchen. They were part of our world, and somehow, I realized that the difficulty of destroying them, their un-crushability — those were superheroic attributes.” A geeky child, his mind wandered to a fanciful extrapolation: “It became increasingly funny to me to think of a character who was so mentally challenged that he thought it was a good idea to name himself ‘The Tick.’”

He soon willed that whim into existence. As a teenager, Edlund used to lurk at a Norwood, Massachusetts, comic-book shop called New England Comics, where he played Dungeons & Dragons with the store manager. In 1986, when Edlund was just 18, he wrote and drew his first Tick story for the store’s newsletter; a few years later, the store decided to start publishing its own comics and tasked Edlund with doing a whole issue about his new hero. The folks at the store loved it and, after a few more sporadically published installments, it started to gain a fan base.

In those black-and-white pages, readers were introduced to the twin suns around which all of the Tick mythology orbits: the Tick and Arthur. They made for an almost vaudeville-like duo, a study in comedic contrasts. On one hand, you had Tick, a towering figure with an eternal penchant for optimism and a mysterious past that was deliberately never explored. He arrives in a city known as the City and sets about fighting crime with pronouncedly old-school sunniness, Adam-West-as-Batman-esque wholesomeness, and two little antennae on his head. On the other, Lycra-covered hand, you had Arthur, a nebbishy former cubicle jockey who wears a moth costume complete with functional wings. At every turn, Tick was ready to leap into the fray, while Arthur would rather curl up into the fetal position until all the violence is over with. Together, they would combat an array of eccentric baddies while exchanging Edlund’s uniquely strange banter.

The key then, as now, to the Tick’s longevity has been Edlund’s capacity to balance the broadly satirical with the bizarrely specific. Sure, there are the riffs on existing properties from the hallowed halls of Marvel and DC Comics, and those are what keep the stories fresh and relevant in any given era. But you never feel as though you’re perusing a cheap MAD magazine parody, because there’s so much in the comics and shows that is head-shakingly sui generis. The language often defies sense, as in Tick’s non-sequitur battle cry of “Spoon!” The villain concepts extrapolate wildly, until you end up with guys like Chairface Chippendale, a crime boss with a chair for a head. And it’s never really clear what the Tick, himself, is supposed to be specifically making fun of, if anything.

You may be wondering how something so heady could possibly become a hit, but you have to remember that the late ’80s and early ’90s was the age of another strange property that emerged from the wild world of cheaply printed black-and-white comics: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The corporate world was looking for the next big thing, and Edlund was given a shot at a Tick cartoon series. It debuted in 1994, but almost immediately, Edlund chafed at other people’s attempts to dilute his vision.

For example, the Tick’s origins and backstory have always been deliberately unspecified, but the higher-ups wanted Edlund to give the blue guy a dad. While that plot element was never enacted, Edlund had an appropriately idiosyncratic backup plan to work around it: “My plan was that it wasn’t actually his dad, and in episode three, he was going to remember finding the Tick in a tree in the Black Forest, wailing, and there was going to be a shot of the dad carrying the Tick out of the forest, so he wasn’t really a dad,” he recalls, following the sentence up with a single, loud guffaw.

That inimitably elliptical thinking is Edlund’s trademark. As Newman puts it, “Ben takes whatever’s going on in superhero culture at the time and makes a Silly Putty imprint, then stretches it into a weird dimension.” His warped vision was a smash on the cartoon, which lasted for three seasons, and in the Tick’s continuing comic-book adventures. But the Tick train nearly derailed in 2001 when a live-action rendition on Fox, starring the perfectly cast Patrick Warburton, was cancelled after just nine episodes.

“Ben was completely overwhelmed by the process because he hadn’t really written for television, he’d only written for animation,” recalls Barry Josephson, producer of both that series and the new one. Perhaps the larger problem was that the Zeitgeist wasn’t ripe for a superhero satire. Tales of metahuman adventuring were still a rarity on screens large and small back then, so you can forgive the public for not being interested in riffs on a genre they weren’t already familiar with. Whatever the problem was, the failure of the aughts show put the Tick into the wilderness for years. Edlund honed his TV-writing skills, doing gigs on Firefly, Angel, and Supernatural, but it seemed like his most beloved creation might be gone for good.

As Edlund toiled elsewhere, the world changed. Superhero movies became a trickle, then a flood; superhero TV shows invaded first broadcast, then streaming outlets; all of a sudden, the genre was, for better or worse, a dominant entertainment mode. In 2015, it occurred to Josephson that the time might be right for another attempt at bringing the Tick to the screen. “It was sitting down with Ben and saying, ‘Would you like to do your version of the show, without any interference?’” Josephson recalls. “His conditions were, ‘If you back me in making what I decide is my version of the show, I want to do it.’”

His version of the show — crafted in partnership with writer David Fury — as it turns out, is much more incisive about superheroes than the previous, more fancy-free Tick sagas. In addition to offering up laughs, it also seeks to answer a dire question for contemporary entertainment, summed up deftly by Edlund in his Tommy Chong drawl: “What is the Dumpster of your head right now after 70 years of superhero culture?” The show’s subversion of tropes and characters is designed to unsettle just as much as it mocks, and one of Edlund’s goals is to make you think critically about why, exactly, billions of people around the world flock to their local cinemas to watch the latest Batman or Spider-Man picture.

The cast are all onboard with this approach, even if some of them were initially skeptical about what the show was shooting for. “When I first got the script of the pilot, I had this peripheral knowledge of The Tick, but I didn’t know exactly what its tone was, and I knew that the title of the pilot was The Tick: A Parody,” recalls Peter Serafinowicz, the British comedian who plays the title character. “My first thought was, ‘Well, it’s a fucking tough job to parody superheroes.’ That’s kind of been done and done and done and done since the 1940s, you know what I mean? Then I just realized …” and here he trails off. “Well, I can’t compare it to anything that’s been before. It’s unique. Ben’s writing is … That’s it. It’s unique. There’s no one else.”

That seems to be the consensus among the players: The primary element that prevents The Tick from being a facile goof on superhero storytelling is Edlund’s eccentricity, both in his writing and his approach to coaching actors. Valorie Curry plays the third lead of the show, Arthur’s EMT sister Dot, and is not a comics or superhero geek, but was won over by Edlund’s pitch. “He has a very mad genius vibe, and he just started talking,” she recalls. “Clearly, he has this universe in his head and he has a deep care for every character in it. But he also said that it’s this metaphor for the existential dilemma of humans creating technology that is superior to them, and that that’s the same thing as God, and superheroes are this metaphor for that.”

As highfalutin as such a sentiment may sound, it’s surprisingly close to what ends up on screen for the new series. The Amazon series reimagines Arthur as a mentally ill millennial who saw his father killed in a random act of superpowered violence as a child (a superteam’s ship crashed after their eyes became infected with weaponized syphilis, a fate that one can hardly imagine happening in an Avengers flick), and who is obsessed with finding the supposedly dead villain responsible. Out of the blue, the Tick shows up in his life and demands that Arthur become his partner in justice. It becomes clear early on to the viewer — and to Dot — that such a pursuit probably isn’t that healthy for Arthur. There’s a palpable sadness to his character, one that plays well off of Tick’s buoyancy.

Their dialogue crackles with wit and genre insight. “I’m over here answering our destiny,” Tick tells Arthur in the pilot. “Come on over — it’s good! It’s warm. Like the inside of bread!” “I’m not gonna get inside of bread with you, do you understand that?” Arthur earnestly replies. But Tick is undeterred, and in the episode’s closing, he narrates that destiny on Arthur’s behalf. “That’s the Hero’s Journey!” Tick tells the viewer, referencing the overused superhero-writing tool of the so-called “monomyth.” “That’s why they get up in the morning: to go mano-a-monomyth with the darkness; to win the elixir and save the world.” To him — and to the show, it seems — this is a story of what Tick calls “light against darkness, up against down; a struggle as old as time, but with a beat you can dance to.”

And yet, despite this goofiness, The Tick is also surprisingly serious about mental illness, with Newman depicting Arthur as a sympathetically and realistically wounded man who is struggling to find the right way to plug the hole made by his childhood trauma. Therein lies the point that this version of The Tick seems to be making: Superheroes are constructs we create or embrace as a way to cope with feelings of powerlessness in a world where our phones give us godlike omniscience and moral centers are increasingly hard to find.

“What explains the Westerns? World War II, I think,” Edlund says by way of comparison. “Where does the wounded fucking guy who can’t tell his pain to anybody — where does that come from? Where does emptiness, peace, and quiet as a fantasy come from? What is the story of all that shit?” The story of all of our shit is what The Tick is seeking to tell.

How The Tick Became TV’s Smartest Superhero Satire