Some say that the Tick was a mascot created for the New England Comics stores of Boston, MA, that this mascot leaped from newsletters to a monthly comic and then to an animated television series, followed by a live action television series and, most recently, to another live action series. These are true facts, yes, but there is a greater truth hidden in this story. The truth is that the Tick has followed the call of destiny and he believes you can, too. I like to believe that the Tick is not just the hero we need, though he probably is in our time of weaponized irony, cruelty, fear and dehumanization. I like to believe that the earnest, blue, nigh-invulnerable, peculiarly insightful Tick is the hero we deserve.
Ben Edlund wrote and drew The Tick for New England Comics Press. But though his publisher was New English, the Tick’s City seemed an awful lot like Chicago. Tick escapes a mental health facility in Evanston, travels to the City and befriends Arthur, an accountant with a moth-themed flight suit. Together they fight crime with their heroic battle cries, “Spoon!” and “Not in the face!” And really, when we’re talking about Evanston, there only one we’re talking about, Evanston, IL. The comics and tv shows share the same basic outline, but the most rudimentary origin story. And I’m okay with that. The ever-changing and incomplete origin story underscores rather than undermines the mystery of The Tick. It makes him seem almost eternal, fighting injustice even in the primordial soup or geochemical gradients as life first formed. I honestly don’t want to know for sure where the Tick comes from and what he precisely he is. I know who and what the Tick is. He’s a hero. He’s friends with Arthur, a completely human former accountant who uses a flight-suit of unknown provenance in their crime-fighting. And he wants us to hug Destiny.
The Tick is assigned to protect the City in the animated series. In the first live action series, Patrick Warburton’s Tick is at first defender of a bus station and then protector of the City. And in the current live action series , Arthur (Griffin Newman) gets his flight suit after the Tick (Peter Serafinowicz) has a throwdown with the Pyramid Gang. The Tick doesn’t remember anything before being in the city. He looks faded and rumpled in comparison to his previous versions, but as the Tick engages in more derring-do, follows his destiny and convinces others to choose their destiny, he gradually looks more and more like his old, bright blue self. (Season 2 has him shedding scales and flushing them down the toilet).
In the first season, Arthur works through trauma to become a hero. He is initially concerned that the Tick is a hallucination. The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley) killed Arthur’s father right in front of him when Arthur was a child. The Terror supposedly died in a subsequent accident, but Arthur is convinced the Terror is alive. And his friends and family are concerned that Arthur is unwilling to accept that the Terror is dead even though, “They found his teeth.” But the Tick believes in Arthur. He believes destiny is calling Arthur to be a hero. And in the first season, Arthur hugs his heroic destiny. In the second season, Arthur pursues his dream of becoming a member of the Flag Five, the series’ version of the Avengers or the Justice League. But then control and fascism comes to the forefront as the Tick, Arthur, Arthur’s sister Dot (Valorie Curry) and their friends, family and heroic colleagues confront issues of authoritarianism, family separation, and thedehumanization of people defined as “others.” In this case, “categories”–people with super powers—and Atlanteans, aka, Lobster people. I should have expected it. Like I said, The Tick is always in tune with the times.
The current series echoes things like Marvel’s recent Civil Wars, the registration of mutants and metahumans, and pervasive concerns about Superman being a jerk. In fact Arthur tells Tick’s Superman analog Superian deals to go take “a long walk” and think about what he’s been doing. There are even Hans Zimmer Avengers theme-influenced strings. But while the show deals with dark things, it isn’t dark. The Tick himself is not cynical or ironic and his sincerity is not played for laughs. But it’s still a very silly show. And that balance between silly and confronting control, genocide and fascism is an interesting one. I couldn’t help thinking a bit about the recent Doom Patrol series while watching The Tick and writing this.
The Tick (1988-94) came out about the same time as Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol (1989-93). They were part of the late 1980s and early 1990s comics so much of our own era nostalgically hearkens back. Aside from grim’n’gritty heroes and holographic foil embossed covers, it was also a time when independent comics were having an efflorescence. The Tick was definitely an indie comic and Doom Patrol felt like one. The Tick reflected some of the preoccupations in comics at the time. There are vigilantes; dark versions of heroes; a reflection of 1980s fascination with Japan; and an ever-expanding universe of superheroes. Edlund’s NEC crossover event, “Crisis on Finite Tick Spin-Offs” included Edlund’s characters the Tick, Paul the Samurai and Man-Eating Cow teaming up for justice. Some writers and artists came out of the Tickverse that are more famous for other things now, including Zander Cannon and Chris McCulloch, aka, Venture Bros.‘ Jackson Publick.
Edlund took what he said would be a brief break from the comic to work on The Tick animated series, leaving off on issue 12 and a cliffhanger that isn’t resolved in the comics. After the success of The Tick animated series, Edlund went on to get a lot of screenwriting and production credits, including The Tick live-action show, Firefly, Angel, The Venture Bros, Supernatural, Gotham and Powers. And if you read the editorial and letter pages of The Tick, you will see that Edlund and readers were really optimistic about his ability to write the comic and produce the show. In retrospect, it’s obvious that The Tick #13 was not going to come out.
I was lured into watching the new Tick by the siren song of John Hodgman as a potentially evil scientist, Doctor Agent Hobbes of AEGIS, The Tick’s version of SHIELD in the second season. So I watched the second season before the first, because I am capable of anything in such matters. But I will warn you that I discuss plot elements in some detail from here on out.
Season two begins with Arthur trying to make his dream of becoming a member of the Flag Five come true. The Tick goes along because they are friends and partners and the Tick believes in supporting your friends and partners. But he is troubled as they are ever more drawn into lies. Meanwhile, the Tick and Arthur track down a nautically themed gang. The gang has a secret weapon, an enormous, super-strong lobster the press calls, “Lobstercules.”
It turns out Lobstercules (suit actor Niko Nedyalkov; voice actor Liz Vassey) has been coerced by the gang who are holding her children hostage. When Lobstercules is imprisoned by AEGIS, Arthur and the Tick get her a lawyer, Pat Murphy / Flexon (Steven Ogg). They argue that if they can tell AEGIS about her children, they can prove she was coerced and get her sprung. Lobstercules is rightfully concerned about revealing the existence of her adorable, singing lobster children to AEGIS. Gesturing at her hexagonal clear plastic cell deep within AEGIS HQ, Lobstercules asks how can she trust this AEGIS. She is right to doubt them, not only because of her own experience, but because AEGIS has been compromised.
Dr. Agent Hobbes (John Hodgman) initially seems pleasant and helpful. He even likes red velvet cake. But if he has a superpower, it is “the banality of evil.” He uses his bland pleasantness to conceal his desire to rid the world of “categories,” the heroes and villains who have arisen since the arrival of Superian on Earth. As he villainsplains* to rogue AEGIS agent and Winter Soldier analog Overkill (Scott Speiser), “AEGIS was founded to protect humanity and to police the greater chaos that Superian unleashed. But then [Agent Commander Tyrannosaurus Rathbone] recruited you to be an agent. He brought the chaos into our own house. You were the first of what is now an infestation of categories into what was once a proud human institution.”
He uses Overkill to assassinate AEGIS’ Agent Commander Tyrannosaurus Rathbone (Marc Kudisch) and takes Rathbone’s place as Acting Agent Commander Doctor Agent Hobbes. Hobbes’ fear and hate leads him to embrace mind control and murder. Genocide is probably not far behind. As the Tick says, “’If is always when in evil’s book.”
He certainly uses the language of genocide, beyond “genetic chaos” and “infestation.” In recruiting the former lightning-powered supervillain Ms. Lint / current** superhero and Flag Five member Joan of Arc (Yara Martinez) to help him handle Tick, Arthur and Dot, Hobbes continues to use the language of genocide, saying, “I’ve come to find in the course of the recent change of regime, that certain people should not be… Well, simply should not be.”
And when the Tick confronts him with the fact that “your truth is fear,” Dr. Agent Hobbes, asserts, “My truth is control.” Which again reminds me of Doom Patrol and Jane’s warning that, “Control is a weapon for fascists.
Then Hobbes uses his mind control technology to make Overkill and Lobstercules kill the Tick, Arthur and Dot. As a mind-controlled Lobstercles throttles the Tick, Hobbes refutes the Tick’s assertion that he is a villain,
“No, I’m a dedicated government employee finally accomplishing the true goal of his agency. AEGIS had one job: To keep order amdst all this genetic chaos. Rathbone failed at that job.”
Arthur says, “So that’s how you’re going to keep order—by shutting off people’s minds?”
“Arthur, I’m not talking about people. I’m talking about them.”
Hobbes is implicitly inviting Arthur to join him as a fellow human and, in fact, the most human human Hobbes has ever encountered. Arthur tests below the baseline population for superhero powers. He is literally rated a zero by Dr. Agent Hobbes during an evaluation. The first zero ever. But Arthur refuses to be included in Hobbes’ “us.” Instead he stands against control.
The Tick hits home a little harder for me than in similar stories about government regulation, control and genocidal impulses than in X-Men or The Avengers. In part, I think it hits harder because I expect the Tick to be playful and silly. But I think there is also an issue of entitlement for me. No matter how much a metaphor superheroes and mutants are for the experiences of minorities or for government oppression and attempted genocide, they are also stories about hugely powerful and tremendously resourced people***. There can be unintended resonances in stories about superpowerful and/or superwealthy individuals fighting for the right to control what happens to them in particular or to know what is best, who lives, who dies, and who should be imprisoned forever in a parallel dimension. And while it’s not my view, it’s part of why some people do see superhero stories as inherently problematic and often fascist. Because sometimes when you think you’re opposing fascism, you’re not. For his part, Hobbes agrees it is “funny,” when Joan of Arc observes that being a hero feels an awful lot like being a villain. But he does not reflect on it might mean about him.
The Tick covers these issues among people living a much smaller scale life. Arthur chooses superheroing over his job, despite the financial uncertainty and mounting costs of living with the Tick. I mean, he has a landline and his phone still has a curly cord. Arthur has no powers. Or rather, Arthur has two powers. He has the power of wanting to do the right thing and the power of friendship. Which might sound corny, but he’s not the one who has to use mind-control to get people to help him out.
Tick’s vision of destiny might imply a lack of free will, a sort of Hobbesian control, but for good instead of for evil. Acting Commander Agent Doctor Agent Hobbes pointedly takes away Lobstercules’ choice in using her as a weapon against the Tick. It is another act of violence against her and against us all. While the Tick talks a lot about destiny, it’s always within the framework of choice. The Tick’s vision of destiny is not inevitable and not coerced. The Tick reminds us that destiny is calling. He tells us, “It’s a party line and we’re all invited.” His destiny is does not eliminate free will or dehumanize. He tells us that “choosy choosers choose destiny.” He wants us to be the heroes destiny wants us to be and he thinks we are magnificent. Tick rails against the corrosive nature of secrets and lies watching people around him damaged by their inability to live their truth or their fear of living their truth. He believes people can change. Tick urges Arthur to choose to follow his destiny as a hero and Dot to follow hers. He urges Overkill to choose not to kill and to hug instead. The Tick believes destiny believes in us and all we have to do is choose love, choose destiny, choose to be heroes.
Choose love, my friends. Hug your destiny. Try to do the right thing.
*I wish I had come up with “villainsplaining,” but I did not. Overkill uses it in season 2, episode 9.
**Get it? Huh? “Current?” She has electrical powers!
***Friend of the Gutter Mark D. White covers a lot of this ground about the issues in Marvel’s Civil War and our good friend Cap in discussions and books.
Carol Borden is sad that The Tick has been cancelled. She’s also sad she’ll never know the relationship between Agent Commander Tyrannosaurus Rathbone and old Tick villain, Thrakkorzog. He was fun in both the comics and the animated tv show.
This post was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Aug. 8, 2019.