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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Static Thoughts - The Tick (2001)

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Edited by Robert Beach

As the superhero genre continues to extend its icy tendrils into all forms of media, streaming superhero content seems to be the next big frontier for the genre. After such major hits as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, we’re now starting to see more obscure heroes get their shot at the big time such as last year’s Powers and 2016’s The Tick reboot on Amazon. As evidenced by the name of this article, The Tick reboot is what brought me here today, though I don’t have any plans to review it yet. I’ll give my thoughts eventually. For now, it’s just a pilot, and I’d like to wait till we see a full series before making a definitive call. 

No, I’m here today to look backward rather than forward, back to the strange days of 2001. Those were the days before Nolan’s Batman, before the Marvel cinematic universe, even before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Back then, Batman and Robin had just recently killed the superhero genre while Blade and X-Men had only recently revived while the boom of indie comics led to dozens of off-beat hero adaptations. 

This was the era of Spawn, Savage Dragon, the Maxx, Wild C.A.T.s, Witchblade, Freakazoid, and more. This was also the time superheroes came to live-action TV like never before with shows like Mutant X and Smallville. In the midst of these two major trends, an obscure Boston indie superhero found his way into a live-action adaptation that, while brief, I’d argue as one of the best installments of the genre. His name? The Tick. 

For those unfamiliar with him, The Tick was an independently produced superhero comic popping up in 1986 from New England Comics, a chain of Boston area comic stores.  That is, incidentally, how I first became aware of the character as I’m originally from Massachusetts, and you better believe the Tick is a hometown hero out there.  Conceived of as a comedy hero, the Tick’s power is that he’s super strong, indestructible, and somewhat self-aware. Though his self-awareness comes and goes, his power is being incredibly whacky. The Tick got his own comic in 1988, which makes him one of the first successful indie heroes of the modern era. 

After the inception of Marvel Comics in the ‘60s, DC and Marvel more or less dominated the superhero market with new characters only starting to scrape through in the mid-'80s when direct marketing allowed independent studios to compete seriously.  The most famous from this halcyon era are of course the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the Tick was right there with them, premiering two years after the Turtles and getting his comic right as TMNT, the series, was ballooning up. 

In the ‘90s, The Tick broke mainstream as part of the rise of independent creators in that decade. This was the era when a ton of big-name artists and writers, tired of shabby treatment from DC and Marvel, were branching out on their own. And they proved good enough at it to start getting major media exposure, though I won’t pretend the Turtles trailblazing run as a franchise didn’t help. The biggest area of growth was animation after the Batman and X-Men animated show opened the floodgates in the early ‘90s. 

Fox picked up the Tick for an animated series in 1994 that proved wildly popular and is today remembered as one of the quite good comic adaptations of the day. The animated series only lasted three series, but the Tick proved popular enough that, as the decade dwindled, Fox was willing to take a chance on a live-action series. It also helped that Fox was sore that Marvel’s Mutant X TV show wasn’t being exclusively afforded to them under the X-Men license and was eager for a superhero show of their own. 

Premiering in late 2001, The Tick was an odd, bloodshot-eyed duck of a show that proved too niche for audiences of the time, but it has since gained a major following. I see why.  I watched a good chunk of the series when I was a kid and loved it, even though I think the bizarre age skew of the humor was part of the network’s problem.  

Even though this was a superhero show featuring people in some of the gaudiest costumes you’ve ever seen, the humor and subject matter was much more in line with the urban adult sitcoms that had dominated the television landscape in the ‘90s. That always left it in an odd pocket, too self-deprecating and actionless for hardcore superhero fans and also too sex- and relationship-oriented for younger kids. 

The closest point of comparison I might have for the show is that it’s a lot like Seinfeld with superheroes, which makes a lot of sense given series showrunner Larry Charles got big off Seinfeld. That might seem like an odd combination, but honestly, I think it works like gangbusters.  A big part of my love for the show is that I love this particular brand of superhero humor: finding comedy where the bombast and verbosity of superheroes runs up against the banality and humanity of everyday life. 

There’s an openness in its blend of superhero fantasy and sitcom theatricality, superheroes themselves as the perfect embodiment of the core series joke. In the very first episode, main character Arthur, an accountant turned superhero who is the very definition of mild-mannered and out of his depth, says that “superheroes are all just narcissistic, self-centered, sexually frustrated kindergarteners!” If you can’t get behind that shockingly accurate description, then this isn’t the show for you.             

The other big reason I think tapping Larry Charles was a great call is that Seinfeld was a shockingly geeky show for the time.  People tend to forget this now because we live in the world Seinfeld made. Even though it was a prime time sitcom and a massive success, the show was packed with weird, nerdy allusions and genre plots.  

Stuff like the Bubble Boy episode, the Bizarro Jerry episode, or the constant stream of geek pop culture references makes it unique amid the popular television landscape.  I mean, it’s a prime time sitcom that directly quoted Wrath of Khan and featured allusions to Iron Man and Green Lantern over a decade before either of those characters had any form of notoriety; this was a nerdy show. 

That nerdiness translated over to The Tick, as the show is, at heart, a superhero parody.  That shines through most clearly in the best episode of the show ‘The Tick vs. Justice;’ it’s the only time the show doubles down on embracing the superhero structure to give it more material to mock. The episode is about The Tick and Arthur defeating the major super villain Destroyo then having to deal with the ensuing trial. 

It’s a smart concept that highlights how insane a superhero trial would be and makes great use of having a nemesis in the episode. The show always framed the Tick himself as a zany cartoon brought to life. While his ignorant take on modernity is often funny, this is the only episode where it has consequences. What’s more, it’s the only episode where all of the various plotlines tie together and intersect to form a greater whole: Arthur and supporting hero Batmanuel try to find evidence against Destroyo while fellow supporting hero Captain Liberty is forced to guard him. 

Speaking of Batmanuel and Captain Liberty, they’re new characters made up for the show. Often fun, they’re also a weak spot.  They’re the most sexually charged of the crew by comparison to Tick’s innocence or Arthur’s repression. You can feel the show struggling to tell what to do with them.  Most of Captain Liberty’s plots revolve around her difficulty finding a relationship while Super (more on that later). They rarely resolve or build to a legitimate payoff that connects to the other stories in the episode. 

Batmanuel’s gag is that he’s a sexed up superhero mainly in it for the celebrity. While his incompetence is funny, the show tends to team him up with Captain Liberty, which doesn’t do either of them any favors.  That’s another reason why ‘The Tick vs. Justice’ is such a great episode, splitting up the usual combos improves things immensely. Janet’s plot about guarding Destroyo ties to the main story. 

Obviously, the show had problems, but it was pretty clearly working through them and for something that had never been attempted before. It’s impressive how good the show is.  Of the nine episodes that were produced, I’d say that six range from good to great. The series was clearly improving as the season went on. A lot of comedy in the early episodes is based on saying a funny thing at someone, rather than creating actual jokes with punchlines and set-ups with a lot of the early plots just fizzling out rather than resolving. By episode 6, they had it down. 

Bizarrely, I’d argue that the show’s most famous episode ‘Couples,’ which featured a cameo from Ron Pearlman, is the weakest of the entire run. It’s the episode where one of the core concepts of the series comes front and center: the idea of coding the superhero community as queer. This had been around in earlier episodes, but this is the one where it becomes nice and explicit when the Tick and Arthur run into a fellow superhero duo Fiery Blaze and Friendly Fire. It frames the hero/sidekick relationship as just that: a relationship; that’s an interesting idea, yet the show doesn’t have anything to do with the concept. They try to pair it up with the power imbalance of heroes and sidekicks, though it’s a set-up without a punchline and a concept without insight. 

However, this idea does come up again in a later episode that absolutely nails it to a shocking degree. In the episode ‘Arthur, Interrupted,’ they double down hard on superheroes as coded for queer when Arthur decides to come out as Super to his mom and sister. 

It’s a clever use of the idea and gets dark when Arthur’s family has him committed to a deprogramming center run by Dave Foley of The Kids in the Hall. It’s the only episode that uses the super as queer coding for a legit purpose and is great as a result. What’s more, for something produced in 2001, it’s shockingly ahead of its time. It’s easy to forget this now, but as far as gay acceptance goes, that might as well have been the Stone Age. Conversion therapy is still a thing today, so it's shocking to see a show like this take on that topic in such a blatant manner. 

Admittedly, the idea of “superheroes as code for LGBTQ people” concept first popped up in X-Men, but I honestly think The Tick has a more worthwhile take on it in that it’s a better fit for the metaphor. Look, if I get sucked down my “damn X-Men!” hole, we’ll be here all day. A problem I’ve always raised with the films is that mutants have no culture and weren’t facing the prejudice that existed in real life, so the metaphor is much harder to sustain. Making the superheroes, the core of the allegory immediately affords the characters culture and history while the conversion therapy plot is a lot more relevant than any of Magneto’s evil schemes. 

The idea of having actual social issues emerge amid the superhero shenanigans is key to the trilogy of great episodes in The Tick’s back half. Along with ‘Arthur, Interrupted’ and ‘The Tick vs. Justice,’ the episode ‘The Big Leagues’ was all about discrimination within the superhero community. Much like conversion therapy, the episode's concept is something I haven’t seen attempted in modern comics. The story is about an ultra-prestigious group club known as the League of Superheroes who invite The Tick and Arthur to join. 

It comes out from Captain Liberty that the League is apparently extremely sexist, denying access to anyone who isn’t a white guy. The club is formed as a blend of the most snobbish country club you’ve ever imagined and the worst jock fraternity with the heroes assembling more to be among “the right people.” The league’s leader, The Champion, is a pretty great Superman riff whose racism and misogyny would’ve seemed cartoonish in a time before the Internet. 

In many ways, The Tick feels now like a show ahead of its time. The style of comedy involved has become very popular in the post-Office/Parks and Rec sitcom boom. The "superhero in everyday" situations set-up is a cornerstone of the CW’s shows, and the show's subjects (like prejudice among heroes or deprogramming) haven’t been addressed by any other superhero media. Even though its initial run was tragically short, the creators and actors of the show are big fans of the show and DVD sales have helped the series find a lot more love. 

Personally, I think it’s the best version of The Tick we’ve got, reworking his character to be more likable than in the animated series and not weighed down by the seriousness of the new show. By now, you should have a good idea of whether or not you’d like the show. If it sounds like your thing, I thoroughly recommend it because there hasn’t been anything like it since. 

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