Ars readers of a certain age may well remember spending Saturday mornings watching a talking giant blue arachnid bring mighty blue justice to evildoers in the animated series, The Tick. The series turns 25 today and remains a cult favorite two decades after its tragic cancellation after just three seasons.
The Tick is the creation of Ben Edlund, who started writing a comic book series while he was still in college. He and co-writer Richard Liebmann-Smith came up with a pilot that was ultimately approved by Fox, and the animated series debuted on September 10, 1994. The darker aspects of the comic were abandoned for the more kid-friendly animated series, although Edlund kept the satire, absurdist/surreal scenarios, and cheeky irreverence. Sure, it was aimed at kids, but the series gained a cult adult following over the years, drawn by all the weird, whip-smart in-jokes about history, pop culture, science, and so forth. The Tick ranked sixth on IGN’s 2009 list of the Top 100 Animated Series. IGN compared the show’s tone to Monty Python and Mel Brooks, and declared it “the first great lampooning of the superhero genre.”
(Spoilers from all three seasons below.)
In season one, the Tick meets Arthur by crashing a competition at the National Super Institute, where he’s auditioning for an assignment as protector of The City. (My personal favorite of the other aspiring superheroes was Bipolar Bear, who would be happy to fight injustice if he could ever get out of bed.) Arthur has just been fired from his accounting firm for his crime-fighting hobby, because, as his supervisor put it, “We find this kind of rampant individualism strangely disturbing.”
Arthur becomes the Tick’s sidekick, and they patrol The City, foiling the evil schemes of all manner of bizarre super-villains: Chairface Chippendale, El Seed, the Idea Men, and Brainchild, to name a few. He and Arthur receive occasional aid from other oddball superheroes: American Maid, Die Fledermaus, the Sewer Urchin, and the Civic Minded Five (the Four-Legged Man, Jungle Janet, Captain Mucilage, the Carpeted Man, and Feral Boy).
Alas, despite the show winning two Annie Awards (and being nominated for several Emmys), Fox canceled The Tick after its third season, with the final episode airing on November 24, 1996. There have been two attempts at live-action reboots. The first was a half-hour sitcom starring Patrick Warburton, which debuted in 2001 and was canceled almost immediately. Most recently, Amazon produced a half-hour streaming series, The Tick, which premiered in August 2016. This show was a return of sorts to the character’s darker comic aspects. Peter Serafinowicz took on the role of the Tick, with Griffin Newman playing Arthur, Jackie Earle Haley as the Terror, and Scott Speiser stealing scene after scene as the vigilante anti-hero, Overkill. Sadly, despite critical raves, Amazon canceled the series after its second season finished airing earlier this year.
It really was an excellent live-action interpretation. But there will never be anything quite as good as the original animated series. Only the first two seasons of the animated series were ever released on DVD in the States, and the US DVD sets were missing a couple of episodes for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. You can find most of them all over YouTube, but it’s a shame nobody saw fit to release a special 25th anniversary DVD of the series, with all three full seasons. Here are our top ten episodes, for those inclined to seek them out.
Top ten episodes of The Tick
The Tick vs. Dinosaur Neil (Season 1)
Dinosaur Neil is a mild-mannered paleontologist who runs Dinosaur Grotto, giving public guided tours of his dig site while dressed as a green dinosaur. The childlike Tick is enthralled by the grotto and drags Arthur to the site for a visit, where Dinosaur Neil welcomes them warmly. “It’s a pleasure seeing superheroes take an interest in science,” he declares. Alas, the scientist accidentally ingests a bit of his experimental tissue, designed to keep growing unless it’s kept in a solution of acetylsalicylic acid. Dinosaur Neil grows to gigantic size and terrorizes the City, until the Tick and Arthur realize that acetylsalicylic acid is just aspirin and solve the problem by giving the cranky giant the world’s biggest aspirin tablet. “Science is a two-headed beast,” the Tick moralizes at the end. “One head is nice and gives us aspirin. But beware the other head of science, Arthur. It bites!” (Jennifer Ouellette)
The Tick vs Pineapple Pokopo (Season 1)
The real star of this episode is Yank the monkey, who gets sent into orbit by the National Space Program, where he’s exposed to cosmic rays that give him super-intelligence. With mission control unable to steer his capsule safely back to Earth, Yank takes care of it himself, landing near the island of Pokoponesia, home to Pineapple Pokopo, a pineapple-faced villain who presses Yank into building him a weapon to conquer Hawaii. American Maid recruits Arthur and The Tick to go undercover (as Jeannine Smith, Arnie Jones, and, er, Nick Soapdish) to rescue Yank. The Tick goes surfing, sharks try and eat everyone, and despite losing his supersmarts, Yank saves the day and gets our intrepid heroes back to America. At which point Yank—who is now only as smart as a normal monkey—is made head of the National Space Program. Which these days seems sadly plausible. (Jonathan Gitlin)
The Tick vs. The Tick (Season 1)
The Comet Club is The City’s off-duty hangout spot for superheroes, and the Tick and Arthur head over there with Die Fledermaus and Sewer Urchin for a spot of unwinding. Unfortunately for Arthur, he’s not actually allowed in the joint, instead being relegated to the sidekick’s lounge (actually a shed out back). It’s the Tick’s first time at the Comet Club, and he finds out that Barry, brother of the Comet Club’s owner, also likes to dress up as a hero called the Tick. Awkward! But the real reason I love this episode is that it’s our introduction to the Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight, perhaps one of the greatest-named supervillains in the history of supervillainy. (Jonathan Gitlin)
The Tick vs Chairface Chippendale (Season 1)
Every superhero needs an arch-villain. Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. And the Tick has Chairface Chippendale, The City’s crime boss who, as the name suggests, has a chair for a face. After beating up some goons in an alley, the Tick, Arthur, and American Maid find an invite to Chairface’s birthday party, which they gatecrash, pretending to be caterers. Meanwhile, one of Chairface’s birthday presents is a set of powerful lenses that can focus the light of a candle into a beam of extraordinary powerhic, which Chairface wants to use to write his name on the moon as an act of revenge on a world that never showed him enough love because his face is a chair. Arthur manages to stop this from happening, but only after Chairface has already finished the C, H, and half of an A. What I truly love about this episode is the fact that it introduces continuity to the madcap world of the Tick, for every time we see the moon from here on, it’s scarred with the first two and a half letters of Chairface’s name. (Jonathan Gitlin)
The Tick vs. The Proto-Clown (Season 1)
The Tick and Arthur join forces with the Civic-Minded Five, Die Fledermaus, and American Maid to subdue a genetically engineered Proto-Clown who is terrorizing The City because people keep laughing at him. (“Clown smash. Then Clown laugh!”) The Proto-Clown knocks the Tick into space, where the blue superhero meets his own mind and embarks on a psychic journey of self discovery. This is easily one of the most high-concept episodes, as the Tick and his mind encounter the vast, featureless, desolate expanse that is his consciousness. They visit his pleasure center, run into the Tick’s self-image, trigger the Tick’s defense mechanisms (a small army of mini-Ticks inexplicably armed with fish), and finally ascend the escalator of enlightenment to answer the Tick’s existential question: “Why am I here?” The answer: Because a giant clown knocked him there. (Jennifer Ouellette)
Evil Sits Down for a Moment (Season 2)
While shopping for new furniture with Die Fledermaus, The Tick and Arthur encounter a villainess who calls herself the Ottoman. She’s amassing a “furniture army” to take over The City and restore the Ottoman Empire—because she can make the furniture move and do her bidding. A lonely Die Fledermaus is smitten with the Ottoman, which complicates matters, given that he’s a superhero and she’s evil. During the inevitable showdown at Ivan the Furniture Czar, the Tick becomes trapped in the World’s Most Comfortable Chair and must summon all his willpower to break free. Once free, he posts a cautionary note: “Warning: way too comfortable. Do not sit!” (Jennifer Ouellette)
Coach Fussell’s Lament (Season 2)
A robotic Mad Nanny kidnaps the Tick and takes him to Brainchild’s underground lair. Brainchild proceeds to turn the superhero into a tiny two-headed bluebird that can only speak high school French. (“Je m’appelle Le Tick! J’ai une grande plume et deux tetes!”) The Tick lays an egg and is about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder among The City’s many villains, including Chairface Chippendale, the Idea Men, and the Terror. The Tick is eventually rescued, of course, and learns a few valuable lessons: “First, the world looks a lot different when you’re six inches tall and covered in feathers. Second, two heads are definitely not better than one. And finally, you can lay an egg and still feel like a man.” (Jennifer Ouellette)
Leonardo da Vinci and His Fightin’ Genius Time Commandos (Season 2)
The Tick and Arthur run into a strangely dressed man in a hang glider, who turns out to be Leonardo da Vinci. He tells them that a villain called the Mother of Invention (aka “Mom”) has traveled back in time to kidnap history’s greatest inventors: Leonardo, Benjamin Franklin, Johannes Gutenberg, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, and a cave girl named Wheel (after her invention). Mom intends to plant a bomb in the Renaissance, thereby resetting the timeline back to the Dark Ages. Then he can reinvent everything himself for untold glory and riches. You know, because all the good stuff has been invented already, so it’s really hard to come up with something innovative. The Tick, Arthur, and the kidnapped inventors (aka, the Fightin’ Genius Time Commandos) must battle Mongols, Ninjas, Huns, knights, Roman centurions, and even an elephant, to foil Mom’s insane scheme. (Jennifer Ouellette)
That Mustache Feeling (Season 3)
The Tick is chuffed when he wakes up one morning with a dashing mustache, only to find it’s sentient and has a mind of its own. Special Agent Jim Rage has been hunting for the mustache for 20 years, aided by a trio of beauticians, the Special Ladies of Project Shave, and they crash Dot and Dinosaur Neil’s engagement party. The Tick learns the mustache was a science experiment gone wrong, as the US attempted to fill the “facial hair gap” against the Russians, who were developing a weaponized beard. Rife with allusions to Shaft (Neil’s next-door neighbor is a burly black man named Taft), Charlie’s Angels, and Doctor Strangelove, among others, the episode also features a musical tribute to the cool-enhancing attributes of the mustache (“upper lip/slick and hip”). And this could be the rare occasion when the Tick can’t glean a pithy moral from the adventure. (Jennifer Ouellette)
The Tick vs Science (Season 3)
The Tick and Arthur volunteer to be guinea pigs at the Mad Science Fair for Dr. Vahtoss’ mind-swapping device—mostly because Arthur is dating his daughter, Carmelita. But Chairface Chippendale gets wind of the device and sends an irritated Professor Chromedome (“Vat good is science if no one gets hurt?!?”) to steal it. Among the other science inventions presented: Can o’ Man, a spray can that produces some handy muscle (and massage) when you need it, before the hunks dissolve after an hour into potpourri. Also present is Dr. Mung-Mung and Tongue-Tongue—a creature made entirely of tongue tissue, the better to taste the entire world. Wacky hijinks ensue in a game of mind-swapping musical chairs, with Arthur finally working up the nerve to kiss Carmelita for the first time—only to discover it’s the Tick still trapped in Carmelita’s body. (Jennifer Ouellette)