The Tick, a reboot of the live-action TV series that was a reboot of the animated series that was adapted from the comic book that started out as a comic store mascot, has finally arrived on Amazon’s original programming channel, so I thought I’d take a moment to look at some of the other superhero comedy-parody-satire offerings that may have influenced, or been influenced by, what is obviously the most successful entry into the genre.
The first comedic superhero, at least as far as I know, is most likely The Red Tornado, a character that started off in Sheldon Mayer’s humor feature “Scribbly” in All-American Comics, first appearing in her civilian identity in 1939. The Red Tornado was secretly Ma Hunkel, a working mom who ran a store. When mobsters tried to shake her down for protection money and then kidnapped her daughter and a friend, Ma Hunkel disguised herself in longjohns, made a mask from a stew pot, and took the law into her own hands. Her adventures usually involved her defeating her foes through a combination of strength and clumsiness.
There were several parodic and comedic characters during the “Golden Age” of comics (1938-1956), for example, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man was noted for its wacky stylings, but given creator Ben Edlund’s age at the time, it’s unlikely he was influenced or even knew of many of them.
If you’re looking for the major influence on not only the Tick, but also many of his competitors, you’re looking for Wally Wood’s brilliant parody, Superduperman in Mad #4, 1953. It’s all there- the strong-but-dumb character, the grotesquely exaggerated anatomy, the throwaway gags, winking satire of the tropes of the genre, barely-disguised parody versions of other superheroes. Wood pretty much invented the archetype of this field, and all the superhero satires that appeared in the three decades to follow were clearly following his lead.
The two most popular such titles were the ones the Big Two published to poke fun at themselves and their competition: the Inferior Five (DC) and Not Brand Echh! (Marvel). Both of these comics closely followed the Wally Wood example in their character design and style of humor.
Some cartoonists of my acquaintance have been heard to be somewhat dismissive of Ben Edlund and his character, arguing that the Tick is nothing but a blatant ripoff of Don Simpson’s Megaton Man. To me, this seems a bit like the fans who argue that the X-Men is a ripoff of Doom Patrol (or vice-versa), even though they appeared at about the same time. There is a thing called parallel creation, where two or more people develop similar ideas more or less simultaneously, like the many people around the world who all began working on inventing the automobile all at the same time. Sometimes ideas want to be had. Usually what happens is that a lot of people are influenced by the same things and respond in similar ways.Simpson has stated that he was influenced by Marvel’s Not Brand Echh, and it’s likely that Englund and other contemporaries were as well.
When Nic Cuti and Joe Staton’s E-Man appeared in the ’70s, the series was a somewhat light-hearted action-adventure comic with occasional bursts of comedy. First Comics revived the series in the ’80s, but this version, primarily scripted by Marty Pasko, featured parodic riffs on other characters and comics that also served as satirical commentary on both pop culture and the comics industry. For example, when E-Man was confronted by “Professor F and his Unhappy F-Men,” the characters were typical “Not Brand Ecch” riffs on the X-Men, but “Professor F” was Ford Fairmont, a somewhat brutal skewering of X-Men writer Chris Claremont, portrayed as pretentious and overly verbose, prone to exhausting monologues. John Byrne appears as the villainous “Company Man,” a dig at some of Byrne’s comments regarding independent comics publishers and creators’ rights, which were hot topics at the time. Another arc of the series skewered “Elrod Flummox, AKA the Psychobabbler,” a satire of Scientology and its founder. The series, while lacking a big & dumb hero, was playing in the same sandbox as the Tick.
About the same time, Jim Valentino came up with normalman, a hero so ordinary his name doesn’t even rate a capital letter. He’s a guy rocketed away from his home planet as an infant, who arrives on the planet Levram (work for it), where everyone has powers but him. Among the throng of characters on Levram, you’ll find Captain Everything, who is very much like Superduperman and his many imitators. Essentially, he’s Superman in Mighty Mouse’s color scheme, with the power to negate the laws of physics and possess any new power the plot demands, limited only by his staggering stupidity. Every issue of normalman was a satire of a different comics company, genre, or style, from Harvey to EC. As an indicator of how much normalman and E-Man were stepping on each other’s toes, both series came up with a satire mashing up the Smurfs with Elfquest in the same month (August 1984); E-Man’s creators were able to at least change the name of their little green elf story from “Smelf Quest” to “Smelt Quest”, so it wasn’t exactly the same.
Another possible influence on Edlund may be Dave Sim’s recurring character The Cockroach. At various times appearing as a parody of Captain America, Moon Knight, Wolverine, and other frequent targets, the Cockroach was Sim’s way of poking at pretty much every subgenre of superhero comics. At one point Marvel sued him for his Wolveroach phase.
Within a few years, other similar satirical characters emerged. Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier offered up Mighty Magnor, a hero who falls a lot closer to Megaton Man than it does the Tick, but it’s very much its own thing.
In 2000, Brian Joines (Imagine Agents, Krampus, Secret Identities, Bill & Ted Go to Hell) entered the comics field with 7 Guys of Justice, a small-press comic about a mostly-inept superhero team that has some rollicking adventures. The team’s Lord Talon is very much in the Tick mold: big, dumb, and unintentionally destructive. Lord Talon is sort of a mashup of Batman and Hawkman- bored millionaire who fights crime, this time using a bird-themed costume with wings. Partnered with six of the oddest heroes ever, this made for a laugh-out-loud comic that really deserves another shot (with a better artist; sad to say, Joshua Rowe’s work is not ready for prime time here.) A brief run-down of the cast: Ugly Monkey is a genius who accidentally transposed his intellect with that of a lesser primate; Moray Earl is a police officer from undersea civilization, a fish cop. Nightie Knight is a super-strong Kansas farmgirl who came to the big city to be a hero, but naively fell into the clutches of a sleazy promoter who marketed her as a sexy superheroine dressed in lingerie. The Surprise is an actor who was hired to be the spokescharacter for a line of pastries; he appeared as a hero in commercials, defeating villains by throwing creme-filled goodies to them, until the day he accidentally interfered in a real robbery and decided to be a hero for real. Johnny Explode is the pre-teen son of a retired superhero, who took up his father’s grenades to become a bomb-throwing hero for a new generation. Hunter-Gatherer is equal parts Green Arrow and Betty Crocker; wearing a hooded leather outfit, a frilly apron, and oven mitts, this hero of indeterminate gender serves as the team’s weapons-master and tracker. Other heroes who pass through include Dung Beetle & the Human Poop, Dr. Pie (he can teleport from pie to pie), and Gail Simone’s drunken Mr. Happy Jetpack. Of the cast, Lord Talon is the least interesting and most aligned with the trope of the big strong lunkhead.
A major influence on the entire concept of superhero parody, possibly only second to Superduperman, the big superhero touchstone of the ’70s, was not a comic, cartoon or TV show at all; it was the obscure-to-the-mainstream-but-beloved-by-comics-fans novel, SuperFolks. Robert Mayer’s absurdly comic-yet-melancholy story of a retired superhero dragged back into action has been credited as an inspiration for many landmark post-Silver-Age comics, especially the work of Alan Moore, though he cites Superduperman as being more influential. There are definite resonances in Watchmen, Miracleman, and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, as well as in work by Kurt Busiek, Grant Morrison and others.
Without these two tentpoles, Superduperman and Superfolks, it’s doubtful that any of the characters listed here would exist as they are. These two works invented the vocabulary for superhero satire.
But what made The Tick catch on and last, where so many other similar concepts couldn’t get a toe-hold?
Sometimes these things come down to luck, timing, some element that’s more appealing in one than another, or even just distribution or price. In this case, I think the biggest factor may well be the character of Arthur. He’s unique in all these comedic treatments. The relationship between normalman and Captain Everything bears a slight resemblance to the Tick/Arthur dynamic, though their status is reversed, but none of the other parody books have what Arthur brings.
Arthur is simultaneously a gateway character, an aspirational figure and a cautionary tale. As an ordinary human new to the superhero scene, we see the world through his eyes, and he’s just as surprised by it as we are. We can put ourselves in his shoes and get a sense of how cool it would be to be a superhero flying (awkwardly) over The City and performing acts of heroism, which is part of the stock-in-trade of any good sidekick. But Arthur also drags us back to reality; if it came to it, most of us would have the same battle cry he uses: “Not in the face! Not in the face!” Arthur reminds us that there are consequences to the superhero game; when Awkwardman or the Inedible Bulk knock down buildings and trample on cars, it’s amusing, but ultimately as inconsequential as an kaiju movie. But when one of the people likely to be spattered on the pavement is our exasperated friend Arthur, suddenly the story has some weight to it. Arthur keeps the parody, satire and absurdity grounded in something resembling reality, and it makes all the difference. Especially as played by Griffin Newman in the new Amazon series. His Arthur is a guy desperately trying to reassure himself that he’s still sane, while all the heroes and villains keep amping up the crazy. When Tick says, “you’re not crazy; you’re going sane in a crazy world,” we believe him.
I’m sure somebody here will write a full review of the new series. If they don’t, I guess maybe I’ll get to it. The short version is, it’s a different look at the premise, but it works, and it follows nicely in the tradition of balancing ridiculousness with serious emotion.