The Tick and His Wacky Peers

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.

25 Comments

  1. frasersherman

    I think what makes the Tick work is that like Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (which i doubt was an influence) the strip gets way loonier than necessary, in a good way. Like having the Tick turned into a two-headed bluebird who can only speak high school French. A parody just needs the Tick imprisoned—trapped—helpless!!!!!—but Edlund didn’t stop there.
    I didn’t care for the first episode, which seemed less funny than … well, what can you say about superheroes who get blinded and die because of a weaponized syphilis gas?

  2. Greg Burgas

    Have you let Joines know about this post? When I met him a few years ago and mentioned 7 Guys of Justice (I own, I think, 6 issues), he swore I was probably the only person who had ever heard of them. And now you’re extolling the series! It would make his day if you let him know.

  3. Pol Rua

    What differentiates The Tick from most superhero parodies is that Edlund never goes after the obvious joke. We don’t get cracks about ‘underpants on the outside’ or snide chuckles into the collar about what Batman and Robin REALLY get up to, nor do we get the tired old “what if superheroes were REAL?” humbug.
    What Edlund does is find existing elements which we’ve always known were there but maybe never noticed and, by tweaking them one way or another like he’s tuning a radio, suddenly reveals (and skewers) the stuff we always just accepted.
    Whether it’s taking the idea of Dick Tracy’s facially deformed rogue’s gallery and tweaking it just SO, so we end up with a gangster with a chair for a head, or taking the trope of the nonpowered vigilante using military ordinance to battle crime and giving us Hand-Grenade Man, whose only equipment is a stolen army surplus hand grenade and whose only power is being able to give people the impression that he just might use it…

    It’s this combination of perceptiveness and ingenuity which makes The Tick head and shoulders over anything still relying on jokes about how lame Aquaman is because he “talks to fish”.

  4. Eric van Schaik

    Hi Greg, you have extremely good taste :). I had all 13 issues of 7 Guys of Justice (yes they even reached Holland) but because of lack of space I had to get rid of them. IIRC it ended in the middle of a story arc but I’m not sure.

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    One other property to mention, for sheer fun, is Greg Highland’s Lethargic Lad. This was a wonderfully absurd bit of parody, with a hero who basically just stands there, while mathem surrounds him. It started out parodying the Burton batman movie, then latched on to the various 90s comic crazes.

    I discovered the Tick when I order some missed recent comics from New England Comics, and received a poster of the character, with my order. Not too long after, I saw the third issue (withe Oedipus, a parody of Elektra) in a comic shop. The character has always succeeded on many levels, from straight parody to absurdism, to clever illustration of a odd facet of something. It also has an enthusiasm that other parodies have missed, at times.

  6. Le Messor

    “that started out as a comic store mascot,”

    That part I did not know.

    My comic-collecting friend recently saw something about a reboot of Not Brand Echh, and had no idea what it was; he seemed to think it was a single story comic about one hero or something. (I was a little disappointed.)

    “but “Professor F” was Ford Fairmont,”
    Wow! Two posts went up today, and both mentioned that name!

    Is that one not-Elfquest-elf wearing Storm’s headdress?

    “Moray Earl is a police officer from undersea civilization, a fish cop”
    Any relation to The Fish Police?

        1. Yeah, I think that is what it’s supposed to be. He’s the dude in the tin hat coming towards the FF in the cover Jim posted above. I think he’s a running thread through the series. He’s been used on and off over the years, like in What The–?!, iirc, and he was also in the Captain America Who Won’t Wield the Shield, I think, as well as a recent Deadpool book that used a lot of the more humorous Marvel characters. He’s sort of a demented mascot type, I think.

          1. Edo Bosnar

            I seem to recall – and I’m too lazy right now to dig up my tpbs from a box or the back of a shelf somewhere – that Forbush Man also made an appearance in Nextwave, which I’m surprised has not yet been mentioned in this conversation (and man, there’s something I have to read again).

      1. frasersherman

        I think the Brian Cronin column that threw me most for a loop was when he showed “Brand Ecch” was a reference to Archie Comics’ super-hero line rather than DC. It made perfect sense, but I’d always assumed it was a DC/Marvel thing.

  7. Edo Bosnar

    Man, I missed out on so much of the stuff mentioned here, not just the Tick but also Megaton Man, normalman, Magnor, 7 Guys of Justice… crap.
    E-man, though, I’ve always loved, although for me the initial ten-issues published by Charlton have all the best stuff. I liked the Pasko stories well enough, but sometimes his satire came across as a little heavy-handed (and not funny).
    And I’ve always liked Ma Hunkel better than the android Red Tornado. It’s too bad nobody ever revived her.

      1. They didn’t use her as the Red Tornado, I don’t believe, but Ma Hunkel was a character in the … jeez, when was it? The run of Justice Society of America from (omg) probably about 10 years ago now, that had Alex Ross’s version of the continuation of Kingdom Come. I think she was related to the young redhead girl Cyclone somehow, but she also knew the JSA, and I think it was canon that she’d dressed up as RT.

        Also, in case you missed it, Edo, E-Man is coming back in the Charlton Arrow from AC Comics. Preview of Flippin’, issue 2 is offered in the current book that Burgas and I will soon look at. Issue 1 hasn’t come out yet, though.

        1. Edo Bosnar

          I would like a full-on revival of Ma Hunkel as Red Tornado, in at least a mini-series and not just the cameo appearances you guys have been mentioning.

          And yes, Travis, I’d heard about E-man’s return to Charlton in a manner of speaking. I’ve been buying the .pdf versions of those Charlton Arrow books. There’s some good stuff in there, but also some less good stuff. So basically, it’s really living up to the spirit of the original Charlton.

  8. As you might be able to tell, I love this kind of stuff SOOOO much. I have some of pretty much all of these books. I’ll have to go on a reviewing binge of some or all of them at some point, once they all get dug out of the piles. And dig out the Warburton live action version too.

    And I think you nailed it about Arthur’s role in making the Tick a higher class of parody.

    About the only one of these here I’ve still only heard about but not read any of is the Inferior Five. I wish they had reprinted that when Merryman was in Final Crisis.

    A few pedantic things:

    Unless you know something I’ve never heard, Superduperman was written and laid out by Harvey Kurtzman, no? I’ve come to realize in more recent years that certain creators didn’t get the credit they deserved at the time, so maybe it was more a Wood story than the credits show, but if not, yeah, Kurtzman too.

    And as the resident Cerebus fan here, I should say that people also pointed out the similarities of the Tick and the Roach (bug motifs and antennae, c’mon!), and the Roach definitely pre-dates the Tick.

    Also, slight correction, Marvel never actually sued Dave over the Wolveroach, they sent a cease and desist letter to him, and somewhere in there Jim Shooter, then EIC, got involved and suggested they not go full legal on him, just give him a talking-to. I’ve also heard mention of a dollar being paid for rights to use Wolveroach, but I don’t know how accurate that is. The main concern was Dave using Wolveroach on the cover 3 issues in a row, which admittedly is pushing the limits of fair use and parody.

    What’s also funny, but I’m not sure of the timeline, is that Cerebus was in Epic Illustrated somewhere around that same time, so had they gone the full legal route, they would have sued a guy they were buying work from.

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