Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Tick #1

This review originally ran as the 'Dig the Long Box,' a column on the now defunct 

New England Comics (NEC) in Brockton, Massachusetts was where I went after weeks of mowing lawns or stacking wood. Today, I think of it as a kind of nostalgic 'doper's dream,' the LCS as cathedral; phalanxes of long boxes lined up like a secretarial pool in a 1930's screwball comedy, comics covering the walls in clear Mylar sleeves that intensify gaudy covers, and (in my mind) acres of space  to wander (wonder?). NEC was where I was first struck by the lightning bolt of The Dark Knight Returns, learned what the word 'covet' really meant after seeing The Incredible Hulk #181, where I first encountered the earth-pig (Cerebus), made the acquaintance of Daredevil and when I first saw The Tick.

The Turtles hit at the apogee of my adolescent comic book collecting. My world was black and white and everything was anthropomorphic, skilled in some Martial art and a parody of a parody of a parody. No, I do not own copies of Geriatric Gangrene Jujitsu Gerbils or Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, yes, I did buy a lot of issues of Boris the Bear, one issue of something called Buce N Gar, and I even own a couple of the worthless issues of Albedo Anthropomorphics. Oh, sure, I did my required reading for Marvel and DC, but if it was black and white and put out by some fly-by-night independent publisher nobody had ever heard of, before (or since), I had to have it.

Original 'The Tick' strip
Creator-owned wasn't (really) a thing back then. In the mid-1980's, the black and white independent revolution in comics was just getting started. It was still more-or-less of a camp and not the Wild West boom town it would become. Eastman and Laird had staked their claim and the sharpers and innocents alike were quick to fill the speculators demand which meant both promise and a lot of lousy comics. When NEC published their own comic book, The Tick, from a strip that had run in their newsletter, it was a definite must have. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (New Hampshire, sadly) the Tick was local, the creation of a fellow member of the Commonwealth, Ben Edlund, so, I bought it.

Sidebar: Like so many other comics from that time in my life, I own this #1 and that's it. I didn't know The Tick lives on until, my friend (and inveterate hoarder), Aaron Meyers, vehemently chastised me in a tweet. [Shortly after this review posted I sent my The Tick #1 to Mr. Meyers and the home he runs for comics, it's a safe space where I know The Tick #1 will be well cared for and happy] Apparently, there's money in these creator-owned comics, well, the 'good 'uns,' anyway, sucks to be you, Fish Police. I never saw the live-action The Tick TV show with 'the face painter.' I knew there was a cartoon (1994), I guess (?), but by then, as James Robinson says in Starman, 'I'd moved on to wine and women.' NEC continues to publish The Tick on occasion, so, good on them and good on Edlund. The various, sundry and (I hope) profitable permutations of Edlund's creation are all beyond my ken, so, let's stick to 1988 when all there was was a black and white comic book about a wannabe superhero who wore a View-Master around his neck.     

The Tick #1 feels different from all those other black and white critter books of the 1980's, see, it's (a bit) oversized. If a cheap, easy (and somewhat subtle) joke like that bends back your antenna, The Tick is your jam and Bob's your uncle -- the unnecessary reference to British slang here is not important to understanding The Tick; however, it does add to the absurdist nature of this comic. The Tick triumphs as comic and concept because Edlund understands parody and comedy are at their funniest when the characters take themselves seriously, the seriouser-er, the funnier-er. So acute (and so serious) is Tick, his story begins in a mental institution. Yes, superheroes stand-in as our modern myths, blah-blah-blah, and yet, Nano-suit or not, a guy in a cape would not fly outside a green screen or the pages of a comic book; and that, of course, is part of the fun. The Tick is in itself a parody of a parody (TMNT and its clones), but Edlund knows being self-referential is only (really) funny when one is self-aware as well.   

Other than from the force of his own internal monologue, issue #1 offers no explanation of how the Tick goes from being a padded room, where he feels restrained and bored, and a page turn later is leaping from rooftop to rooftop. As the saying goes, 'nuff said. Tick and The Tick moves fast. By page three, Tick admits he once thought his destiny was to ''become emperor of Greenland'' and then to ''build a Polynesian longship in my garage,'' and now he decides destiny has tapped him to be ''this city's superhero.'' And so it goes.

When The Tick takes its bow, Edlund is in college, not even old enough to drink (legally), but he was already seriously soused on comics. The opening panels of issue #1 show an artist who has heroic poses down pat and a writer with every heroic trope under his fingernails. It is safe to say, Edlund read a lot of Daredevil and paid close attention to ol' hornhead's penchant for bouncing off of conveniently-placed flagpoles. Edlund runs a flagpole gag a full seven pages, the sound, ''wub wub wub'' acts as ambient noise while a cigar-chomping vagrant takes the Tick down a peg or ten.

The deepest cut happens when the man asks the Tick: ''Didn't you escape from an insane asylum a coupla weeks back?'' The Tick thinks: ''My mind reels and spins at the speed of light as I search for the perfect response … the perfect alibi for the past two weeks.'' After an ''ah,'' ''eh'' and a few other mono-syllabic noises, the Tick answers: ''No,'' another clue Edlund gets it. Comic books are time-less. There's no clock and no calendar when it comes to sequential art, so try to keep up. 

The Tick is nigh-invulnerable which means he is not invulnerable. So should he fall off a roof and then through a concrete sidewalk or get hit by an on-coming subway train, he'll survive, but he's going to feel it. Like Quixote, the greatest danger to the Tick is the Tick as he shows when he is easily defeated by a common drinking straw and his own ego. Tick sidekick, Arthur, is nigh-noticeable in this issue. He doesn't interact with the titular Tick, but he can be seen flying around in the background while Tick dispatches with some nigh-Frank-Miller-looking-ninjas.  Arthur's nigh-appearance means Edlund has plans for Tick, more adventures and more chances to hole up at Hopper's after a long night of fighting crime or almost.

Ticks are common where I grew up in Massachusetts. They live in wood piles and hide in tall grass. I like to think Edlund knew about the nigh-invulnerableness of ticks when he came up with the character and I marvel at fervid and fecund imagination that filled in the rest of the details. The Tick is no superhero and he is certainly not a roach. What Tick is is a good idea for superhero. He's makes comics comic -- an anodyne to the super serious superheroes, a hero for every and all ages. Not the superhero you need, but the superhero you want.      

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