The Early Days of New England Comics Press #1: The Mystic Order of Arachnid Vigilance
The first in a 3-part series revisiting the NEC Press of the late 1980s and early 1990s, beginning with that big blue idiot of a flagship character, The Tick.
The animated series The Tick, which ran on the Fox network from 1994 to 1997, gleefully captured the irreverence of the original comicbook. The non-sequiters, the tight parody of already nearly self-parodic superheroes, and the extremely well-timed jokes could all also be found in the twelve issues of The Tick, begun in 1986 by a teenage Ben Edlund, who would write all twelve issues as well as doing the lion’s share of the artwork. But going back over those twelve issues now (all of which are now available from NEC in one handsome paperback edition as The Tick: The Complete Edlund), there is one key element to Edlund’s original series that seems to be missing from all other incarnations of the Tick, whether those be animated, live-action TV shows, or indeed comics by other creators. That element is boredom.
The Tick is an insane idiot, locked safely away in a mental health clinic. But he is bored. So he breaks out. That simple. What could be more exciting, what could be a greater antidote for fighting boredom than fighting crime? That is all the Tick is really after. And he goes after it with gusto, acquiring a disguise (consisting of only a “hypnotic” tie over his garish blue unitard) and an alter-ego by working at the local newspaper office (which is, of course, the day job of choice for the urban superhero on the go).
Edlund delightfully sends up these already entrenched archetypes with a hearty hint of punk-rock nose-thumbing lurking beneath the stark drawings. And not unlike with those punk-rock forebears, it is not difficult to see that this sense of satire comes from boredom: boredom with the same old same old. Edlund even goes after sound effects—his onomatopoeia are often literally transcribed. When The Tick grabs away the Red Scare’s weapons, the sound effects read “Take!” When the Red Scare tackles him and they fight to the ground, the SFX is “Tussle!” The campy “Biff! Bam! Pow!” of the ‘60s has by now gone from so bad they’re good back to so bad they’re bad again.
Obviously, these types of jokes are not going to translate effectively to the small screen. But Edlund’s run on The Tick at times also reached a more sublime form of satire, taking the aggressive silliness of grown men in tights beating on each other and causing property damage to ends that may have lacked the seriousness of works like Rick Veitch’s Maximortal, but were no less poignant because of that.
In the story, “A Big Fight”, the Tick is joyously beating a hedge made of ninja, when suddenly things take a turn for the serious. His ally, the female ninja Oedipus (an obvious parody of Frank Miller’s Elektra), is seriously wounded. The fun is not so fun now. The Tick, addled with guilt, takes to the rooftops, but even there cannot find the peace in being super that he knew only hours ago. In one of Edlund’s most ambitious pieces of art (beautifully complimented by the inks of Max Banks), the buildings of The City take on a hallucinatory quality, and the reader for the first time sees the Tick’s mania through his own eyes: it is not just all hypnotic ties and View-Masters when people are getting hurt.
Ben Edlund’s comic book output has pretty much ceased since The Tick was adapted for television, and Edlund has made quite a name for himself as a screenwriter. NEC continues to publish various Tick comics, which certainly hold their own. But it certainly seems that few will ever be able to capture the heart and lunacy of those early days of a young artist and his bored (but never boring) creation.