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Ben Edlund Is Taking Amazon’s The Tick Seriously…But Not Too Much

by  in TV News Comment
Ben Edlund Is Taking Amazon’s The Tick Seriously…But Not Too Much

When its pilot episode debuted last month on Amazon Video, the latest incarnation of Ben Edlund’s “The Tick” may not have contained the character’s ubiquitous battlecry of “Spoon!” But otherwise the big blue superhero felt as madcap as ever.

That’s in large part because Edlund (who created the character as a black-and-white indie comic for NEC Comics in the early ’90s) has remained at the helm of the character’s adventures. Since shepherding Tick and his meek sidekick Arthur through a beloved Fox animated series and a short-lived live action network sitcom, the writer has made his bones scripting a wide variety of genre-flavored TV shows including a lengthy run on “Supernatural” and recent stints on “Gotham” and “Powers.”

But “The Tick” has always been Edlund’s most personal project, and with the Amazon pilot starring “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Peter Serafinowicz in the lead role, he’s hoping the now-streaming episode will expand into the boldest version of his creation yet. CBR spoke with Edlund about the show, how years in genre TV’s biggest writing rooms helped shape his vision for the series, what a comedy show like “The Tick” can offer in terms of superhero drama and what he has planned should he ever return to comics.

CBR News: Ben, the new “Tick” pilot is something of an outlier as it’s rare for creator-owned comics to get a second big media adaptation let alone a third one. And I know this particular project took a long time to come together and had many twists and turns along the way. What was it like for you to go through that process of bringing the character to TV over a decade since the last go round?

Ben Edlund: It was, I would say, some of the scarier work I’ve done recently. [Laughs] This is a very specific character for me. I have a lifelong relationship with this creature, and so to engage with another expression of it and take the chances of messing it up or what have you, it makes you feel like it’d be pretty nice to just let it sit there. This is something I take very seriously, and I didn’t want to do this if it didn’t have a new reason for being and if it wasn’t something that wasn’t its own new thing on top of being another respectful chapter in the existence of this blue creature.

So that put the stakes up pretty high for me. And working with Amazon, we kind of started in a place that was quite distant from where we ended up. There was a lot of growth over the drafts we did, and I had to take time to figure out how to engineer a superhero live-action comedy in a way that would not be immediately ephemeral. It had to be something you could care about. So it was a very daunting bit of work for me.

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Since the last “Tick” live-action series in 2001, you’ve had a very accomplished career as a TV writer on a number of network shows. Do you feel as though the years in between the two adaptations prepared you to do this show in some specific way?

I was very much the beneficiary of the 13 years I’ve spent working in live-action television. When I first did this, I had no experience other than some film school experience and cartoon experience. Now I’ve been doing this for a long time and working almost exclusively in this hybrid between drama and comedy. That started with “Firefly” and “Angel,” but with “Supernatural” and even “Gotham” and “Powers” – all of them incorporate elements of other things. That’s been a craft I’ve been drawing from and trying to learn about because I did actually feel like eventually it would be appropriate to look at Tick again and try to do something new with it.

And I didn’t know where that would be or when it would take shape. I didn’t even initiate the first ripple that led to this series. That was actually Patrick Warburton and Barry Josephson and others. It just kind of encompassed me, and it was time. It was ready to happen again. So when they came to me and asked if how I could conceive of it being doable in live-action, it took a long time to get my head around it.

Aside from your place as the creator coming back to his creation, the really interesting thing about the new Tick is that the superhero media landscape is vastly different than it was 15 years ago. For a long time, comics was the landscape where you could do anything and get deeper and weirder, while TV was much more restrictive. Now mass superhero media is bigger and weirder than it’s ever been. How has that changed your approach?

I think #1 right now is we’re at a point of superhero saturation. No one could have predicted how comprehensive it would be and how pervasive it would be. And so the level of education per capita [that the audience has] on the minutia of a superhero universe offers a lot more latitude in terms of joke material – because there’s just more to reference. That’s one part of it. The other part is that we’re the beneficiaries of technology. Big effects are a lot more achievable now, and so our vision is wider. That’s a great tool to have.

But I think the thing that’s most intriguing and interesting is that the whole complexion of television has changed. It’s gone from where we sort of anti-serialized stories and promoted the stand-alone ones to where things are completely engaged with the experience of serialization. People want that from these “binge vehicles.” What they want is a novel in televised form which is shaped and conceived as novels are. Those are not things that are free jazz improvisations as a general rule. They’re stories. It’s a demand that’s increasing with our appetite, and I’m happy about that because that’s the thing I want to do. I don’t want it to just be jokes. And nobody else wants that either, which is weird. The conventional wisdom of almost any other era of television was that we’d reduce things to just jokes. But this is a very different organism, and I’m intrigued by the experiment.

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Let’s talk about your cast for a minute. People were surprised when Peter Serafinowicz was announced as the Tick, but that’s got to be a high pressure situation for him because both Townsend Coleman and Patrick Warburton were iconic in the role in their own way. What can you say about Peter and what made him the right man for this version?

I’d say that one of the big things is that he’s just extraordinary both at comedy and as an actor. He has all the tools that you want for the part, but we also had other requirements. We needed a guy that was tall – just a big guy. We needed someone whose voice has power, and Peter’s voice has extraordinary power. And we needed someone who could get inside the lines and be inside the mind of this creature, and Peter does it. Each iteration of “The Tick” has put a slightly different lens on this critter, and I think we’ve been really fortunate to land three very different but also very deep reservoirs of comedic power. And there’s also a kind of soul to Townsend, Patrick and Peter. Each one plays things a little differently and has a feeling that extends through the character as it’s existed.

In Peter’s case, I feel like one thing that’s really wonderful is that he’s as dangerous as the Tick has ever been. That’s partly due to the intent of the story, but it also goes back to his comic book roots where you weren’t really sure about this guy. You knew he was full of love and he really wanted to do the right thing, but he seemed like he might be a little bit on the spectrum when it comes to being worried about other people who get in his way. [Laughs] And he might even really be a parasite. The first thing he does when he meets Arthur is move on in. And he never moves out. And he never pays rent. And he doesn’t care about Arthur’s stuff. So he’s either the best thing that ever happened or something else…or maybe both. That’s what we’re looking at in a very powerful way.

And of course Griffin Newman as Arthur is the flip side of that coin. This is not a traditional take on Arthur where he shows up in the moth suit ready to go. Were you hoping to make him the audience surrogate in a bigger way this time around?

Yes. I think it’s kind of shocking the degree we’re working to make you care about Arthur and his plight and his moods. It’s a hero’s story – particularly the idea that he’s not a fully-formed hero yet. We follow Arthur’s track.

We also get teased on some of the bigger pieces of this world: Superion as the established hero of this world played by Brendan Hines and classic comic foe the Terror played by Jackie Earle Haley. Amazon’s method of making a pilot and then waiting for a while before declaring pickups leaves you in a precarious place, but have you been planning how you’d continue to expand that superhero world should you get an order?

For sure. There’s a plan for the introduction of characters in to the universe. The continuity of this is going to be very real. I’ve been working largely in hour-long genre stuff for years where what happens really matters, and people want to get into storylines and characters to get a feeling of meaning. That’s something we’re trying to do in this show, which is along the lines of what we’ve done in our most radical experimentation. We’re really trying to make you care about stuff that should be ridiculous. [Laughs] I’m very intrigued to see how it’s received.

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And have you talked about bringing in other characters from the Tick’s past from the likes of Die Fledermaus/Batmanuel to Barry the other Tick into the series?

Some of them will definitely show up. Others will have to be translated again. Each version kind of comes with its own translation rules. I want to use as much of the comic book and classic Tick characters as I can, but the first step is setting up the world and then one-by-one introducing these guys. It’s better than overwhelming everything all at once. I think we’re going to build a story that will keep growing in terms of crazy messed up characters – the kinds of creatures that only this show can do. I think we’re the one show that can really have fun with the genre without being worried that we look dumb. We did that all in the pilot already. There was a shark somewhere before the pilot was even made, and we jumped over it and landed in our show. [Laughs] So I think that’s why we have a decided advantage over every other purveyor of this particular genre. They’re stuck in shackles in a way, because capes and boots can look pretty dumb.

To wrap from the comics perspective, I’ve got to ask when was the last time you can recall sitting down to draw even a line of the long-awaited “Tick” #13?

[Laughs] The last time I think I tried to figure out what it might be was within the last five years. I drew a number of notes. It wasn’t anything like a finished page, but the story I started to work on was something probably everyone would be upset by. It was a little bit like the Frank Miller “Dark Knight Returns” where you’re in an alternate future. It was very weird! So it might be good to let me think on that a little longer. It’ll only take 30 years. [Laughs]

The new “Tick” pilot is streaming now on the Amazon Video service.

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