While many comic fans may still best know him from the ’90s animated series that popularized the word “SPOOOOON!” with a generation of geeky kids, Ben Edlund’s absurdist superhero The Tick has been going strong in the comics for decades.
This summer, the big blue guy celebrated 100 issues from publisher New England Comics with a crossover special featuring Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, but as writer Benito Cereno promised, the action won’t stop now that the Image hero has gone home. This September, “The Tick” #101 by Cereno and artist Les McClaine welcomes Mike Allred’s zany existential superhero Frank “Madman” Einstein to the action along with his allies Dr. Flem and the Atomics in a story that continues to investigate the death of Tick’s sidekick Arthur.
The writer spoke with CBR News about his run with the Tick and the wild heroes of The City dating back to his and McClaine’s relaunch the comic as “The Tick New Series” on through the current run of double-sized crossovers, and as Cereno tells it, twists from sidekick deaths to Martian Manhunter Looney Tunes to the challenge of bringing in the flavor of continued guest stars while working in the more serious elements of Edlund’s original 12-issue series.
CBR News: Benito, you’ve been working on the Tick for a while now -Â across eight issues of the “New Series” and now with #100 and on the rebranded “Tick” ongoing. This character has always had the trappings of a superhero parody in his core, though the series has veered into non sequitor humor and other bizarre flights of action fancy. Has part of your goal with the book been to coalesce a lot of the kind of “universe building” ideas that serve as a more direct commentary on modern superhero comics?
Benito Cereno: Yeah. I don’t know if I necessarily thought of it that way, but to me there was so much history to the character. Obviously, we just did our big issue #100, so there’s 100 issues of material out there. I feel like it wouldn’t be cool to focus on one aspect or one area of the book. I tried to take what I thought would be something cool from everyone who’s contributed and put my own stamp and flavor on it. And I’ve contributed my own characters to the world as part of that.
There were a few mysteries running through the book from your start – mostly involving arch nemesis Chairface, the wonderfully named villain Scarf Ace and the mystery villain who was revealed finally in #100. Was that story with “Martin of Mars” always the end game for this storyline, or have you made it up more as you went along?
It’s kind of somewhere in between those two things. In some ways, we did go issue-by-issue, which sounds not great. But at the level we’re publishing at, you never know what issue might be your last issue. Sales may not be able to sustain the book, and so it’s hard to pitch a 12-issue story arc if you don’t know that you can conceivably sustain 12 issues of story. So while we did have some plots tying things together -Â Chairface and the mystery villain and all that stuff -Â the stories ended up being self-contained issue-by-issue so no one would have to pick up a comic and be left hanging if that ended up being the final one.
But with issue #100, that was an idea they had in Editorial. They thought it would be fun to start doing some crossovers because we’ve never really done those with the Tick, and they asked me who I knew that we could crossover with. [Laughs] At the time, I was working in a studio with Kirkman, and I was able to go upstairs to his desk and say, “Let’s do an Invincible crossover” and he said okay. It wasn’t until quite a while after we started working on the crossover that someone at NEC realized that the issue was basically around #100. If you read that issue, they explain in the back how they arrived at that number, but the change in numbering came after the crossover idea.
Did that change at all your plans for revealing the “Marvin-Meets-Martian Manhunter” riff “Martin of Mars”?
You know, I wasn’t sure. That was one of my ideas for the mystery villain. At the time we were doing issue #1 of the “New Series,” everything was new to me and Les. We were still getting used to working on this particular book, and we weren’t sure where we were going. We knew we wanted to have a subplot with a mystery villain who had an approach different from the traditional villains like Chairface and Professor Chrome Dome. But he was deliberately a silhouette because I needed options open. Martin of Mars came to me relatively early on. I was always planning on making the villain someone from another planet. I had a whole possibility worked out that it was someone from the moon, but that didn’t happen. [Laughs] Martin ended up being the best idea of all the possibilities.
You’ve had a few direct parodies in the book like Galactus stand-ins and now Martin alongside more classic Tick craziness like Scarf Ace. What draws you in to the idea of poking the bear that is the Big Two superhero comics?
I think obviously, even if you read the stuff with the commentary, it comes across that I’m the kind of person who has lived my life loving that mainstream superhero stuff. I grew up with that, and I still read it today. But as with any situation where you’re really familiar with something – even your family and close friends are people you can poke fun at because you’re familiar with their foibles. But you do it out of love.
And certainly, I do what I think will be funny. [Laughs] Whether that means I’ll have to parody something more directly or whether that means I go more broad, you just have to do what you think makes the best joke.
#101 is the next extra-sized crossover issue. With #100, you used Invincible because, like you said, you’re pals with Kirkman. How did you get hooked up with Mike Allred’s Madman for this new story, and did anything change about your approach?
I don’t know how much of a difference there was. It was faster because Robert wanted to approve everything, and he’s a busy guy these days. [Laughs] Honestly, I’ve not even talked to Mike Allred yet, but he lives in Portland like Les does, so they bump into each other now and then. I know they’ve had contact even though I’ve never personally talked to Mike. I did, however, read the entire “Madman” series three times while preparing for this story. I wanted to make sure I got everything right – the voices and the tone. So I did have time to prepare. I knew it was coming after the Invincible crossover, and while we were waiting to get that issue put together, I had more time to prepare for Madman. As far as I know, everything went through smoothly. There were no requests for changes, and Mike Allred was a really good sport about it. He said some nice things about the book on Twitter, so that’s been really good.
Arthur died at the end of the last issue, and the “Golden Age Arthur” zapped in to pick up the story baton. Where do we go from there? Is the giant, reality-warping gun that brought Invincible over still in play, or will each crossover do this from a different angle?
I don’t want that gun to be used every time. In #101 it’s slightly different in that it’s not the actual gun that brings Madman over but the residual effect of Orson – the Golden Age Arthur – having been shot multiple times with that gun by the Terror. His wind-up suit has gathered the residual energy that’s allowed him to travel from dimension to dimension and reality to reality. That’s what ends up bringing Frank Einstein and Dr. Flem into the Tick’s reality. And we are continuing with both team-ups and this story line. #102, which we’re still working on right now, will hopefully bring a different angle to it so we’re not using the Terror’s gun over and over again.
One of the stand outs from #100 is that you got to do an “Invincible”-style double page splash full of punching and (not quite) blood splatters. After reading all those “Madman” issues, was there a specific trope or idea from that series that you wanted to carry into this comic?
Yeah. With the crossovers, I’ve tried to not only bring the characters in to the story but also bring the flavor of their book into the story. With Invincible, the big blood-splatter spread was a thing where we’d never done a two-page spread prior to this, and we id two of them in issue #100 because of the huge widescreen action that they do in “Invincible.” I wanted to bring that over along with the more serious aspects of that series like death, which is not normally part of the Tick’s story but it’s very common in “Invincible.”
For issue #101, I tried to bring in a little more “Madman” flavor in that there are more philosophical inner monologues in the “Madman” stuff where Frank is frequently jumping around and punching a beatnik, but in his head he’s musing on the nature of life and death. So there’s some spoofing of that in the book and some more psychedelic elements like you might see in a “Madman” comic that come with Frank’s influence on the Tick. So #100 was my bloody and violent story while #101 is going to be the more philosophical, introspective story.
And the through line there is the death of Arthur followed by the mission to bring him back. That’s a common superhero trope. Were you looking for your own Tick-like way to “cover that song” so to speak?
Kind of. The death of Arthur was actually one of the first ideas I pitched to NEC. There were a lot of storylines and ideas that we went through before we decided on the direction that the “New Series” started with. One of my earliest ideas was “Death of Arthur” kind of because I was thinking, “What would be the worst thing we could do? What’s the exact opposite of what’s appropriate for this book?” And the answer was a major character death. [Laughs] From there, we ended up taking a slightly more serious approach to it than my original sardonic idea about it.
At the time, I certainly had more ire towards mainstream comics and they way that they dealt with character death when it was very rampant. This was when major events like “Civil War” and “Infinite Crisis” saw any character that was not clearly A-list was killed off. My original idea arose from that, but we’ve toned it down and made it more serious because it’s not quite as common now as it even was three or four years ago. Back then, if there was a major event then a character who was created in the ’90s and had his own book for eight issues was dead because “We need to kill someone for drama.” Here we took a more timeless approach. It’s slightly serious, the death, but at the same time we knew we weren’t fooling anybody. That’s why on the last page, we have an alternate version of Arthur show up and say, “I’m here to help you bring him back.” Nobody is fooled at this point that death is permanent in superhero comics at all. We spoof those tropes a lot in issue #101. There’s a lot in there spoofing resurrection tropes in superhero comics.
So the storyline changed motivations from my initial angry version, which turned into a more serious, emotional story for the Tick.
But that moment the Tick had with Invincible after Arthur is dead and the villain is defeated reminded me a lot of the original Ben Edlund Tick story where he takes the teenage ninja Oedipus to the ambulances, which was sobering. I think maybe that aspect of the book has been lost over the years. Have you spoken much with Ed about your take on the character?
Not really. I met him one time at San Diego the summer before the first issue of the “New Series” had come out. I’m not even sure if we had the final version of the first script done. I definitely didn’t know the full direction the book would take, and I only had a few minutes to hang out with him at the booth while he was signing autographs. I don’t really have any idea whether he’s seeing what Les and I have been doing with the book.
But his initial run on the book is quite a bit darker in many ways. There are more hints there of serious things – especially a darker approach to questions of the Tick’s sanity. Once you had a cartoon and Happy Meal figures for the character, the darker elements are going to get toned down. We try to keep the book all ages appropriate even if some of the humor…well, I like to think my humor is more sophisticated than a Saturday morning cartoon. [Laughter] But I can write things in a way that a kid might not get. Nevertheless, I try and keep it where there’s nothing inappropriate for kids in the language. Even in the initial issues from the original Edlund run where there were swears and “naked” people running through, we don’t use that kind of stuff. The cartoon has made it a more toned-down thing.
But I feel that this story line we’re doing now has brought back some of that more serious feel to the book. I don’t want to say it’s “darker” because not ever comic book needs to be dark. We’re not trying to be dark, but we certainly have an approach where it’s not all absurdist humor all the time. There’s more of an emotional character hook.
Moving forward, I assume you’ll continue crossovers past #101. Any word on who’s next?
Yes. All this stuff is decided internally at NEC, so I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think they’re happy that we’re doing these oversized issues, and the crossovers are going well. The Arthur story line is going to more or less wrap up or approach a resolution in #102, but I think the plan is to continue crossovers for as long as possible. The problem with crossovers is that you have to talk to people’s lawyers, and that makes things slower. That’s one of the reason the books have not come out as frequently. Things have to be approved. But we’ll continue with the oversized issues for this “hundred series” if you want to call it that. #101 will have the conclusion of the publication history of the Tick that was started in #100, and in #102’s crossover – with a character I’m not going to say yet – will be double-sized with two full-length stories rather than an illustrated text piece.