A brawny superhero with the emotional depth and spatial awareness of a puppy, the Tick (Peter Serafinowicz) is a rare hero without an origin story—at least none that he’s aware of. His quest is specific, but his motivations are as generic as the nomenclature in the show’s setting, where the amnesic vigilante cheerfully bashes his way through “the City” in pursuit of a villain known as the Terror (Jackie Earle Haley). The Tick must stop the Terror simply because he’s the villain, and not because he has to purge himself of any demons. The Tick’s altruism is entirely unspecific, a reflection of the essential uniformity of most superheroes when stripped of the manifestations of origin trauma. His defining personality trait is a kind of earnest blankness, and his constant amazement with new surroundings is a repeated source of humor.
The aimless Tick finds direction when he meets a timid accountant named Arthur (Griffin Newman), who as a child saw his father killed by debris as the Terror fought a group of heroes known as the Flag Five. When he convinces the Tick to hunt the Terror, Arthur assumes the role of reluctant companion, acting as a conscience and guide for our otherwise hapless hero. With no apparent powers and no courage, Arthur has little to offer the Tick except a fitting cause: Arthur’s traumatic origin is more typical of superheroes than average clerks, and becomes the narrative’s driving force.
The diminutive Arthur staunchly resists his serendipitous entry into the superhero realm, a position that upends the inherent wish fulfillment of zero-to-hero comic stories. He’s fixated with the Terror but sure of his inability to help deliver justice. He wishes only to return to his cubicle and be left alone, and in urgent appeals to the Tick, returns to a seemingly obvious argument: Why should a little person like him take action when superheroes exist?
The Tick’s reasons for enlisting Arthur have little to do with strategy. He preaches trust in a force he lovingly calls Lady Destiny, and launches into bombastic monologues filled with non sequiturs, urging Arthur to surrender to a heroic fate. Despite Arthur’s passionate rejoinders, the Tick’s seemingly groundless commitment to destiny is vindicated repeatedly as the two characters, always squabbling over Arthur’s role, stumble closer to the Terror.
The Tick gleefully satirizes superhero excess but also threatens to alienate its target audience.
Lady Destiny, like the Terror or the City, is a generic element in a story that hints at the arbitrary specificity of the personalities, settings, and motivations of superheroes by featuring almost no specificity itself. The Tick’s superpower, the strength of—to use his own words—“a crowded bus stop of men,” is basic, utilitarian, and unrelated to any particular character trait. He has none of the idiosyncrasies or peculiar experiences that obscure the simplistic moralism of comic-book figures, and his insistent reliance on Arthur for motivation and begrudging guidance suggests that superheroes, with all their prodigious abilities, are exactly as valuable as those they’re sworn to protect.
The Tick is a superhero who gleefully revels in his own existence, without the martyr complex and unbearable gravitas that have become hallmarks of the superhero genre. In other respects, the series commits to genre tropes. The Tick dryly dismisses Arthur’s reluctance as “Stage Three: the hero rejects the call,” a knowing wink at convention that breathes some levity into the drawn-out process of Arthur’s development. When he sets off to find the aptly named Overkill (Scott Speiser), a caricature of bloodthirsty vigilantes like Dead Shot and the Punisher, the Tick muses, “I’m off to hunt a villain…or an antihero, I’ll know more when I find him.” These are low-hanging observations in a series that explicitly spoofs comic-book tropes, and The Tick diverges fully from genre when focusing on Arthur, an everyman.
The death of Arthur’s father mirrors the wanton destruction that punctuates most Hollywood comic-book adaptations. Unlike those adaptations, The Tick, which is based on the Ben Edlund comic that’s a self-conscious spoof of the superhero genre, argues for the power of the seemingly powerless: When Arthur eventually agrees to participate alongside the Tick, he arrives at the conclusion that civilians aren’t destined to die as collateral damage, or look on as powerless bystanders. By asserting himself fully in the search for the Terror, Arthur installs a dialogue between the protectors and the protected, reclaiming some power from heroes and villains.
The symbiotic relationship between Arthur and the Tick does more than merely subvert convention. Arthur’s distinct humanity acts as a buoy when The Tick’s cynicism becomes off-putting, and his story lends the gravity necessary to bring balance to the show’s ironic silliness. As it incessantly mocks the excesses of the superhero genre, The Tick threatens to alienate its target audience by incidentally suggesting the show’s own insignificance: If superhero fare is always frivolous, why are we watching?