Greetings, Topless Roboteers! Grok my mouth music as I sing you the praise of the animated extravaganza called The Tick. Beginning its life as a practically underground parody of superhero comics, The Tick somehow became a cartoon on Fox from 1994-1996 to the delight of nerds and the bafflement of small children (and Fox executives). Creator Ben Edlund was somehow allowed to stay in charge of the animated adaptation of The Tick, and while some of the comic’s darker elements were toned down, the show was still as delightfully insane as its title character.
Many fans lament that The Tick was cut down in its prime, but instead of moping over what could have been, I say let us rejoice in thanksgiving for what we got. Who ever expected that a satirical underground comic would spawn a Saturday morning cartoon that ran for three seasons without becoming totally watered down or changing its initials to TMNT? Truly, it was a programming error in our favor! The quality of the show was so consistent that whittling it down to the top 10 episodes is a feat unto itself. Every episode contains at least one sequence that permanently etches itself into the humor-loving part of your brain. It doesn’t even have enough truly awful episodes to fill a “Worst of …” list. So grab your pet capybara and throw on you “I Dig Dinosaur Neil” t-shirt as we venture onward through the ten episodes of The Tick nobody can afford to live without having witnessed. ! For what is life but an exercise in the fundamental importance of existential literacy? SPOON!
10) Leonardo Da Vinci and His Fightin’ Genius Time Commandoes!
Like many struggling creators, The Mother of Invention (who happens to be a dude) is frustrated that all the good inventions have already been made. So he takes the only sensible course of action, and builds a time machine hat, kidnaps some of history’s greatest inventors, and plans to blow up the past so he can take credit for their famous devices (inventing a time hat & a temporal anomaly tracker just isn’t enough for some people.) Alas, the Mother doesn’t quite realize the paradoxes this course of action would create, but luckily the Tick came here to carelessly destroy municipal property and thwart paradoxes, and he’s all out of municipal property. Watching Leonardo Da Vinci, Johann Gutenberg, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Wheel (did you know wheels were invented by a cavelady?), Ben Franklin, & Mona Lisa pool their ingenuity to escape and vanquish their captors is a sublime pleasure.
9) Armless But Not Harmless
C-list foes Venus & Milo zap the Tick and Arthur with an experimental ray gun that makes their arms fall off. Our heroes react about the way you’d expect — the Tick is baffled and perturbed; Arthur runs around screaming. It’s priceless, as is their attempt to call American Maid for help on a pay phone. Meanwhile, the evildoers affix the duo’s arms to some crude androids and send them on a crime spree, which makes them eligible for the prestigious Enemy Awards of Supervillainy. Even though the robots don’t look a thing like them, everyone is fooled, and our heroes find themselves hunted by the very law they uphold, and the only person who can end this nightmare of topsy-turvydom is … Plunger Man! Having the protagonists fight their own wayward disembodied arms is a pretty wacky spin on the old “heroes mistaken for villains” plot.
8) The Tick Vs. Chairface Chippendale
Every superhero needs an arch-nemesis, and the Tick’s is definitely Chairface Chippendale. He’s the antithesis of our hero: devious, suave, wealthy, vain, frail, immoral, and, most importantly, he has a chair for a head. When he throws himself a birthday party attended by criminals so ugly even Dick Tracy would gag at the sight of them, American Maid (The City’s most professional and competent crimefighter) plans to take them down in one fell swoop by going undercover as caterers with the Tick and Arthur in tow. the heroes are shocked to learn Chairface’s plan — to write his name on the Moon with a stolen heat cannon as the ultimate act of cosmic vandalism (and his birthday present). He would’ve gotten away with it to if it weren’t for those meddling heroes! Well, actually, Chairface does manage to write “CHA” on the moon before the Tick stops him, which is consistently shown in every single following episode of the cartoon, a joke which never, ever gets old.
7) The Tick Vs. Europe
Most American superhero fantasies are nationalistic in that the U.S. hogs all the cool superhumans. This show subverts that with an International Superhero Exchange Program that ships the Tick off to Belgium, while Arthur is paired with Antwerp’s top superheroine, Eclaire, who’s just as well muscled and philosophical as his usual partner but with the power to shoot lightning from her eyes. Together, they save The City from a nefarious plan of the Breadmaster’s (which involves Die Fledermaus getting the crap beat out of him by tiny, vicious gingerbread men). Meanwhile, The Tick must protect the King of Belgium with Eclaire’s sidekick, the Vespa-riding Blitzen, who describes herself as the “righteous speed-demon and trust-fund darling of justice.” Together they fight villainous violin virtuoso Octo Paganini and Eastern Bloc Robot Cowboy, a Slavic roboticist who transplanted his brain into a vending machine wearing a Stetson (very possibly the greatest character in all of literature). Not only does this episode significantly broaden the world of the Tick, but the European characters it introduces are quirky enough that they could support a cartoon of their own. But yeah, it’s all about Eastern Bloc Robot Cowboy.
6) The Tick Vs. the Idea Men
In the inaugural episode, the individual origins of the Tick and Arthur are wisely skipped because it’s not important how they came to be. What is important is how they first joined forces to become The City’s premiere crime-fighting team. Their debut enemies are the Idea Men a group of AIM-like bad guys whose insidious scheme is to extort a lot of money so they won’t have to work anymore. While the Tick marvels at the Idea Men’s blimp and tries to stop them from blowing up the City’s dam, he also meets Arthur, a mild-mannered accountant who quits his job to be a superhero thanks to his flying moth suit. Arthur quickly realizes he’s in over his head, but also realizes The Tick needs a guide in navigating… uh… reality, hence the team-up. Besides the solid superhero action, this first episode also introduces a bunch of zany supporting characters to flesh out its world, like Batman wann-be Die Fledermaus, The Chameleon (“Can’t — do — plaid!”) and Bipolar Bear. Most TV shows have dodgy pilots and take a while to hit their stride, but not so for The Tick.
5) Ants in Pants!
The Tick (who was an asylum escapee in the comics) told Arthur in a previous episode that he was “going sane in a crazy world,” which this episode elaborates on. After all, in what rational world does an ant hive dress up in human clothing to steal enough glass to forge a giant magnifying glass to destroy all humans? The Tick is initially totally skeeved out by the titular ants in pants, and seeks counseling at Captain Sanity’s Superhero Sanatorium. Little does he realize that Captain Sanity’s — who is a disembodied head in a water cooler, by the way — idea of psychiatry is to have mustached nurse Taft (“We can dig it!”) wrestle the Tick while wearing a variety of ridiculous costumes. The military’s solution to the crisis is to create a giant pair of pants to somehow attract the ants; of course, these giant pants catch fire. Luckily for The City (and we viewers), the Tick realizes that sanity is the most overrated one-trick pony in the mental rodeo, escapes the sanitarium, and defeats the ants.
4) The Tick Vs. Arthur’s Bank Account
This episode was the first (and unfortunately last) to win an Annie Award for its writing. The Tick is jazzed when the world’s most diabolical centenarian this side of Mr. Burns, The Terror, comes out of retirement; The Tick Arthur even create their now iconic battle cries in preparation! Meanwhile, the Terror enlists Joseph Stalingrad, Tuun-La, Man-Eating Cow, The Human Ton and Handy to wreak havoc on The City from his mobile spider fortress (I maintain that Man-Eating Cow was undercover since she’s a heroine in the comics). To combat their assembled villainy, The Tick buys lots of crime-fighting gizmos by maxing out Arthur’s credit cards. When Arthur finds out, he kicks the Tick out of his apartment to sulk in his ramshackle Crime-Busting Tower, which may be some kind of abandoned pigeon coop. Has The Terror won without even confronting our heroes? WARNING: This episode contains graphic puppet violence.
3) The Tick Vs. the Tick
Two time-honored traditions are combined and skewered in this episodic shish-kabob: clubbing, and superheroes whaling on each other for flimsy reasons. When the Tick and pals go to the swank Comet Club for a night of caped go-go debauchery, Arthur is relegated to the dismal Sidekicks’ Lounge by Doorman, and The Tick meets Barry, a barely-sane “hero” who also calls himself The Tick and doesn’t feel like sharing. Amidst the titanic clash to decide which hero must change his stationary, will anyone stop The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight from blowing every do-gooder in The City into pulpy bits? He’s got legs, baby! He’s all over the place! YEAH BABY YEAH!
2) That Mustache Feeling
When the Tick wakes up with a mysterious moustache, he and his pals think he’s reached a new zenith of keen. But how did the perpetually clean shaven Tick grow such a magnificent face accoutrement overnight? Why has Nick Fury-lookalike Jim Rage assembled S.H.A.V.E., a team of ’70s exploitation heroines, to hunt his new moustache down? Why does his moustache treat the Tick like a battered housewife, beating him up when he tries to trim it, and even reaching inside the Tick’s nostrils to touch his brain? In addition to answering these thrilling questions, this episode also inspired Spider-Man’s infamous sidewalk strut in Spider-Man 3. Unfortunately not all arachnid superheroes were imbued with the same level of swagger.
1) The Little Wooden Boy and the Belly of Love
The co-dependency of the Tick and Arthur is perhaps the strongest theme in the whole series; this episode throws a giant monkey wrench into that relationship by introducing Carmelita. When she and Arthur hit it off over their mutual taste in moth-suits, the Tick feels betrayed that his sidekick is skipping Hobby Night to spend time with a woman who may have cooties. But with their partnership on the rocks, who can stop the villainy of the un-neutral Swiss & their giant Swiss army knives? In a sequence that puts Tony Stark to shame, Tick builds the ultimate sidekick: Little Wooden Boy! Meanwhile, a giant whale in lederhosen named Blow-Hole is marching across the nation. How will these random plot points converge into the greatest episode of The Tick? From the triumph of love to the tragedy of self-sacrifice of a plank of wood with a face drawn on it, this episode leaves no heartstrings untugged.