"When I was 17, I didn't have a driver's license. Laziness or complacency I assume. So in order to get anything done, I had to go where everyone else was going before they would drop me off. And so, I was constantly going to the comic book store with friends who had licenses," explains Ben Edlund on how he developed a love for comics. Hence, the early beginnings of a lucrative career as writer and creator of The Tick comic book, television show, and possible feature down the road. The 28-year-old Massachusetts native now lives in Manhattan's hip Lower East Side, and recently met with me at a favorite haunt to talk about his rise to "limited, useless fame" over a bowl of tortilla soup and a Rolling Rock.
"There was a point where I was working on my own comic, which was a kind of pedantic sort of boy superhero, retro kind of comic. I was about 17 years old," recalls Edlund. One of the side characters of this comic was The Tick, a 300 pound, seven-foot-tall, blue tick. Edlund was given the chance to develop this naive and "nigh-invulnerable" protagonist when New England Comics (NEC), a retail comic book store based in Boston, asked him to do some gag drawings for an upcoming issue. A last minute change in their production schedule however, paved the way for a full comic issue dedicated to Edlund's character. For the next year and a half, Edlund worked on The Tick #1, developing his "big, dumb do-gooder," whose battle cry is "SPPOOONNN!!," while studying film at the Massachusetts College of Art.
The Coming of the Tick
The Tick comic book was an instant hit, and it acquired a large and loyal following, despite the fact that only a few original stories were published. "I strung The Tick fans along with a minimum amount of material - twelve issues in five years," says Edlund. He attributes the comic books' success to the attention given to the particulars. "They are very detail intensive, so there are a lot of connected storylines. It was also densely written as far as comedic ideas are concerned, so each issue that came out provided a reasonably enjoyable experience for the reader."
Kris Boose, owner of a comic book store in State College, PA, can't keep the trade paperbacks on the shelf. "It astounds me that The Tick has steam rolled so long on the strength of its characters and sharp-witted humor," says Boose. "He [Edlund] has created a unique and very entertaining parody of today's superheros."
While still in college, Edlund was approached by Kiscom, a New Jersey-based toy licensing and design company. Kiscom had noticed the popularity of The Tick, and hoped to create a merchandising phenomenon like the one launched by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a year earlier. Despite this interest, and talks with studios and television networks, none of the big players were initially interested in the show. "At the time, I just went back to college. Every once in a while Kiscom would call me and I would go have a free lunch with some representative of some large company, and that would be it. Finally, we got connected with Sunbow, who decided they wanted to develop this thing and hand it off to Fox Children's Network," says Edlund.
Sunbow Entertainment, a small animation company based in New York, paired Edlund up with writer Richard Libmann-Smith. Though neither Edlund nor Libmann-Smith had specific animation or television experience, the two brought their unique strengths to the table and collaborated extremely well. Developing the first episode gave the team their first battle with "decision by committee." For two months, they worked tirelessly on the premiere, trying to incorporate everyone's point of view, but neither of them were happy with the resulting script. Their instincts were right. Fox turned it down, threatening to drop the show if a better script wasn't produced in five days' time. "Richard and I went to his place for the weekend and worked straight through. We slept maybe two or three hours every twenty-four, and pretty much did instinctively what we wanted to do, because at this point there was no committee to say `yes' or `no.' Luckily, Fox liked the new script very much. So we kind of defined in one weekend exactly where the show went for that first season, which was cool," says Edlund.
Considering Edlund's typical work style (he is notorious for working at his own speed and ignoring deadlines), the transition to the fast-paced world of network television was relatively painless. He was concerned that his character might be compromised or altered beyond recognition because of executive influence but, unlike some comic book to television evolutions, the animated version of The Tick remained true to its comic roots. A few of the darker characters were removed, as well as some sexual undertones. But overall, the series kept the spirit originally intended.
"Nothing was lost in the translation," says comic store owner Boose, "not the vision of the creator or the appeal of the characters. The show itself has continued to build new fans and keep the demand for the comics strong."
Edlund feels that because the show never reached the level of success that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had, their merchandising empire fell apart the first season out. "That's essentially good as far as I'm concerned," he muses, "although I would be much more wealthy at this point. That failure, to me, makes The Tick a much more sincere proposal."
Edlund was very hands-on during the production process, and insisted on being involved in every aspect of the show. "There was a period where I was extremely attentive to everything that had to be solved, and these efforts ultimately made the show a year late. I saw the storyboards that were being done and realized that if The Tick were animated off of those, it would fall apart. It would be a shadow of what it is now, which is something that isn't massively successful, but has this real staying power. So now instead of looking like bad '90s animation, it kind of looks like bad '70s superhero animation, which definitely has a unique style about it," explains Edlund. Despite his desire to be central in the process, Ben considers himself an extremely collaborative person, and isn't too proud to let other people step in and make contributions to the shape and design of the show, as long as the changes improve the product.
A Success Story in Blue
So how has the unexpected success of The Tick, all stemming from some high school sketches, affected Ben Edlund? He claims he hasn't changed much. Since The Tick was not an overnight success, he had plenty of time along the way to adjust to the changes and stay grounded. "When it first started, it was fairly slow. First you're doing a comic book. Then the comic starts to do well, and you start seeing your name in magazines, and you become accustomed to a certain level of fame. And then five years pass and suddenly someone wants to make it into a TV show."
By the time the show debuted in fall 1994, Edlund viewed himself more as a television professional than as a comic book writer. The process itself had transformed him. These days, Edlund is spread so thin over a host of film and TV projects that he sometimes has trouble finding the energy to put a stamp on an envelope and drop it into a mailbox. While fans pressure him to continue cranking out more issues of the comic book, Edlund has been clear about the future of The Tick. He explains, "I'm probably going to do only one more issue, and it's very much on the back burner. I view it as being a kind of summation of my position on The Tick character. At the time [The Tick was created] I was a virginal, middle-class, white, uninterested student of film, whose favorite filmmaker was Steven Spielberg. So I was really a much different person when this character was fully formed. So far he's proven to be fairly pliant, because the level of subtext and sophistication has matured. And that's probably why it connects with so many people from different age groups," Edlund says.
A spinoff of the comic is currently being written by a longtime friend of Edlund's, due for a summer 1997 release. While the show is no longer being broadcast on Fox Kids Network, it can be found in syndication on the popular cable channel Comedy Central, where it is performing extremely well. Fox is also in discussion with Sunbow Entertainment about producing a Tick primetime special, and the possibility still exists that Fox Kids will renew the half-hour show for another season. Although Edlund admittedly has mixed feelings about the prospect of another TV season, he sees it as the missing link between having a canceled television show and actually coming out with a feature film version. Yes, though it is behind a few other Fox projects, including a sci-fi animated film that Edlund is scripting, an animated feature is in development.
When asked about "going Hollywood," Edlund laughs, "I have a certain amount of detachment in real life, and that same amount of detachment allows me to take very little of the entertainment world seriously." But it seems as though the industry is taking him seriously, and that is giving Ben the chance to explore new creative ventures, including directing and writing a live-action remake of the classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. He's wanted to do the project for years, but only recently has found himself in a position to make it happen.
As we walked toward the subway together, I thought about how The Tick has certainly been the springboard for Edlund's career. Now that he is moving onto new projects we can await his new, entertaining, sophisticated and genuine characters. Hopefully there will always be a little Tick somewhere in what he does.
Deborah Reber has been an Animation Development Consultant with UNICEF for the past two years, and currently oversees the Cartoons for Children's Rights campaign, as well as other animation advocacy activities.