Ben Edlund's Saturday-morning cartoon The Tick never got as surreal and random as his original comic-book version, but it was still the oddest thing in animation in 1994. Set in The City, a generic metropolis teeming with low-rent superheroes and limited-ambition villains, it stars a gigantic, dim-witted, "nigh-invulnerable" crusader whose philosophy on good and evil is generally expressed via comedically overwrought metaphors about justice sandwiches and not eating crackers in the bed of the future. ("You get all scratchy.") From the beginning, the American superhero tradition was about secret identities and double lives; from Stan Lee on, it was also about the dark side of supernormal powers: personal sacrifices, loss of humanity, and difficulty fitting in. The Tick cheerfully flies in the face of that tradition with an unwaveringly enthusiastic protagonist who never doubts his calling, cheerfully disdains normalcy, and never even takes off his skintight, bright-blue leotard with the little tick antennae on top. In fact, he denies it's a costume.
In the 12 installments on the two-disc set The Tick Vs. Season One (the 13th first-season episode was omitted "due to creative considerations"), The Tick fights weird villains like an anthropomorphic sunflower, a man who inexplicably has a chair for a head, and a crazed villain-wannabe who styles himself "The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight." The stories are standard Saturday-morning adventure shtick, but then, The Tick is rarely plot-driven; it frequently devolves into riffs mocking popular superheroes and comics tropes, and into amiably deranged speeches and sight gags. The Tick himself is a jovial mockery of the entire superhero genre: All overdeveloped body and simpleminded Boy Scout intentions, with no nuance to speak of, he represents the way non-fans see comics.
Still, the series' best parts generally come from the ancillary characters: The Tick's nervous accountant sidekick Arthur, the smarmy Batman parody Die Fledermaus, the freaky grandstanding villains, the crowd of low-rent hero-wannabes like Bipolar Bear and the Caped Chameleon. They keep the tone varied and provide less over-the-top perspectives, turning The Tick into an unwitting straight man. The Tick's animation is cheap and the pacing is erratic, but it can't help but be charming: It's a giddily overeager, surreal satire about a man who never loses his enthusiasm for the things he loves, because he lacks the sensitivity to notice the laughter aimed at him.
Key features: None.