How did indie comics ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and ‘The Tick’ rise from cult followings to franchises, and what did they give up for mass appeal?
When I saw that a new version of The Tick was coming out — from creator Ben Edlund, no less — I was ecstatic. However, the pilot was not the laugh riot I expected. I was leery of the dark, serious tone and the direction it was taking. An odd approach, if you remember the original indie comics.
When I was a kid, comic books were my be-all and end-all. While other kids dressed up as athletes or in occupational garb, year after year I dressed up as superheroes and — I likely should be embarrassed to write this — still do every Halloween.
So imagine my delight when, as a young teen, I ran into two indie comics: The Tick and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I discovered them at around the same time, and both offered the same thing — a way for comic book connoisseurs to step back and laugh at the mythology and reverence of the superhero.
The Tick most successfully parodied the stilted speech so often employed in the heightened reality of the comic book world. And part of my joy was looking out for the parodies of well-worn comic favorites like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and other lesser-known favorites like The Punisher. I ate up The Tick voraciously — even picking up all the spinoffs.
Edlund, being only 18 years old when he created The Tick, wasn’t much older than the people he was writing for. And while his creation managed to successfully lampoon the comics we adored, it did have its darker side. The Tick himself escaped from a mental institution, having no memory of his past life. His sidekick, Arthur, was trapped in a soul-crushing job and longed to be more. Not the type of existential dread that inhabits the mind of a child. And yet it also offered a hero whose battle cry was “Spoon!” and the name of the city they patrolled was “The City.”
Now, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or TMNT as their fans call it, was a much more specific parody. Its target was not the whole pantheon of comic lore. Its main target was Daredevil. I grew up at a time when everyone adored Frank Miller, and his version of Daredevil and his creation of Elektra revitalized that comic run. TMNT wasn’t just riffing off it — they even went so far as to say the same accident that created Matt Murdock’s powers created theirs. While Daredevil had the evil ninja army “The Hand,” TMNT had “The Foot.” While Matt Murdock was trained by Stick, TMNT had Splinter. However, again — like The Tick — there were dark, often violent overtones, and it required a certain level of knowledge to understand the references. And also like The Tick, both indie comics created huge cult followings.
At this time, in the mid to late ’80s, cartoons and toys were not yet as exploitatively linked as they are today. Yet shows like Transformers and G. I. Joe had been capitalizing on the toy tie-in craze that George Lucas had perfected seven years earlier. As the documentary Turtle Power explains, the way to the mainstream audience was through cartoons and toys. But in order to do that, they’d have to alter their content and aim it squarely at younger children.
At the time Playmates Toys was trying to get into the action-figure market. To attract the younger crowd, they teamed up with an animation company to create a cartoon. Almost everything we now associate with TMNT — the concept, the phrases “heroes in a half shell” and “turtle power” — were created by the cartoon writers. Wisecracking and goofiness replaced the violence and more mature tone of the indie comic. Even the trademark colors and personalities were developed for the cartoon. The original comic was in black-and-white, and one of the main concerns was that it was hard to distinguish one turtle from another. Not good if you’re trying to sell four toys instead of one. The cartoon became a huge hit, running for 10 seasons, and the merchandise far exceeded action figures – Pez dispensers, cereal, school supplies (I had Turtle erasers for the ends of these things we used to write with called “pencils”), and video games, to name but a few. They even created new characters — some who have become beloved over time and are still part of the cadre of characters now — all to generate more toy sales. So the tail wagged the dog, and we had a hit.
Not much later, Fox Kids created a Saturday morning cartoon of The Tick. But unlike TMNT, the indie comic creator himself wrote for the series. It lasted only three seasons but also gave The Tick its widest mainstream audience. And again, it drove the merchandise. I still have The Tick action figures, board game and video games.
So did their quest to be more popular lead to selling out? And more importantly, did they destroy themselves, rising up as a hack phoenix from the ashes to burn more brightly but as something lesser?
Here were two different indie comics, both beginning as a comment on other comics. But through repackaging, their lead characters became actual heroes — not comments on actual heroes. They had their own rogues’ gallery and their own allies.
In the end, though, they became the thing they mocked. And there are two sides to that: on the one hand, rising above is an admirable goal. But in doing so, did these works lose the thing that made them special in the first place?
With the TMNT team not in charge of the animated series, the indie comic continued with its darker tone and violence. So you could almost feel as if they sold a piece of themselves — and the populace liked someone’s copy of them more.
For The Tick’s part, its goofier tone settled into children’s cartoons better than TMNT — but Edlund struggled to keep his vision, battling with the powers that be, and concessions were made. The existential parts were either dropped or played up for comic effect. In a way, it was more similar, yet it seemed to break the spirit of the original comic. Comic readers would enjoy the cartoon but think that the indie comic was better, that something was missing. Still, it gave The Tick its widest mainstream success.
As with most things in entertainment, everything old is new again. And both The Tick and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have had multiple reboots over the years. But something struck me recently: Are they returning to their origins? Are they successful enough to do so? And why would they?
I had a recent entertainment convergence: I saw Turtle Power, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Amazon’s The Tick and Marvel’s The Defenders all about the same time. And one thing struck me: they were all considerably darker. It is true that people have been more open to darkness in entertainment in the last number of years. (Perhaps too much so, if you look at the failure of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman…) But I attribute it to the fact that people my age are now the ones in charge of making that entertainment.
Take, for example, TMNT: Instead of the accident, a toxic waste spill, they were test subjects experimented on by an evil organization looking to take over the world. They were left to be destroyed in a fire to end the experiment and erase all research, but they were set free to live underground, fearful of a world that destroys what it doesn’t understand. Standard kid fare, right?
Now take The Tick: They brought back the mental institution, but this time Arthur, our viewpoint character, is held against his will and is “off his meds” after a horrifically tragic experience he had as a superhero-worshiping child. The character we most associate with isn’t living a boring life in a soul-crushing job and looking to be something more. Instead, his very sanity is questioned and his reliability tarnished. This Arthur, in his youth, witnesses his father killed in a fight between heroes and villains. It’s specifically darker than similar plot points in Avengers movies. Can it be satire if it’s not willing to go further than the things it lampoons?
With the huge successes of indie comics on the large and small screens, especially with properties like The Walking Dead, it’s no wonder the entertainment world would look to profit off more of them. With The Tick and TMNT, they have properties that already have name recognition. And, yes, art has to change with the audience. But what grabbed audiences in the first place for The Tick and TMNT was how they stood out. In a time of dark superheroes and violent villains, they offered a respite. They gave us the ability to stand back and laugh. We seem to be in a similar time of superheroes with dark souls and every villain threatening world annihilation. Do these new versions fulfill the purposes of their origins? And if they did, would they still be successful?
I for one wish they’d go back to their indie comic roots — dark in their themes, irreverent in their humor, yet never childish. Satire is a humorous look at ourselves — our foibles and follies. But without references, it loses meaning. It becomes a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode without the movie. And at a time when we’re oversaturated with dark, brooding superheroes, wouldn’t we all enjoy what the original indie comics offered — a way to acknowledge the pain and darkness, yet still have the ability to laugh about it? I think we could all use a dose of that right now.