‘The Tick’ (2017): Mental Health and Growing Up Through the Lens of Arthur

Considering that we’re in the midst of a pop culture landscape that is currently overwhelmed with superhero movies and TV shows, it’s understandable that some of the lesser known ones fly a little under the radar. I first heard of The Tick when the pilot for the new iteration was released on Amazon Prime in 2016. Beginning as a comic book series, The Tick was later adapted into a cartoon in 1994, and a short lived live-action series in 2001, gaining a considerable, loyal following of fans. Once I was introduced to the current show, it was not difficult to understand why comic book fans have been eager to revisit these characters and their stories.

The Tick follows a young, nervous accountant named Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman), who is trying to piece together evidence to prove his theory that the notorious supervillain The Terror is still alive. When Arthur stakes out a criminal gang and their leader who may have a connection to The Terror, he runs into a mysterious man in costume who calls himself The Tick (Peter Serafinowicz) and claims to be a superhero. The Tick has no memory of his past or even who he is apart from his larger than life, crime fighting persona, but he knows right away that he believes Arthur and wants to help him. Although Arthur may initially be reluctant to the idea of being The Tick’s sidekick or partner, it’s a role he inevitably falls into the more they both become involved in the dealings of The Terror’s henchmen and former right-hand, Miss Lint.

There are many aspects of The Tick that make it quite different from any other superhero show, especially given its self-awareness, and the way it acts as a commentary of contemporary superhero culture. However, the most interesting aspect might be how the show approaches the topic of mental health, and – specifically – the symptoms and long-lasting effects of mental illness.

Like many well-known comic book characters, we learn early on that much of Arthur’s life was influenced by a traumatic experience he had as a kid – witnessing the death of his father and a team of superheroes he idolized, both at the hands of The Terror. As an adult, he is still having recurring nightmares about that day – and focusing a lot of his energy on the potential that The Terror still has a hand in the criminal activity of the city. From interactions with his sister Dot, we get the sense that Arthur’s obsession with tracking down The Terror and his henchmen has been ongoing and most likely a way for him to be productive with his worries and avoid spiralling.

What differentiates Arthur from other characters that have experienced great loss and trauma is the consistency in which we see how obviously he has been affected by these experiences. He is visibly anxious in most situations, and reacts to his unexpected partnership with The Tick and becoming a sort of superhero figure in a way that is entirely realistic – with genuine, unsure panic. But no matter what kind of ridiculous situations Arthur and The Tick find themselves in, the show never uses Arthur’s anxiety as a source of pure comedic relief, nor does it exploit his feelings to the point of forced sympathy.

Arthur’s anxiety is portrayed and treated in a way that is undeniably earnest. In the very first episode, Dot reminds him multiple times to be sure to take his medication. From then on, it’s consistently normalized – being mentioned by Arthur in brief comments or in reminders to himself, just as it would be for anyone in real life. Therapy, as well as generally seeking professional help for mental health, is also normalized in a rather casual way – when Arthur acts frantically around his family while trying to conceal that he’s dealing with The Tick and The Terror’s henchmen on the side, they show immediate concern for him – asking if he needs to see or talk with someone (implying professional help). We are meant to believe that Arthur has been seeing therapists and other professionals for years, evidenced in the fact that his mother felt comfortable enough to invite his past therapist to a family birthday party.

Throughout the series so far – and especially in the first season – Arthur second guesses his own reasoning and what’s going on around him quite a bit. To be fair, he was given a suit with special abilities resembling a sort of moth-man, and encounters characters like a talking dog who’s a retired superhero and a sentient boat named Dangerboat who is seemingly in love with him, so it’s not absurd to think that he’d feel a little out of his element. But Arthur has a history of “seeing things that aren’t there”, revealed in the midst of his panic over whether or not some of the things he’s seeing and experiencing are a figment of his imagination, including The Tick.

All of this: the worries, the self-doubt, and the admissions of very real symptoms of mental illness, are incredibly important to see in a superhero-focused story. As much as I love comic book adaptations and superheroes, I’m often left wishing we could see more of how their experiences affect them and influence how they interact with the world around them. Maybe it’s my empathetic nature, or the fact that I grow too attached to the characters I love, but every once in a while I think it would be nice to see Spider-Man talk to someone about the pressures of saving the world as a teenager, or see Batman try to work through his childhood trauma in a productive way. I don’t think any of that would take away from their stories, or distract from the “coolness” of the more brooding, dark superheroes/anti-heroes. If anything, The Tick is proof that you can have a balance between comedic, ridiculous situations that would only happen in comic books, and grounded, relatable moments where the heroes feel like real people.

As someone with anxiety who knows the importance of mental health and seeing progressive representation of it on screen, characters like Arthur – and even the important people in his life – feel like a step in the right direction. Not every situation in the show involving mental health is perfect, but in a way that feels more true to life. Everyone is still figuring things out, and occasionally making mistakes along the way. Those imperfections are important to see, too.

I know that my younger self would have greatly appreciated Arthur, especially this particular portrayal of him, but it feels appropriate that I discovered this show and the character in my 20s. I can better understand what it took for Arthur to get to where he was at the beginning of the series, and how he was able to grow throughout it.

Although he may have some reluctance toward being a full-fledged superhero, Arthur just might be the kind we need right now.