Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Does Whatever A Spider Can – The Original Cartoon Series Remembered

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These days, Marvel are an all-conquering force on both the big and small screens, with their interwoven and bloated film franchises being among the biggest box office hits and the related television shows – both on standard networks and Netflix – being critical, if not always popular successes. It seems you can’t move these days for Marvel characters being adapted to the screen, and even the most obscure comic books – Guardians of the Galaxy for example – are huge hits. So it’s hard to remember that in the past, Marvel were very much seen as a second division comic book publisher by mainstream observers. After all, everyone knew their rival publisher DC’s big characters – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman – but Marvel’s comics were less well-known outside comic book fandom. It’s hard to think of Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk as niche characters, but as far as the older generation who made the films and TV shows, or who wrote magazine articles were concerned, that’s exactly what they were. These were, after all, the people who had grown up reading the adventures of the DC characters, while the Marvel stories came along after they had moved on from such juvenile adventures. Batman and Superman were the stars of movie serials and cartoon series back in the 1940s, but Marvel didn’t start their superhero revolution until the early 1960s.

Indeed, Spider-Man was just five years old when he made his television debut in 1967, in an animated series that had immediate impact on the kids who saw it, and which remains a cult favourite today, thanks in part to the iconic theme song that everyone knows, even if they are unfamiliar with the show it presented. For three seasons, Spider-Man would be a star of Saturday morning TV in the US, boosting the profile and popularity of his comic books. But the production of this series was a complex and frustrating affair, and even the most devoted fan would surely admit that there was a rapid nosedive in quality as the show progressed.

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Spider-Man wasn’t the first Marvel animated show. In 1966, the crudely produced and barely animated The Marvel Superheroes featured Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor and The Sub-Mariner in a half-hour adventure show that showcased each character in short segments. The animation barely existed – the stories resembled what would later become motion comics, with movement restricted to the eyes, lips and arms for the most part. But it was a start, and ran for sixty-five episodes. It was followed by the Hanna Barbera production of The Fantastic Four in 1967 – a more traditional cartoon series, this twenty-episode series stuck fairly closely to the style of the original comic books, with appearances from villains like Dr Doom and The Mole Man. For fans, it’s well worth seeking out. Both these series have slipped into relative obscurity (though both were released, in varying forms, on DVD if you want to investigate further), overshadowed by the success and ongoing popularity of the Spider-Man series.

The Spider-Man animated series was produced by Krantz Films, who contracted Grantray-Lawrence Animation in Toronto to actually make the show. A mix of Canadian and American animators worked on the show, with a first season of 20 episodes, each around 22 minutes long (and therefore fitting a half hour slot with commercials added). The show aired on ABC, one of the three major US networks at the time. In the UK, it made sporadic appearances on local ITV stations, often used as a filler for awkward weekend time slots – catching an episode was always a thrill in the 1970s, as you never quite knew when the next one would be on!

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The budget for the show wasn’t exactly luxurious, and a number of compromises were made to save time and money – Spider-Man’s costume was simplified, with the webbing removed from the chest and back of his costume. A great number of stock footage shots showing Spidey swinging through New York were created to be used over and over again, and the movement of the characters was kept to a minimum (though it was positively fluid compared to The Marvel Superheroes). Rather embarrassingly, the spider logos on Spider-Man’s costume had six legs, rather than eight – this seems to have been a genuine mistake rather than another cost-cutting exercise. Other uncorrected mistakes include the misspelling of jewellery in the opening titles (‘jewlery’), which suddenly changes to ‘jewelry’ in the next shot.

But no-one really cared about any of that, because from the moment this show started, young (and not so young) viewers were hooked. It’s hard to describe just how dramatic and arresting the opening titles of Spider-Man are. Starting with a splash announcement that the show is “IN COLOR”, the title SPIDER-MAN crash zooms in and out as the theme music blasts away, and the classic song begins over a montage of Spidey action – catching thieves just like flies in a huge web, swinging in to grab a falling girder, defeating crooks in the afore-mentioned jewellery store and announcing him as “your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man”. It’s a fantastic one-minute scene-setter that tells the viewer everything they need to know about the character, even if they are unfamiliar with the comic book, while reassuring existing fans that this show will not reinvent their favourite superhero. Check the opening credits out below:

The first series credits Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee and then-current comic book artist John Romita as consultants, and notably, it doesn’t begin at the beginning. There’s no origin story, and we are thrown in at the deep end – Peter Parker by this time is a full-time photographer for the Daily Bugle, his difficult college days a thing of the past. Peter’s complicated private life is also sensibly stripped away, with no girlfriends or outside life other than a mild flirtation with fellow Bugle staffer Betty Brandt and his battles with excitable, Spider-Man hating Bugle boss J. Jonah Jameson. Given that almost every episode in this first season features two stories, that all makes sense – there’s barely time to get all the action into eleven minutes or so, and I doubt anyone watching would be thrilled at part of that running time given over to Spidey’s alter-ego mooning over Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson.

The Peter Parker in this season is a more confident person than in the earlier comic books – again reflecting where he was as a character in the comics at that time, and much of his on-screen time is providing humour as he is shouted at by Jameson, either being sent on assignment to cover a case than invariably needs Spider-Man’s involvement, or being chewed out for making Spidey seem like a hero in his subsequent photos. Jameson is probably the most entertaining character in the whole series, with both the animation and Paul Kligman’s voice perfectly capturing the ranting, hysterical firebrand of the comics. As Spider-Man, Paul Soles uses two voices – a lighter tone for Peter Parker and a deeper voice for the wise-cracking Spidey, who gets much of the snappy dialogue that we were used to from the comic. The animation of him talking – the masked jaw going up and down – is actually quite effective, though no-one has yet explained how me managed to make his masked eyes narrow and widen…

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In this first season, we meet many of the classic Spider-Man villains – Dr Octopus, The Lizard, Electro, Mysterio, The Vulture, The Scorpion, The Sandman, The Green Goblin and The Rhino all put in appearances. There’s even room for the Spider-Slayer robot operated by Jameson and (in this version) Henry Smythe. But many stories also feature new villains and threats, some of whom are more effective than others. Quite why the show felt the need to invent new villains when the comic books already had to many great ones to pick from is hard to fathom, and it’s to the show’s detriment. The stories with new characters are never quite as much fun as the others.

For all the simplifications and changes, Spider-Man actually captures the feel of the comic books surprisingly well. None of the characters feel too removed from what we already know, and of course, there is no continuing story – you can watch the episodes in any order and it won’t make any difference. The splitting of each episode into two stories was a stroke of genius, never allowing things to get bogged down or become tedious. And much of the credit for the effectiveness – and ongoing popularity – of this season must go to the original score by Ray Ellis, which is dramatic, moody, jazzy and nourish. It’s probably the best soundtrack you’ll ever hear on an animated show. You can enjoy an hour of it below:

The show was popular enough to see a second season commissioned, but this is where things began to go wrong. Grantray-Lawrence had gone bust after the first season, and so in 1969, Krantz Films brought the production in-house, under the supervision of Ralph Bakshi. Now, Bakshi has made some fantastic animated films – Coonskin, Wizards, Lord of the Rings – but here he was a 25-year-old working under an even more reduced budget than was afforded the first season producers. Making a quality product would be almost impossible. Even Ellis’s impressive score was replaced with library music, some of which works more effectively than others.

Interestingly, the second season goes back to the start. In an age of reboots, this doesn’t seem that unusual, but at the time, viewers might have been scratching their heads to suddenly be confronted with The Origin of Spider-Man after 20 episodes. This origin story opens the second season, and sticks closely to the comic book version – it even finds room for the “with great power comes great responsibility” quote – but it also exposes the weakness of this second season. For a start, each episode now featured just one story. And that story had a lot of padding. At a guess, half the episode consists of stock footage shots of Spider-Man swinging through the streets, with the same shot appearing again and again and again. It’s showing a certain contempt for the young audience to think that they wouldn’t notice or mind this, frankly. And this would continue throughout the season.

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This season sees Peter Parker as a hapless college student, albeit one who seems to have no end of girlfriends. The most regular of these is Susan Shaw, who makes a few appearances but rarely looks the same twice, another sign of the sloppy production values creeping in. We get a lot more of the Peter Parker soap opera elements in these stories, which isn’t a good thing necessarily, and far fewer established villains – episode 2 features The Kingpin, but that’s about it. The season also introduces misguided elements of humour that don’t really fit with the stories.

On the plus side, Bakshi brought a darker visual element to the show, and this worked well with his forays into the fantastical and mysterious, as Spider-Man battled monsters and creatures from space. This continued with the third and final season, which unfortunately saw even more cost-cutting and eventually ran the show into the ground.

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Season three, broadcast in 1970, opens with two episodes that set the scene for what is to come – The Winged Thing rehashes material from the two Vulture adventures in season one, while Conner’s Reptiles takes footage from the first season’s Where Crawls the Lizard and uses it to craft a completely unrelated story. There’s some skill involved in doing this, admittedly, but fans must have felt short-changed anyway. Two other episodes use footage, characters and backgrounds from Rocket Robin Hood (a previous Bakshi series) to create trippy, spaced out and oddly disturbing stories – Revolt in the Fifth Dimension is especially notorious, and ABC supposedly refused to air it because of the death and psychedelic visuals it contained. This seems unlikely, if only because this season went straight to syndication rather than airing on ABC in the first place. Whatever the truth, these episodes are fun in their own way, but they are not Spider-Man.

Oddly, the characters here seem to be following on from Season One – possibly because the extensive reworking of material from that season demanded it. Parker here is one again the Bugle photo ace. This season also sees the one and only appearance from Mary Jane Watson (in The Big Brainwasher), and reverts to splitting each episode into two stories.

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While Spider-Man undoubtedly underwent a rapid decline in quality – and the treatment of the show is indicative of just how little regard was given to children’s TV, animation and comic books at the end of the 1960s – the show has hung around in the public consciousness far longer than you might expect. Admittedly, most of the love is entirely based on the first season – the theme song, the incidental music, the fast-paced adventures and even the quirkily crude animation have all not only stood the test of time but actually become more interesting. In a world where animated superhero shows are ever more slick and interchangeable, there’s something very appealing about the oddball and unique world of the 1967 Spider-Man.

DAVID FLINT

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