Excerpted from the book
Marvel

 

Spider-Man
 

ARACHNO-PHENOMENON

Spidey For many, Spider-Man is THE superhero of the twentieth century. He has come to symbolize Marvel Comics, and for good reason. More than any other character, he represents Marvel's unique approach of creating heroes with real-world problems. Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker suffers from allergies, insecurities, uncertainty around girls in his early years, and chronic difficulty making ends meet in later years. Except for his ability to crawl up and down walls, he could be the nerdy kid next door.

The creation of the character has become the stuff of legend. The version most commonly told is that when Stan Lee was trying to come up with a new superhero idea he spied a fly crawling up the wall of his office. Inspired by the notion of a wall-climbing comic book hero, he quickly ran down a list of potential names, such as Insect Man and Mosquito Man, before settling on the dramatic sounding Spider-Man. But Lee adds: "I always preface that story by saying I've told it so often that, for all I know, it might even be true." An entirely different account of Spidey's creation was related by Lee in the book Origins of Marvel Comics. In this version the character was inspired by an old pulp magazine of the 1930s called The Spider, Master of Men, and the name Spider-Man was offered as a deliberately tongue-in-cheek parody of Superman.

Regardless of whether it was The Spider or the fly, Lee realized that he had the opportunity to create a character that defied the conventional wisdom governing what made a successful superhero. Furthermore, the fact that the story was slated to appear in Amazing Fantasy, a magazine that was about to be discontinued, meant that he had nothing to lose by experimenting. Initially, Jack Kirby was assigned to draw Spider-Man's debut story, but it quickly became apparent that, despite Kirby's talent, the artist was miscast. "I didn't want Peter Parker to look like a superhero, I wanted him to look like an average school boy," says Lee. "Jack had a way of drawing people who looked bigger and bolder than life, and when I saw the way [Peter Parker] looked, I said, 'Jack, forget it, I'm going to give it to Ditko instead.'"

Artist Steve Ditko, whose eye leaned more toward drama and realism than fantastic action, proved to be the right choice. Born in 1927 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Ditko had entered the comics field in the early 1950s, and by 1956 he was providing art for some of Atlas's horror comics (years later Ditko would return to the genre through Warren Publishing's black-and-white comic magazines Creepy and Eerie). While Ditko's time at Marvel was relatively brief--he left the company in 1966 and didn't return until 1979 for another short stint--his presence loomed large and his distinctive graphic style made an impact on readers.

Amazing Fantasy #15 (August, 1962) introduced bookish, bespectacled Peter Parker, who is described as "Midtown High's only professional wallflower." While the school athletes are out with their girlfriends, Peter, who lives with his doting Aunt May and Uncle Ben, heads for the school science lab to watch an experiment demonstrating how radioactive rays can be controlled. But during the experiment, a spider comes down from the ceiling and absorbs the rays, then bites Peter on the hand. Very shortly thereafter, a startled but excited Peter discovers that he has strange powers, including the ability to crawl up walls and shinny down cables, like a spider. At home he fashions a blue and red costume (which initially featured a wing-like spider web under each arm) and crafts wristbands to wear under his costume that shoot out webs made from liquid cement. "So, they laughed at me for being a bookworm, eh? Well, only a science major could have created a device like this!" he gloats.

Unlike previous superheroes, who immediately put their powers to use for truth and justice, Peter uses his new talents to make a buck, showing off on television. But his initial success goes to his head. When a policeman berates him for not trying to stop a fleeing thief who has just run by him, Peter says: "Sorry, pal! That's your job! I'm thru being pushed around by anyone. From now on I just look out for Number One--that means--me!"

That moment of self-centeredness will haunt Peter forever. The young man's world is shattered when he discovers that his Uncle Ben has been shot and killed by a burglar, who turns out to be the very same criminal that Peter could have apprehended, but did not. As he wrestles with the guilt over having been an unknowing accessory to his uncle's murder, Peter resolves to stop squandering his newfound powers in frivolous ways and use them only to benefit humanity. In doing so, he reluctantly accepts that with great power there must also come great responsibility.

Catching the bad guy

Copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 flew of the newsstands and Spider-Man was rewarded with his own monthly magazine, The Amazing Spider-Man (the word Amazing retained as a subtle nod to Spidey's debut mag) and allowed to grow up . . . more or less. Upon graduation from high school, Parker entered Empire State University and began to work part time as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, published by the loud, tyrannical J. Jonah Jameson, who delights in conducting a Hearst-like smear campaign against Spider-Man, whom he considers a menace to society, despite Spidey's taking the public's side against the likes of such villains as Doctor Octopus and The Lizard, a.k.a. Dr. Curt Connors. While Jameson is far too obtuse to realize that this so-called menace is actually on his payroll, Peter does worry that some of the Bugle's more observant employees, such as Jameson's secretary Betty Brant--who would eventually become Peter's first love interest--and editor Joe "Robbie" Robertson (who was one of the first African-American recurring characters in comic books) might begin to suspect Peter's relationship with Spider-Man is closer than he lets on.

Starting in the mid-1960s, artist John Romita took over the character from Ditko, bringing a smooth, action-packed, kinetic energy to Spidey's adventures. Romita introduced redhead Mary Jane Watson, an actress by profession, and cool blonde Gwendolyn Stacy as Peter Parker's love interests. The longing for a normal home life, ideally with Gwen (or, as Peter preciously refers to her, "Gwendy"), even prompts him to abandon his costume and responsibility and crimefighting--at least for one issue (Amazing Spider-Man #50) In fact, Peter's increasingly complicated life threatened to overwhelm him in a now-classic three-issue (#96–#98) series from 1971, featuring the nefarious Green Goblin, who was in reality Norman Osborne, the wealthy but schizophrenic father of Peter's friend, Harry Osborne (though in later years, after Norman's death, Harry would acquire his father's mental instability and his costume, and become the new Green Goblin).

It wasn't the demented activity of The Goblin, or even the dynamic and dramatic artwork by Gil Kane (pencils) and John Romita (inks) that has made this particular storyline legendary. Instead it was the fact that, for the first time in comic books, the hot-button issue of drugs was addressed head-on. That came about when Stan Lee had been asked by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in Washington to do a story about the dangers of drug abuse. He complied by turning out a story in which Harry Osborne (with whom Peter Parker was then rooming because he could no longer afford a place of his own) becomes hooked on pills and eventually becomes bedridden through a bad acid trip. The problem was that the Comics Code, which affixed its seal of approval to every comic book published in the United States, had an ironclad policy that no mention of drugs was permissible.

"I said, 'Look, we're not telling kids to take drugs, this is an anti-drug story,'" Lee recalls. "And they said, 'Yeah, but you're not allowed to mention drugs.' So I said, 'We're going to mention that, we just won't put the seal of approval on the cover of those books.' I felt that the United States Government somehow took precedence over the Comics Authority." When those three issues came out, sans the Comics Code seal, the Comics Authority finally got the message and amended their policy to allow for anti-drug statements.

But a far more shocking development was yet to come. Of all the provocative storylines Marvel has produced in the last forty years, none has matched the notoriety achieved by Amazing Spider-Man issue #121, scripted by Gerry Conway, pencilled by Gil Kane, and inked by John Romita and Tony Mortellaro, in which Gwen Stacy died at the hands of The Green Goblin. "The hue and cry was tremendous," recalls Romita. "It was one of the first times a [lead] character had died in comic books. People still come up to me at conventions and say, 'You're the guy who killed Gwen Stacy!'" Further playing upon the theme of guilt that surrounds Peter Parker, the subtle, discomforting use of the word Snap depicted as coming from Gwen's neck as Spider-Man tries to save her suggests that he was the actual agent of her demise.

While comic book readers were reveling in the increasingly dramatic and adult storylines of the '70s, professional educators were using the character to teach children to read (a reversal of sensibilities that would have choked Dr. Fredric Wertham, the man who tried to drive a stake through comic books in the 1950s). "Spidey Super Stories, a special comic book series that was produced jointly by Marvel and The Childrens Television Workshop, was launched in 1974 and lasted until 1982. With its simplified stories and graphics that were laid out in accordance with up-to-date scientific evidence as to how a child's eye travels across the page, Spidey Super Stories took both time and trouble to produce, but it remains a proud achievement for the Marvelites who worked on it. "Many educators have pointed to that series as the most amazing turnaround in young's people's reading habits," says Romita, "and I have great pride in the fact that we were connected."

From 1984 to 1988, Peter Parker abandoned his traditional red and blue suit for a form-fitting black one with a white spider insignia on the chest, which in turn led to the creation of a remarkable villain. The suit, which Peter acquired from another planet (a story recounted in 1984's twelve-issue special edition series Secret Wars), is actually a symbiotic alien being. Peter abandons the costume, which is picked up by Eddie Brock, the disgraced former star reporter for the Daily Bugle, and an old adversary of Peter's. Brock didn't just wear the costume. He merged with its alien core to become Venom, a nightmarish parody of black Spider-Man with a gaping, shark-like mouth and a hideous grin. Venom--whose ghastly menace was fully realized by the fiercely talented Todd McFarlane (born 1961 in Calgary, Alberta), the artist who took over Spider-Man in the mid-'80s--has the powers of Spider-Man plus a few more, and is dedicated to destroying Spidey.

Fortunately, there were some happy moments amidst all the turmoil. By 1987, Peter Parker had recovered from the tragedy of Gwen Stacy's death sufficiently to wed Mary Jane in a remarkable triple ceremony--one held in the Spider-Man newspaper strip, one held in The Amazing Spider-Man Giant Sized Annual, and one held in New York's Shea Stadium! In one of the most elaborate publicity stunts ever staged by Marvel (or anyone else, for that matter), Spidey and M.J., represented by actors in costume, were "married" in the baseball stadium by Stan Lee on June 5, 1987, before a jubilant crowd of 55,000 people. The ceremony came complete with an enormous tiered wedding cake, and the "bride" wore a white gown created by fashion designer Willi Smith, while Spidey wore a tuxedo jacket over his traditional costume. The wedding in Shea Stadium remains the most remarkable--and audacious--point of contact between the Marvel Universe and the real one.

However inauspicious Spidey's debut in 1962 might have been (and even that is debatable), his "relaunch" in 1990 was a monumental triumph. In August Marvel released Spider-Man (no Amazing) #1, hailing the magazine as the "1st All-New Collector's Item Issue!" Whether it was the marketing hype or Todd McFarlane's dynamic artwork and script (he also did the cover), or both, the issue became the top-selling comic book in U.S. history, selling more than 2.5 million copies. Still waggish after all those years, Marvel reintroduced their star character with the declaration: "The Legend of the Arachknight," a take-off on rival Batman's recent repackaging as "The Dark Knight."

The decade of the '90s brought more trauma for Peter Parker, including the apparent death (in Amazing Spider-Man issue #400, 1995) of his Aunt May, the fragile mother figure that was probably the most important woman in Peter's life. Not only was Peter devastated by the event, but a considerable number of readers were, too. But in the realm of comic books, reports of a character's death are sometimes greatly exaggerated (Gwen Stacy notwithstanding), and venerable, resilient Aunt May returned, not having died at all, only having disappeared.

Another complicated wrinkle involving Spider-Man's identity was introduced that same year by writer J.M. DeMatteis, who had taken over the scripting of The Amazing Spider-Man. It centered around Peter's discovery that he had been cloned some twenty years earlier, and that the clone, named Ben Reilly, had taken on a crimefighting identity as The Scarlet Spider, a kind of clone of Spider-Man. Haunted by the thought that he and Reilly had somehow been switched at the cloning table, Peter ultimately turned his Spider-Man identity over to Reilly and reactivated his old dream of abandoning the responsibility of crimefighting in return for a normal life and family. He and Mary Jane left their home in Queens, New York, and Peter took a job as a scientist. But like many situations within the Marvel Universe, this was just a reality supernova. The fact that a new track of Spidey adventures launched in 1998 was titled Peter Parker: Spider-Man indicates that his identity crisis is over (and a related identity mystery involves Peter and M.J.'s daughter, May, who disappeared in the present-day time frame only to be chronicled as Spider-Girl in a magazine set in the future).

After nearly forty years Spider-Man remains as popular as ever. His adventures continue to appear in newspapers across America, scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Larry Lieber in the dailies and Joe Sinnott for the Sunday strips, the latter working from layouts by Alex Saviuk. It is a popularity that Tom DeFalco attributes to Spider-Man's innate heroism. "This is a very insecure person who goes into almost every battle convinced he's going to lose, but he goes in anyway," says DeFalco. "He's the most heroic character of all."
 

SPIDER-MAN IN THE MEDIA

The success of "The Marvel Superheroes" in syndication led to Marvel's signature character being translated into animation a year later. Steve Krantz and Grantray-Lawrence were once more behind the project, though unlike "Superheroes," the "Spider-Man" series, which debuted on ABC in September of 1967, did not utilize the original comic book art or stories as a jumping-off point for the animation. While the staging and graphics still show the heavily shadowed, comic book inspiration, a slightly increased budget resulted in more fluid animation.

June Patterson, the wife of animation producer Ray Patterson, served as story supervisor for the series. "We did one and I remember the network went crazy, and Stan Lee went crazy, they were all crazy about it," she recalls. "It was one of those days when I was in a facetious mood or something, and I wrote this thing where Spidey is chasing a villain and he comes into a TV studio where they're shooting a Western, and he chases the villain across the Western bar, and down the breakaway stairs, and it turned out so good that they just loved it!"

The voice tracks were once more recorded by Toronto, with actor Paul Soles taking the roles of Spidey and Peter Parker. "I was often more comfortable doing Peter Parker than Spider-Man," Soles relates, "because in physique and outlook, I never really thought of myself as a superhero. To put myself in the frame of mind of a superhero, that was pretty tough to do. It called for an attitude that was a little above and beyond normal life. But it was fun to do."

Once the series was underway, however, financial problems caused the production to be moved from Grantray-Lawrence to the New York–based company of animation maverick Ralph Bakshi. A longtime fan of the comic books, as well as one of the most outspoken men in show business, Bakshi had little patience for those who did not share his devotion to the medium. "One writer asked me why [Spider-Man] had to wear a costume," Bakshi recalls. "I said, 'So his mother wouldn't recognize him.' And he believed it! But you have to take the stuff as seriously as you can. A comic book is an honest kind of thing, if you take it seriously." "Spider-Man" ran three seasons on ABC.

While it is easy to animate a character who crawls up the sides of buildings and swings around on web lines, staging that in live action is a daunting prospect. Producer Charles Fries accepted the challenge in 1977, creating a two-hour "Spider-Man" pilot for Universal Television. Veteran television director E.W. Swackhammer cast newcomer Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker and filled out the cast with more recognizable television faces, including Hilly Hicks as Robbie Robertson, David White (best known to baby-boomers as Larry Tate from "Bewitched") as J. Jonah Jameson, and Thayer David as the villain of the piece, Dr. Edward Byron. Nineteen-forties "starlet" Jeff Donnell appeared in a cameo as Aunt May.

In the film, the origin story of Spider-Man is interwoven with a bizarre plot involving a crazy self-help guru, Dr. Byron, who is planting post-hypnotic suggestions by way of microwave signals in mechanisms hidden inside lapel pins Byron has given to various professional people to make them commit robberies. Once the crime is committed, and the loot taken away by Byron's henchmen, the zombie-like perpetrator is programmed to self-destruct. This is simply a prologue to a much bigger plot: Byron demands $50 million dollars from the mayor of New York, or else he will instruct ten prominent citizens under his control to destroy themselves! Peter becomes involved in the plot both as a photojournalist and as Spider-Man. Going undercover, he attends one of Byron's abrasive psychological motivation seminars and becomes a walking time bomb, hypnotically programmed to jump off the Empire State Building. At the last minute, Peter loses his lapel pin, which breaks the post-hypnotic control, and after turning into Spidey, finds Byron's microwave transmitter and reverses the beam, turning the mind-control expert into one of his own zombies.

"Spider-Man" was aired September 14, 1977, and scored a ratings hit for CBS. Fans of the comic book character had reason to be satisfied with this television incarnation since, for the most part, the filmmakers took care to stay close to the original. Peter is still a bookish, somewhat nerdy student (though now he's in grad school) who is bitten by the radioactive spider, which in this version was contaminated through contact with a beaker of nuclear waste in the school lab. Nicholas Hammond was an excellent choice for Peter Parker, giving the character just the right touch of youthful immaturity, and Spidey's costume ended up being a faithful rendering of the comic book design, despite initial attempts to change it.

"When they did the first movie, Stan was in California and he called me up and said, 'They don't want to do him in red and blue,'" recalls John Romita. "My first thought was they were thinking red and blue was too much like Superman, but that wasn't it: they said they had to make him red and black--which actually would not have been the end of the world--because against the blue matte he would have turned transparent. And I said, 'Wait a minute, the Childrens Television Workshop solves that problem every day, they put him everywhere! They're probably telling you they've got a blue matte background and they don't want to repaint it.' And that's exactly what it was!"

The shots in question involved Spider-Man climbing around the side and roof of Aunt May's house, and the optical trickery the filmmakers employed was fairly obvious. For most of the scenes involving building, wall, and ceiling climbing, though, no camera magic of any kind was used. In one truly jaw-dropping shot, Spidey suddenly springs from a standing position to the ceiling, then runs the length of the hallway ceiling upside down--and all of it was filmed without visual effects. For scenes such as this, the man in the Spidey suit was not Hammond, but a stuntman and former trapeze artist named Fred Waugh. "That [shot] was even written up in Variety," Fred Waugh states proudly. "They said it was the most unbelievable stunt they'd ever seen, and they couldn't figure out how it was done."

To perform the stunt, Waugh rigged a "traveling track" that contained a roller that allowed a cable to move back and forth above the hallway set. The set's ceiling was then built around it to obscure the track. Under his costume, Waugh wore a harness attached to the cable, which ran up through the rafters of the soundstage and back down, where it was connected to a rope. When a half-dozen stunt grips pulled on the rope, Waugh appeared to fly upside down to the ceiling. "We rehearsed that four or five times," Waugh says, "and each time we did it we pulled a little faster, a little faster, a little faster, and then for the take I said, "All right, let's go for it, guys." So they rolled the cameras and, when I said 'Now!' I was there! I mean, I was on that ceiling fast! And then I swung around and crawled down using the slider track, because that pressure was holding me up to the ceiling." Two separate setups and some skillful editing completed the sequence, which shows Spider-Man springing from the ceiling to a wall, and then back down to the floor.

Exterior shots showing Spider-Man climbing up and down the sides of buildings were similarly done with cable rigging, and proved equally eye popping. This is particularly true of Spidey's head-first descents, which, according to Waugh, were actually easier to perform than the ascents. "With all that weight in my harness and my shoulders, I could run sideways down the building," he says. "I could really sell that thing coming down, but going up was hard. I had seven guys pulling me all the time, and I would start to get to the middle of the cable and my feet would start swinging away from the building. I couldn't get any traction." The fact that Waugh was able to closely replicate Spidey's unique crouching stance from the comic books further helped to sell the character.

The success of the "Spider-Man" television movie prompted a limited-run television series on CBS, beginning in 1978. Now called "The Amazing Spider-Man," it brought back Nicholas Hammond as Peter, though Robert F. Simon took over the role of Jameson, who was now played as a grouch-with-a-heart-of-gold. A new recurring character was added: Rita Conway, Jameson's secretary, who was a kind of cross between Betty Brant and Robbie Robertson, and was played by actress Chip Fields. Fred Waugh continued his climbing duties and also served as stunt coordinator and second unit director for the show.

Several changes were made in Spidey's costume for the series, including the addition of a large silver wrist band from which his webs emanated, and a matching silver utility belt, and modifications in the mask that replaced the silvery eye patches with dark, reflective lenses. The latter was done to increase visibility for Waugh, though the effect was to give Spider-Man a bug-like visage. The series lasted only one month, after which further Spider-Man episodes were aired as specials on an occasional basis. Another new character was added, Julie Mason (played by Ellen Bry), who was a friend of Peter's and a photographer for a rival New York newspaper, the Register. Some of the later episodes were very elaborate, most notably a two-hour feature titled "The Chinese Web," which was filmed on location in Los Angeles, New York, and Hong Kong, and concerns Peter's attempts to save the reputation and life of a Chinese government official who is being framed and threatened by a wealthy, ruthless American industrialist doing business in Hong Kong. The high point of this film is the sight of Spider-Man scaling the face of a Hong Kong skyscraper.

Given the stunt and location budgets, it should come as no surprise that "The Amazing Spider-Man" was one of the most expensive shows on television, which contributed to its being canceled. The last episode was aired by CBS in June of 1979. (A year later, "The Chinese Web" was released theatrically overseas as "The Dragon's Challenge.") At the same time as the American series, another live-action series was being produced by Toei Productions for Japanese television. While the Spider-Man costume remained intact, the mythology was completely ignored in favor of the "monster-of-the-week" format that is common in Japanese action shows. Forty-one episodes of Toei's "Spider-Man" were produced and ran on TV Tokyo from May 1978 through the first half of March 1979.

Back in the U.S., Spider-Man was out of the public eye only momentarily, though when he next appeared on television it was in support of Spider-Woman, a character who had debuted in her own magazine in 1978. The animated series "Spider-Woman" premiered on ABC in September 1979.

Clad in a body suit of red with a yellow hourglass design on the front, yellow gloves and boots, and a red and yellow half-mask, Spider-Woman was in reality Jessica Drew (voiced by actress Joan Van Ark), the globetrotting editor and publisher of Justice Magazine. As a small girl Jessica was bitten by a poisonous spider, which prompted her scientist father to administer a powerful but untested antidote ("Serum #34") that saved her life, but which also left her with super-spider powers. In addition to spider-intuition and an ability to climb walls rivaling Spider-Man's, Jessica is able to spin and shoot webs from her fingertips, without having to rely on hidden mechanical gizmos. She can also fly, thanks to bat-like wings under the arms of her costume, not unlike the ones that appeared on Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man design.

Jessica changes into Spider-Woman by whirling herself into a mini-tornado, from which she emerges fully costumed. While Spider-Woman knows and occasionally helps Spider-Man (who tends to regard her in a cavalier manner, despite the fact that she has rescued him on several occasions), the two of them are not a team. Instead she travels the world over with her photographer and would-be boyfriend Jeff Hunt and her twelve-year-old nephew Billy, ostensibly covering stories for the magazine, but in reality using her job as a cover to investigate matters as Spider-Woman.

All of Spider-Woman's half-hour adventures were rooted in the supernatural (even Eric Rogers's music for the show was at times reminiscent of James Bernard's thundering music scores for Hammer horror films), with the heroine battling such bizarre opponents as alien mummies from the planet Hotep, who fly around in pyramid-shaped space ships, Amazon women from outer space, and Ghost Vikings who rise from the bottom of the ocean. The dread Dormammu, well known to readers of Dr. Strange, appears in one episode as a floating mask-like head with a fiery mane. Produced by DePatie-Freleng Productions, "Spider-Woman" lasted only a half-season, disappearing from the Saturday morning schedule in April 1980.

In September of 1981, NBC premiered a new Saturday morning, animated incarnation of the character, this one targeted to a slightly younger audience. The first series to appear under the banner of Marvel Productions, "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" was made by many of the same people who had worked on "Spider-Woman," including executive producer David DePatie (who had since become president of Marvel Productions, Ltd.) and directors Gerry Chiniquy, Sid Marcus, and Bob Richardson. The participation of Stan Lee was enhanced as well: in addition to having created the series for TV, he was now also its narrator, communicating directly with viewers in the same personal way he had been connecting with readers for years.

The "Amazing Friends" in question are young Bobby Drake, who as "Iceman" has the power to freeze anything by creating ice from the moisture in the air, and Angelica Jones, alias "Firestar," who is Iceman's opposite: she can create heat. Both Bobby and Angelica have transferred to Empire State University, which Peter Parker is also attending. Not so coincidentally, the two new superheroes also begin to show up around town, piquing the interest of J. Jonah Jameson, who tells Peter to stop wasting his time with Spider-Man photos and instead photograph Iceman and Firestar. When a fire in the school lab breaks out, Spidey goes into action, setting his automatic camera to capture his daring deeds, but Iceman and Firestar also show up. Later, when he develops the film, Peter discovers he has captured images of Bobby and Angelica changing into their superhero costumes. Peter confronts them and reveals that he is Spider-Man, and convinces them to join with him and create a team of superheroes. To simplify matters, Bobby and Angelica are taken into Aunt May's home as student borders, and the three teens proceed to work out of a secret laboratory that was installed in the house for them by inventor Tony Stark, whom they had earlier helped out of a jam (without realizing that he is in reality Iron Man).

In "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends," the emphasis was as much on comedy as it was on adventure and heroics. Those who had followed the Marvel comic books for any length of time recognized Bobby Drake/Iceman as one of the original "X-Men," and even though at one point Angelica Jones/Firestar referred to herself as an ex-X-Man, she was a character created specifically for the animated series (though a decade later she would appear on the comic book page as a member of The New Warriors).

"Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" lasted only one season, although its episodes were rerun as part of "The Incredible Hulk/Amazing Spider-Man Hour" on NBC from 1982 until 1984. During its production, however, the same unit produced another animated treatment of Spider-Man, this time for a syndicated series simply titled "Spider-Man." Whereas "Amazing Friends" was a cute show for kids, the syndie "Spider-Man" (which, along with other episodes of the syndicated "Spider-Man" were re-broadcast in 1988 as part of "The Marvel Action Universe") managed to capture the element of satire and tongue-in-cheek spirit that had long governed the Marvel Universe in print.

A perfect example of the show's grasp of the Spidey spirit was on display in an episode titled "The Capture of Captain America." In it, Peter Parker learns that his boss Jameson is a big booster of Captain America, whom the newspaper mogul hero worshiped as a boy during the war. Jameson proclaims that Cap is "maybe the greatest hero this nation has had since Herbert Hoover!" The publisher even passes out tiny American flags to Peter, Betty Brant, and Robbie Robertson so they can wave them during his tirade. The upshot of this sudden burst of patriotism is that Jameson declares that he is going to sponsor a Captain America day in New York.

Meanwhile, in his foreboding, gloomy castle, The Red Skull (grotesquely elegant in a smoking jacket and ascot, with a boutonniere in his lapel) is working on a plan to capture Captain America and defeat him on the very day of his honor. When a toady scientist named Dr. Niemann asks in a groveling manner, "Should I fetch your weapons, master?", the Skull answers, "Yes, but first comb your hair. Your lack of grooming is intolerable."

In a flash The Red Skull is in New York, where he quickly finds Jameson, abducts him, and takes his place on the stage for Cap's ceremony. When Captain America strides up to the microphone to give an acceptance speech, The Red Skull reveals himself. Watching from a distance is Peter Parker, who hurtfully muses that nothing he can do as a crimefighter earns the slightest bit of respect, yet all Captain America has to do is show up to receive a hero's welcome. But once he sees that the Red Skull has taken over the proceedings, Peter changes into Spider-Man and swings into action. Unfortunately, his attempts to help have the opposite effect. He ends up getting in the way of Cap's counter-attack, deflecting his shield before it can dispatch The Red Skull. Now unencumbered, The Skull gasses Captain America and takes him aboard his "Skull Ship," a crimson mini-plane.

When Spidey comes to, he realizes that Jameson is now accusing him of traitorous collusion with The Red Skull! Jameson has whipped the crowd into such a frenzy that even former supporters now turn against Spider-Man. Kids on the street throw away their Spider-Man comics. Shouts of anger and hate greet him wherever he goes. And when he accidentally tears an American flag, the crowd views it as an act of desecration. Spidey has had troubles before, but now the citizenry of New York has turned into an angry mob that is out to get him. Spider-Man has no choice but to flee for his life!

Fortunately, he had the foresight to plant a homing device on Cap's shield, but since it's dangerous for him to be seen in his costume, he goes to Stan's Costume Shop (!), which displays costumes of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America in the window, and rents a Captain America costume, which is much too big for him. As Cap (or at least a baggy pants version of him), he convinces a pilot to fly him to The Red Skull's castle, where the homing device has led them, and bails out.

Inside the castle, The Red Skull is showing off Dr. Niemann's most diabolical invention, a mind transference machine that The Skull plans to use to switch places with Cap. Once inhabiting the body of the universally loved Captain America, the villain plans to take over the United States. But the sudden appearance of Spider-Man, along with a last-minute change-of-heart on the part of Niemann, thwarts The Skull's plans and leaves him an empty shell whose mind has been drained off. The two superheroes return to New York and Captain America day now proceeds without interruption.

Perhaps more than any other individual film or cartoon episode made to that time, "The Capture of Captain America" caught the essence of Spider-Man: his foibles, his insecurities, his plain bad luck, all of which are juxtaposed against his humor and indomitable spirit, resulting in a totally unique brand of heroism. It even manages to poke fun at Captain America, but does so without the aftertaste of ridicule (though purists might quibble with the dandified Red Skull).

Beginning in 1987, Spider-Man made the first of his most unique appearances on national television, as a giant balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The balloon, which depicts Spidey in classic wall-crawling stance, was constructed by Manford Bass, a specialist in crafting large-sized inflatables, from a design by John Romita.

"Manny Bass is the genius behind those balloons and he deserves the credit for it," Romita says. "What I did was come up with a sketch in the first meeting that was almost the exact thing that was finally done. While we were talking he [Bass] was giving me the aerodynamic necessities, like you need to have the bulk of the helium in the upper part of the balloon so that it would be stable and stay upright. So I put his head and arms down and put his rump and his legs all bunched up in the back and that was the design that was chosen."

Romita was also called upon to paint a plaster model that would be used as a guideline for coloring the balloon itself. "I've done a lot of goofy things since I've worked for Marvel," the artist says, "but this one was interesting because I made this as a guide to show the exact web pattern and how it would translate to 360 degrees around the arms and legs. It was very tricky."

What might be the definitive animated adaption of the world's favorite wall climber premiered on Fox Kids Network in 1994. Titled "Spider-Man: The Animated Series," the sixty-five-episode series was a joint production of Marvel Productions, New World Entertainment, Saban Entertainment, and Graz Entertainment, and offered both a heightened sophistication in the storylines and a look that was new to television at that time, thanks to the use of computer generated imagery (CGI) for the backgrounds. A virtual replica of New York City was created in the computer for Spider-Man to swing through, and CGI was also used to enhance lighting and even add special effects, such as fog. "Since Spider-Man is basically a mythology that takes place in New York, we're real careful about trying to make the city look and feel like New York," said Bob Richardson, who served as supervising producer for the series. "We're trying to create a very effective reality base of the city so that the contrast with the fantasy of Spider-Man and these amazing villains he fights is all the more dramatic."

The producers of "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" also decided to go back to the source and used the original comic book stories as the basis for its scripts. As a result, the series was a comprehensive catalogue of Spider-Man's friends and adversaries, including Peter's wife Mary Jane, Aunt May, Peter's college friend and occasional rival Flash Thompson, Robbie Robertson, and J. Jonah Jameson, and the classic villains The Lizard, The Green Goblin, The Shocker, Venom, Carnage (who was the evil incarnation of Peter's clone, Ben Reilly), The Kingpin, Calypso, The Scorpion, Doctor Octopus, and The Black Cat.

The buzz on "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" served to make it one of the most eagerly anticipated animated shows in the history of Saturday-morning television. The premiere episode, which aired in November 1994, only whetted the appetite for Spidey fans, who had to wait three more months for the series to appear. The reason given for the delay was that extra time was needed to work on both the complex storylines and the computer graphics. When "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" finally debuted as a weekly series in February of 1995, it immediately became one of Fox's top-rated animated programs and stayed on the air for three years.

Spidey's most recent animated treatment was a definite departure from everything that had proceeded it. Developed for television by Marvel Media president and chief creative officer Avi Arad and writer/producer Will Meugniot, "Spider-Man Unlimited" takes place on the newly discovered planet Counter-Earth, where Spider-Man was marooned while tracking his enemies Venom and Carnage. Society on Counter-Earth parallels that on Earth, but there are a few big differences, notably that humans are the underclass, dominated by a race of animal-like humanoid mutants called Bestials. Spidey wears a new high-tech costume that consists of a blue-black and red body suit with a more stylized spider design and a transparent cape. Rather than keeping the costume under his street clothes in the time-honored fashion, Parker now uses remote control, which causes the suit to instantly materialize. The eyes in his newly designed spider mask also allow for infrared vision. But some things never change: Peter is still a photojournalist and is still given to wisecracks as he battles his way through a dangerous, stylized version of New York.

The biggest news for Spidey fans, however, is that the long-awaited feature film adaption of the character is finally underway. A joint production of Marvel Studios, Laura Ziskin Productions, and Columbia Pictures, "Spider-Man" is scripted by David Koepp, Neil Ruttenberg, and Scott Rosenberg, and directed by Sam Raimi--whose 1990 feature "Darkman" had a strong comic book atmosphere to it. Actor Tobey Maguire, best known for his role in 1999's "The Cider House Rules," has been tapped in the dual roles of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, with Kirsten Dunst cast as Mary Jane Watson and Willem Dafoe (replacing the previously cast John Malkovich) as The Green Goblin. The film, which will be released in 2002, will be the culmination of nearly two decades' worth of striving to bring the world's favorite webcrawler to the big screen.

Nobody ever said being a superhero was easy, and no superhero has ever proven that more than Spider-Man.


Return to Marvel (the book),
or to the HLLA Reference Library.


Text © Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.