John Semper Talks About Producing the Show
By Edward Gross
Every so often it becomes obvious that creative personnel have gotten their endeavor -- whatever form it might take -- absolutely right. In 1964, it was the James Bond thriller Goldfinger that seemed to lock onto a film-making formula that successfully paved the way for a film series that continues to this day. In 1978, it was the moment that an unknown actor named Christopher Reeve made you believe that a man could fly in Superman: The Movie. In the mid-1990s, it was Spider-Man: The Animated Series, the finest adaptation of the wall-crawler ever attempted.
John Semper, Spider-Man Producer and Story Editor
"I was very proud of Spider-Man, because my goal was to create the kind of experience that I had when I first read the comics in the 1960s," explain John S emper, who served as producer and story editor (i.e., "head writer") of the series. "Then when I went back and reread the comics, I realized that the storytelling, which had worked for the comic books, wasn't going to work for television once you brought them to screen verbatim. The real trick for me was to try and create the same feeling you got from reading those comics, while telling different stories. I didn't want people to feel that we were really deviating from the essence of what had happened with Spider-Man in the sixties. Consequently, a lot of people came to me and said, 'You really did a great job of adapting the comic.' Most of those stories were original when you get right down to it, especially when you get past season one. But it still captured the right feeling. It worked for the kids and it worked for the grown-ups. I was happy with the end results, though I was not happy working on the show."
By the time Spider-Man: The Animated Series debuted in November 1994, the landscape of Saturday-morning children's television had changed. Indeed, all one has to do is compare Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends to the newer show to see the differences. Gone for the most part were childish plotlines, and Super-Friends-like shows, in which Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were joined by the Wonder Twins and their oh-so-funny dog, Things had grown somewhat grittier and arguably more adult thanks to Batman: The Animated Series, which, ironically, eventually touched off a call for less violence in children's television.
"When Spider-Man came along, there really was a preexisting standard, which was Batman," Semper reflects. "Batman had kind of gone through a very painful birth to get itself to the point of being what it was. When a show is trying to be something that no one has ever seen before, that's a hard birth, and there was a lot of blood spilled on that show. There were a lot of people hired and fired, who felt that they had put a lot of time and effort into that show but were not with it when it finally got going. I think that's the hard birth of anything that truly tries to break new ground. I say break new ground, but they did have the Tim Burton movie, which was the inspiration for everything that they did. They also had Frank Miller's comics as a template and the comic book itself from the early years as a template. But for Saturday mornings, they were really trying to do something pretty unique and different." And they were successful, ushering in a new (albeit short-lived) era of edgy animation that led to some innovative programming, among them HBO's animated version of Spawn, and the Warner Brothers efforts Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond, and Cartoon Network's Justice League.
One person who took fiscal interest these successes -- particularly the merchandising bonaza that greeted the Batman features as well as its animated spinoffs -- was Avi Arad, whose company, Toy Biz, had acquired Marvel Comics. It was Arad's opinion that Marvel, given its library of characters, should be enjoying equal opportunity in the marketplace. To this end, he began putting together the latest animated incarnatino of Spider-Man, which FOX Broadcasting -- the home of Batman: The Animated Series until it was brought "home" by Warner Brothers to the WB -- expressed interest in.
In an effort to hedge his bets, Arad brought in Emmy Award-winning writer Martin Pasko, who was coming off of the animated Batman and who had made a name for himself in comics. It was Pasko's job to essentially write the show's bible and bring its scripts together.
"This writer," who Semper himself doesn't mention by name, "was hired with plenty of time to develop the show and given the mandate to just go out there and do the best show possible. He was the guy who was going to bring them to Superhero Valhalla. Now this guy might have done a perfectly wonderful Spider-Man show. The problem is that in this business, when you are placed in charge of a show -- and so many people don't realize that this is why so many shows suck -- the majority of your time is spent dealing with politics. If you're not a political animal, you can't do this work, because the creative stuff only begins after the politics have ended. So you spend all of your day dealing with people and their egos and their insanity, and then you have to go home and do the creative stuff. Basically you have three hours of politics and one hour of creativity. So I'd have to fight with people a lot, but do it in such a way that I could continue to work with them. Then I'd go in my room with my writers and we'd beat out a story. If you can't do both, then you can't run a show. It's that simple. Especially a show as dysfunctional as Spider-Man. Well, my predecessor apparently could not do both. He was probably extremely talented, wonderful writer, but my guess is that politcally he might have been in way over his head."
During Spider-Man's earliest days of development, Semper, a writer with an extensive background in comedy (Scooby Doo, Fraggle Rock, the live-action feature Class Act), was working on the PBS series Puzzle Palace when he read an item in Variety about the Spider-Man series going into production.
"When you read something like that," he muses, " you always experience that whole pang of, 'God, that's what I always wanted to do.' I went through that and I read who it was that was going to do it. I had met this person many years earlier when he was riding high, prior to doing Batman. In fact, he had a fairly extensive live-action career and I though to myself, "I don't know if that person is actually a very political animal. I don't know if he's going to be able to handle actually running a high-profile show like that all by himself.' That was my first thought. My second was, 'Wouldn't it be great if he failed miserably?' -- because that's the way writers really think."
Semper nearly got the gig at that time. Stan Lee called him shortly thereafter, explaining that things might not be working out with the writer they'd hired, and that Semper was someone he'd like on the show. Managing to keep his excitement in check, Semper did not end up disappointed when he learned that the other writer actually was staying with the series, though as it turned out his tenure wouldn't last all that long.
"What happened," says Semper, "and I understand this now, which is why I say he can't be blamed, is that the people working on the show were horrible. There were insane. Please quote me. They were simply nasty people. There was so much fighting going on between them that, quite honestly, I think they drove him close to a nervous breakdown."
Eventually, Semper's phone started to ring, and it was Lee on the other end, stating that things hadn't worked out with the other guy and that they wanted to bring him in. Although he was weary of the obvious political machininations taking place, he nonetheless decided to take the offer.
"So I walk in, sort of dumb and happy, ready to do this show," he says. "The reality about me is that if you ask me to do anything, I can do anything. If you ask me tomorrow to do a script for The West Wing, I'd watch a bunch of episodes and write a West Wing. That's how I've kept myself alive in this business. But you can't ever tell anyone that. You can't say, 'Oh, I can write anything,' and expect them to believe you. I had not technically done an action/adventure show in Saturday-morning animation, but if you had asked me what I would have come out here to do in the beginning, I would have said, 'Oh, action/adventure.' I really only got sidetracked into comedy and preschool. I knew action/adventure better than I knew anything else. Everything else I've had to learn, but I was ready to do action/adventure. So, I felt fairly ready to do this show.
"I definitely felt that this was an opportunity to do Spider-Man the way Spider-Man should be done," Semper elaborates. "That was exciting. It was an opportunity to bring to the screen -- and I've said this before -- the kind of thing that was going on in the comic book when the comic book really got going. Good drama, a realistic sense of a very unreal thing -- of what a superhero was, if in fact a superhero existed -- good storytelling, and the two words that would get me into a lot of trouble -- soap opera. I remember that's what made Spider-Man my favorite comic book. I loved the characterizations, I like the stories, and I loved the soap-opera aspect. I thought, 'Well, if I'm ever going to get a chance to do that, this was probably it.'"
Working on Spider-Man had been one of his dreams, particularly when he went to work for Marvel Productions in the early 1980s. At that point, the company was an animation outfit that was producing television shows for Hasbro, such as G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Defenders of the Earth, the last a series that teamed up, among others, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, and the Phantom. "It was the closest I'd come to doing anything comic book related," he says. "But that company was a total disaster. It ultimately went out of business." Two of the perks of that job, however, were that the compamy was called Marvel and that Stan Lee had an office in the same building.
"The whole time I was there," he states, "I would chat with Stan, who really is a brilliant guy, and fantasize about doing Spider-Man. So I thought [Spider-Man: The Animated Series] was going to be an opportunity to really fulfill that dream. Through all the difficulty of working on that show -- and it was the most difficult show I'd ever worked on -- that was the thing that kept me alive. Every once in a while I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'Hey, damn, I'm doing Spider-Man and I'm doing it the way I've always wanted to do it. That's pretty damn cool.' In my career, I always have to take the good with the bad. Or the bad with the good. But the good was so good that it didn't matter how bad the bad was. And it was horrible, but it didn't matter, because I knew that what would end up on-screen would be the most true to the comic-book form of Spider-Man that I could manage to get out the door, despite all the production drawbacks."
When Semper arrived for his first day at work, he was met by impressive posters of Spider-Man that were hanging virtually everywhere, announcing that Spidey would be coming to television in the fall. Excited, he greeted Virginia Roth, his new story coordinator, and asked to be brought up to speed. Unfortunately, to his surprise, there wasn't anything to tell. All that his predecessor had done was write a bible for the show, but instead of being a concise breakdown of the series' characters and settings, it was an exhaustive history of the character in the comic books -- essentially useless as a blueprint for a new TV series. Even worse, there were no scripts written for the show.
"I began to realize that nothing had been done," he says, "and the reason nothing was done is that nobody could agree on anything. Then I started to become aware of the political undertones. What I soon found out was that everybody was at odds."
According to the writer, egos were running rampant, with various producers and TV executives at odds over who should be doing what, and which production entities should have final say. Spider-Man: The Animated Series brought an all-new meaning to the term creative differences. "If all I had to do every day was deal with politics, that would have been a full-time job all by itself," says Semper. "But the problem was, I also had to get a show out the door and the show had to be good. My ability to keep getting employed in this town is based on what people see on the screen, not what goes on behind the screens. The fact that I survived the politics of the show is meaningless, because all anyone responds to now so many years later is whether or not the film looks any good, whether the stories are any good. That's the hard part. Somewhere in the middle of all that bullshit you have to find the time to write, to conceptualize, work with other writers and get them to do their best work, because every other writer that arrives on the scene, no mater how good they are, once they see the absurd chaos going on all around them, all they're interested in is the paycheck. So you have to inspire them to do their best work; you have to deal with their egos and emotions. I really had two lives on Spider-Man. One was dealing with the politics, which was ridiculous, but the other one was dealing with myself and my team of writers and trying to get the best shw out fthe door. That was the real challenge."
Politically, throughout the first season things on Spider-Man were positively volatile. Semper admits that he was stunned by the duplicity all around him, and eventually got word that a plan was afoot for his executive producers to fire him after the first thirteen episodes. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, he chose to play politcal hardball and more or less performed a bit of manipulation of his own, pitting FOX against the decisions of the execs, which ultimately led (once the dust settled) to Semper keeping his position for the rest of the show's sixty-five episode run. "Ultimately, it was Avi's decision to renew me, and, to his credit, he did. We eventually got into a good working rhythm on the show, and he started to trust me more. For a while we had a nice collaboration, and that's when the show really took off. Avi has wild ideas -- mostly for individual scenes -- and my job was to put them into some kind of shape. And they weren't bad ideas. Once he started giving me more freedom, I could fit his ideas into my story structure. It was the best of both worlds. But always there were people whispering in his ear that everything I was doing was 'all wrong' and that I should be suppressed in some way. So I always had to fight that."
Creatively, Semper went about desinging what he hoped would be the best version of Spider-Man to date, capturing the essence of the comics as well as the character itself. "Truthfully," he says, "you can't really do Stan's comics, brilliant as they are, on television, because they don't work. They were written for a different medium. But you can get close. That's why in our Lizard episode Spider-Man is really talking all the way through. I remember a few people complaining about that, but I thought, 'Yeah, but that's Spider-Man; that's just the way it is. You've got to play the character right.' He's Hamlet. He's constantly having these monologues. Spider-Man is ultimately all about teenage angst and it's really about nothing else. The villainy is pretty straightforward. You kind of have a little bit of fun when you get to the Green Goblin and all that stuff, but it's really about a teenager who's wrestling with every problem that teenagers wrestle with. If you lose that focus, you really lose Spider-Man. If you try to make Spider-Man about the powers and the web-slinging, it really doesn't differentiate him from any other superhero out there. In this over-saturated superhero world in which we live, that gets to be a problem. He starts to look a little dated. But if you keep him firmly rooted in the teenage stuff, in the coming-of-age stuff, then you stay very close to what the original spirit of the character was."
His other ambition was to deviate from previous Spider-Man shows by creating a serialized form of storytelling rather than just a series of stand-alone episodes. This was met with a lot of resistance.
Avi Arad, Executive Producer of Spider-Man
"The person who was really against it at first was Avi," he says increduously. "He wanted every episode to be self-contained. Avi was dead set against soap opera, because all he could think about was Robotech, and they had tried to do serial storytelling with Robotech. The cartoon and the toy line failed miserably, so the attitude was that, therefore, you can't do serial stuff. I was adamant. I said, 'No, that's what the fans want out of Spider-Man.' But in the beginning, I lost that battle, and so in the first season the episodes were self-contained. To me, it's boring to know that Spider-Man is going to meet a villain, some stuff will happen in the middle and he'll defeat the villain in the end.
"To go off on a tangent for a moment," continues Semper, "a lot of people don't know this, but Batman: The Animated Series did not set the world on fire in the ratings. Never was a big hit. The reason Warners continued making it was because they branched off and created their own network. If you remember, Batman began on FOX and then sequed over to Warners. Because it was an established franchise, they kept making new episodes. But Spider-Man routinely beat the spandex off of Batman. You may not remember this, but when they premiered Superman, they put it on opposite Spider-Man and Superman failed so miserably that in order to keep it alive they had to pair it with Batman as the Superman/Batman Hour. Then they had to take that show away from being on opposite Spider-Man, because Spider-Man was clobbering it."
In his opinion, one of the problems with the Batman series was that after the initial thrill of the show's look and character style, things fairly quickly fell into a bit of repetition. "By the time you got to the fifth episode," he muses, "you were all done. Why did you need to keep watching? That bothered me. I knew we were not going to get the same kind of money to spend, so it was going to look more like the X-Men series rather than Batman. But X-Men's talented head writer, Eric Lewald, was getting number-one ratings with continuing story lines for the most part, so I knew we had to do that, too. And sure enough, X-Men and Spider-Man were always in a virtual tie for number one on Saturday mornings."
His short-term response to the rejection of his desire for serialized scenarios was to propose a number of two-parters in the first season. Although Arad was reluctant, he ultimately gave in -- thanks, again, to a bit of manipulation on Semper's part.
"What was my first two-parter? 'The Spider-Slayers.' Why? Because Avi had a toy line coming out called Spider Slayers." He laughs. "So I went to Avi and said, 'Guess what? We can do a two-parter based on your toys,' and he said, 'Oh, I like that idea.' To a great extent, from Avi's perspective, these shows were designed to sell his toy line, so any time I wanted to push something through, if I could wrap it around one of his goofy toys, then all of a sudden it would happen.
"Pretty easy, huh?" Semper adds with a laugh. "Connect the dots. You, too, can run a show."
Figuring out how to play the game, Semper found himself more and more able to craft the kind of series he felt the Spider-Man character deserved. In the end, Spider-Man: The Animated Series truly was the best adaptation of the character to date, with flesh-and-blood human beings for characters. Additionally, beginning with year two, there were also season-long story arcs that allowed for genuine story development that mirrored -- in tone if not detail -- many of the early comic-book scenarios, a number of which had spanned four or five issues. As such, Spider-Man became the example to which all other adaptations of the wall-crawler would be compared.
Interestingly, the one aspect of the comic books that Semper avoided -- despite its immense popularity -- was Peter Parker's romance with Gwen Stacy, as well as her death at the hands of the Green Goblin. Instead, he elected to go with Felicia Hardy (who was beefed up significantly from her vague persona in the comic books), and then ultimately led Spider-Man, as was the case in the comics, to love and marriage with Mary Jane Watson.
"I didn't use Gwen on this show, because everything with Gwen would ultimately have to lead to her dying," he says. "We can't do dying on Saturday morning. The Batman guys always managed to get away with stuff like that, but they always managed to get away, quite literally, with murder. They did everything we weren't supposed to do -- everything I was absolutely told not to do by the censors. What happened with Batman initially was when they did the first season, I think the censorship was a bit looser. By the time I started Spider-Man, FOX was having trouble placing their shows in Canada, which was banning shows like Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. FOX was being really skittish about violence and they didn't want to take any chances. So all the stuff the Batman guys had been doing, we suddenly couldn't do. Then Batman moved over to the WB network, so you've got Warner Brothers making cartoons for the WB network, and there never seemed to be any censorship on those guys whatsoever.
"Whenever I watch an episode of Batman, within the first three minutes I see two or three things I could never do -- fists to the jaw, punches to the face, people being thrown through glass, anything having to do with fire, children in jeopardy, and so on," Semper continues. "I would always get letters from viewers saying, "How come Spider-Man doesn't hit anybody? I was absolutely told that I could not do that. So I couldn't do what they did, yet I got better ratings. Their show went on to win Emmys and ran for years and years, because Warner Brothers wisely saw the sense in keeping the franchise going. My show, which routinely beat Batman in the ratings and certainly clobbered Superman -- not only did it end with sixty-five episodes, thanks to corporate stupidity, but it really was a show that from the beginning had far more restrictions on it than any of those Warner Brothers shows did. The original Batman has always received kudos and Spider-Man has not, yet Spider-Man, as far as I'm concerned, was the better show from a storytelling point of view. Not that I'm biased or anything..." He laughs.
Made better, he emphasizes, from the time he was allowed to guide the series the way that he had originally envisioned it. "When I got approval from Avi to do the elaborate continuing story line for season two," he says, "it was the greatest moment, as far as I'm concerned, of his involvement with the show. He had the power to stop me cold in my tracks, but he didn't, and I'll always be grateful for that. That was when the show became the cool Spider-Man show that I think people are talking about when they say they like the series. Yes, I had to push really hard for that, because it was the exact opposite of what I had been told I could do. At that moment it was all about delivering the best work of your life, which I think Spider-Man really is."
Rumors abound that Spidey will be returning in a new animated television series following the Sam Raimi-directed feature film. Asked recently about Semper's possible involvement, Avi Arad responded that although Semper is a talented writer, Spider-Man: The Animated Series was the result of many different creative voices, and that they would be going for a different take on the next show.
"What they love to say," offers Semper, "is that Spider-Man wasn't me, Spider-Man was a combination of many people. But that same combination of people pre-existed before I got on the show and there was no show. And I always point out that the second series -- Spider-Man Unlimited -- was all the same people -- even some of the same writers -- except for me. The results speak for themselves."
This page is a part of DRG4's Marvel Cartoon Pages:
Featuring Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, and the Silver Surfer.