"I knew we wouldn't be writing for kids," explains Spider-Man animated series producer-story editor John Semper. "I never thought about appealing to four year olds. My attitude going in was that we were going to write the best stories we could and just see what happens."
Fortunately for Semper, he at least had that rule set in stone. Because while supervising producer Bob Richardson had a leisurely six months of pre-production to get Spider-Man, visually speaking, up and running, Semper -- who joined the team in November, 1993 -- was replacing a previous producer-story editor who had done next to nothing for six months.
"The guy I was replacing had used up all my pre-production time," he winces at the memory. "When I came on, the show was running way behind schedule. I discovered that, from a wrting point of view, they were way behind schedule and they really had no show. I had to hit the ground running and basically created the wrting side of the show while writing the first four scripts."
Given this stumbling start, it's no small miracle that Spider-Man, currently in the home strech of its inaugural 13 episodes, is Top Dog in the ratings kennel. The show has been such an immediate hit since its February '95 debut that the powerbrokers at the FOX network (home of the equally successful series X-Men and The Adventures of Batman and Robin) are seriously considering upping the order from the original 65 episodes to 100.
SUCCESS AT LAST
Everybody has his or her own theory about why this umpteenth attempt at selling a Spidey cartoon (being produced by Marvel Films Animation) seems to be the charm.
"The animation is better than anything we've ever had before," enthuses the show's co-executive producer and Spider-Man creator (with Steve Ditko) Stan Lee. "We're spending more money. We're taking more time. And, most importantly, we're being as faithful to the comics as we can possibly be."
"We have a character who is displaying emotions we've never seen on an animated series before," says the show's editor Richard Allen. "It's a different show. A show both boys and girls can relate to."
Supervising producer Bob Richardson seconds that emotion. "Here's a guy going to school, trying to hold down a job, taking care of his aunt and dealing with girlfriends. He has the kinds of problems the average person has."
Spider-Man is far from your average cartoon, though. There are equal amounts turmoil, insecurity, humor, superior animation (courtesy of the folks at Japan's Tokyo Movie Shinsa), the ongoing gimmick of 3-D animated backgrounds (from the stateside Kronos studios) and a wealth of talented voice-over people. Chris Barnes (Greg from The Brady Bunch Movie) is handling the dual voices of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, while Ed Asner (Lou Grant) is J. Jonah Jameson. Also on hand are Linda Gary as Aunt May, Nell Carter (Gimme a Break) as Glory Grant and Rue McClanahan (Golden Girls) as Felicia Hardy's mother.
Heading up the who's who of villains is Joe Campanella (Days of Our Lives) as The Lizard, Martin Landau (Ed Wood) as The Scorpion, Roscoe Lee Browne (Logan's Run) in his Emmy nominated performance as The Kingpin, Mark Hamill (voice of The Joker in Batman and Robin) as Hobgoblin and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (voice of Alfred in Batman and Robin) as Dr. Octopus, to name a few.
Lee offers that this incarnation of Spider-Man came together fairly quickly, owing in part to the previous success FOX has had with animated fare and with the ever-present specter of James Cameron's mega budget Spider-Man movie lurking on the horizon.
Giving Spider-Man and his cohorts a firm grip on reality also adds the series' success, notes Semper. "In this series, Peter has not always been thrilled with being Spider-Man. He has his doubts about what he is doing and why he is doing it. The villains are not mean for the sake of being mean; they have real agendas and personalities."
And if anything from the current Spidey comics makes it into the series, it is purely an unfortunate accident.
"The new stuff tends to be a lot darker and there's only so much darkness that I want to bring to Saturday morning television," says Semper. "Personally, I don't want this show to become Batman: The Animated Series. We decided early on that we would bring the joking, jovial Spider-Man to the screen. It's only recently that we've had to deal with the strange, violent, depressing Spider-Man and I'm not so sure that's really working."
There have been four previous attempts to do a Spider-Man animated series, dating back to 1967 with the original Spider-Man half-hour show.
When Richardson and Semper jumped in to give the current incarnation a go, it was with the understanding that things would be done quite differently. Richardson and his staff of visual pros used their pre-production time to design characters that would be animation friendly.
For Semper and his two main writer druing the first season, Stan Berkowitz and Mark Hoffmeier, the trick was to make Spider-Man as comic-book like as Lee and the folks at FOX wanted. Which, Semper recalls, was not an easy task.
"If this show had been a literal adaptation of the comic books, it would be a pretty lousy show. The comics are great as comics and are the main reason why this show is here. But you cannot bring a comic to the screen as a comic, without all kinds of strange things happening. Dramatically, the comics are not complete. Characters are badly motivated a lot of the time and they get involved in stories that are quite unrealistic. When we were preparing this show we realized that once these characters started to move, we had to flesh out their worlds a little bit better."
Once secure in his position, Semper made his first demand of the combined FOX-Marvel forces. "The first thing I did was make them buy me a complete collection of Spider-Man comics. They had this idea that armed with six trade paperbacks, I was going to be able to create a 65-episode series. I told them no, invest the money. If nothing else, we'll need the books for reference."
Richardson, in the meantime, was espousing the notion that, in order for this Spider-Man to work, it had to be unlike your typical Saturday morning cartoon show.
"In effect, what we had to do was make mini-movies. We had to take the Spider-Man Universe and play it out like it was live-action on the big screen. We set the series in New York City and we wanted to capture the reality of the city. We went so far as to set up maps in the work area to make sure our settings were consistent with the actual city. There's a certain reality on a show like this and we felt that, if we did our job right on that front, the fantastic nature of the characters that show up would make the stories all the more interesting."
In the meantime, Semper had gotten his comics and, as '93 moved into '94, the story editor began -- through researching more than 30 years of Spider-lore -- building the foundation of the Spider-Man series."I was able to take those threads of character and plot that meandered through all those years of Spider-Man and bring them together in nice, tight half-hour adventures."
Semper's bible for the series has focused more heavily on drama and human (or even inhuman) interaction. Consequently, Semper found himself tinkering with many of the established Spider-Man characters, which opened up the show to controversy.
"If you look at the women in the Spider-Man Universe, you find that they've been pretty two-dimensional and there were not many strong women i Spider-Man [lore] until the late '80s. I really wanted to bring strong women into the series and I felt, symbolically, Aunt May would be a good place to start. In the series, she is not dottering and weak [as she's portrayed in the comics, but fully capable of taking care of herself."
"Felicia has always been a pretty strong character," continues Semper, "but I added the fact that she's wealthy and that she has a whole different way of looking and behaving. We're also playing Mary Jane as a much stronger and interesting character. In the comics she was pretty much all over the place; from party girl/bimbo to bad girl and then as a sort of yuppie wife. But, in order to do good dramatic stories, we felt we had to lock the character in one way. So we've made her a drama student who knows her own mind and as the episodes have unfolded, we've seen her develop into someone who is very adventurous and aggressive."
Semper offers that the decision in regards to the male characters on the show was to "play them much closer to the comic books. Peter has had as many as five different personalities over the years. He's not a nerd in the show. We've made him pretty much the guy he was in the '80s when it was not uncommon for him to have a lot of women in his life but could not make things work because he was also Spider-Man. We haven't made him a total psychological wreck in the series but we've made it plain that he still has some drawbacks."
Semper quickly knocked out the first four half-hour episodes of Spider-Man. But what he quickly discovered was that "tight, half-hour adventures" were not feeding his creative spirit. "What I learned early on was that a half-hour episode of Spider-Man was not a very satisfying experience. It was like we were coming in on the third act and we were missing quite a lot. So I began writing two-parters which has resulted in more complete stories."
The behind-the-scenes care and feeding of just one episode of Spider-Man takes approximately six months from cradle to the tube. And, reflects Semper, it all starts with the writing.
"It basically takes a month to write the script. One week to do the draft. Then everybody looks at it, hates it and throws it back in your face for a rewrite. Then you rewrite it and they still haate it but they throw it back in your face with a little less force. After about a month it works."
At which point Richardson and his army of storyboarding whizzes take over and, over a period of four to six weeks, break the script down for animation.
"Basically a script is modified at the storyboarding stage. Unless a script is more than a hundred pages long, it can only tell the animators so much. So what we do is design some fast-cutting, dynamic shots that will cut together well between the 3-D and 2-D shots and make sure that what Kronos does here in the states will match what they do to the character animation in Japan."
Then it's off to the respective animation places where, in anywhere from 2-3 months, the animation is done. After that? Well, it's back to the states where Spider-Man becomes editor Richard Allen's headache.
"We're getting retakes in today that are part of an episode that is due to air this coming Saturday," says the perpetually cheerful Allen. "They may not work out and we're running out of time, so I've already pulled a backup scene from a previous episode that I can drop in in an emergency."
Allen, with the aid of the most modern, computer-based editing equipment, has a week to take out the holes and make the transitions work. It's not, as one would imagine, all smooth sailing.
"I've had the animation come back with the heads of characters missing from the scene," he groans good-naturedly. "I've had to flop scenes to make them work. The animation people are good. They're the best I've seen in a long time. But sometimes we get things back where there is no rhyme or reason of how they came up with what they did. And then we have to make it work. We simply don't have the time or the option of sending something back to Japan to be fixed. We have to fix it here."
MAKING THE GRADE
Semper, a refreshingly candid individual, assesses the first seasons' episodes. Given the rushed nature of his duties, the story editor claims to be more pleased with the results than not. "I thought the opening episode with The Lizard went really well. The Venom three-parter and The Scorpion story also came out particularly well. The Hobgoblin story was a problem because we were doing that villain before doing The Green Goblin. That was one of the few decisions my predecessor made that I was tuck with. Quite frankly, I don't think Hobgoblin is a very strong villain, so coming up with a good story for him was tough."
The producer-story editor very much wanted Spider-Man's first season to kick off with a mammoth arc of a multi-episode story. But the hectic nature of getting SPider-Man out of the blocks prohibited that. Now Semper warns that the second season will be the charm.
"We're going to do a 13-part, season-long story in which Spider-Man has this one big problem that he has to deal with. Without giving too much away, Spider-Man's life is being threatened in a specific way and he's got to find a way of dealing with it. In the first two episodes, Spider-Man will go up against a group of villains called The Insidious Six. After that, all kinds of villains will appear and gang up on him. Basically, what the second season will be is an animated version of the movie D.O.A. [where a poisoned man searches for his killer before dying]."
He further reports that season three "will be mostly two-part adventures" and will "set the stage for a big battle that will hopefully happen in season four."
And wihle hope for the further adventures of Spider-Man springs eternal, Semper remains committed to the same approach that he brought with him to the show.
"Hey, I have no ego about this. In the past, what has gone wrong with Spider-Man is that they've taken this wonderful character and tried to do dumb cartoon shows based on him. I make no bones about why I'm here. I'm here to bring the comic books to life, to the best of my ability."
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.