DRG4's Spider-Man: TAS Page Presents:
Spider-Man Strikes Back!
Article and interview by Sean Farrell and Jessie Lilley

Left to right: Christopher Daniel Barnes, Spider-Man, and John Semper

Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, has proven to be one of the most durable characters in comic-book history. Over three decades of battling vile villains on the mean streets of New York will culminate this year in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN's 400th issue, as well as a new line of action figures from Toy Biz, Inc. Plans are proceeding for Spidey's big-screen debut in a live-action feature. Perhaps best of all, fans of Peter Parker's wall-crawling alter ego can also look forward to a new Saturday morning animated series from FOX.

"What we're going to do with this series is the very best job we can in bringing Spider-Man to the screen," says John Semper, the driving force behind the animated SPIDER-MAN. "I don't speak for Marvel; I don't speak for any other show that Marvel is doing or is going to do. What I do know is that SPIDER-MAN was important to me when I was a kid. My name is now attached to it, and I'm going to do the best that I can to make it the best show on TV."

Semper is not a big fan of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES' film-noir look, and is quick to point out that SPIDER-MAN will be much different in tone. "We're not going for a distinctive look that can be labeled. We wanted a much brighter, much more colorful New York. Spider-Man himself is a very colorful character. He'd look silly in a noirish kind of background. Bob Richardson, who is the animation supervising producer, has chosen a design style that is very clear, uncluttered, and cinematically effective, without the show getting lost in its own style."

Though some of the backgrounds for SPIDER-MAN are accomplished via computer graphics, the bulk of the work consists of traditional animation handled by the Japanese firm Tokyo Movie Shinsha. "They are the best animation house in the world doing TV animation. Period," Semper enthuses. "The computer animation is being done by a company called Kronos, and we have a helluva time syncing up and getting the cell animation to be properly married with the computer animation. Some people just don't like the idea of mixing computer animation with cell animation. We'll continue doing it, because it's the only way that we can get the web-slinging to work, with Spider-Man swooping in and out of all those wonderful buildings."

With the amount of control wielded by Semper -- he serves as producer and story editor, and has scripted a number of shows ("I also clean up the offices in the evenings") -- longtime Spidey-philes may wonder if Stan "The Man" Lee is involved at all with the new series. But, as Semper himself exclaims, "Stan is very involved in this show. It is wonderful working with a writer as good as Stan. He's every bit as creatively fresh today as he was years ago, and he's a great friend, great guy to know, great guy to work with -- I can't say enough about him! I've known Stan for nine years, and he's my hero. I paid good money to see him lecture when I was in college. When I finally met him, I found him to be no less magical than I had always imagined him to be."


Stan Lee (left) and John Semper

Semper's original background was as a film editor in post-production animation, a position he held at Ruby-Spears, a sister company to Hanna Barbera. It was a job that exposed him to the entire process of making cartoons. "I was dealing with producers, directors, inkers, painters, checkers, sound cutters, sound mixers...."

Semper went on to write and develop FRAGGLE ROCK for Jim Henson. He also found steady work as story editor -- with writing partner Cynthia Friedlob -- on SCOOBY-DOO.

This last project gave him the chance to insert a favorite literary character into a script. "In my animation career, I always try to do a Sherlock Holmes story," Semper says. "Years ago, when I did SCOOBY-DOO, I did a Sherlock Holmes SCOOBY-DOO! By the way, one of my last series at Hanna Barbera was THE THIRTEEN GHOSTS OF SCOOBY-DOO, and our special guest star in those episodes was Vincent Price. He was an absolutely delightful man. We tapped him to do the character of Vincent Van Ghoul, and he was just so delighted to be doing this cartoon show."

Semper had desperately wanted Price's autograph, but was unable to attend the recording session. Cynthia Friedlob met Price in the parking lot after the session and asked the Merchant of Menace if he could wait to meet Semper. "It took them about five or six minutes to find me," Semper recalls, "and Price stood out in the parking lot with Cynthia, talking. Never was impatient. Never was in a hurry. It was perfectly okay with him to wait until they found me so that I could get his autograph! He was just the sweetest man on the planet!"

The Sherlock Holmes influence can also be seen in one of SPIDER-MAN's larger than life villains. "The Kingpin's been the most prominent villain in the series, because he's such an evil force, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion. I literally made Kingpin into a modern-day Professor Moriarty. He is the evil behind all the other evil. He is the mastermind of crime, and the most insidious thing about him is that nobody knows that he's out there doing it."

Morbius (left) and the Kingpin

As fans know, only the baddies of Batman rival Spider-Man's infamous rogues' gallery. As to which of these spider-slaying slimeballs will be seen on the series, Semper's happy answer is: "All of them! As many as we can cram into 65 episodes! Any villain that I don't feel can stand the weight of being up against Spider-Man, and giving him a good fight, I'll usually make a secondary villain in a bigger story."

Among the adversaries who will appear in the series are Venom, Doctor Octopus, and the Vulture, the last a vengeful old man with the power of flight who was one of Spider-Man's more unique heavies. The show, however, will present him as a young man. "They did that in the comics recently. Actually, I didn't want him to arrive on the scene as a young man, so we have the old Vulture and the young Vulture, and we have the transition between the two."

Semper had originally wanted to introduce the Green Goblin in the first season, but he was stuck with a decision that his predecessor (who left the show over creative differences) had made concerning yet another high-flying mischief-maker: the Hobgoblin. "Because he had made the decision to introduce the Hobgoblin first, there were certain designs implemented and a certain part of the production process initiated, which resulted in my being saddled with having to deal with the Hobgoblin. I could have regarded that as a negative, but I ended up regarding it as a positive. I'm very happy with the story; I think it's a great story. We have Mark Hamill (formerly the Joker on BATMAN) as the voice of the Hobgoblin."

Semper feels that introducing the Hobgoblin first leaves even more dramatic possibilities for the Green Goblin, who will be introduced further down the line. "He is going to be Norman Osborn, the original Goblin, but we're going to have to tell the story differently. It's going to give our show the kind of freshness that I want to give it, anyway. We don't want to tell any story exactly as it was told in the comic books, because we want to keep everybody on their toes. We want to keep our audience guessing as to where we're going."

With all these evildoers showing up, it's a good thing SPIDER-MAN will have guest appearances by Marvel Comics' other superheroes. "Spidey always did lend himself to team-ups," Semper says, "and I have access to the entire Marvel universe. We'll be doing something with the Fantastic Four, and I'm definitely going to do something with Dr. Strange. We've done a crossover with the X-Men. We're going to do as much as we can without turning the show into SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS."

As far as Peter Parker's personal life is concerned, Semper also has that covered. "We pick Peter up in his first year of college. Physically and visually, he's not going to change during the course of the series. But in terms of maturity, in terms of character development, I think we're going to have a little growing up. He's going to be a wiser person by the time this whole 65-episode miniseries is over.

"Every major Spider-Man character that you can think of will turn up in one form or another in this series," Semper adds. "As far as the women are concerned, the Spider-Man universe was never populated by strong women characters -- at least, not in its early years. All the women in the show are extremely strong characters. That was one of my first mandates.

"I wanted to make Peter's Aunt May a more interesting character, and not have her hovering in the background and making cookies and worrying about her heart. I wanted to make Mary Jane more sensible. She's still a lot of fun, but Mary Jane has a life, too. She has drama, she's not a bimbo. Felicia Hardy is quite interesting. I'm starting her off as being a snotty, snooty, upper-class bitch, for lack of a better word. But she will grow. We have Glory Grant, who is J. Jonah Jameson's secretary. And I resurrected a very obscure character: Debra Whitman. Peter's a really brilliant science student, but Debra is also a brilliant science student; in fact, she may be more brilliant than Peter."

Gwen Stacy, however, remains dead. "I personally loved Gwen Stacy, but we did not want to do a character who, when you pick up a comic, is dead. Gwen was the woman I wanted Peter to marry  -- personally, as a fan. We decided not to do her, and most of the Gwen Stacy stuff was handed to Felicia."

Even J. Jonah Jameson, the Daily Bugle publisher who probably hates Spider-Man more than any super-villain, is being given a different spin on the series. "He's a man who was hurt early in his life, and he rather conservatively detests anybody who puts a mask on and becomes a vigilante," Semper relates. "He's still as much of a problem for Spider-Man as he was in the comics, but in his private moments, we can understand why he does what he does. That makes him three-dimensional.

J. Jonah Jameson (left) and the Green Goblin

"We could get a thousand people to bang their fists and say, 'Parker! Get me those photographs!' But the minute we got Ed Asner to voice Jonah, we knew we had to have more for him to be than simply the guy who's on Peter Parker's back all the time."

The mention of Asner leads to the subject of the actors lending their voices to the animated screen. "We've got the greatest cast in the world," Semper enthuses. "It is a smorgasbord of people who I've always wanted to meet. To begin with, our director is Tony Pastor, and Tony's doing a wonderful job. Our Spider-Man is Christopher Daniel Barnes -- and he is perfect. He is a great actor. He is a good guy.  I like him as a friend. As Mary Jane, we have Saratoga Ballantine. She is a wonderful actress, a very sweet person, and another good friend. We have Jennifer Hale, who does the voice of Felicia. We have an actor named Patrick Labyorteaux, who used to be on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, playing Flash Thompson, and he's doing a wonderful job. He captures that jock kind of arrogance. I mean, Flash is a real asshole."

The SPIDER-MAN cast also includes such stars as Maxwell Caulfield (Alistaire Smythe), Roscoe Lee Browne (Kingpin), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Doc Ock), and Martin Landau (the Scorpion). Landau, in particular, left an impression on Semper.

"He showed me how he did Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD, so that was a treat. He said, 'You know, I had to learn how to use his muscles! Every muscle that I use that he didn't use I had to suppress. And every muscle that he uses that I don't use I had to learn how to activate. When I get excited, my eyes get very wide, but when Lugosi would get excited, his eyes would get like little slits, like this.' And he did it!"

All in all, Semper doesn't find working on SPIDER-MAN to be overwhelming -- "because it's variations on the same theme," he explains. However, that doesn't make the writing itself any easier.

"I want to publicly expose and destroy one myth about cartoon writing. Cartoon writing is harder to do than any live-action writing. Period. WHen you write animation, you have to be the cameraman and the editor. We still use the style that was made popular by Hanna Barbera years ago, which was that the script is the thing. All the shot breakdowns have to be in the script; you really have to have your entire cartoon in the script before you do anything else. So, it's a harder kind of writing, and it's frustrating because nobody realizes that. You don't get the kind of respect that you deserve.

"I want to bring the comic-book Spidey to the screen," Semper concludes. "That's the mandate. We're trying to do the best SPIDER-MAN that we can do, and we want everybody to bear with us, because it's new and different and we are all growing with the experience of making a show. We mean well."

Question: Spider-Man was originally scheduled for last fall. Why the delay?

JOHN SEMPER: Well, it's a difficult property. We'd always intended to do the best job on this show that we could -- we meaning Marvel Films Animation. There was never a feeling that the show should be rushed in any way, shape, or form. Before I got here, they ran into creative trouble. I think they had lost about six months, and they were anxious to get going as quickly as possible. We decided not to worry about getting on the air in September. The number one mandate was to make the show good.

Q: Spidey is famous for his inner monologues. Won't that make the show talky?

JS: Oh, we've already been accused of that! People are either going to love it because it's just like the comic, or it's going to drive them crazy. But, I want to bring the comic-book Spider-Man to screen. Spider-Man was born in comic books and he works best there. When you try to bring him to animation, you suddenly discover that things get strange. (Laughs) Things that are perfectly acceptable in the comic-book form are perfectly unacceptable in animation -- the endless monologue, for one thing. Even though we're doing it, we can't do it exactly the way they do it in the comics, because it would drive everybody crazy. He simply talks too much!

Q: What have you done to overcome the problem?

JS: Well, we're really inventing a Spider-Man storytelling language for animation. We're trying to fool the audience into thinking that it's just like the comic. In point of fact, if we literally did the comic book, everybody would hate the cartoon!

Q: Will the TV episodes be adapted from the comics?

JS: Some will. Stan Lee and the story editors after him rarely told a single story in one or two comics. It was really a rambling tale, a convoluted story. I have to pluck elements out of those stories and make them into whole entities that last only one or two episodes. We are also linking them together with a kind of connective tissue that gives us, usually, a 13-episode arc.

Q: It must be tough trying to please everyone when you have so popular a character.

JS: Everybody thinks that they have the same idea of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, but when you get them in a room they all have different ideas. Some people remember when he was a clumsy, gawky high school kid, some people remember when he was a real buff kind of college guy with a woman on every arm....

Q: Every arm?

JS: (Laughs) Well, you know, we just did the six-armed Spidey! I'm still in that mode. But, everybody has a different idea of who Spider-Man really is, and it was very tough to zero in on what everybody wanted. I caught a lot of heat initially, because, once you pick a direction, two people are going to love it and three people are going to hate it.

Q: In the early days of the comic, Betty Brant was Peter's girlfriend.

JS: We have not yet used Betty Brant. She is Robbie Robertson's secretary. Will she be a romantic interest for Peter? No. I don't think we're going to use Betty as a romantic interest, because it's been so long since she's been one.

Q: Mary Jane Watson also went through many changes.

JS: Mary Jane was always a thinly-defined character. In the very beginning, she was an embarrassment, this sort of party girl who was only out for a good time. She went through her free-spirit phase, and then her slightly trampy phase, and now she's the dutiful wife and they're kind of  a yuppie couple. I don't know who she is in the comic, to be honest with you. I know who she is in the show.

Q: One of the most important aspects of a cartoon series is the voiceover work.

JS: Our Spidey is Chris Barnes. He's perfect. I love him. And as soon as he learns how to stop raising controversial topics for discussion in public, I'm going to love him even more! (Laughs) He thinks nothing of standing in a group of people, and saying, "So, what do you think about that abortion stuff, anyway?"

Q: BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES wasn't allowed to put a vampire episode on the air.

JS: We've already done it. I am in the middle of expanding it, because it was so successful that we decided to stretch it for two more episodes. I have a good relationship with Broadcast Standards and Practices, in that I recognize that what they're trying to do is important, and philosophically I am not opposed to what they're trying to do. I think there were writers on BATMAN who decided that they were going to wage war against Broadcast Standards and Practices. I think that's an unproductive attitude.

Q: Let's talk about competition. BATMAN is considered one of the best of the new shows.

JS: I love BATMAN, but you can't watch a lot of it. I mean, there are only so many episodes you can watch before they all start to look alike, and part of it is that it's so completely drowned in that noir style. It's a little too much for me, a triumph of style over substance. If I have to compare them, the most important thing that we bring to animation -- that BATMAN does not bring -- is that our mouths are further down on the chins of all our characters. And I think that gives us all -- a good night's sleep. (Laughs)

Question: Are we going to see something new on SPIDER-MAN that we haven't seen in the comic books, the live-action TV show, the old cartoon series..?

Stan Lee: I think there might be a tremendous difference. I think the earlier cartoons were much more simplistic. These current cartoons have much more of the personality and the underlying humor and satire that we always tried to put into the Spider-Man books. We're spending much more time on the dialogue, keeping it as sharp as possible. And virtually every story is based on a Spider-Man comic, instead of, as in the past, just trying to make up original stories. I've always felt that, up until now, the cartoon versions haven't done them justice.

Q: It sounds like you're going for a more mature audience than is standard for Saturday mornings.

SL: We've never thought of it as comics for children or for older people. We write them to please ourselves. I've always felt that, if I enjoy a story, then there are many people who have the same taste I do. We try to make our stories clear enough and exciting enough for younger viewers and younger readers in comics, and we try to make them intelligent enough and believable enough and satirical enough for the older viewer and the older reader. It's walking a thin line.

Q: Are you similarly involved with the MARVEL ACTION HOUR?

SL: Yes, exactly the same.

Q: And that features Iron Man...

SL: And the Fantastic Four. It will be a half-hour of each. In fact, I have an additional involvement there, because I'll be the host of the show. I'm going to introduce the shows live action for about a minute before they start, somewhat in the way Alfred Hitchcock introduced ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and the way Rod Serling introduced THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

Q: So it will be kind of STAN LEE PRESENTS?

SL: In a way, I guess. I'm thinking of changing my last name to "Presents." (Laughs) "Lee" would be my middle name.

Q: When you were creating these comic-book characters, did you have any idea that you were creating American icons?

SL: None at all, not the slightest suspicion. In those days, we were just hoping we could come up with something our readers would like and that would be moderately successful. It's amazing the way it happened. They were all created in the early part of the '60s, and in those years it was as though we couldn't do anything wrong. Everything that we came up with has lasted until now; we are still among the bestselling comics in the world. When I think back on it, it's hard to believe. We've been really lucky.

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