America has watched lot of Spider-Man over the years. After all, the newly released The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the sequel of a reboot of a trilogy of movies that are barely a decade old.
The new wave of ubiquity is self-evident. Yet the superhero also spent years and years on television and in video games. The original Spider-Man cartoon series began airing in 1967 and there have been eight more iterations over the years. This is a totally different situation than, for example, that of Captain America whose cartoon life begins and ends with The Marvel Super Heroes in 1966 (which I featured here last month).
There’s also been something of a glut recently. Spider-Man Unlimited aired from 1999-2001 followed by Spider-Man: The New Animated Series in 2001, The Spectacular Spider-Man in 2008-2009 and Ultimate Spider-Man in 2012. None of them were particularly successful, either critically or commercially. So it makes sense to take a look back at (and watch) that original TV series, a strange little classic created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in 1967.
Unlike the earlier The Marvel Super Heroes show Spider-Man actually ran on Saturday mornings. It was an international production, with the animation done in the United States and all of the voice acting farmed out to Canada. In 1967 the animation studio, Grantray-Lawrence Animation, went bankrupt and the production was moved to Krantz Films. Seasons 2 and 3 were then handled by executive producer and animation director Ralph Bakshi, a few years before his controversial breakout success Fritz the Cat. And, of course, it was for this series that the famous earworm theme song was written.
This was a low-budget production, to the point that Spider-Man’s costume was given minimal webbing so that it would require less time to animate. As is often the case, that restriction led to some very interesting and unwanted results. Some of the episodes avoid extravagant animation altogether, instead following Peter Parker as he begins dating or tries out for the football team. A great deal of footage is reused, easily replicated shots of Spider-Man flying about the city to a jazzy soundtrack. He falls toward the camera and then jumps away, over and over again.
Yet these repetitive sequences give the show a great deal of its charm. The earnestness of The Marvel Super Heroes was reduced for this next Marvel animated television production. Spider-Man is a bit more self-aware, his punny and sarcastic declarations far from the campy patriotism of Captain America. Coupled with the silly indulgence of the long, celebratory scenes of the hero bouncing from building to building, Spider-Man has an overall mood not far from Vaudeville. The hand-drawn spectacle of a flying dude in a bright red suit draws attention to itself as if to say to the audience at home, “Look, kids, no hands!”
Sometimes, however, the art in the series pushes beyond even this entertaining balance of charm and spectacle. Episode 25, “Menace from the Bottom of the World,” is an early example of the Bakshi era of Spider-Man. The plot is simple enough. New York City banks keep plunging into the depths of the earth without warning, leaving gaping holes in the ground. After hearing some radio transmissions from below ground, thanks to the experiments of a crazy German scientist, Spider-Man dives down.
The subterranean world is quite something to look at, even on a low budget. It’s full of odd angles, both caverns and mysterious buildings that look empty and abandoned. A flock of terrifying birds, like something out of The Dark Crystal, fly through the air shrieking and threatening to tear Spider-Man apart. There’s a golem, some strange blue apes and as many shades of purple as possible. The eventual villain, whose identity I won’t spoil, makes for an excellent comic twist. It’s a testament to both Bakshi’s eye and his knack for prioritizing effectively on this budget-plagued classic of superhero television.