It’s September, back-to-school time, and in the spirit of this time of year, I figured I’d take a look back at a comic with some educational aspirations. So let’s take it back to the mid-70s, back to a time when Marvel Comics teamed up with the Children’s Television Workshop and their program, The Electric Company, to give the world Spidey Super Stories.
Back in the Day
I heard they brought The Electric Company back to television a few years ago, but I never saw it and I’m not sure how much (if anything) it had in common with the original. (Note: A quick jaunt in the wikimobile reveals that the show was called The New Electric Company and it ran from 2009 to 2011.) But I certainly do know the original program quite well.
In the wake of the enormous success of Sesame Street, which premiered in November 1969, the Children’s Television Workshop decided to create another program to complement it, and thus The Electric Company was born, premiering on PBS stations across the nation in October 1971. The original cast included Morgan Freeman (yes, that Morgan Freeman), Rita Moreno, Judy Graubart, Lee Chamberlin, Skip Hinnant, Jim Boyd, Luis Ávalos, and Hattie Winston. Bill Cosby also appeared on the show with some regularity in its first season. If Sesame Street was meant for Pre-K to K viewers, then I guess you’d say The Electric Company was for grades 1 to 3 (or thereabouts).
In its fourth season (1974-75), Spider-Man joined The Electric Company in recurring, live-action skits. Danny Seagren, who played “Spidey,” had joined the cast specifically for the role. The show opening, kicking off with Rita Moreno hollering “HEY YOU GUUUUUYS,” will remain embedded in my memory for all of my days on this Earth.
Some of the original characters from The Electric Company that would appear in the pages of the Spidey comic included:
- A group of kids that performed together as a musical act called the Short Circus (a pun on short circuit, obviously, and an allusion to the “electric” part of The Electric Company). Their songs usually contained reading lessons of some form or other. (I swear, it’s like any show back in the 70s that had kids on it was legally bound to have them form a band.) Fun Fact: Irene Cara was a member of the group in the first season. Her name on the show was “Iris”—she sang (of course) and played keyboards.
- Easy Reader (Morgan Freeman), whose name was intended to evoke the film Easy Rider. He was a hippie-esque, cool dude in a loose mood that absolutely LOVED to read. (In fact, he was kinda compulsive about it.) He was often joined in his sketches by Valerie the Librarian (Hattie Winston).
- Jennifer of the Jungle (Judy Graubart) and her companion, Paul the Gorilla (Jim Boyd).
- Pedro (Luis Ávalos), the garden-shop proprietor of Pedro’s Plant Place, along with his intelligent pet plant, Maurice.
- Fargo North, Decoder (Skip Hinnant), whose name was (clearly) derived from Fargo, North Dakota. A detective that seemed to specialize in scrambling/unscrambling letters and words.
- J. Arthur Crank (Jim Boyd), The Electric Company equivalent of Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch.
- The Director (Rita Moreno), a film director with limited patience.
- The Mad Scientist (Morgan Freeman).
For some context, here’s the Short Circus with Irene Cara on lead vocals from season one:
Here’s Easy Reader’s first appearance on the show:
This is Jennifer of the Jungle & Paul:
Fargo North, … (dramatic pause)… Decoder:
Rita Moreno as “The Director”:
And finally, J. Arthur Crank, who, along with Easy Reader, introduces Spidey to the show in the first episode (#391 overall) of the fourth season in the fall of ’74:
Then, of course, there were the actual Spidey skits. As silly as these may have been, I’ve got to tell you that YET AGAIN, Spidey’s theme song here is killer. Now let’s see what happens when Spider-Man meets Dracula:
…Yes, that is Morgan Freeman playing Dracula. The mature, dignified Morgan Freeman in the most ridiculous piece of business you’re ever likely to see him.
One of the more fun conceits of the skits (as you can see in the videos) was that Spidey did not speak aloud; he “spoke” in word balloons (and the occasional thought balloon). This maintained the comic-book feel of the character while also pushing kids to read. Spidey also never appeared out of costume on The Electric Company, so Peter Parker was never seen, referenced, or even mentioned. In the Spidey Super Stories comic, however, you’d see Peter in every issue, along with appearances from Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson, J. Jonah Jameson, and a few other supporting characters from the regular Spider-Man comics here and there.
Fun Fact: Not only was this the first live-action depiction of Spider-Man, it was the first live-action depiction of any Marvel character since the Captain America serial back in the 1940s. A few years later, the Spider-Man TV show starring Nicholas Hammond would premiere on CBS, which would be the live-action debut of Spidey’s alter ego, Peter Parker, as well as Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson.
The Best of the Best
One of the best parts of Spidey Super Stories early on was the cover art by John Romita. A few of the best examples here:
I know the Ditko fans out there will disagree, but for me there’s nothing in the world that feels more right than John Romita drawing Spider-Man. The interiors of Spidey Super Stories, however, were drawn almost entirely by Winslow Mortimer (with the exception of just a few fill-in assignments from Sal Buscema). Mortimer’s style was not exactly flashy, but beautiful in its simplicity and the perfect fit for the kid-friendly Spidey. As for writers, the first fifteen issues were written almost exclusively by Jean Thomas (then wife of Roy Thomas), followed by Jim Salicrup, who did the bulk of the writing thereafter.
Still More Fun Facts: Spidey Super Stories never carried ads, not even on the back or inside covers, and perhaps because of this it was a bit more expensive than regular comics—35¢ as opposed to the 25¢ that was the standard comic price when the title premiered. (It would remain 35¢ until the standard comic price caught up to it in 1977. Its price would then rise to match standard prices from that point forward.) The title also bounced back and forth between a monthly and bi-monthly pub schedule. The first thirteen issues came out monthly; then it was bi-monthly from issues 14 to 22; then monthly again from issues 23 to 34; and finally bi-monthly from issue #37 until the end.
Those Super Stories
As discussed in my Ms. Marvel post several months back, these Spidey books had a somewhat strict formula, at least for most of the title’s run. There were (almost) always three stories, one of which was an adaptation of an episode from The Electric Company. For example, the first issue of Spidey Super Stories I ever bought was #19 (Oct. 1976), which featured an adaptation titled “Spidey Finds the Prankster”—here’s a sample of the comic:
And here’s the television sketch (actually titled “Spidey Meets the Prankster”):
Goofy and cornball, I know, but back then it was a thrill just to see a live-action Spider-Man in any form.
The last direct adaptation of an Electric Company sketch appeared in Spidey Super Stories #24 (Jul. 1977). It was titled “Humbugged!” and was adapted from the Electric Company sketch, “Spidey Fixes the Hum.” After The Electric Company stopped creating new content, Marvel would still create one original story with the old Electric Company flavor for every issue of Spidey. For example, “The Big Tow” from Spidey Super Stories #30 (Jan. 1978) featured the titular villain driving this super high-tech, flying tow truck and towing away anything and everything that wasn’t nailed down. Not only was the story silly and juvenile like those Electric Company sketches, Big Tow himself appeared to be modeled after Electric Company regular Luis Ávalos.
Of the other two stories in each issue, one would be an original tale of Spider-Man solo, and the other would team him up with another Marvel hero—a sneaky/ingenious way to get the younger, more casual readers into the larger Marvel Universe.
Being a Spider-Man nut, I loved Spidey Super Stories, but there are a few particular stories that really stand out in my memory.
One was from Spidey Super Stories #25 (Aug. 1977), which pit Spidey against his reverse-double, “Web-Man,” a sinister creation of Dr. Doom. And again, it all starts with another gorgeous Romita cover:
Despite some of the silliness and corny punchlines, it’s probably my favorite Spidey Super Stories tale and I’m not even sure I can explain why. Something about evil, reverse-doubles lights up my imagination—and apparently I’m not the only one, because reverse-doubles are kinda popular in the superhero genre, with two of the more famous examples being Bizarro and the Reverse-Flash. Now Bizarro has the same powers as Superman and even the same costume, only the “S” on his chest is backward, his flesh has this weird, chalk-like consistency, and the hair on his head is like a mop. And, of course, his reasoning and logic are exactly backward.
The Reverse-Flash is a bit different. Like Bizarro, he has all the powers of his heroic counterpart, the Flash, but with an evil personality and a costume that is a complete color swap of the Flash—instead of being primarily red with yellow trim, it’s yellow with red trim, and even the white on the chest emblem is made black. And as I said, he’s truly evil and there’s little fun or whimsy to be had when he turns up (unlike when Bizarro appears to take on Superman).
Web-Man is a bit goofy like Bizarro, but his costume follows the reverse-color-scheme principle of the Reverse-Flash. And I gotta tell ya, after all the Spider-Man comics I’ve read, seeing a Spider-Man with the costume colors reversed like this is sort of mesmerizing. I just love it; it tickles me. And I like Spider-Man having an opposite like this; it just makes for a fun story. I dunno, call me crazy. Having Dr. Doom be the villain behind it all probably helps too—he’s just a great, classic character that always adds to any story (even one as silly as this).
The Incredible Shrinking (Spider-)Man
My next favorite Spidey story is from #23 (June 1977), and it features the Green Goblin. It’s also got yet another sweet Romita cover.
Now Spider-Man has fought the Green Goblin many times, but the fun twist here is that one of Gobby’s new pumpkin bombs has the power to shrink its target, which leads to Spidey having some Incredible Shrinking Man-like adventures.
Once more, this made perfect sense to me. As every true Spider-Man fan knows, Spidey’s got the proportionate strength of a spider, so if you could reduce his proportions to spider size, he’d be no stronger than any other regular ol’ spider… right? In any case, I liked it back in the day, and seeing it again now I can recall the joy it once gave me. I can only hope this will always be so.
Now these next two stories might make a worst-of list for many others, but I love them—many fond memories attached to these next two tales. The first is the Star Wars-inspired “Star Jaws” from Spidey Super Stories #31 (Feb. 1978). It’s practically a straight-up re-telling of Star Wars with just a few tweaks. Here are the character swaps:
Darth Vader—Dr. Doom
Han Solo—Marvel Boy
Chewbacca—Paul the Gorilla
As for the droids, both C-3PO and R2-D2 were replaced by one mechanical counterpart: Sam the robot. I imagine very few of you out there have the first clue who Sam the robot is. Well, let me explain.
Sam the robot first appeared on Sesame Street in 1972. In fact his first appearance can be seen here:
As the video shows us, Sam’s name stands for “Super Automated Machine.” Here’s another cute episode where Sam learns about love:
The character of Sam never caught on, at least not in the Sesame Street writer’s room (I loved him, for whatever it’s worth), and he only appeared on the show sparingly between 1972 and 1979. A more complete account of the character’s history can be found on the Muppet wiki.
The cast of The Electric Company was, naturally, all over Spidey Super Stories, but Sam the robot is the only Sesame Street character to ever crossover into the pages of Spidey. (Which is kinda heartbreaking—as a kid, I would’ve loved to see Cookie Monster meet Spider-Man.) Also note that while the character was actually rather large, they cut him down to R2-D2 size for this story. (Maybe he got caught in the blast radius of one of the Green Goblin’s shrinking bombs.)
This Star Wars homage broke the mold for Spidey in more ways than one, as the story ran the length of the entire book, throwing out the standard structure of three separate stories per issue. And when I say the “entire book,” I mean the WHOLE thing, from cover to cover—literally the front and back covers, both inside and outside.
Notice they made Sam gold for the back cover to better evoke C-3PO (I assume).
Almost everything in the story is a callback to Star Wars, some of it rather ridiculous, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. Looking back today, my favorite bit is the subtle re-creation of the let-the-wookie-win scene in the background of one panel, with Sam and Paul playing tic tac toe.
But back in the day, the bit I loved the most was Spider-Man having a light saber duel with Dr. Doom.
I know it’s stupid. I don’t care. Imagine being a kid in late ’77 and you saw Star Wars a month or two earlier, absolutely flipped over it, and then you see this comic on the stands with your all-time favorite superhero playing Luke Skywalker, your all-time favorite Star Wars character. Anyone that hates this story must hate joy.
“The Cat and the Cosmic Cube!”
The second controversial favorite of mine would be “The Cat and the Cosmic Cube!” from Spidey Super Stories #39 (Mar. 1979). What makes this story an object of derision and/or ridicule is the appearance of the infamous “Thanos Copter.” Yeah, Thanos is the villain here, and yeah, in the story he does pilot a helicopter with “Thanos” written on its tail.
For many years the Thanos Copter was this odd, very esoteric piece of Marvel lore, up until 2012, when Joss Whedon decided he wanted to make Thanos the big bad of the Avengers movie franchise. Once this happened, after Thanos appeared in that mid-credits scene in the first movie, even casual fans were possessed by the desire to learn everything they possibly could about the character. Then this old issue of Spidey Super Stories was unearthed and the Thanos Copter turned into a near-viral meme. This, in turn, led to a couple of different collectibles being issued in just the last year. One was a Hot Wheels toy sold at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, and the other was a HeroClix miniature.
Thanos Copter aside, the reason I loved the story was because I was already Thanos crazy by 1979 and was delirious to see him and Spider-Man together in the same tale. (Not only Thanos, but the Cosmic Cube is at the center of the plot, too!) The one puzzling aspect here was the presence of Hellcat. Uh, I mean the Cat.
Some history is clearly required here.
In regular Marvel continuity, the original Cat, who first appeared in Claws of the Cat #1 (November 1972), became Tigra in Giant-Size Creatures #1 (July 1974), after which her old Cat costume fell into the hands of Patsy Walker, who put it on and christened herself “Hellcat” in Avengers #144 (Feb. 1976). Got all that? Now Spidey somehow met the Cat back in Spidey Super Stories #12 (Sept. 1975), even though she was already Tigra by that point in regular continuity and Hellcat had not yet debuted.
Still with me?
This leads us to Spidey #39, where that’s clearly Patsy Walker behind the mask, given the red hair (as opposed to the black hair she had in Spidey #12). But she’s not called “Hellcat,” she’s just “the Cat.” There’s probably more than one reason for this.
First, as Spidey Super Stories was geared for a much younger audience, I’m sure they were never going to use the word “hell” in any context. Second, since they already had the Cat appear in that earlier issue, maybe they figured it would be less confusing to stick with that designation, given that it’s the same costume…? But then why even change the hair color, right? Maybe they felt they could still promote the Hellcat character visually, even if they couldn’t call her “Hellcat”? I guess?
It’s a bit of a stumper.
Then there’s the bigger question of why pair up Spidey with any form of the Cat/Hellcat for this tale. Wouldn’t Captain Marvel (the original, that is, a.k.a. Mar-Vell) have been the most logical character to team with Spidey against Thanos? Particularly with the Cosmic Cube being part of the plot?
The only thing I can figure is that the opening story was titled “Women’s Day 1979!” and guest starred Ms. Marvel, so maybe teaming with women was sort of a theme for the whole issue? Even then, why not put the Cat in the opening story and use then use Ms. Marvel in the Thanos story, given the character’s ties to Mar-Vell?
Heck, as long as we’re on the subject, why didn’t the original Captain Marvel ever appear in Spidey Super Stories?
It all remains a mystery for the ages.
The Original Spider-Woman
As mentioned earlier, my first issue of Spidey Super Stories was #19 and it never occurred to me look for back issues until relatively recently—say, the last ten to fifteen years. Only then did I stumble upon this intriguing little piece of trivia: Who was the original Spider-Woman? Your first thought was Jessica Drew, right? Such would have been my first thought too, before I discovered Spidey Super Stories #11 (Aug. 1975), which featured the first appearance of a character called Spider-Woman.
“Is this the End of Spider-Man, or the Beginning of Spider-Woman?!” was written by Jean Thomas with art by Win Mortimer, Mike Esposito, and Tony Mortellaro. In the story, Valerie the Librarian has a Spider-Man costume fall into her lap, literally. After a few alterations, she puts it on and decides to fight crime as Spider-Woman. (While she has a pair of web shooters to work with, she needs tiny suction cups on her feet and hands to duplicate Spidey’s wall-crawling powers. The text warns any kids reading, “don’t you try it, true believers!”)
Not only was she the first Spider-Woman, had she only appeared a couple months earlier, she might have beaten out Storm (whose debut in Giant-Size X-Men #1 was cover dated May 1975) as the first-ever African-American superheroine.
A nice piece of info to keep in your back pocket in case it ever comes up in bar trivia. Bet you’re the only one that gives the right answer!
This & That
A few other interesting bits of Spidey lore that I’ll just touch upon oh-so briefly: First, for all the music fans out there, Spider-Man went up against the alien “Spiders from Mars” in issue #29 (Dec. 1977). They weren’t David Bowie’s Spiders, of course, but any older, rock-loving readers that happened to be out there would have gotten the joke. Several months earlier in Spidey Super Stories #21 (Feb. 1977), Dr. Octopus robbed the box office at a rock concert where the performer was obviously Elton John, though he was never explicitly named.
Then we have a very unusual issue in #44 (Jan. 1980), wherein we see TWO wholly original costumed characters introduced (and never to be heard from again). This is the only time Spidey introduced new costumed super-characters, and both were in the same issue. First there’s Dr. Time, a villain that goes up against Spider-Man and the Vision in the opening story. Then in the third and final story, a superheroine called the Butterfly teams up with Spider-Man to capture Dr. Octopus. Credit to writers Alan Kupperburg and Michael Siporin for writing in these original characters. Win Mortimer is the credited penciler, as usual, though I’m unsure if he contributed costume designs or not.
The Worst of the Worst
As for the worst of Spidey Super Stories, well… there’s a lot to choose from, depending on the standards you want to apply. There was a guy on the Back Issue Facebook group who recently spent the better part of a year posting examples of terrible stuff from Spidey Super Stories. Most of it was pretty silly even in the context of the larger story; a panel or two taken out of context looked beyond ridiculous. (Note that prior to Spidey the poster offered similar treatment to Dazzler; currently he’s doing the same to Werewolf by Night.)
Lord knows I’m not about to defend Spidey Super Stories as any kind of great literature, but I’m not going to judge it too harshly, either. The material was intended for a juvenile audience and always meant to be light-hearted stuff, so I take no offense to it. Viewed through the lens of what it was meant to be, it’s fine.
HOWEVER… there were a couple times when there were some legit gaffes, most of them pretty minor. For example, they messed up the colors of the Schemer’s costume when he first appeared in Spidey #33 (Apr. 1978), making it blue and purple. When the character reappeared in #40 (May 1979), they got it right with the yellow and green color scheme.
Then there were a couple gaffes that were more than minor. Amazingly enough, the two worst I could find actually happened in the same issue: Spidey Super Stories #47 (Jul. 1980). Starting with the cover, we see Spider-Man and Spider-Woman fighting a guy in top hat & tails standing on wooden stilts as a blurb declares, “Spidey and Spider-Woman Battle The Stilt Man!” As all Marvelites know, the Stilt-Man is a guy in heavy metal armor who gets around on telescoping, metal, stilt legs. Somehow, this everyday slob on wooden stilts gives the two superheroes fits for nine pages of action!
I’m guessing the Marvel Method is to blame for this one. Win Mortimer probably got a plot with the Stilt-Man in it, only he (apparently) never heard of the classic Daredevil villain and no one told him it was a pre-existing character, so Win just drew a regular guy on wooden stilts. Naturally, had this happened on one of the regular titles, Romita’s Raiders would have had a lot of re-drawing and touching up to do, but since this was Spidey, a title that existed in something of a vacuum, they let it go. Or perhaps they never even noticed.
Then, in the story that closed the book, Spider-Man teams up with the new, Bill Foster version of Giant Man. Yet again, it appears there were communication issues with the artist, Win Mortimer, as he puts Foster in the old (very old), original Giant-Man costume that Hank Pym wore back in the early 60s instead of the new costume in which he had debuted in the recently discussed Marvel Two-in-One #55 (Sept. 1979).
It’s also quite possible Mortimer had mistakenly drawn the Hank Pym version of the character throughout the tale. Since Bill Foster only appears out of costume in two panels on page 24, plus the inside front cover with Giant-Man’s origin, such a mistake could have largely been fixed with the coloring of that small portion of the mask not covering his face (that would be his nose, mouth, and jaw). This is assuming they were willing to live with the costume being completely wrong, which it seems they were. Even so, if this were the case, they still screwed up, as when we last see him on page 32, Giant-Man appears to be colored as a white guy in that portion of his face.
Yeah, this was pretty bad.
Spidey Super Stories #57 (Mar. 1982) was the final issue of the regular comic. However, the Spidey-style adventures of Spider-Man would continue for several years more in the pages of The Electric Company magazine. The magazine got its start around the same time Spidey Super Stories debuted and Spider-Man was a regular in the magazine from the start. The final issue of the magazine was #138 (Oct. 1987), marking the true end of Spidey.
Love it or hate it, reaching out to a younger audience (with educational aspirations, to boot) via Spidey Super Stories was a noble effort. I believe a similar effort with the same aspirations would go a long way today.