It was just over fifty years ago, on a Saturday morning in September 1967, that the original Spider-Man cartoon (or “animated series,” if you prefer) made its debut on the ABC television network. (That’s channel 7 for my fellow residents of the New York-metro area.) As noted at the dawn of the new blog home here, my love of the web-head got its start watching this show in syndicated reruns. The thing that grabbed me most was that opening theme—video below for all those culturally-deprived souls that have never heard it before:
…If it doesn’t open with that “In Color” tag, it really feels like we’re missing something, doesn’t it?
And just for kicks, here’s the Michael Buble cover that played during the end credits of the 2004 film Spider-Man 2:
It’s a toe-tapper for sure. When I was a kid, I heard from someone, somewhere, that Miles Davis composed the theme. Turns out I likely received this info as the result of a real-life game of “telephone,” as the original rumor (that I can only assume was the basis of the Miles Davis rumor that eventually found its way to me) was that it was composed by a different jazz legend, Charles Mingus. In any event, neither one had anything to do with it, as the actual composers were P.D. Francis, Bob Harris, Stu Phillips, and D. Kapross.
The anniversary of this show probably hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, though there are a couple of great articles courtesy of 13th Dimension here and here. But even putting my admittedly subjective bias aside, it’s just a great show. The entire first season is must viewing for any Spidey fan out there, as it really captures the flavor of the original Lee-Ditko issues. (And in several instances adapted some of those stories quite faithfully.) My fave was probably “The Menace of Mysterio,” which was practically a note-for-note retelling of “The Menace of… Mysterio!” from Amazing Spider-Man #13. A short time after, they brought Mysterio back for a television-original story, “Return of the Flying Dutchman,” which was another fave.
Other classic villains making appearances during the first season include Dr. Octopus, Electro, the Lizard, the robot Spider-Slayer, Scorpion, Sandman, Rhino, Vulture, Green Goblin, and the Enforcers. There was also this hunter character that turned up a couple times, but instead of it being Kraven, they made up this new Australian character named Clivington for the role. (In my imagination, the guy was still Kraven though.)
Even when they steered away from the source material, they stayed true to the Lee-Ditko spirit by emphasizing the characters of Pete, Aunt May, Betty, and Jameson. They also maintained the Stan Lee-style humor and ended nearly every episode with the iconic note, “compliments of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”
With seasons two and three, they changed production houses (with a young Ralph Bakshi taking over) and the series became another beast entirely, with many episodes feeling like wild, acid-fueled fever dreams. Some have a so-bad-it’s-good flavor; while at other times (alright, most times), they’re just plain bad. But they do have Gray Morrow art and designs, which gave it a fresh feel—though granted, they continued to re-use (and re-use and re-use and re-use) stock footage of Spidey swinging around town from season one, offering a slight illusion of continuity—and at least some unique appeal of their own.
There were a few instances where they adapted some original comic stories. Or tried to. The most obvious example being “The Origin of Spider-Man,” which takes a whole lot from Amazing Fantasy #15. One of the big things they got wrong though was near the very beginning, when Peter Parker is supposed to be portrayed as an outcast. In the comic, the kids exclude Pete from their reindeer games without giving him so much as a second look. But in the cartoon, Pete is the one begging off hanging out with the popular crowd so he can attend a science exhibition—only then do the popular kids deride him as an egghead. This was a bad misstep. But at least Bakshi’s heart was in the right place.
Other comic adaptations from these latter seasons include “King Pinned” (featuring the Kingpin, the only freshly-imported villain taken from the comics in these seasons, in a story loosely adapted from ASM #51, “In the Clutches of… the Kingpin!”), “To Cage a Spider” (ASM #65, “The Impossible Escape!”), “The Big Brainwasher” (ASM #59, “The Brand of the Brainwasher!”), and “The Madness of Mysterio” (ASM #66, same title).
Mary Jane Watson actually appeared in one of these episodes, playing the “niece” of Captain Stacy, who also appeared in another episode as well. (Why didn’t they just use Gwen here? I’m guessing because MJ was near the center of the original comics plot, so they used just her rather than swap her for Gwen. Probably too much cost in both production and episode time to incorporate both characters.)
Fun Fact: When Mysterio popped up again in the second season, he was portrayed as a conventionally-garbed man with glasses (and green skin—but then nearly all the villains in these seasons were green-skinned for some reason). Clearly there was some miscommunication with the animators (who, I’m guessing, were overseas), as at one point in the episode, Spidey refers to Mysterio in his dialogue as “dome head,” even though he’s out of costume and not wearing his trademark dome.
In closing, let’s circle back to the music. Because those scores were damn near as perfect as the theme song. Note that I refer to “scores” in the plural because the score changed when the producers changed; so the score for the last two seasons was different from that of the first season (though that awesome opening theme song remained unchanged, thankfully). Again, for those keeping score (no pun intended) at home, that’s three seasons, two different scores. Ten years ago, WFMU put up an in-depth blogpost about those scores here.
In one of the great tragedies of our age, that awesome, jazzy score of season one appears lost in the mists of time—at least as far as original masters go. Lucky for us there was an industrious soul out there that pieced a great deal of it back together on youtube for our listening pleasure, here:
If you’d prefer to cherry pick those tracks, you may do so here.
While I would rate the season one score the best, seasons two/three ain’t chopped liver. Based on this image I found, at some point the score music from these seasons appears to have been released as Spider-Man: Music from the KPM Record Library.
I found one blogpost with a long list of track titles from this set (one of which was “LSD”—like I said, some of those later episodes were seriously trippy). Of this particular lot, “Hellraisers” is probably my favorite. Looks like most of this music is available on iTunes here.
I’ll wrap up this post by sharing a youtube compilation of theme songs from every TV iteration of the web-head from 1967 to 2012. Happy Golden Anniversary, Cartoon-Spidey!