'Spider-Man' (1967) - Spidey's First Cartoon and His Struggle Against Budget Cuts
In 1966, Grantray-Lawrence Animation, and their distributor Krantz Films, put together the first animated production based on Marvel Comics characters, “The Marvel Super Heroes”, which aired in syndication. The show had an infamously low budget, consisting primarily of xeroxed panels from the original comic stories, but it got Marvel’s foot in the door on television. Not long after, the fourth issue of an animation magazine titled “The World of Cartoons” ran a 4 page article about Grantray-Lawrence, detailing the process of transferring the comic pages into animation. They concluded the article by saying “G-LA is already hard at work on an even bigger series for a sixth Marvel character whose identity at this writing was still classified top secret”. Audiences wouldn’t have to wait very long to find out who this mystery character would be, as the following year on ABC, Spider-Man would make his animated debut.
September 9, 1967 – June 14, 1970
Grantray-Lawrence Animation (Season 1)
Krantz Films/Bakshi Productions (Seasons 2-3)
When people think of 60’s superhero cartoons, the most likely series to come up is the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon. Starring Paul Soles as Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man, the cartoon was a faithful adaptation of the comic book series which had made its debut just four years earlier. As it should, when one notices that both Spider-Man’s co-creator Stan Lee and artist John Romita Sr. (a prominent name in the Spider-Man comic after other co-creator Steve Ditko left) were creative consultants on the show.
Just like the comics, the show saw teenager Peter Parker, granted his powers by the bite of a radioactive spider, fight crime as Spider-Man, while also dealing with his job as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle newspaper. While Spider-Man is known for an extensive supporting cast, both in an effort to keep it simple and as a result of still being relatively early in the comic’s run (“Amazing Spider-Man” had only recently hit its 50th issue at the time), the core supporting cast was kept to three characters: Daily Bugle editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson (voiced by Paul Kligman), secretary Betty Brant, and Peter’s aunt May (both voiced by Peg Dixon). Mary Jane also makes a one episode appearance, but not until the show’s final season.
Across the show’s first season, many of Spider-Man’s classic comic book foes made appearances: Doctor Octopus, Electro, Green Goblin, Mysterio, Lizard (referred to as “Lizard Man”), Scorpion, Rhino, and Vulture. These appearances were occasionally based on actual comic stories, helping to tie the show closer to its roots. In addition to this, a variety of original villains rounded out the adventures, like an invisible doctor named “Noah Boddy”, an impersonator named Charles Cameo (likely a stand-in for Spider-Man villain Cameleon), and the magnetic gun toting “Dr. Magneto” (not to be confused with the X-Men villain Magneto).
Of course, what is almost inarguably the most iconic part of the show is its music, specifically its theme song. It was composed by Paul Francis Webber and Robert Harris, and performed by Canadian musical groups “The Billy Van Singers” and “The Laurie Bower Singers” in Toronto. Catchy and memorable, the song has become practically synonymous with the character, being featured in some of the subsequent animated series, video games, and especially the movies, either in its original form, remixed, or with an orchestral cover. All other music in the show was provided by conductor Ray Ellis, who’d go on to compose nearly all of Filmation’s music between 1968 and 1982.
For all its memorability, the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon isn’t without some glaring faults. The first season is still well regarded to this day, especially compared to its contemporaries, but it still fell victim to a low budget. The show heavily relied on stock footage, especially of Spider-Man swinging (which would often be used to pad out the runtime), backgrounds tended to be minimal with basic shapes, and character animation was kept minimal to reduce cost.
This would only become more apparent in subsequent seasons. Around the time of completing the first season, Grantray-Lawrence filed for bankruptcy and was forced to close their studio. Their distributor, Krantz Films, took over production in 1968, and handed responsibility for the show to animator Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi had some experience with superhero cartoons from developing “The Mighty Heroes” for Terrytoons in 1966, and worked on “Rocket Robin Hood” for Krantz the previous year. In his defense, Ralph Bakshi did his best with what he was given, as he tried to make the show’s plots more character-driven and with a tighter narrative. However, his studio was placed under even larger budget cuts than the previous season, resulting in a number of changes to the show.
In an effort to cut down the cost of licensing characters from the comics, the presence of Spider-Man’s cast of villains were heavily reduced during the second and third seasons. The only one who does appear in the second season is the Kingpin, as part of the opening two-parter telling the origin of Spider-Man. Instead, most of the episodes had original villains, many green-skinned crooks or mad scientists.
Season three would see the return of some of the villains, but this would magnify the other issue with the budget cuts; Many of these episodes made very heavy use of footage from previous episodes, cut together and merged in an attempt to convincingly make a new plot. This extended to even the final episode, which was almost entirely a clip show.
Most fascinating of all, the heavy reuse of preexisting footage in Spider-Man’s later seasons didn’t stop at its own episodes. In an interesting turn, two episodes (“Phantoms from the Depths of Time” and “Revolt in the Fifth Dimension”) had characters and backgrounds lifted from Bakshi’s previous series, “Rocket Robin Hood”. The latter in particular used the exact same plot and footage as the Rocket Robin Hood episode “Dementia Five”, only with Spider-Man inserted into the story. Incidentally, “Revolt in the Fifth Dimension” was also the only episode to never air on ABC, not airing until the show went into syndication.
Spider-Man premiered on ABC on September 9, 1967 at 10am, following Hanna-Barbera’s Fantastic Four. Due to its popularity, it remained in that slot through its second season, but due to a rising tide of complaints against violent content on childrens television, the three networks each pledged to remove what could be viewed as offending content by the fall of 1969, and ultimately Spider-Man was pulled in August of that year. Despite this, the show did return in March of 1970 to run the final season, and then was shipped off to syndication. Syndication was where the show really latched on to the public, and stayed a popular part of local network packages throughout the 70’s, ultimately leading to the Spider-Man cartoons that would air during the early 80’s.
The 60’s Spider-Man cartoon, despite all its faults, is viewed by a certain generation as the defining version of the character. As for newer generations, there has been a renewed interest thanks to memes created using images of Spider-Man from the cartoon. These memes have even been acknowledged by Marvel, with recent appearances by the cartoon Spider-Man in comic book crossovers, as well as the film “Into the Spider-Verse”, having referenced them.
Following the conclusion of the Spider-Man cartoon, Marvel would take a break from television for nearly a decade. By the time of the live-action Incredible Hulk series in the late 70’s, Marvel would find another animation studio, DePatie-Freleng, in a partnership that would result in the creation of the original Marvel film studio: Marvel Productions.