Bygone Geekery: Spider-Man's Animated History
In keeping with our series of Spider-Man related posts leading up to the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on May 2nd, I wanted to give some attention to Spidey’s more animated side. For many a geek of all ages, their first introduction to comic book characters, including Spider-Man, was in the form of a cartoon. And with the history of Spider-Man animated shows it’s easy to see why. While Spider-Man first appears in comics in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962, his first animated show premiered in 1967, only 5 short years later. In the overall history of the character, it could be argued that TV animation has been just as important to Spidey’s success as the comic book.
Spider-Man (1967 TV Series)
Spider-Man’s first stint into animation was Grantray-Lawrence Animation’s ironically titled Spider-Man, and it was a very well received show by the standards of the day. It originally ran for only 3 years, but found a new distribution deal in 2007 and Disney currently earns cash from this show in one way or another. While the show’s theme song quickly became synonymous with the character and remains a piece of pop culture to this very day, the show has been the genesis of some off-color and absolutely hilarious internet memes recently. I throw these episodes in when I’m reading old Spidey comics. The levels of campiness are almost overwhelming.
The Electric Company
“Hey, you guys!” Did you know that Spider-Man had a recurring skit on 1970’s children’s show The Electric Company? Well, now you do. It may not be animated or even a full-on show, but I think it’s cool! Kind of creepy, but cool.
Spider-Man (Toei TV series)
In the late 1970’s, Toei Company produced a Japanese version of Spider-Man that simply could not have worked anywhere else. Maybe the short run of the show means it didn’t work in Japan either, but the special effects were kind of top notch considering, and once, just once, I’d like to a giant Spider-Man robot show up in the comics.
Spider-Man (1981 Series)
The 1981 iteration of the show was also short-lived, running only 6 months between 1981 and 1982, but this series was way ahead of its time. Great animation, all the right Marvel villains, and spot-on characterizations (for a kid’s cartoon, anyways) made the show a terrific precursor to one of the most beloved Spidey toons of all time.
Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981 Series)
Maybe the preceding show was nothing more than a testbed for this one, but Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was the first animated Marvel show to really get it right. Great characterizations led the success, but an amazing cast – including X-Men legend Iceman and newcomer created just for this show Firestar – and a slew of cameos of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and others made this show a must watch, and, let me tell you something, it still stand up…kind of.
Spider-Man (1994 Series)
Even though Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends ran for two long seasons, after it was taken off the air there was a decade long drought of Spidey animated TV, but it came back with a radioactive spider blood vengeance with the 1994 series. Modern animation, great writing, and stories taken right out of the source material all made for a gem of a cartoon. Putting this show on the air was a big risk for Marvel during a period when DC owned the big screen blockbuster movies, but the risk paid off, and all of Marvel’s animated shows that followed took their cues from this success.
Spider-Man Unlimited (1999 Series)
They can’t all be winners. By the turn of the last century, kids were off of superheroes and onto different, more imported properties like Pokemon and Digimon. Fox barely gave this show the attention it deserved, airing only a handful of episodes originally, rerunning the entire first season almost a year after its initial release, and leaving the 1st season cliffhanger an unfinished car crash of a cartoon series. The futuristic take was interesting, but it’s hard to beat the original, and viewers just didn’t get it, didn’t want to try to get it, or both.
Spider-Man The New Animated Series (1994 Series)
This was the MTV Spider-Man. By 1994 the computer age had dawned, and CG animation had reached its heyday. So, MTV jumped on the chance to make a Spidey for the modern age, with a great coat a paint, but not much else. Terrible voice acting, even worse characters, and next to no story whatsoever spoiled this show to the point where it left a bad taste in the viewers mouths. MTV had some great animation, but this certainly was not one of them.
The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008 Series)
By the time of the 2008 release of The Spectacular Spider-Man producers had pretty much gotten over all of their pompousness, and got back to exactly what worked: classic animation with a modern leaning, traditional Spider-Man stories starring traditional Spider-Man characters, and outright quality. This was a gem of a show, and I was thankful to have a show that was reminiscent of the 1994 show that I could enjoy with my kids the same way I enjoyed the ’94 series. It’s a tough call, but this may be my favorite of all of Spidey’s animated outings. It may not be the best, but the memories I created around the series stand out a lot more than any of the series themselves. Which is really what Spidey animations throughout the generations are all about.
Ultimate Spider-Man (2012)
Marvel’s latest Spider-Man animated series takes a tested proven formula for building a Spidey cartoon, and simply adds a different blend of source material. Ultimate Spider-Man hit comic store shelves well over a decade before this show premiered, and that very successful run translated beautifully to the small screen in animated form. If the Ultimate Spider-Man comic was the Spider-Man for the new Modern Age of comics, Ultimate Spider-Man the animated series is the animated series for the new Modern Age of Marvel on the screen. Taking lessons from previous animation efforts, as well as from the success of Marvel’s Movie Universe, it’s great to see Marvel and Disney make money off of a property they simply can’t touch with a film. This is, almost, the next best thing…almost.
While the comic books will always be the source material of Spider-Man, it’s incredibly hard to argue the fact that Spidey has found a broad appeal from his animated offerings. You have to leave the house and find a comic book shop to find a book for a kid, and even then a comic may not appeal to the kid the same way a TV show that is delivered directly to a living room TV can. It’s hard to imagine a Spidey without these shows, and who knows if Spidey would have reached huge mass appeal without them. There are so many Spidey stories from the comics still to make it into the animation scene, as well, and, again, who knows, maybe we’ll see a Superior Spider-Man series someday. I won’t hold my breath.
Most of these shows can be found on Netflix, Amazon, or (even better) Youtube, so get to Googling and get your retro Spidey-toon fix.