Janet Hetherington talks to the creators of the newest animated incarnation of Spider-Man and discovers that ol' webhead still suffers from teen angst.
Spider-Man first swung onto the comic book scene in 1962, in Amazing Fantasy #15 from Marvel Comics. From the beginning, this Marvel hero was anything but super -- Peter Parker was a geeky science student by day and the wisecracking, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man by night.
Spider-Man appealed to the kid in all of us. As it turns out, he still does.
The newest incarnation of the web-slinging hero harkens back to Spidey's angst-ridden teen years, and the goal is to engage a new generation of Spider-Man fans. The Spectacular Spider-Man, from Sony's Culver Entertainment, premiered on Kids' WB! on The CW on March 8, 2008, and Marvel and Sony Pictures Television recently announced that they have green-lit production on an additional 13 half-hour episodes, bringing the current series run to 26 episodes.
"What has made the character so beloved in the comics, what has made the movies so successful, and what I hope we've managed to translate into our series is Peter Parker's 'relatability' as a character to all ages," said Michael Vogel, director of animated programming, Sony Pictures Television.
The Spectacular Spider-Man picks up the original web-slinger's mythology at the beginning of his hero's journey as a not-so-typical 16-year-old entering his junior year of high school.
"Obviously we wanted to make a show that was appealing to kids, and with Spidey's wisecracks, nonstop action and amazing rogues' gallery, there was plenty to work with," Vogel says. "But we also wanted older fans to be able to really get into the show. In looking at the brand as a whole, we saw the things that had universal appeal and focused on those key ingredients -- awesome action, great stories and characters you really care about."
Kids' WB! Senior Vice President and General Manager Betsy McGowen says that the use of the Spectacular title is an homage to Marvel's popular series of Spider-Man comics, and that it reflects the enthusiasm and high regard they have for the production.
Spidey has his gloved hands full coping with the pressures of teenage life at home and school, while combating super-baddies. According to writer and supervising producer Greg Weisman, for this new animated series, the timeline of the original Spider-Man story arcs has been condensed to move the series forward and include such classic characters as Flash Thompson, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, Betty Brant, Harry Osborn, Jean DeWolff, J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May Parker, Joe 'Robbie' Robertson and Liz Allan. As for villains, Spidey gets hit from all sides by the Vulture, Hammerhead, The Enforcers, Electro, Venom, Doc Ock, the Lizard, Sandman, and more.
"We are being very true to the spirit of those early [Stan] Lee/[Steve] Ditko and Lee/[John] Romita issues," Weisman says. "But we're consciously giving ourselves the freedom to change things, contemporize them, to make them more coherent and cohesive. But we never want to lose what's iconic about the characters and their look."
The goal, Weisman says, is to reinterpret these great characters and concepts for our millenniun. And what differentiates a 1960s-era teen hero from a 21st-century one? "Cellphones, cellphones, cellphones," Weisman says. "The Internet. The ubiquitousness of technology (but not the non-ubiquitousness of the positive effects of radiation). A more diverse multi-cultural New York. And surprisingly little else. Some life experiences are truly universal -- like adolescence."
"In the 1960s, the world was analog; today, it is digital," agrees supervising producer/director Vic Cook. "In the 1960s, kids passed notes to each other in class, listened to records, got their news and information from radio and a few TV channels. Today, kids text each other, download music to iPods and have access to the Internet and 24-hour news channels."
"While technology has changed, a lot of the teen social structure hasn't," Cook says. "Today, as in the 1960s, we still have cliques -- the popular kids, the outsiders, the jocks and geeks. I think a 16-year-old becoming a superhero today is more challenging than it was in the 1960s -- the villains and criminals have access to more advanced technology."
The Spectacular Spider-Man combines old and new in the spirit of the original comics. Weisman notes that there will be plenty of resonant material for the Spider-Man fan, while engaging the Spider-Man novice with the thrill of being exposed to the character for the first time. The stories will include plenty of eye-candy, action, humor and colorful characters for the youngest demographic, balanced with extensive character development for 'tweens, teens and adults.
Spider Senses Tingling
The approach seems to be working. On March 13, 2008, Nielsen Research Media reported that The Spectacular Spider-Man "swung to new heights for Kids' WB! on The CW for Saturday, March 8, scoring season-high household numbers."
According to Neilson, the premiere of The Spectacular Spider-Man helped the Kids' WB! Saturday morning lineup tally its highest household rating (1.1/3) of the 2007-2008 season. The premiere episode, "Survival of the Fittest," registered a 1.2/3 household rating, which garnered the top mark for Kids' WB! in the 10 am time slot during the 2007-2008 season. The numbers held and improved for "Interactions," the series' second episode.
Those first two episodes set the tone for The Spectacular Spider-Man series. In "Survival of the Fittest," summer is over for Peter Parker and school is ready to start -- both literally (in the classroom) and in the "real" world of crime-fighting -- as Spider-Man faces his first real challenge (The Enforcers) and his first real super-villain (the Vulture). In "Interactions," Peter and Spider-Man both try to make connections. Nerdy Pete attempts to tutor the popular Liz Allan, while Spidey reaches out to stop the menace of Electro.
And in the new series, Spidey is designed for action. "From Day One, our primary job was to make sure we had a Spider-Man that moves," says Weisman. "With that in mind, we chose a style and designer that would give us clean and simple, yet iconic designs that would allow the animators to really go to town."
"We have a great character designer, Sean [Cheeks] Galloway, who has infused his own unique design sense on our series," Cook adds. "We wanted a traditional, animated Spidey that could move as well as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The streamlined designs allow us to push the envelope on the animation on our TV production schedule. Our backgrounds, which were designed by Vince Toyama and Kenny McGill, also allow for dimensional camera moves which help the Spidey action look even more dynamic.
"Also, we have approached the action choreography with kind of a Hong Kong flair -- over the top, dynamic and with a dash of humor when needed. We have fantastic animators at Hanho, Moi and Dong Woo studios who are able to implement what we are asking for on the storyboards. This Spidey has some of the best action sequences animated for TV.
"As far as the visual storytelling, we have put a lot of Ditko-inspired visual touches into the show -- the spidey tingle lines for Spidey sense, the half-spidey mask and the spidey eyes in the sky at the end of our episodes. From a story point of view, it is very much Lee/Ditko, but contemporized. Spidey still has a sense of humor, quipping away during battles as he did in the Lee/Ditko comics."
Here Comes The Spider-Man
Lead designer Galloway provided artwork in synch with the vision for the series. "My influences do go back to the classic designs," he says. "I had to keep those styles from the Ditko/Romita era in mind throughout the process. But as much as we tried to maintain those styles, as we know the fans love the Ditko/Romita designs, we also wanted to make sure we gave it more of a modern twist.
"They gave me five options to design on the initial test -- Mary Jane, Gwen, Peter and Spider-Man -- as well as whichever villain I wanted to do. Peter was my first design. He's the soul character of that universe, and I can relate to Peter better than any of the others because he's a guy who experiences everyday life, everyday dilemmas, and I can understand how he handles it. He doesn't let that get him down. So I knew if I could tackle Peter, then it would set the tone for drawing the rest of the characters.
"The villain I chose was Sandman because I wanted to produce a design that would set me apart from my competition. Because his body changes the way sand forms, I felt that would be a cool challenge and an opportunity to really push the edges -- and show that I could be the right person for the job. So I purposely chose Sandman because I thought he'd be harder than some of the other villains. The challenge was taking that character -- striped shirt and all -- and to try to make him modern and cool in today's world."
Other villains that Galloway designed include The Enforcers, the Vulture, Electro, the Lizard, Shocker, Rhino, Tombstone, the Green Goblin, Doc Ock and more.
Galloway found Spidey's adversaries a pleasure to work on because they were so different from his usual style. "I generally draw cutesy, but the villains gave me the chance to pull away from that and draw something scary, although not too scary," he says. "I have a lot of favorites -- Vulture, Doc Ock, Otto, Venom and Lizard. Their designs offer really good contrasting shapes, and I was able to show that we can push the limits on those designs."
Galloway was also involved with some background design, but notes, ""I did some initial designs on the backgrounds to establish a look and a color scheme. But Vince Toyama took it to a whole new level."
Spidey's New Web
To capitalize on Spidey's refreshed popularity, a major marketing effort by Kids WB!, Sony Pictures Television and Marvel is underway. While the creators of the new Spider-Man series are dedicated to revisiting Spidey's roots, the new adventures also mean big business -- spectacular Spider-toys, clothes, food and more.
"I think the great thing about Spider-Man is that it's not just a great children's brand; it's a great brand, period," comments Vogel.
Since this new Spider-Man is in tune with the Web-savvy generation, it seems natural that one of the marketing initiatives is an extensive "kid-focused" online presence via a Sony Pictures Kids website that offers character info, downloads, video, games, links, and more.
"I believe viewers today don't think of things in just one medium anymore," Vogel says. "To successfully brand a show, you need to have characters and ideas that transcend just one type of storytelling. Spider-Man has proven he can swing from one medium to another and retain the virtues that make him appealing. I think that Spider-Man lends itself to a more layered storytelling that the online world can really delve into. These characters have such rich backstories and years and years of history, and the online world allows you to focus on your favorites and really explore."
Other promotional elements for The Spectacular Spider-Man include on-air, in-school and at-retail activities. In addition to on-air teasers and comic book convention promotional activities, Sony Pictures Television and Kids' WB!/The CW Network are introducing an in-school Milk Media Campaign in 85% of all U.S. schools. The campaign includes localized tune-in information that will be featured on The Spectacular Spider-Man branded posters and book covers in the top 8-10 markets, as well as branding on nearly 40 million milk cartons.
Spidey even has his own dedicated merchandising group. Spider-Man Merchandising, L.P. is the limited partnership comprising Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and Sony Pictures Consumer Products Inc. that oversees the licensing and merchandising activities for Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man feature films and animated series. The partnership has already attracted some of the biggest names in key categories -- ranging from toys and apparel to domestics and publishing.
Participating industry heavyweights include Hasbro (master toy licensee), Wear Me Apparel (master apparel), IMT (sporting goods), Fashion Accessory Bazaar (back-to-school and storage), Bendon Publishing (publishing), DecoPac (cake decoration), Giant Merchandising (t-shirts), Berkshire Fashion (headwear, cold weather and hosiery), Fast Forward (back-to-school), and Jay Franco (domestics). Spider-Man Merchandising, L.P. is continuing to work on expanding the program with additional licensees.
Paul Gitter, president of consumer products for North America, Marvel Entertainment for Spider-Man Merchandising L.P., reports that the early feedback on The Spectacular Spider-Man has been phenomenal, with licensees quick to embrace the series. Their goal, he says, is to create a merchandising program and entertainment event that aims to fuel the ongoing demand for the Spider-Man franchise.
Hasbro unveiled The Spectacular Spider-Man toys at Toy Fair 2008, including the first-ever Spider-Man toy that actually scales walls -- Remote Control Wallcrawler Spider-Man for ages five and up -- available in the fall. For kids wanting to join Spidey in his crime-fighting escapades, Hasbro offers the Spinning Web Blaster, as well as action figures featuring characters from the new series.
Will kids like these toys? They're already popular with series director Vic Cook, who says, "They're in my office for inspiration and they're just fun to look at."
Spidey Spins On
With more episodes of The Spectacular Spider-Man in the works, what will the second season hold for the wall-crawler? Will Peter Parker be finding life any easier as a student and budding superhero? The answer is: not likely.
"Look for season-one villains wanting to take another crack at Spidey," advises Cook. "Molten Man is among new villains to make an appearance in the new season."
"We'll be introducing Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter and The Master Planner, amongst others," adds Weisman. "As for the direction [of the series], we're continuing the progression of all our subplots. If we've done our job, it should all feel very organic."
Still, Spidey shouldn't worry; other heroes may be on the way for Culver Entertainment and Sony Pictures Kids.
"We're all having a blast working with Marvel to bring Spidey to the small screen and hope to be able to keep him web-slinging for awhile," Vogel says. "At the same time, we're exploring other existing properties with the same kind of universal appeal as Spider-Man, as well as looking for new characters whose stories will hopefully have the same kind of staying power as Spidey has had all these years."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.