Animated Spider-Man Is Simply Spectacular

Spectacular Spider-ManHere at Badmouth, we like to think of ourselves as trendsetters–people ahead of the curve. But it’s better to come late to a party than to miss it altogether — and that brings us to The Spectacular Spider-Man, which recently moved to Disney XD for season two after an strong first season on the WB.

How on earth did we miss an entire season of what is undoubtedly one of the best superhero cartoons of the past 20 years? The only cartoon you can compare it to is the sublime Batman: The Animated Series, and that’s some rare company indeed. The over-simplified character designs are somewhat off-putting at first, but after watching a few episodes you quickly realize that they sacrificed complexity of design to achieve fluidity of motion. Simply put: Spider-Man swings, jumps and fights like you always imagined he would. The action sequences are nothing short of revelatory.

The show rewinds the clock to present a teenage Peter Parker — recently bitten by a radioactive spider and learning what it takes to be a hero on the job. Created by Victor Cook and Greg Weismen (Gargoyles), the show smartly splits its time between the superheroic exploits of Spider-Man and the resonant humanity of Peter Paker. More welcome additions are Spider-Man’s trademarked non-stop banter and the extensive supporting cast, culled primarily from the early issues of the book.

We recently sat down with producer/director Victor Cook and Josh Keaton, the voice of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, to talk about the show.

Badmouth: Greg Weisman said that the show roughly follows story arcs from the original ’60s comics. Was that an intentional decision?

Victor Cook: It was a very intentional decision. We wanted to start at the beginning. Just like the original comic book. We haven’t seen that in any animated series before. This gets to be the “first time” for many of us all over again.

Josh Keaton: Honestly, the original stories are where you see the origins of a lot of his classic villains. It’s where you see how he came about. This is Spider-Man when he’s just had his powers for summertime. He’s now in his junior year in high-school. He’s figuring it all out. He’s figuring out how to deal with life as a high-schooler, as well as newly discovered quote “superhero.” I think it makes sense to go back to the classics, because that’s where he started, and we’re showing.

BM: Your show takes some elements from the original comics, some from the movies and some from the “Ultimates” universe. How important was it for you to also develop your own separate continuity and identity?

VC: We set out to be the definitive animated Spider-Man. Characters’ personalities and motivations develop over multiple episodes. We have a Spider-Man that really moves! Sean Galloway’s character designs are fantastic to look at and also easy to animate. It allowed us to animate Spider-Man more fluidly than any other Spidey show before. The directors and storyboard artists push the action sequences with a Hong Kong flair — using his webs in a variety of creative ways.

It was very important for us to be classic and fresh at the same time. We really wanted to create the feel of the classic Lee/Ditko and Lee/Romita Spider-Man while at the same time contemporizing it. With the exception of Robbie Robertson — in the 1960s comic book, the supporting cast was all Caucasian. Laptops, cell phones and texting didn’t exist. Our show reflects today’s ethnically diverse New York and the technology teens use to communicate. For example, Liz Allen is now part Hispanic and Ned Leeds is now “Ned Lee,” a Korean-American.

We pay visual homages to the classic comics, from specific poses or panels to the half Spidey mask over Peter’s face, the spidey sense squiggle lines and the iconic “spidey eyes” in the sky at the end of stories. Our show has a slight cartooniness to go along with the dramatic and cinematic. We have a very cool main title song by Tender Box and awesome music scores by Dynamic Partners. We are very proud of the results. The story arcs, character development, unique design style, over the top action sequences, classic squash and stretch animation contribute to Spectacular’s unique identity among animated Spider-Man series.

BM: Tell me a little bit about the show.

JK:  The show takes a cue from the classic era of Spider-Man, the Lee-Ditko era. But it picks and chooses from a lot of different facets of the Spider-Man universe. It gets some stuff from the Ultimate [Spider-Man]; it gets some stuff from the films; it gets some stuff from pretty much everything. But the main goal was to make it as close in spirit to the original comics as possible.

BM: What can we expect from the second season?

VC: The introduction of new villains, Mysterio, Kraven and Molten Man to name a few as well as returning villians from season one. There will be a gang war coming that will be dramatic and action packed that involves Tombstone, Doc Ock and Hammerhead. Peter’s personal life get’s more complicated. More character development for the supporting cast. This is a big season for Flash Thompson. We’ll see our Spidey dealing with the snow and cold for the first time. The background paintings in these winter scenes turned out really nice and the snow and cold breath effects really enhance mood. Season two also promises memorable fight scenes.

BM: This is probably the fifth or sixth Spider-Man animated series. What is it about this character that keeps bringing people back?

VC: One is the pure visuals. The wall crawling, web slinging and aerial arachno-batics make Spidey a blast to watch. Spider-Man has a fantastic and colorful rogues gallery of villains with an array of superpowers, which means any throw-downs will be a visual treat. The other is the human element. He has a great cast of supporting characters at school, home and The Daily Bugle. Peter Parker is a guy we can relate to. He is a regular guy struggling to make it in life. He’s not perfect and makes mistakes sometimes, but is always trying to do the right thing.

BM: This is a role that a lot of people have done over the years. There are the movies, and probably five or six cartoon series. Did you do anything to try and make the role your own?

JK: I grew up watching a lot the original cartoons and all that, but I didn’t want to make it a mimicry, because, for one, I grew up with a lot of the same — obviously not the superhero part — but a lot similar experiences to Peter Parker. I was and am a dork. I love science. I love computers. I love gadgets. I love video games and comic books — these are all things that I’m passionate about. I couldn’t get a date in high school to save my life.

But, much like Peter — and this is what comes with 20/20 — I’ve run into girls that that I went to high school with that now have admitted that they had huge crushes on me during high school. I’m like, “Why didn’t you say anything?” And me being pretty much like Pete, I was completely clueless and oblivious to all of it. And just because I feel like I identify with the character so much, i really just wanted to try to find the aspects of me that were true to Peter.

BM: As an actor, this is a two-for-one role. You’re playing Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Is there a quantifiable difference for you? Do you look at a script and go, “OK. Now the mask is on?”

JK: Slightly. There’s not going to be any kind of voice change, per se, because he doesn’t morph into Spider-Man. There are no physical or morphological change that he goes through. He’s really the same guy, but he definitely has a lot more confidence as Spider-Man. It’s pretty obvious that Peter Parker from the time he wa a kid has been pegged as a dork, and I know that all too well from high-school from personal experience. If you’re pegged one way, no matter what you do to try and change that — you’re pretty much going to stay that. In the first episode, he goes up to Sally Avril, tries to hit on her and she totally shuts him down hard. So his new-found confidence as Spider-Man didn’t really help him out — granted, they don’t know that.

Then it becomes kind of a juggling game, because once he’s accepted the fact that he’s Spider-Man, once he’s been living with that in his life, now he has to conceal his secret identity. So there is almost a subconscious attempt to play up his geekiness a little to kinda cover his bases.

So there definitely are some subtle changes between the two. I would say the main difference at least now is — and he’s definitely going to evolve should we get more seasons — at least now is he definitely can say things as Spider-Man that he can’t say as Peter Parker. And that definitely plays into that confidence, his bravado.

BM: Why do you think people relate so well to Peter?

VC: Having these superpowers and being a superhero are a blast for Peter, but he is learning on the job. Peter has to navigate the brutal world of the high school social structure as well as super villains. He also has a curfew.

JK: He really is an “everyman.” Granted not everyone has spider powers, but I think that everybody can relate to Peter because people have had that same type of experience where they are pegged as one thing and they are trying to break free. If you think about it, everybody kind of has a secret life. The way you act with your parents or with your significant other or who you work with — it’s all going to be different. So in a way, everybody kind of has got little secret identities in the way they are perceived in different places.

Going back to the everyman thing, he is the dork that liked science and suddenly got these powers,  suddenly was given this huge change in life, and he’s just trying to make it work. Pete constantly has horrible luck. He always has to try to power through it; try to put a good spin on it. Everybody’s had to deal with these issues. Everybody’s had curve balls thrown their way and can’t seem to catch a break.

BM: Comic-book fans can be notoriously hard to please when details are changed when translating their favorites to a new medium. Did you ever get any flack for changes that you made from the original comic?

VC: You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but the fan response for Spectacular has been overwhelmingly positive.

JK: It is a little bit intimidating when you are going with a cannon that is so well established. I grew up reading this stuff and a lot of it is part of my own childhood. I may not be “Comic Book Guy” who can quote everything, but there’s a lot of things I know that I can bring to the performance. For the most part, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had so many people come up to me and they love the fact that I brought humor back into Spidey and that he can crack wise once more. That’s such a huge aspect of his character that I think has gotten under-played recently. I’m glad that I can do something to kind of help bring it back.

It’s not just about [humor]. We have episodes in the first season — Intervention, notably — that you really see a lot of his emotional struggles. I have to say that the fan response has been great. They’ve all been supportive of me, the show. We even had some people at one of the Cons say that when they first heard of the show they were really expecting it to suck. I’m sure that they probably grew up with the ’90s version and were huge die-hard fans of that. Then the same guy came back the next year and said “I thought the show was going to suck and I’m so glad I gave it a chance. I loved the show.”

I think it’s a testament to the writing, the supporting cast, and everybody. The majority of the people on the show are themselves Spider-man fans. The guy who plays Doc Ock, Peter McNichol – Ock was actually his favorite character in the comic and he wanted at some point in his life to play him. Everybody’s got a little of themselves in it.

BM: Until recently, Marvel licensing was all over the map. Has that hampered your ability to bring other heroes you wanted onto the show?

JK: Yes, we have not been able to use Kingpin because it falls under the Daredevil license which I think Fox has. However, I’m not mad about that because our show gave Tombstone a huge rewrite. I think our version of Tombstone is bad-ass. I might piss off some people, but I think our version of Tombstone would wipe the floor with Kingpin. No questions asked. I really love what they’ve done with him, how they’ve reinvented him, and in my opinion, they’ve made him into an A-list villain. I think he’s awesome. Yea, there have been a few licensing things, but it always just results in new surprises.

VC: We wanted to focus on Spidey and his roster of villains and supporting characters. Because of that, we haven’t felt creatively hampered at all.

BM: How have you balanced the trend towards complex, adult storylines for comics with the need to keep the material accessible and family friendly?

VC: The original Spider-Man comics and the original Marvel comics appealed to all ages. Back in the 1960s the comics were compelling for college age and adult fans as well as being fun for kids. We set out to do the same for our series and I am proud to say we delivered.

JK: Well, there’s a huge difference between Watchmen and Batman versus Spider-Man. Those are inherintly much darker stories and much darker characters. Bruce Wane had huge, huge issues he was dealing with. But, then again you can look at Doc Oc and how he’s constantly plotting to take over the world and see how that’s not much different from Adrian in Watchmen.

Spider-Man’s just always had a much lighter tone from the beginning. However, there is a balance we have to do just for TV. Greg said he would love to do five seasons and then go direct to DVD where some of the more serious Spider-Man stories would be handled. I personally would love to see a Spectacular Spider-Man version of Kraven’s Last Hunt or The Sin Eater arc or Death of Gwen Stacy.

BM: Without giving too much away, is there any chance that Gwen’s fate on your show will be similar to her fate in the original comics?

JK: To quote Greg, “Anything can happen.” He won’t confirm or deny it. He’s also a big advocate of saying give him enough seasons and you’ll see what you want to see.

VC: Any answer I give will be giving too much away.