For many people, the definitive Spider-Man cartoon is either the 1967 Spider-Man series (you know, the one with the theme song) or 1981’s Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, which featured Iceman and Firestar as his *ahem* amazing friends. I have to admit something rather shocking here – despite being a HUGE fan of Spider-Man with a near-full set of Amazing Spider-Man comics, I have never watched more than a few episodes of both series. I just can’t get into them and the dated style of animation from the time. No – my perfect animated Spider-Man series, and my first real exposure to the character, comes from 1994’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series – the one with the hard rock opening theme and rather psychedelic 3D cityscape.
I must have been ten years old at the time, and Saturday morning cartoons were a regular part of my childhood, alongside the genuinely creepy gameshow Knightmare, but that’s a blog post for another time. Fox Kids had developed two animated series based on Marvel Comics properties: Spider-Man and the X-Men, both of which offered a more gritty and mature take on the subject matter than previous incarnations. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but both series were adapting material that was found in the comics at the time. Even more unbeknownst to me, the comics industry was undergoing something of a creative and financial drought, with some questionable plot directions being taken such as Maximum Carnage, The Clone Saga and over in the X-Men, The Age of Apocalypse.
I was the perfect age to enjoy the series, there was a maturity to the content that appealed to my ten-year old brain, and it was frenetic enough to maintain my attention. Trust me, I was running about flinging imaginary webs at friends and crouching down on my legs in a Spider-Man pose for the next few years. I haven’t entirely grown out of that phase in my thirties, though. Without a doubt, I can attribute my love for the Spider-Man character to this series – seeing the character from the comics brought to life was amazing and while the animation may look somewhat dated by today’s standards, it was unlikely anything else on TV at the time.
Each episode of the series threw in characters from Spider-Man’s rich rogue’s gallery, even incorporating newest additions such as Venom and Carnage – no doubt aiding the popularity of those symbiotes on the printed page. In fact, Venom appears in the eighth episode of the series and becomes a recurring element in the series afterwards. The three-part adventure “The Alien Costume” is truly amazing and I was lucky enough to have the whole storyline on VHS, which got rewatched dozens of times. Even now, I would argue it is one of the best interpretations of Venom’s origin – it pisses all over Spider-Man 3!
While Norman Osborn was a presence in the series, the series avoided making him and the Green Goblin a key focus – instead, the Kingpin adopted the mantle of Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis, ironically at a time when he was more commonly associated with Daredevil. Other minor villains were given the spotlight – Morbius was given a fairly lengthy spotlight across multiple episodes, as was Alistair Smythe, who adopted the role of a wheelchair-bound tech genius in Kingpin’s employ. In fact, he was far more interesting in the TV show than he ever was in the comics! The series also maintained a semblance of continuity with Fox’s other Marvel cartoons: The X-Men, The Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk. It was like the shared universe of the Netflix shows and Marvel movies, but decades before it became popular.
Of course, this weekly toe dip in the waters of the Marvel universe eventually led to me picking up the comics which, as I mentioned earlier, were undergoing a tough time with The Clone Saga and a general darker tone following the death of Peter Parker’s parents…or technically, the robotic simulations of his parents created by the Chameleon, on behalf of Harry Osborn, the son of the Green Goblin. Boy, comics can be convoluted, can’t they?! However, the dense continuity and the mountains of mysteries that surrounded The Clone Saga just enticed me in, and while it certainly has its critics, I think that I wouldn’t still be talking about comics now if it wasn’t for that storyline, and the way it made me want to find out everything about the character that I could.
Spider-Man: The Animated Series only ran for three seasons, consisting of 65 episodes in total, but it made such an impact on the character. Moreso than any previous animated series, it provided fans with relatively accurate adaptations of both classic and modern adventures, creating a genuine sense of continuity and allowing fans like myself to transfer from viewer to comics reader without much disruption. As fun and popular as the current day series and Marvel Cinematic Universe are, I do wonder whether many kids make that same transition nowadays.
Christopher Daniel Barnes provided the voice for Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and it is still his voice that I hear when I read the comics despite the myriad of performers who have taken over the role since. There is something in his delivery, particularly the heroic speeches and inner monologues, which captures the essence of character perfectly. Looking at his Wikipedia page, it turns out he was also the voice of Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid and Greg Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie – how weird! He has also returned to the role of the wall-crawler in videogames, albeit different versions of the character such as Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Man 2099.
Much in the same way that fans consider the Batman: The Animated Series to be the definitive realisation of Batman, I think Spider-Man: The Animated Series is a near-perfect vision of what the Spider-Man comics were like in the mid-to-late 90s, for better and for worse. While I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, I’ve heard that the Disney XD cartoons, Ultimate Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers Assemble capture the spirit of the current Marvel Universe, particularly Brian Michael Bendis’ writing style. Perhaps in a decade, people of the next generation will be writing about those series in a similar reverent manner.
For those in need of a nostalgia fix of Spider-Man: The Animated Series, the complete series is currently available on Amazon.