Welcome to SPIDER-MAN SUNDAY!

Hey folks,  time for the first reoccuring feature here on this blog: Spider-Man Sunday!

I’ve always been a fan of superheroes, and Spider-Man is definitely up there. So I figured I’d pay ol’  Webhead a weekly visit. Basically, every Sunday, I’ll be talking about two episodes of the classic ’90s Spider-Man: The Animated Series from Fox and an issue of Untold Tales of Spider-Man. Of course, seeing as how Untold Tales only lasted 19 issues, I’ll be switching to another series soon. But as I’m currently not reading Amazing Spider-Man, Avenging Spider-Man, or any of the several Spidey book out there, I think the comic part will be focusing more on limited or cancelled series.

First up, the cartoon. Now let me just say at first that these reviews will be criticism with a strong dollop of nostalgia. See, I was too young to watch this show on Fox Kids when it originally aired, but I have fond memories of watching it on ABC Family on the weekends when I was younger, so I still consider this show a cornerstone of my superhero love.

We begin with Season 1, Episode 2, “The Sting of the Scorpion.” I know that the real first episode of the series is “Night of the Lizard,” but I think I’ll save that for a time closer to the release date of May’s The Amazing Spider-Man film. Besides, seeing as how the series already began with Peter having his powers and in college, it’s safe to start here too.

This episode opens with Peter (Christopher Daniel-Barnes), while trying and failing to seduce Felicia Hardy (Jennifer Hale), noticing that some doughy-looking guy is trying to follow him. He ducks off, changes into Spider-Man, sees the guy run away, and, thinking it’s nothing, goes off to nab some thugs.

It turns out the chubby stalker is Mac Gargan, who’s been hired by Daily Bugle head J. Jonah Jameson (Ed Asner) to tail Peter to find out just how he gets those shots of Spider-Man. (Of course, during the fight with the thugs before this scene, we’re shown exactly how he does it: by webbing an automatic camera onto a nearby building) Gargan is voiced by Martin Landau, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. I mean, I haven’t seen a lot that Landau has been in, but he has a pretty recognizable voice and usually, it’s easy to spot celebrities from regular voice actors in animation. Furthermore, as the second episode of the series, it’s surprising that they got a guest star to play the villain so early in the run.

But more on Landau later. Gargan–a schlump of a man who’s been “picked on all [his] life” is taken by Jameson to see Dr. Stillwell (Michael Rye) at the genetics lab at Empire State University. Stillwell–a colleague of Dr. Curt Conners aka the Lizard–fuses Gargan’s DNA with that of a scorpion, restructuring his genetic code entirely as well as making him taller, muscular, and able to fit inside a special battlesuit with a tail that shoots highly corrosive acid. The scorpion is chosen because, Stillwell explains, a scorpion is the natural enemy of the spider.

The Scorpion announces himself and beats Spider-Man pretty hard with a water tower, but when he is about to unmask him, he starts mutating–a side effect of the radiation. Incensed, he kidnaps Jameson and heads to the Oscorp nuclear plant, in the hopes that unleashing the nuclear core will change him back to normal. He cares little for the fact that it will destroy New York entirely. Spidey comes in to wreck Gargan’s plan, and Jameson, wracked with guilt over the monster he has created, not only turns against the Scorpion, but even saves him from crushing Spider-Man.

I gotta say, overall, this is a good jumping point back into the show. The script by John Semper Jr. (the producer and story editor who wrote the majority of the show), Robert N. Skir, and veteranTransformers TV writer Marty Isenberg is nice and compact. Every character’s personality is instantly established within their introduction and the show moves along at a good solid clip, with some nice tension and pretty strong action sequences.

The animation is dated at times, particularly the CGI, but still very well-done. Much like the legendary ’60s Spider-Man cartoon (which you can find out more about here), this show does tend to go the cheap route and reuse animation footage. Really, though, it’s not all that noticeable. Another quibble I have is that what’s going on on the screen always doesn’t match what’s in the script.

For example, when Gargan first mutates, he moans “I’ve become a freak” and in a very sad tone. However, the animation over this bit of dialogue makes it seem like Gargan is still writhing in agony from his mutation. Some other bits are like that, but that’s the one I really remember as having a disconnect.

The cast is simply fantastic. Barnes is a fun and loose Spider-Man, and his voice matches the character so well that his is the voice that pops up in my head whenever I read a Spider-Man book. He does solid work, handling Spidey’s many famous quips in a way that never feels forced but always natural.

Martin Landau–again, very surprised to see him here–does a great job as Scorpion. He’s great as Max when he’s a sadsack, and even greater once Gargan turns into a roughneck villain. His was some nice guest casting. There is one quibble, though, and I suppose it’s not really Landau’s fault, but more the writers’.

Mac says repeatedly that no one is ever to call him names, but really, except for Spidey before the final takedown, no one ever actually calls him a time. Jameson refers to him as insane and crazy, but he uses them after the word “You’re,” so they’re not really names, but descriptors.

It’s a weird tic, but again, I’m just guessing it’s a fault of the writers’. It’s relatively minor. Overall, though, this is a well-done episode, particularly so early in the show.

Next up is Episode 3, “The Spider Slayers.” This episode not only is the first episode of many two-parters on this show, but also greatly expands the cast.

We open with Spidey, just web-swinging freely, only to be attacked by small flying camera-equipped robots that kind of resemble the Pokemon Staryu for some reason. He manages to elude and destroy all of them, much to the consternation of robotics expert Spencer Smythe and his wheelchair-bound son Alastair (Edward Mulhale and Maxwell Caulfield, respectively). Spencer created the robots, known as the Spider-Seekers, at the behest of Norman Osborn (Neil Ross), who is out to destroy Spider-Man. However, Osborn isn’t doing this for himself, but rather at the behest of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin (Roscoe Lee Browne) who sees Spidey as a threat to the stability of his criminal empire. Fisk also has Osborn in a massive amount of debt, with Oscorp itself put up as collateral. So naturally, Osborn is up against the wall and sweating.

We see that Smythe has not only created Spider-Seekers, but also a giant mechanical spider, the Black Widow, to destroy Spider-Man. He does these things so that Osborn will build Alastair a hoverchair as he sees that the explosion that caused his son’s paralysis as his fault. The Black Widow is so tough that nothing other than corrosive acid can bore through it. We also find out that Daily Bugle reporter Eddie Brock (the future Venom, voiced by Hank Azaria) has been brought in by Osborn to cover the unmasking and destruction of Spider-Man

While all this is going on, Jameson, in conjuction with the Hardys–Felicia’s mother is a wealthy philanthropist–is hosting a charity ball at his home, with Peter having been hired as the photographer for the event. The conceit of the ball allows us to meet way more of the supporting cast: Flash Thompson (Patrick Labyorteaux), Harry Osborn (Gary Imhoff) and Joseph “Robbie” Robertson (Rodney Saulsberry). We also get to see a lot more of Aunt May (Linda Gary) then we did last episode.

Let me just say upfront, I am not a big fan of Aunt May’s character design. She not only seems far younger than the comics or even in Ultimate Spider-Man, but her hair and face just look weird. Gary’s performance is fine, but I can never really forgive the look.

Thompson is the perfect jerk we know and love, and Labyorteaux sells it. Flash’s conceit to dress up as Spidey and crash the party to confront Peter for dancing with Felicia–like the comics, Flash loathes Peter, but is a huge Spidey fan–first seems to go well, but when the Black Widow invades the party and mistakenly kidnaps Flash, his true cowardice is revealed. It’s a nice introduction to one of Peter’s biggest foils.

Of the Osborns, Harry doesn’t really have that much to do, but Norman is great here. His scheming and conniving are delivered expertly by Ross, and it sets up the character of Osborn quite nicely for what’s to come.

But my favorite villain here is undoubtedly Browne’s Kingpin. The late actor had a brilliant stentorian voice, honed by years of dramatic training and he is the Kingpin. Every word out of his mouth is golden. It’s an arresting performance, and much like Barnes’ Spider-Man, his is the voice I hear in my head whenever I read something with the Kingpin, particularly Brian Michael Bendis’ brilliant run on Daredevil.

Again, this is another great episode, and the ending offers a nice cliffhanger for the next episode. The charity ball conceit is a great way to introduce the show’s supporting cast. I really enjoyed Azaria’s Eddie Brock, as he managed to deliver a nice tough guy voice without sounding like a parody. It was also interesting that they set up the fact that Jameson owns a TV network, not just a newspaper, for which Eddie Brock reports. It’s a nice touch and provides a way for Jameson to say at the end, “The other networks are laughing at me, Brock! Even Fox!” Nice dig, that.

It’s nice to see that so early, we’re seeing all the background for Spidey’s major villains crop up. This is gonna be a fun series to rewatch.

All right, now for the third part of our inaugural Spider-Man Sunday: Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1!

The cover to "Untold Tales of Spider-Man" #1

I know this is kind of an odd series to start out with, but hear me out. First off, it’s set in the early days of Spider-Man’s career, similar to where we’re at with the show. Second, it has a quality creative team in the form of writer Kurt Busiek (best known for Marvels) and penciller Pat Olliffe (Spider-Girl). Third, it’s not very long, and, like I said above, seeing as how I’m not reading any current Spider-Man titles, I thought this would be a nice series to ease in for this feature.

Anyway, issue #1, “To Serve And Protect?” opens with Spidey in the midst of a rooftop fight with the Scorcher, a man in a exosuit that protects him from the flamethrowers he wields, and his flameproof-suit wearing henchman. In the midst of the fight, we hear Spidey’s inner monologue which contains a lot of bits similar to his thoughts in the beginning of “The Sting of the Scorpion,” right down to his line, “Web shooters, I love you!” Kind of funny how that works.

After some general backstory and a scene where Peter hands Jameson pictures of the fight only to be told Spidey and Scorcher will be branded as partners in crime by the Bugle, Peter heads off in costume to the NYPD, where he meets Captain Stacy, explaining that he wants to be made a cop “or a special deputy or something.” Stacy says the only way that could work is if Spidey unmasks and goes through the police academy; knowing full well that that can’t be done, Peter leaves.

After giving his paycheck to Aunt May to pay for bills and heart medicine, Peter hears a radio report about the Scorcher reappearing and hijacking an Oscorp chemical plant. He runs off under false pretenses, races to the plant and discover that while Stacy and the cops have the plant surrounded, they’ve left an opening for the Scorcher and his man to escape undetected.

Peter breaks into the building and engages the Scorcher. After a brutal fight (while the papers the villain hijacked are safe in a flameproof briefcase), Peter manages to bring a water tower down on the burning building, preventing the chemical storage tanks from blowing up and causing chaos.

The Scorcher and his men are apprehended, but Spidey is chewed out by Captain Stacy for botching their investigation. It is revealed that the Scorcher is known to be working for someone, and that gap Peter noticed in the blockade was left purposely in hopes that they would be led to the real mastermind. Thanks to Peter’s heroic efforts, that can’t happen. However, Stacy defends Peter for doing his “civic duty.” Nonetheless, Peter is left disillusioned and convinced that things have to be done his own way.

“To Serve And Protect?” is a great way to kick off this series. It has that same reckless, action-packed vibe of the original Stan Lee-Steve Ditko run. Indeed, the letter column in the back of this issue reveals that Untold Tales takes place between the gaps of the Lee-Ditko run; this issue takes place shortly after Amazing Spider-Man #6,  the first appearance of the Lizard. Again, funny how things work out.

Far from being just a rewrite of ’60s Marvel (like the purely awful Marvel Age Fantastic Four written by Sean McKeever), Busiek seizes the opportunity to inject ancient Marvel history with the great sense of story and awesome character voice that has made him one of my favorite comic book writers. He makes everybody sound just as fresh today as they did back in 1963.

Olliffe’s pencils, despite some strange goofs, are really impressive overall. He has a nice flourish that makes this book seem as chaotic as New York itself. His Spidey designs are really nice and he swaps out Ditko’s square Peter head for a more angular design which further accentuates his awkwardness.

Overall, this is a great opening issue to what will hopefully be a great series that’s half nostalgic throwback/half brand new tales. Color me excited!

OK folks, that’s it for our inaugural SPIDER-MAN SUNDAY! I hope you enjoyed it and will stick with me as I keep this feature going, as well as some other features I plan to launch pretty soon.

Hope you have a nice week and Spidey sez “Keep swingin’ web-heads!”

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