For those not old enough to have experienced the series of Spider-Man Saturday morning cartoons that debuted in the fall of 1967, or even the syndicated reruns that came later, all the fuss over the release of this DVD collection may be perplexing. After all, the cartoons themselves aren't all that great. The animation is pitifully primitive when compared to most modern TV cartoons, leaning heavily on its few well-animated movements laid over different backgrounds. Many TV series back then were required to be able to be broadcast in any order, so the Krantz Films/Grantray-Lawrence Animation studios were unable to adopt the melodramatic angst of the comic-book's soap opera plots, so much of the supporting cast was dropped, leaving plots that resemble truncated movie serials.
However, this was the first adaptation of Spider-Man to another medium, and whatever remained of the comic-book's essence was appreciated. This included Spidey's regular antagonism of that blowhard newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, a rich rogues gallery of villains, and the noir-ish atmosphere of the New York setting. Plus, it was a thrill to see Spider-Man in action, swingin' and crawlin' across the Big Apple, set to some of the snazziest library music around. In fact, unbeknownst to kids watching the cartoons, a lot of the same music was in use for swinging adults-only features of the era. On top of it all was that classic theme song, which even the big budget movies can't ignore. You know a TV theme song is cool when even the Ramones cover it. To a nation of kids, stoked out of their little minds on sugary breakfast cereal and wrapped up in the superhero-heavy late '60s Saturday morning schedule, it was something like nirvana and it came back-to-back with the equally cool FANTASTIC FOUR show.
The format changed a bit over its three seasons. The first season, produced by Grantray-Lawrence, presented two adventures per episode, with two special full length half-hour special episodes mixed in. Though simple, the animation was several steps above the cheap work G-L provided for the syndicated MARVEL SUPERHEROES show from the previous year, which was really consisted of glorified animatics moving cut-outs taken directly from the comics. The plots concentrated on Spidey's battles with a different villain in each cartoon cool characters from the comics like Dr. Octopus and Mysterio, or lame original villains like Parafino the wax-sculptor and invisible man Noah Boddy. One episode, "To Catch A Spider", even mixes the two, as Noah Boddy frees Electro, Green Goblin and Vulture from prison to help him hunt down Spider-Man. The model, of course, was the BATMAN TV show, but often a nice edge was put on the situations by having Spider-Man find himself caught between the bad guy and Jameson. The only other continuing character was Jameson's secretary Betty Brant, providing an occasional damsel in distress and limited love interest for alter ego Peter Parker. Peter's Aunt May appeared in a single standout episode ("Horn of the Rhino") in which an ailing Spidey has to fight the Rhino and a head cold at the same time, dodging back home in-between battles to receive some pampering. The best entries have a comfortable potboiler structure that keeps things the action along in breezy fashion.
For the second season, the format was reversed, with mostly full length episodes. Krantz Films took over production, with Ralph Bakshi (WIZARDS) directing. Bakshi hired busy cartoonist Gray Morrow to handle layouts, giving the images a nice comic-book feel. Atmosphere was set by each episode's title card, which featured a moody picture of New York docks by night. This atmosphere spread into the episodes themselves, with lots of deep shadows in the backgrounds, and some of the library tunes were even snappier. Things started out promisingly with "The Origin of Spider-Man" giving our hero a background. But with a half-hour to fill each week, the padding became even more obvious. The episode in which Spider-Man first faces the Kingpin has our hero swinging over the city to rockin' tunes for minutes at a time without advancing the plot.
Things got even worse in a string of episodes obviously penned by fantasy author Lin Carter in which Spider-Man is transported to fantastic worlds. One story has Spidey sunk to a kingdom of mole men aboard a hijacked skyscraper, while another has him transported through time to battle an evil sorcerer or post-apocalyptic mutants. This might have worked as a novelty, making Peter a spider out of his usual webs, but is tiresome as a steady diet. One of the character's main attractions is the semi-realistic milieu he operates in. Who needs Spider-Man in a Flash Gordon story? These episodes also jettison the rest of the supporting cast. Peter Parker is seen chasing different girls and is bullied by different jocks in several stories. Couldn't these roles have been filled as easily by Mary Jane and Flash Thonpson? The stories have a generic feel to them that's not only dull it's depressing. Even episodes set in New York have a more fantasy-oriented theme "Pardo Presents" is about a magician controlling a giant cat, and "Thunder Rumble" concerns Martian gods creating killer storms. About the best of the lot is one is "Home" in which Peter's nerdly ways at a discotheque attract a strange girl, who turns out to be an alien who has spider powers, too.
Another odd thing in the Krantz shows is that an awful lot of villains are painted green for no reason other than for easy identification. Perhaps it was some sort of stereotype, and we were supposed to believe that only green people do the really bad things, like shrink superheroes to the size of mice.
For the most part, this six-disc set presents the cartoons in broadcast order, but this sad run of fantasy-based episodes from season two is made worse by being lumped together on disc four. One program that contains episodes with popular villains Mysterio and the Rhino broke things up a bit, but here it's moved to the middle of disc six for some reason, well into season three. Maybe it's because they're virtual remakes of previous episodes, and Buena Vista figures it'll be less noticeable with another disc of distance. Oh well.
Speaking of season three everybody must have been disappointed in the way the second season turned out, because in the Fall of 1969 much of the format reverted to the way it was in season one. Krantz and Bakshi were still in charge, but Spider-Man spent a lot more time battling villains in New York, and less at the center of the Earth, thankfully. Episodes split into two stories alternated with full length tales, and more plots were lifted from the comics. However, the damage had been done, and the third season was not picked up by ABC itself, but syndicated to individual stations. Budgets appear to have been cut as well the show always had a few glitches here and there, but now they became more obvious. Shots in which a character's mustache hadn't been painted in were edited together with shots of Spider-man standing on nothing. You sometimes see someone talking, but the dialogue is missing. Many episodes have a blurry look to them, as earlier episodes were cannibalized for stock footage. Some shows were even written around this recycling, with plots designed to take advantage of old footage. The final episode "Trip To Tomorrow" is a clip show, with Spidey telling a runaway kid stories from his past to dissuade the boy from becoming a superhero. By the early '70s, complaints from parents groups about cartoon violence had begun to take all the interesting corners off of every new show, and SPIDER-MAN retired into syndicated reruns.
Buena Vista collects all 52 episodes onto six discs for this set, which is probably a good idea. It's unlikely that SPIDER-MAN: The Complete Second Season would've sold as well as Season One. These cartoons work best, if they work at all, in small doses, as they were originally intended. Each cartoon is given its own chapter stop, so it's easy enough to catch a few at a time. "Double Identity" includes a sloppy reel change with a few seconds of leader left in, and some season three episodes look a little worn, but other than that, this collection looks as good as vintage TV cartoons get on video warts and all. All this material leaves little room for extras, so there aren't any not even a video intro from Stan Lee. Instead, Lee contributes a generic text introduction to the insert booklet, which otherwise doesn't contain much information. The discs come in a nice package, held in a translucent red album illustrated with retro-Spidey artwork.
If you're looking to recapture the Spider-Man of the 1960s, any of the many comics reprint volumes would be a better option than these cartoons. But for your Spider-Man theme party to celebrate the release of the new Spider-Man movie, there's no better video wallpaper than these six discs.