A hit with both audiences and critics, The Spectacular Spider-Man recently premiered on Kids’ WB. We spoke with Greg Weisman, who developed the series, about what it’s like to work with such an established canon and why this show is all about “schooling” Spidey…
Firefox News: I was impressed with the voice-over’s opening declaration in the first episode: “I am the spectacular Spider-Man.” It seemed to present a Spidey who unapologetically loves action, a kind of update for the X-Games generation. He may not have been an adrenaline-junkie before becoming Spider-Man but he is now. Is this a fair assessment?
Greg Weisman: The second half, yeah. I’m not sure how much of an update it is if you look at the original Lee-Ditko stuff. Since then, sooo many tragedies, one after the other. It’s easy to look at a Peter Parker for whom Spider-Man is this huge weight he carries, that he feels obligated to carry and can’t put down. Our sense of who he was in the beginning is someone who actually kind of liked it. It really was a thrill. I think for us a lot has to do with where he is in his career. And these are such early days that this is a guy who very much thrills to be doing this. The second part, the adrenaline-junkie part, I completely agree with. Not that fifteen year old Peter Parker was an adrenaline junkie, I don’t think he was, but yes, our sixteen year old hero—absolutely. It is a huge release for him.
You’re right. It might not be an update per se—it’s sort of the “so old it’s new” deal. I want to return to comics later but to stay on this track, I liked the affirmation of full-tilt action-for-action’s sake because I heard it as “Yes, maybe we’ll explore personal demons, moral responsibility, and so on at some point, but that’s not what we’re going to lead with.” How accurate is that, both in terms of character development and the overall tone of the show?
Well, I think again it all comes out of where we started. The theme of our entire series is “the Education of Peter Parker.” That’s the theme—Education with a capital “E.” He’s been on summer vacation and when you meet the character specifically in the scene you’re referring to, which is the last night of his summer vacation, that’s the mode he’s in. He has been having a good time. He’s been fighting muggers—there was that one liquor store holdup that was pretty cool—but [there’s been] no one that’s really presented a challenge to him. The man who killed Uncle Ben, that was an emotional challenge, but it wasn’t a physical challenge. There’s been no one who has physically presented any kind of challenge to Spider-Man—and now, school’s in session in every sense of the word. We are going to take Peter Parker to school, and that means literally, obviously, he’s going to school. He’s got classes and he’s got to navigate the hallways of Midtown High. But—we are also going to take Spider-Man to school. So we’re going to begin to teach these lessons of responsibility in a way that matters. But where is he coming from—to get back to your original question—and where’s he’s coming from out of the summer is still a place where Spider-Man is a kick. It’s just fun.
[laughing] Sounds like that’s going to be short-lived, though, from the way you’re saying it.
I think for us there’s a bit of a catch-22 to it for Peter. Spider-Man is a huge release from being Peter Parker. It’s frustrating to be a teenager, to be anyone, really, because Spider-Man’s "everyman." Now, the irony, the catch-22 of the whole situation, [is] the more time he spends as Spider-Man, the more complicated his life as Peter Parker becomes. And the more difficult it becomes. The more difficult it becomes, the more he wants to put on the blue-and-red and go swing off as Spider-Man because it’s such a thrill. And that’s gonna be true for—I’m working on season two and it’s true now—that Spider-Man is still a huge release for Peter but it very much complicates his life.
It’s interesting listening to you—I feel that if you return Spider-Man to his roots, it’s the only truly iconic coming-of-age story told in superhero form. The parallel between Peter’s education and Spider-Man’s and ultimately how he must resolve the two, that’s part of being a grown-up. Making them both work instead of one side messing up the other. There’s a timeless resonance there that I hope today’s audiences respond to. I think they will…
I think they will, too. I’m not saying they’ll all be conscious of it… um, unless they all hear this interview…
[laughing] I wasn’t conscious of it until you made those last couple of points.
But I think it will resonate with them. Again, Spider-Man is one of the few modern archetypal characters. There are a lot of great archetypal superheroes, and a lot that are just variations on a theme.
But Spider-Man is not a variation on Batman’s theme. Spider-Man is an archetype is his own right. It’s a very medieval archetype—it’s very much everyman. It goes back to that.
I agree. And I guess we’re again returning to the early ‘60s roots of the character.
Which is very important to us. People have noted—obviously I’ve been all over the Internet this week, obsessively looking to see what people thought of the show [laughing]! People have noted the influence of the movie, the influence of Ultimate Spider-Man, and all that’s true. But…fundamentally, what we looked at as our primary source for this show are the original Lee-Ditko and Lee-Romita, Sr. issues of Amazing Spider-Man. I’ll look at the current continuity, I’ll look at Ultimate Spider-Man, I’ll look at the movies. I’ll look at anything that seems like a good idea, and I’m not going to be shy about, let’s say “borrowing,” from any of those sources, but fundamentally the bulk of what we’re doing is taking 1962 and translating it into a very contemporary 2008. But going back to those early issues and saying, “Okay, we’ve got the virtue of hindsight, we can borrow from all these sources, but what would Spider-Man be like if Stan and Steve we’re doing it today?” And on some level I know that’s somewhat arrogant, but that’s the approach. That’s what Bendis did also.
He completely did that and the comparison is natural because they’re both relaunches to a certain extent. But I feel yours is obviously a much lighter version than Ultimate Spider-Man, which turns fairly dark fairly quickly. I was glad to see that with Spectacular Spider-Man we aren’t dark right out of the gate. Regarding the early ‘60s feel, one of the other things I really like is the emphasis on the scientific side of Peter Parker. I know that’s appeared from time to time in his various incarnations but what I liked was the juxtaposition. Meaning, Peter Parker’s motto here seems to be “work hard, play hard.” How important is it to understanding, or writing, Peter Parker is that notion—the two sides of his personality?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure that he’s conscious of that. In other words, that falls into the same category of what we were talking about before, about that vicious circle. He feels a need for this release. You can see in the teaser of the first episode, which is certainly the only time when we see the character purely in the summer, the very next day’s school’s started—there’s the Vulture, the Enforcerers. And even after that, in any episode that follows, he may come up against a few thugs here and there that again present no real threat to him, no real problem, but that he just has a good time with. But if you look at his attitude there, there’s a slight change because he now knows that the world’s a more dangerous place than he ever thought it was even after the death of Uncle Ben, which is important to cite. We reference it a couple times in the first episode. We made a conscious choice to set our series a few months after Uncle Ben’s death so that it’s still this huge motivational, emotional factor in his life.
But he’s not mired in it from the get-go.
It’s not an open, bleeding wound. And again, it’s the metaphor of the summer. I don’t know that he’s conscious of the notion of, “Hey, I work hard so I play hard.” I don’t think he’s thinking that way. I just think that it’s a much more unconscious thing than “Man, I can’t figure out how to earn any money to help Aunt May… I’m just gonna go swingin’.” Because there’s the release. He can’t solve the problems of Peter Parker, but he can swing over a tall building in a single bound. And that’s kinda cool. So I think he’s still enamored of his own powers, and that’s fun. And I think that’s very human, and again that’s absolutely what Stan and Steve were doing. That’s the metaphor of adolescence: someone who has gained new powers. They’re not quite an adult and yet they’ve now got powers that they didn’t have as a kid, and they’re enamored of those powers.
Very well said. Let’s talk about Spider-Man being an adolescent but in the context of the enemies he encounters. I think there was always a generational aspect in the Ditko-Lee material. The main baddies are so serious and dour that they come across as nasty teachers or father figures. One of them, Norman Osborne, is a dad, but to another character. Is that something that you’ve also noticed and that the writers play up, because here we have an adolescent boy whose other father figures are dead? I’m thinking of Vulture and the way his age is stressed. Or do you think I’m reading into this too much?
No, I don’t think you’re reading into it too much. I think that’s absolutely part and parcel of [Spider-Man]. I don’t think it extends to every one of his villains, but it extends to a lot of them. It certainly extends to Norman as you said, and it certainly plays into the dynamic between Goblin, Doc Ock, Vulture. I don’t know that it works or ever worked for a character like Electro or Sandman or some of the others. But Doc Ock, absolutely.
He’s a bad version of Peter because he’s a scientist in a sense. And then you’ve got J. Jonah Jameson, who’s like a caricature of a despotic dad in the workplace, with his gray temples and so forth. I always felt that that was part of what Ditko and Lee were doing even if they weren’t conscious of it. Creating that sort of rebelliousness as a subtext that arose naturally from the fact that there was generational conflict here.
There’s no doubt. I mean, I don’t think it’s even that subtle, frankly.
[laughing] Oh, okay.
Vulture and Spider-Man: a secret kinship?
One of the things that we did, or I guess I did when I wrote the pilot, was to find the connection between Vulture and Spider-Man. And for me what that was that Vulture is someone who’s been marginalized for being too old. And so he goes to Oscorp with high hopes that he’s got this great system for flight, and he’s taken advantage of and shoved aside. Pete goes to the Bugle. He’s got this great idea for pictures of Spider-Man. He’s shoved into an elevator, and then Jonah turns to Robbie and says, “Hey! Pictures of Spider-Man! That’s what’ll sell papers.” So I, again, I don’t think I was all too subtle. I was trying to create this connection between Pete—because he’s too young. You know, Jonah: “Take this wailing infant out of my sight.”—and Norman saying, “Show the old man out” about Adrian Toomes. These are two characters who are marginalized for being at two ends of the spectrum of age and for me that is a connection even though the characters aren’t aware of it. Obviously Adrian has no idea who Spider-Man is or what he’s going through, Spider-Man has no idea what Adrian’s really going through—he doesn’t even really take the time to find out why Adrian is attacking Norman. All he knows is that the father of his friend is being attacked and what he sees is Uncle Ben. Of course, Norman is about as far from Ben Parker as you could get in two human beings, but the one thing that Norman has in common with Uncle Ben is that Uncle Ben was Peter’s father figure. Norman Osborne is Harry’s father figure, and Peter will not let Harry go through what he went through. And that’s why he’s saving Norman. But the irony is that Pete and Adrian have a lot more in common than Pete and Norman do despite the fact that Norman sees himself in Peter Parker.
Wow, you’ve obviously examined the original characters and their histories to strategically flesh out parts of them and create these kinds of connections. I think that’s going to help to build an audience, because I for one will tune in thinking, “Oh, what’s their take on this villain? Or on this other character from the cast of characters?” Overall, how has it been different for you working on this series, which has a sizable canon behind it, as opposed to the other shows that you’ve produced and developed?
Well, it’s a different kind of task. For example, the obvious comparison certainly in my career is with Gargoyles where in essence my team and I created the canon from scratch. Now, of course, it’s got a substantial canon, but once upon a time we had a blank slate whereas with Spider-Man, my team and I have in essence been recreating an existing canon. It’s a different kind of task, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Yeah, you’re approaching it creatively. You’re not just approaching it as, “How did the comics treat this, and let me now just animate it or fit it into a series format.” You’re actually rethinking some of these characters in a deep way.
We’re trying to evaluate everything on a case-by-case basis. So it goes back to doing your due diligence, doing your research. When I got this job in December of 2006, the first thing I did is I went out and I bought all the volumes of The Essential Spider-Man. It’s all issues I’ve read before. None of it’s new to me, but it had been a while since I had read it, and I took copious notes, and the goal was, obviously with Peter but also with the villains and supporting characters, to really get down to what are the core truths. And what are the core truths about each character’s dynamic with Peter? Because obviously for us, Peter Parker is the center of universe. Everyone else revolves around Peter, but we want to be true to these characters. One example [is] we were conflating all these different time periods from Peter’s—from the canon’s life, so to speak. All right, we don’t want to wait until he gets to college to introduce Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborne and Norman Osborne for that matter, too. We want to introduce these characters early on, so what’s the core truth about Harry’s relationship to Peter? What’s the core truth about Harry? And we came up with stuff that mattered to us. And then we had to take one more step, because we weren’t meeting college-age Harry Osborne. We were meeting high-school-age Harry Osborne. And so we looked at all the stuff about Harry, all the stuff about the dynamic between Harry and Pete and sort of said, “Okay. Now let’s extrapolate backwards. What would that dynamic have been three years earlier? Not their freshman year of college but their junior year of high school? What would that have been if Harry had known Pete back then?” I’m sure it's a similar thing to what Raimi and his collaborators went through when they were looking at doing this. I’m sure it’s same thing that Bendis and his collaborators went through when they were doing it for Ultimate. We started from scratch and did the same thing, but we tried to come up with a Harry Osborne that for us fit who Harry was fundamentally but also fit who he would have been back in high school.
And I think you did a good job of that.
We did the same thing with any character—Gwen, a villain, you name it. Now, of course, some of the characters we’re taking from the high school era—Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Betty, Jonah, Aunt May. So some are easier than others ‘cause we can go look at what they were like in high school because that’s when we were introduced to those characters. But either way, we’re still looking at what is the fundamental truth about this character? What is the fundamental truth about their dynamic with Peter Parker and/or Spider-Man?
In that same vein, having a teen-age superhero was radical in 1962. Stan Lee always points out that teens prior to the Silver Age were sidekicks, not heroes. But nowadays, 2008, YA books and movies have huge crossover appeal. Is it fair to say, then, that is a Spider-Man for the Harry Potter generation? In other words, it’s not just an animated show pitched at a certain target audience of kids, but takes a more “all-ages” approach.
One of the things my partner Vic Cook has pointed out is that—and I’ve got no figures to back this up, but it sounds right to me—is that there was a time when comics were for everyone. When comics sold in the millions of issues. And that meant that you weren’t just selling to little kids and you weren’t just selling to soldiers in World War II, but this was something that everybody read. And I do see a lot of stuff on the Internet where even the people who like the show are saying, “Well, considering it’s a show made for kids” or “Considering it’s a show made to sell toys” or whatever, “You know, it turned out pretty good.” That kind of thing. Always with these caveats, and the thing is, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a show made for kids but not just for kids. It was never intended to be a show that worked only for kids, and all one has to do is look at other stuff I’ve done—again, the obvious one being Gargoyles. We always wrote these shows on multiple levels so that, yeah, there was plenty of eye candy and fun—humor, great action, stuff that kids would appreciate—but also there was always stuff there for a larger audience. For not just kids but tweens, not just tweens but teens, not just teens but college students, not just college students but adults. Not just boys but girls as well, men and women. And in this show in particular, not just the novice who has only seen Spider-Man 3 or maybe has seen none of [the movies], and this is their first Spider-Man. But we like to think, since we’re such huge, massive Spider-Man geeks ourselves—those of us making this show—that this is a show that big-time, hardcore Spider-Man fans are going to like, too.
I think you’re absolutely right, and that’s a great note to end on. Continued good luck with the show. I’m hoping we get to talk to you again or someone else from the series down the road. And thanks for all your time today.
Well, thanks, I appreciate it.
A series that doesn't skimp on the voice talent: Robert Englund as Vulture.