Everybody knows the Spider-Man theme.
It’s iconic, like “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Like “Who Let the Dogs Out.”
And whether you know it or not, you can probably sing all of the words without even thinking about it.
I discovered this the other day. While channel surfing, I happened to stumble upon an episode of the classic 1967 “Spider-Man” cartoon series. Suddenly, through a crudely animated spider’s web, my TV screen was filled with the dusky blue skyline of New York City. Proudly, as if it was a real selling point, the words IN COLOR appeared. This message hovered there, shaking a little bit, each letter radiating its own unique hue.
The anticipation was actually very real.
And then that music started up and the adrenalin began to surge! The name “Spider-Man” pulsed out in rhythmic jabs, and you just knew that you were in for all sorts of kick-ass cartoon excitement! Anything could happen! Spider-Man might fight Electro! Or maybe he’d do battle with Parafino, the villain who uses wax sculptures to commit horrible crimes, or maybe Spidey would be cast into Dimension 5, and have to battle the Molemen!
Thoughtlessly, like some sort of zombie, I began to mumble along to the intro.
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size,
Catches thieves just like flies
Here comes the Spiderman.
Whenever I hear this chorus, I always imagine three girls in horned-rim glasses and bob cuts. Pushed together on stage and surrounded by white guy jazz cats in narrow ties, they’d do some awkward choreography that mimicked shooting webs from their wrists.
Instead, we get the opening montage of the cartoon. Spider-Man, in his classic red and blue costume, swings through the concrete canyons of New York City. He spins a massive web in the middle of an oddly vacant Manhattan boulevard, trapping the one car that was speeding down it! And then he descends from a rooftop, pausing to catch a steel beam as it hurtles toward a group an ant-like pedestrians, before ascending into the infinite city once again.
Oh, the cartoon is a paradise of kitschy delights!
The animation is so primitive and economized that it resembles little more than illustrated radio. Sometimes, lip movements are superimposed over a still image; or a single frame, instead of being animated, is just shaken, giving it the vague appearance of movement. Or more often, scenes are recycled and repeated, so that Spider-Man is running about in a nightmarish loop, always falling in the same manner, or swinging past the same landscape. But somehow, this manages to be endearing, rather than irritating and lame, like a bad joke told each Christmas by an elderly relative.
For the most part, the narrative of each episode is propelled by the music, which always told us when a bad guy was afoot, or when Spider-Man was on the scene. There’s very little dialogue in the cartoon, save for a few expository passages, exclamatory shouts (“I’m trapped!”) or pithy witticisms from Spider-Man. It makes more sense musically than visually, and the dialogue just fills the space between the pauses in the soundtrack.
A typical episode starts with the title, something simple, as if culled from a chapter in a detective novel.
The Golden Rhino.
In this episode, which starts by a shady waterfront area, we see the benevolent Spider-Man patrolling the city. He watches as an armored truck (Clink’s rather than Brink’s) unloads a mass of gold bullion. In the shadows of the abandoned warehouses, arch villain the Rhino lurks in the shadows. Bad guy music starts up, and the Rhino charges the truck, his feet kicking up little balls of dust so that we understand the awesome velocity that he’s generating.
Spider-Man and the Rhino do battle, with the Rhino eventually falling to Spider-Man’s superior wit and ability. As insouciant and flirtatious as Bugs Bunny, Spider-Man is a matador to the blunt, unthinking force of his enemies. Persecuted by the hectoring JJ Jameson, and misunderstood by the public and the police, Spider-Man is the embodiment of the insecurity and arrogance that tends to fuel the adolescent experience. In short, he’s the single combat hero of anybody who’s ever felt under estimated and hard done by.
In the first season, the cartoon was innocent and formulaic in tone, concentrating on the dynamic at the Daily Bugle, and the villains from the comic books. The bad guys were largely men in animal suits — the Scorpion, the Vulture, the Lizard — the sort of villain that a child might invent. However in the last two seasons, the look of the cartoon became gloomier, and New York became an open wound through which crime seeped. It got weird, eventually losing its shit altogether and giving way to psychedelic trips that saw Spider-Man battling monsters in Dimension 5, whatever that was.
Abandoning the mythic familiarity of a ’60s era Big Apple — one that conjured the age of “Mad Men” — for some sort of creepy space dimension in which cavemen had green skin and red hair, was a bit of a freak-out, and the stories became more and more incoherent. At this time, too, the musical compositions became experimental and cacophonic, the soundtrack to a nightmare, instead of the groovy, optimistic jazz of the first season.
No matter, Peter Parker always endured. He stayed true.
The cartoon only ran for three years, but like “Star Trek,” which ran for the same length of time in the same era, it’s had an immense cultural influence, giving birth to innumerable interpretations and evolutions, eventually getting polished into a heroic cinematic drama with a literary sensibility.
Obviously, the cartoon had no such ambitions. It was just a cheap show designed to entertain kids with limited TV options. But still, there’s a peculiar weight to the show, one that calls us back, and any time that I come across it, I think, “Yeah, there goes THE Spider-Man!”
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.