John Semper on "Spider-Man": 10th Anniversary Interview
Interview by Amazing Spidey

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How did you get the job as Producer/Story Editor of Spider-Man: The Animated Series?

When the Spider-Man series for Fox was first announced it was a HUGE deal. You have to go back to the time to understand how big a deal it was. Fox was the number one network back then for kids and having a monster hit series on Fox was the wet dream of every producer in kids’ TV. Marvel Comics was rapidly going downhill (which would culminate with it going bankrupt). Marvel needed something to halt that rapid descent into oblivion. Avi Arad (who’s currently the king of Hollywood) back then was just an unknown toy guy who had been brought in get Marvel characters going in the media – which “coincidentally” would also make his toy company, Toy-Biz, richer because he had the rights to create all the Marvel toys and action figures. So he had created this new company called Marvel Films Animation to bring the properties to life. We were ultimately going to do ALL the Marvel characters and he was going to make toys out of everything and make a lot of money. Those were heady days. This Spider-Man animated series was going to be his first big foray into TV and he desperately wanted to get it right. Toy-Biz had a lot of money riding on the new Marvel toy lines which were coming out, so everybody involved had gambled big on these properties. They didn’t want to screw around, since the stakes were so high. Quite frankly, from a business perspective, the Spider-Man series for Fox was every bit as big a deal as the Sony movie would be years later. Absolutely, drop-dead IMPORTANT -- far too important to be handled by the likes of a mere mortal like me. So they were going to hire a prestigious, Emmy winning producer/story-editor from Batman to develop the Spider-Man show and run it.

But negotiating that producer/story-editor’s contract wasn’t going along smoothly, and I got a phone call out of the blue from Stan Lee, with whom I’d worked years earlier at a different animation company (named “Marvel Productions”). Stan wanted to see if I was available to step in if they couldn’t make a deal with the other guy. I was working on a kids’ show for PBS at the time, but I said I’d definitely be interested in doing Spider-Man. Who wouldn’t? A few days later, I got another call from Stan telling me that they’d finalized the deal with the other guy and that I wouldn’t be needed after all. I thanked him for the “near-offer” and went on about my business.

Many, many months later I got another call from Stan. There was an emergency. The other guy wasn’t working out and they wanted to fire him. This time Stan insisted that I be brought in and everybody was going to let Stan have his way. So I was suddenly back in again -- in a big hurry.

I soon learned that in all those months no writing had been done and the production was in a total shambles, but that’s another long story. Suffice it to say that I inherited a near-disaster.

What do you think of the other Spider-Man cartoons, the ones before your show, as well as the ones after it?

I had watched the Grantray-Lawrence series (sometimes called the “Ralph Bakshi series”) when it premiered on ABC and I thought it was cheaply produced but much cooler than anything else on TV at the time. I again watched a bunch of episodes on VHS prior to doing my show and I was surprised at how crude they were. But back when it premiered it was neat stuff.

“Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” had passed me by. I was in college when it was on TV and I didn’t care enough to watch it (I think by then I’d discovered girls or something). I watched on episode of it prior to starting work on my show, but it wasn’t remotely what any of us had in mind, so we didn’t bother watching any more of it. The other Spidey animated series that followed it is pretty thin stuff. I know they all have their fans, but I’m not one of them.

I also watched a few episodes of the live-action Nicholas Hammond series, which was boring. But there was also this great Japanese Spider-Man live-action series, which was goofy fun. Here’s a tidbit of info: It was in this Japanese series where Spider-Man had a giant robot – and I used that “giant robot” idea in the final multi-part story of my series in which Spider-Man visits a parallel universe where his much more successful, wealthy alter-ego has one.

As for the two Spidey animated series that have come after mine – I thought “Spider-Man Unlimited” was garbage – badly designed, badly written, badly conceived – just awful. And the recent MTV show was exciting to look at but surprisingly weakly written.

I do take some pride in the fact that for whatever reason, Marvel hasn’t been able to launch a truly successful Spider-Man animated series since mine.

How much did the toy line affect the stories you were trying to tell?

The show was intended by Avi Arad from the ground up to be one big toy commercial. At first, I had to battle against that and things between us were very tense. At one point I was almost fired. Eventually he and I found common ground and he realized that a great show would sell toys better than anything, and I really wanted to make a great show. So we had fewer confrontations. But, from his point of view, it was still one big toy commercial.

The toy line definitely affected me. It was common for me to get a phone call from Avi’s people asking me to use a certain character because they were going to make a toy out of him. But they were nice about it, and, I’m actually fairly accommodating, so we always managed to work it out.

And I also affected the toy line. Avi was dead set against using Madame Web, but I insisted because I saw a place for her in my big final story line. So, despite his mumblings and mutterings about how he couldn’t make a boy-friendly toy out of a "lousy old broad", I used her with great success. And, guess what? They made a toy out of her! It’s one of my most prized possessions.

However, if you want to see what would have happened to my series without me there to protect it, check out “Spider-Man Unlimited.” It’s nothing but a toy commercial, devoid of any real creative spark. It’s junk. But Avi had it all his way on that one, so you see what you ended up with.

The series had a vast number of guest stars, were any of them used as a potential pilot to their own spin off? How far did they get going, if at all?

The use of guest stars was mostly me being a kid in a candy store and having the entire Marvel stable of characters at my disposal and wanting to play with them all. I wanted to be the first to animate Dr. Strange (a BIG favorite of mine) and Blade (another favorite). I used X-Men as a stunt for ratings. We didn’t do any deliberate pilots. But Avi and his chief minion, Matt Edelman, were always swiping scripts and outlines off my desk and using them to go pitch series ideas and made-for-TV movie ideas to everybody in town. There might not have been a Blade movie if I hadn’t used him in the series and effectively brought him to the forefront of Avi’s attention.

Why was the Kingpin, who at the time was Daredevil’s arch nemesis, used so much? What made you pick him?

My love for Spidey began in the sixties, and in the sixties Kingpin was introduced as a nemesis of Spider-Man. The Daredevil thing came many years later and still, in my mind, isn’t really “legitimate”. But it did let us do a really good Spidey/Daredevil crossover which also featured the Kingpin.

Which episodes do you consider the best, and which the worst?

I really like them all (except for two). Each one has some element in it that I like and was the main reason why I did the episode. It would be easier for me to point those things out, but we’d run out of space.

My least favorite two episodes would have to be the Hobgoblin two-parter. My fired predecessor’s only lasting contribution to the series was his decision to use the Hobgoblin instead of the Green Goblin. So, based on that early decision, Avi had ramped up an expensive toy line revolving around the Hobgoblin. By the time I arrived on the series, I was stuck with having to roll that character out first, (because of the impending toy line) which is just plain wrong. I kind of patched it up in the series by making Norman Osborne create the weapons for the Hobgoblin first before deciding to use them for himself as the Green Goblin, which I thought was a good fix. But that first Hobgoblin two-parter is just a waste of time designed just to sell toys. I hated it when we had to write it, I hated it when it aired and I still hate it. The Hobgoblin is boring.

Why was Spider-Man subject to so much censorship, when other shows that aired on the same block, such as Batman, did not?

Batman and its violence came first and (along with Power Rangers) created the backlash and censorship that I then had to live with. Then Batman moved to the newly formed WB Network, where apparently they were still allowed to do stuff that Fox wouldn’t let me do.

How much did the proposed James Cameron live action Spider-Man film conflict with your own?

I don’t know because I was never considered important enough to be allowed to read the “ultra top-secret sacred holy scripture” otherwise known as his movie treatment. Only “special” people like Matt and Avi got to read that. I do take some solace in the fact that this “special” document is now lining the bottom of a dumpster somewhere, or rotting away comfortably in some landfill.

I was expressly forbidden from using Electro and the Sandman because, apparently, those were the two villains he was going to use in his movie.

But in the end, when it became apparent that his film wasn’t going to get made, I just went ahead and used Electro anyway, in the “Six Forgotten Warriors” arc, which I wrote. Take that, James Cameron!

It’s been said that you weren’t allowed to tell Spider-Man’s origin in the first episode because of the film, is this true?

I don’t really recall. Probably. But I didn’t want to do an origin story to begin with anyway because we all know that story and it would have been a predictable way to start. I always wanted the show to be unpredictable.

Why was the decision made to have Spider-Man become more of a galaxy hopping superhero towards the end of the series?

It was my decision. It kind of went hand-in-hand with doing “Secret Wars,” right? And I had come up with this idea that in the end Spidey was going to save “all of reality.” You can’t get any more heroic than that, can you?

Are there any characters you wanted to do but were unable due to Fox's strict BS&P guidelines?

Nope. Venom, Carnage, we did the most extreme ones. We found clever ways around the BS&P restrictions. Like using the word “destroy” (which is allowed) instead of “kill” (which isn’t allowed). Or using the “dimensional transporter” as a metaphorical substitute for death. Things like that.

We did write a Spider-Man/Ghost Rider story which I was really looking forward to doing. But then Fox vetoed the idea because, at the time, Avi was boasting about wanting to do a “Ghost Rider” series for UPN and Fox got angry and said that they didn’t want to promote a character that might end up on UPN. But like all of Avi’s big boasts back then, it all just went away like the hot air that it was, and I was stuck having wasted time on a really good outline that never got made. Avi was always trying to provoke Fox back then, which ultimately resulted in the show being canceled.

Were you consulted at all for Spider-Man: Unlimited?

Good lord, no, of course not. No, I was “persona non grata” with Avi by then because I fought too much with him on the previous series. He wanted to work with story editors who would do what he wanted without conflict. Hence you get arguably the worst Spidey series ever.

At the time of his episodes' broadcast, Blade was a slightly obscure Marvel character. Was he included as a nod to the Blade film (which may have been in the works for a while)?

There was NO Blade film in the works at all. I did Blade because I’m black and he’s black and I wanted bring this cool black character to the screen for the very first time. It was my decision, period. In fact, as I stated previously, I believe that it was my use of the character that inspired Avi to pursue it as a movie.

By the way, when I did my series, Marvel couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood. Even Jim Cameron couldn’t get his Spider-Man movie made.

If the show had continued, would Norman Osborn ever return and reclaim the Goblin mantle from Harry?

Probably, but here were no concrete plans to do so. I obviously did leave the door open for that, however.

Did you have any trouble from Marvel Comics about your clone episodes, which freely criticized the overlong comic saga?

Nope. With Marvel Comics going bankrupt, everybody at Marvel had been fired or was about to be fired. They had no control over me or my series at all. They were just worried about their jobs, which, almost to a person, they all lost.

Where did you get the idea to use a group of Timely heroes from for Six Forgotten Warriors?

I thought it up all by myself in my fertile little imagination. I had lots of fun researching that one, digging up old comics on microfiche and stuff.

What do you think of the show's DVD treatment?

It sucks. I wish they’d release all the episodes in order in one package, and I wish they’d yank out all those other episodes from earlier series and let my series stand alone. And despite the fact that I love him to death, Stan had so little to do creatively with my series that I’m wondering why he’s in there at all.

Why did the show end with Spidey and MJ not being reunited, and Spidey still spiralling through limbo, when Marvel Films' order was always for 65 episodes?

Oh, as I’ve said elsewhere, when Peter Parker faces his creator, Stan, and finally says “I like myself” then his story is complete. He’s gone beyond his creator. He’s now his own creation. A lot of people think I threw Stan in there as a cheap gimmick, but the bigger, more cosmic issue is overlooked. Here’s a guy facing his creator (in essence his deity) and saying, “Guess what? I’m beyond what you created, with all my flaws and problems. I faced the challenge you set out for me and I’ve progressed beyond it. And I really like myself.”

When he can say that, then the hero’s journey has been told and the saga is complete. Who cares if he gets the girl or not?

But I left it open in case the series was continued – which was always a possibility. The initial order was for 65 episodes, but Fox could have renewed us for more if they’d wanted. However, the head of Fox Kids Network at the time, Margaret Loesch, hated Avi and wanted to put him out of business, so there was no chance of the show being continued. The show was canceled and, as she had intended, the studio, Marvel Films Animation, went out of business. In the end, my show, which was a number-one-rated hit, was scuttled because of vindictive internal politics. Welcome to my world.

Considering Spider-Man TAS remains one of the few established cartoons to offer a seasonal story arc - do you feel such a venture was in hindsight a mistake or an approach that cartoons should be more inclined to take?

I think it’s the only way to fly. I was expressly forbidden from doing it on that show and I did it anyway and I almost got fired for doing it – and if I had it to do all over again I would. I think it’s what makes the show such a perennial. My Spider-Man show has NEVER GONE OFF THE AIR since its inception, and I think the long story arc is a big reason why. It lets you tell a bigger, more epic story. But you really have to have somewhere to go. You have to be telling a story from the beginning, to the middle, to the end. A lot of series that do long story arcs are making it up as they go along, and I never did that. I always knew which way the story was headed, which was why I could drop hints early on that didn’t play out until many episodes later. Viewers respect that because it intrigues them and forces them to pay attention. I’m currently watching this new show, “Lost” which is telling a very good mystery story that seems to be headed somewhere. But the minute I sniff out that it’s being made up as it goes along, I’ll leave it (as I did “Alias”) because I like a good story, but I don’t want to simply be strung along. That’s called “soap opera” and I think they’re the biggest time wasters ever created.

I wish I could do long story arcs more. I think Saturday morning cartoons are weaker because they don’t do it, and that even includes the last series I worked on, “Static Shock” (even though we got nominated for an Emmy, which was a nice surprise). It all just seems so light-weight without a good story arc. But the networks simply won’t allow them anymore.

Are you satisfied with how the writing and animation turned out overall?

I was very satisfied with the writing on Spider-Man. I put together a stable of really good writers and I always give special credit to Ernie Altbacker, Stan Berkowitz, Jim Krieg and Mark Hoffmeier, my top staff writers back then, all of whom have gone on to great careers since.

I wasn’t so happy with the animation, which I had nothing to do with. I absolutely HATE the choppy, sloppy, mistake-laden video editing, which I also had nothing to do with. And, while I’m thinking about it, the really BIG continuity error in “Six Forgotten Warriors” was not in the script and was solely created in the video editing under the “crack” supervision of Bob Richardson, the animation producer, so you have to go ask him what that stupid gaffe was all about. I was long gone from the premises (having long before turned in the last script) when that goof came about. I saw it on TV with the rest of you and cried out in agony at the idiocy of it all. I do that a lot.

In the end, were you able to accomplish from the show everything you wanted to?

My goal with Spider-Man was to be make the very first screen treatment of the character that was absolutely true to the comic book. I also wanted to bring him to screen in a way that evoked the same sense of wonder and excitement that I felt when I first started reading the comic in the sixties, right when it all began. I also wanted the show to be a ratings hit, to not embarrass me, and to piss off all my detractors. I’m happy to say that I succeeded on all counts.