In the early 70’s, Marvel Comics was struggling with irony. For years, their books had been brushed off by many as “just for kids”. The actual books, though, were being consumed by more college students and young adults. The books dealt more frequently with adult themes and were often beyond what a “kid” would be interested in.
After trying to find a way to connect with the under-10 crowd, Marvel finally scored a bit of a coup. They were able to work out an arrangement with one of the hottest kids brands in the country: The Children’s Television Workshop. The name may not sound familiar, but you’re certainly familiar with their products.
Children’s Television Workshop (or CTW) is a nonprofit focused on creating educational children’s television programming. Their most popular program, Sesame Street, hit the perfect sweet spot gaining praise from critics and parents alike. The only real point of contention was that it was geared to such a young audience. Educators and the folks at CTW immediately set forth a plan to fix that.
In 1971, they premiered The Electric Company, which was aimed squarely at the elementary school set. From the onset, it was seen as Sesame Street‘s hipper, cooler older brother (or sister). They used sketch comedy and cartoons to help children improve their grammar and reading skills.
A show focused entirely on helping kids read? With one of the biggest superheroes in the world? What a perfect match for a comic book publisher.
But which hero would they use? I’ll give you a hint. He wears red and blue and has super strength.
Sorry. I should have narrowed that down. He can climb walls and shoots webs from his wrists. Oh yeah, and his picture is at the top of this page….
That’s right, true believers! It’s the Amazing Spider-Man! Beginning with the fourth season premiere in 1974, Spidey Super Stories was added to The Electric Company‘s regular rotation. Twenty nine segments were produced, but rerun continuously through 1977.
This was the first time we ever saw a live action version of the web crawler, as this predated The Amazing Spider-Man TV series by about three years. Neither of these versions were allowed to use any of the villains from the Spider Universe, a fact often cited as the reason for their dismissal by fans.
Although that costume from the 1977 series may have played a part too. He has black eyes and a Texas sized belt buckle. A belt buckle? That’s not MY Spider-Man.
The Electric Company‘s costume was better, but suffered from mask issues as well. Look at those eyes. I’m not sure which part contributes more – the size of them, the fact that they are straight across (Spidey’s are angled) or just too close together. Combined, they just make for one weird web-slinger.
Each Electric Company segment ran about 3-5 minutes and was designed to look like the comic book panels had come to life. They featured a narration similar to what you’d find in the comics, even addressing all of the “true believers” watching at home. As if that wasn’t enough, some of the narrations were provided by the greatest voice in Hollywood, Morgan Freeman. Even nearly fifty years ago, his presence was enough to ramp up the coolness factor tenfold.
With no Green Goblin or Doc Ock to deal with, Spider-Man is forced to deal with petty criminals, like the Tickler. A failed comedian, he dresses as William Tell and bombards passers-by with ridiculously bad jokes. Then he tickles them with feathers and robs them while they laugh. Not quit on par with Kingpin or Electro.
This version did actually feature a Sandman. However, instead of the shape-shifting Flint Marko we were used to from the comics, this version dressed like Wee Willie Winkle and sprinkled sleep dust on his victims. Once they were asleep, he would rob them.
The key to each episode is that Spidey never spoke. Because they were focusing on reading skills, the decision was made to make Spider-Man mute and just have thought bubbles rise above him. At least the other characters could read the bubbles. If not, I worry that every episode would have turned into a massive game of charades.
Beginning at the same time was a new comic book called Spidey Super Stories, which was specifically designed for children under ten years old. They reworked some older Spider-Man stories, simplifying dialogue and narrative and taking away some of the more violent action scenes.
Even though these new stories were streamlined, many of the folks at Marvel have claimed to be the most difficult projects they worked on. This was due to the partnership with CTW. Editors from both Marvel and CTW had to review the scripts to ensure they were proper for each brand, while offering age-appropriate material suitable for that reading level.
One thing I found interesting was that the CTW also insisted upon additional roles for female characters in the stories. Women were not just relegated to playing secretaries and homemakers. In fact, in Spidey Meets the Funny Bunny, a baddie in an Easter Bunny costume tries to disrupt the annual Easter Egg roll at the White House. The POTUS is played by Melanie Henderson, who many believe to be the first African American actress to ever play that role on TV.
Each issue featured multiple Spider-Man stories. One would co-star an established Marvel Comics hero and the pair would frequently face an existing Marvel villain. This allowed Marvel to introduce their existing lineup to the younger readers. Think of it as a Marvel Team-Up for pre-teens. Featured guests included Captain America, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel & Dr. Strange.
Other segments in the magazine were illustrated versions of the stories told on the TV show. They also had stories starring regular Electric Company characters like Easy Reader or detective Fargo North Decoder. In those stories, Spider-Man was brought in for a supporting role.
Records were a big deal at the time, so they also created “audiobook” versions. Just like on TV, these stories had the regular actors in their roles and Spidey was given a voice for the first time (as thought bubbles are hard to read on a record.)
The comic lasted much longer than the TV version, ending in 1982 after fifty-seven issues.
Let’s take a look at a sample episode:
It begins with a completely different theme song. Due to rights and licensing issues, they could not use the theme everyone knows from the Ralph Bakshi cartoon. You know the one I’m talking about. Heck, even Michael Buble covered it a few years ago. Let’s all sing along:
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size
Catches thieves just like flies
Here comes the Spider-Man!Spider Man theme song – 1967
This time, it was much simpler. The entire song is two lines:
Spider-Man, where are you coming from?
Spider-Man, nobody knows who you are!Spider Man theme song – Electric Company episodes
At the top of the episode, Spidey has decided to take a day off and go to a baseball game. One important thing to note about this show is that Spidey never removed his costume. Even though he could probably enjoy the game more as Peter Parker, he’s stuck in the red and blue every time. At least the ballcap fits over his mask
Holy crap, this image is a bit terrifying! First of all, what is 1990’s-era Alec Baldwin doing on a show in 1974? Is he really a time traveler?
Secondly, is it just me or does the woman on the left look exactly like The Muppet Show icon Janice? Fer sure.
Spidey’s day of relaxation is about to be spoiled by….. The Wall!
The show calls him: “A normal, happy high school student until an incredible blunder during a chemistry experiment turned him into a wall. Now he’s out to spoil everything.”
I know what you’re thinking. A Wall? How menacing can that be? Plan to be amazed.
Spidey watches the game, hot dog in hand. Apparently, he forgot you can’t eat with a mask on.
“Gumbo” Grace Ivy knows he can catch anything that comes his way, but The Wall has other plans.
That’s one way to secure a home run. Is there a specific note in the MLB rule book that states the wall has to remain in one spot?
Here comes Morgan Freeman to clarify:
Well, that doesn’t help.
If the wall can interfere with this game, who’s going to stop him from going elsewhere? Can he wrap himself in Ivy and infiltrate Wrigley Field? Can he paint himself green and blend into Boston’s Green Monster?
And is he only a baseball fan? As a wall, can he also work football games? Maybe he should turn his ability around and use it for good. It worked for this guy.
Maybe The Wall could hide on the sideline and then burst out during a kickoff. Who’s gonna stop a friggin’ wall running down the field?
If left alone, he could single-handedly disrupt the entire world of sports. Isn’t there anyone that can help us?
Put down the dang hot dog, Spidey!
As quickly as he arrived, the Wall is captured in Spidey’s web.
In true Spider-Man fashion, he gets no respect and is forced from the game without ever seeing the end.
Maybe you can still catch the game on TV, Spidey.