Latest posts by Nat Brehmer (see all)
Spider-Man has seen more TV adaptations than any other Marvel character. In my life, there’s almost never been a time without a Spider-Man cartoon on the air in some way, shape or form. But many fans don’t realize what a dry spell the character suffered before that proved to be the case. The first animated Spider-Man series has become a pop culture staple in the fifty years since its premiere, and gave us one of the most memorable theme tunes of all time. It was much more successful than the live-action CBS series, which followed a decade later. For Marvel’s flagship character, even in a time long before superheroes were as celebrated as they are today, that’s a bafflingly long hiatus.
After the premiere of the CBS series, though, there was a renewed interest on Marvel’s part to revisit the world of Spider-Man. However, it would take a very different direction. CBS, the same network that aired both the live-action Spider-Man and Hulk series saw great success with its Wonder Woman show. That series, starring Lynda Carter as the titular heroine, became the biggest TV superhero phenomenon since 1966’s Batman.
There was a desire from Marvel to create a show that would try to capture some of that audience, to try and cater to a female audience instead of the same male demographic they had always aimed for. So the decision was made to center the cartoon on the oft-sidelined character of Spider-Woman. Unlike She-Hulk, who is the Hulk’s second cousin, Spider-Woman and Spider-Man have no connection other than the similar name. The cartoon, however, would change that, making them friends (though still unrelated) and giving Spider-Woman many similar powers to her male counterpart that she had never displayed in the comics.
For me, personally, Spider-Woman has always been a favorite character. One of those eccentric favorites that feel even more special because you find them by happenstance. When I was a kid, I picked up a stack of comics at a yard sale. Most of them were issues from the ‘70s and early ‘80s. There were a few Superman books, which I expected, a Tarzan and a Conan, and about four or five issues of Spider-Woman. Spider-Man being my favorite hero, I was intrigued just by her name. But the stories were always so horror-adjacent that I couldn’t help but fall in love.
The original voice actor from 1967’s Spider-Man cartoon would return to voice Spidey in the pilot, allowing Spider-Woman to be seen as something of a spinoff, even though it would be a spinoff to a series that had broadcast over a decade earlier. The show would also change almost everything about Spider-Woman as a character. Jessica Drew retained her name, but the new origin would reveal her to have obtained her powers after receiving a bite from a venomous spider, leading her scientist father to treat the bite with an experimental “spider serum.”
Unlike her comic book counterpart, TV’s Spider-Woman has some of Spidey’s signature moves, such as web-shooting and spider-sense. Her webs shoot from her finger and appear to be organic, though there are a couple of instances in which she declares she’s out of web fluid. Her spider-sense appears to be much different than Spider-Man’s, and way more powerful. In almost every episode, Jessica can sense danger anywhere across the globe, conveniently pinpointing whatever the bad guy of the week was getting himself into. The cartoon would retain some of Spider-Woman’s most noteworthy power from the comics, such as her venom blasts and gliding ability (although the show interprets that as straight up flight.)
Somewhat bafflingly and entirely admirably, Spider-Woman retains the one element of the comic book series (at least at the time) that one would think would be the hardest thing to adapt: its focus on the supernatural and the occult. Almost every episode would devote itself to a classic horror or monster movie trope, making the cartoon a spiritually accurate adaptation even if not a factually accurate one. It’s also because of that bizarrely supernatural focus that Spider-Woman is 100% unabashedly fucking bananas.
In the pilot of this series, a giant pyramid appears out of nowhere in the middle of Egypt. Spider-Man happens to be in Egypt for no reason and gets kidnapped by mummies, who are revealed to be aliens led by their leader mummy, Khufu. Apparently, all mummies are aliens and all pyramids are the space ships they came to Earth in. Their goal is simple: they want to turn every single person on the planet into a living mummy. They even begin to transform Spider-Man into a mummy, but he’s taken to a Mummy Specialist™ who tells him that he would have been a mummy forever had these indestructible bandages covered his entire body. The mummies are defeated when Spider-Woman realizes that it’s the angle of the pyramids that gives them their power, and webs them into a cube to negate their geometric magic. Everything in this pilot sets the tone for the show.
There’s not an ounce of logic to Spider-Woman. At least, not as we know it. If anything, it operates on a higher form of logic, making its own definition of sense on its own terms. There’s an episode full of full-blown Satanic imagery and literal death worshipping cults in which Spider-Woman goes up against the dread Dormammu. When her attempts to bargain don’t work out, she realizes Dormammu is drawing his power from the darkness of an eclipse, so she moves the moon. The sun comes out again and Dormammu is destroyed. Obviously. This is a kind of problem solving that almost feels transcendent in how absolutely ludicrous it is.
As a monster kid at heart, my favorite episode of Spider-Woman is titled Dracula’s Revenge. In it, Dracula is resurrected from his tomb and proceeds to go about his dastardly evil ways, adjusting remarkably well for someone who’s apparently been entombed for 500 years. He’s drawn to look like the Tomb of Dracula incarnation, but there’s no mention of that comic whatsoever. He then proceeds to awaken the Wolf Man (drawn to look like Werewolf by Night, but again there’s no mention of potentially being the same character) and Frankenstein’s Monster. There were clearly some very strict regulations on what could be shown in this episode, because the monsters definitely do things that fans had never seen them do before.
They’re intent on turning everyone in the world into monsters like themselves. Which sounds fun, naturally. Dracula, right in the opening scene, turns people into vampires through laser beams that shoot out of his hands. When the Wolf Man appears, he turns people into werewolves in a very similar fashion, except he’s shooting lasers out of his eyes. And in a move best representative of this show’s staunch refusal to give a single fuck, Frankenstein’s Monster turns people into Frankenstein’s Monsters by shooting laser beams out of the bolts on his neck. There were very clear regulations on what they could and could not do, and their way around those regulations proved that the people behind the series clearly displayed the same kind of “let’s just move the moon” problem solving prowess as Spider-Woman herself.
Almost every episode sees the villain attempting to turn everyone on Earth into some kind of monster, too. And they usually get pretty close to their goal before they’re eventually defeated. Which means that the average person in the world of this show is probably transformed into some kind of various creature at least a couple times a month. If you were turned into a mummy last month and a werewolf this month, how does it affect your ability to function in daily life? Do you have remorse for the actions you may have committed while you were a mummy? Do you legally have to face the consequences for your actions while under the influence of laser werewolf eyes? More than that, if you’re constantly being physically transformed into completely different beings on a regular basis, how do retain any kind of concrete hold on your own humanity? Is your body even your body, or is your flesh just clay for some alien creature to mold as they see fit?
I’d be shocked at the dark ramifications of Spider-Woman, but again, there’s literal Satan Worship going on in this show.
You remember the scene in Superman II where Superman inexplicably throws the shield from his chest? Well, I’ve got good news. There’s some of that going on in every episode. Through nearly every adventure, Spider-Woman gets herself out of a jam by using a power she has never been shown to have had before and will never use again, including the spider-scream, spider-bubble and the ability to actually psychically communicate with and control spiders.
Spider-Woman is also reimagined as a journalist, an editor at a Justice Magazine, where she is constantly told by men that the work she’s doing is too dangerous for a woman, even though she’s their goddamned boss. For as ludicrously as this was written, there’s a sheer delight at seeing these macho types consistently reduced to damsels in distress, being rescued by Spider-Woman only minutes after declaring that women shouldn’t be around these intense situations. In at least this respect, the show clearly knew exactly what it was doing.
Spider-Woman may not be a remotely accurate adaptation of the comic book character—if anything, the show feels like a very specific blend of Scooby Doo, Batman ’66 and Wonder Woman—but it’s definitely faithful to the way her comic series felt at the time. There’s a distinctly horror-themed, supernatural edge that young monster kids can’t help but appreciate. The defining trait of the series is still its baffling, gleefully unapologetic insanity, but even that by itself is more than enough reason to go back and give this series a watch. We truly won’t ever see anything like it again.