The Origins of the Spider-Verse // Comics History 101
Spider-Man is pretty much a universal concept at this point, and his motto “With great power comes great responsibility” has become almost as universal as “May the Force be with you.” In fact, Spider-Man has become so universal that multiple comic characters have spun off of the “jokey teen hero with great responsibilities” idea that it’s become literally a trope in comics. Since Marvel doesn’t mind cashing in on the idea, they’ve also made a few dozen extra Spider-Men to explore variations on the concept.
With Marvel currently on their second major crossover featuring multiple types of Spider-People, and a major motion picture now focusing just on that concept in Into the Spider-Verse, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look back at Marvel’s first cross-universal Spider-Man event. Despite common sense, it’s not actually the 2014 event Spider-Verse. It’s not the 2010 multiplatform game Shattered Dimensions either, featuring four different Spider-Men played by four different actors of Spider-Man from across the decades. In fact, the core of this idea actually began twenty years ago on January 30th, 1998, when the ridiculously over the top finale to the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon aired.
After running for five seasons, the show was becoming both increasingly bizarre and more increasingly tied to higher restrictions by the Fox Network censors. However, the writers did their best in spite of Spider-Man not being able to throw a punch, or land on a rooftop with pigeons lest he scare them. In fact, the show is pretty remarkable for some strange reasons. As Spider-Man was (and still is) Marvel’s golden boy, Marvel did their animation in-house rather than hire an overseas company to do the work cheaper. As such, the animation was under their direct control, but the higher expense left fewer frames of animation on screen. The end result was some of the best-looking incredibly jerky animation possible. The voice acting also became strangely clipped as the directors matched the character’s lip flaps with the spoken dialogue.
The show featured some incredibly top-notch voice acting, though, in spite of the weird line reads. Christopher Daniel Barnes, voice of Prince Eric from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, would play Spider-Man himself fantastically. Joining him would be other major actors like Ed Asner as J. Jonah Jameson, pre-famous Jennifer Hale as Felicia Hardy / The Black Cat, Roscoe Lee Browne as the Kingpin himself, and even Mark Hamill as the Hobgoblin. The show would even win an emmy for the acting of Roscoe Lee Browne’s Wilson Fisk, one of the more nuanced portrayals of the character. Oh, and Academy Award nominee Martin Landau played the Scorpion once before being replaced by character actor Richard Moll, just to add to all the weirdness.
Spider-Man would also adapt many of Spider-Man’s more famous stories with a Saturday morning twist. The first season was mostly a collection of stand-alone episodes, introducing Spider-Man’s rogues gallery without bothering with an origin episode for Spider-Man himself. The show was written with the idea that a motion picture would have taken care of that, featuring Electro as the main villain. As the movie fell through, Electro was too late to be brought in as a villain. Instead, the show did a three-part adventure to introduce his best-known enemy of the 90s: Venom.
Season two would work on an overarching theme of genetic manipulations, introducing the 6-Armed Spider-Man and his further transformation into the Man-Spider. The Lizard would be a major character for this season, as would Morbius the Living Vampire. Modified to drink Human plasma instead of blood through his hands to be non-lethal, it was still a compelling concept that somehow brought both a PG-version of the Punisher and Blade the Vampire Hunter into the story. As it was also the 90s, the recent storyline of the Vulture making lifeforce-stealing gloves to turn Spider-Man into an old man was also worked into the season… but the real highlight was a two-part adventure that guest-starred the X-Men. As both shows aired on the same network, even the same voice actors were used, making for something that blew the minds of almost every kid that Saturday morning.
Season three would work on the growing relationship of Peter and Mary Jane, as well as bringing the Green Goblin into the fold. In fact, the cartoon even adapted The Night Gwen Stacy Died as best they could without Gwen Stacy, much less actual death. Instead of killing off Gwen Stacy, the Green Goblin threw Mary Jane Watson off the George Washington Bridge… where she was sucked into an interdimensional portal created by that season’s McGuffin technology. The Goblin himself was also sucked into a further broken version of the portal, sending both characters into an eternal limbo. There was also an incredibly touching adaptation of The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man from Amazing Spider-Man 284. And, if this wasn’t enough for a season, Venom also returned, spawning a PG version of Carnage, who would collect souls for the dread Dormammu. They would be defeated by the combined forces of Iron Man, Spidey, and Venom.
While Peter came to grips with what was essentially Mary Jane’s death, Felicia Hardy became the Black Cat in season four, bringing the 80s love triangle into the 90s. Most of the season would focus on the Black Cat, but would also feature Harry Osborn becoming the second Green Goblin as his sanity fell away once Mary Jane not-died. Black Cat would run away with Morbius, having fallen in love with him, and they would work with Blade to go hunt vampires in Europe. The season ended with Mary Jane somehow returning from Limbo, and Peter proposing to her.
However, all things had to come to an end. The Fox Kids lineup was changing, and both Batman and X-Men had been cancelled earlier after their fifth season. Figuring their end was also in sight, thanks to the producers arguing with Fox itself, the writers pulled out all the stops. Peter and Mary Jane got married in the first episode, followed by a six-part story where Spidey helped Captain America fight the Red Skull and his brother Electro. Unfortunately, the writers decided to enact their biggest plot twist, bringing in the 90s by revealing that Mary Jane was but a clone made by Miles Warren. She dissolved into generic liquid, and Peter was left alone once again.
And here’s where we come in with the point of the article: The Secret Wars, and the Spider-Wars.
Throughout the seasons, Peter had been not-so-subtly helped by the mystical Madame Web, voiced by Joan Lee, Stan Lee’s own wife. She would provide advice, and generally befuddle Peter before he realized exactly what he needed to do to save the day. While she operated much as a deux ex machina, the character also helped Peter grow as well. And so, she and her husband the Beyonder showed up after Mary Jane’s clone died to give Peter one final test.
Yes, the Beyonder, as in the guy from Secret Wars, Secret Wars II: Spider-Man Teaches the Beyonder to Poop, and Secret Wars III: That Fantastic Four Annual Everyone forgets about.
Yeah, Spider-Man (1994) was one of those shows.
In a frighteningly straight adaptation of the 1984 comic, the Beyonder summoned up a bunch of villains from across the Fox Kids’ Marvel shows, including Doctor Doom and The Red Skull, and dropped them on to Battleworld. Spider-Man was then given a chance to win the world back, if he lead a team of his own heroes against them. The entire Fantastic Four, Storm of the X-Men, Iron Man, and Captain America all returned to the small screen from their cancelled shows, and it was generally an awesome trio of episodes that sidestepped a lot of flaws in original writer Jim Shooter’s script. It also showed how much Peter had grown as a person and a hero, working on a team long before anyone considered him for Avengers membership.
However, the Beyonder wasn’t done once Spider-Man and his heroes claimed victory. The whole Secret Wars was just prepping Peter for the real problem. Dropping Peter off onto a world where New York was an abandoned ruin, devastated by the team-up of Hobgoblin and Green Goblin. After fighting off the two Goblins from raiding the Daily Bugle for a specific McGuffin, Peter quickly learns that he is the one responsible for all the devastation. The Beyonder whisks him back to explain why, and also introduce Peter to allies for his last quest: A whole bunch of other Spider-Men!
Instead of branching out into other continuities of Spider-Man for their inspiration, though, the writers simply drew from Spider-Man’s past to get these alternate heroes. One Spider-Man still suffered from the curse of having 6 arms and sometimes turning into the Man-Spider. Another used the arms of Doctor Octopus, based on a single issue cover and recent action figure. The Spider-Armor became a multi-billionaire Spider-Man, the attitude almost eerily predicting Robert Downey Jr’s role as Tony Stark in Iron Man. Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider, was here as well. And the last Spider-Man had no powers at all… and wouldn’t be explained until the next episode. Of course, all were voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes, making for one hell of a convoluted credits sequence that episode.
The reality Peter had just been in was Ben’s, and Ben would tell a story very similar to the recently-ended Clone Saga. Instead of that Peter losing his powers and turning the mantle over to Ben Reilly to be Spidey, the revelation that this Peter was the clone actually broke his mind and drove him insane. Then the Carnage Symbiote found him and they became Spider-Carnage, dedicating themselves to wiping out the multiverse.
A non-lethal high-stakes battle ensued, with every Spidey slowly falling before the gauntlet except for Spider-Man and the Scarlet Spider. Once this reality’s Kingpin was convinced that his partnership with Spider-Carnage would result in his own demise, Spider-Carnage was forced to flee into another dimension. With the Beyonder reduced to almost no power, they were only able to send one Spider-Man to this new Earth.
Of course, it was the main Pete.
This Earth belonged to the Armored Spider-Man, who was engaged to Gwen Stacy and a famous multi-millionaire. Gwen comes off well in this story, despite never having been used once in the show prior. While Peter and Spider-Carnage fought, both through a giant robot and in person, Peter eventually realized that the fate of the multiverse all came down to one person: Spider-Carnage himself.
You see, this is the one Earth out of the ones used so far that had Uncle Ben still alive
Confronted with Uncle Ben and the memories of what he’d done, Spider-Carnage actually committed suicide while Christopher Daniel Barnes acted his damned heart out. With the fate of the universe saved, Madame Web gives Spidey his greatest reward:
Meeting Stan Lee.
As it turns out, the powerless Spidey was actually Christopher Daniel Barnes himself, or is at least implied to be. And while poor Stan can’t voice act to save his life, it’s a genuinely touching scene with Stan remarking on how Spidey has grown. It’s even tongue-in-cheek, with Stan hitting on his wife via Madame Web, and also expecting the Fantastic Four to come meet him next.
While the show has (in some respects) aged horribly, the Spider-Man cartoon that began in 1994 is actually a remarkable time capsule of Spider-Man for the 1990s… and a great look into the inspiration for all the cross-universal capers Spider-Man has been finding himself in lately. It’s safe to say that it holds almost no secrets for either the currently-running Spider-Geddon or the just-released Into the Spider-Verse, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to take a look into the past with this series. At the very least, it has an incredibly metal opening theme, performed by Joe Perry of Aerosmith.
Spider-Man (1994) can currently be found through Canadian Netflix and Hulu Plus. It can also be purchased via iTunes, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Vudu, and crazy resellers on eBay.