Saturday, 2 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man (Or Is That, Spiderman?)


Two things inspired this post - this weekend's local Comic Con at the Convention Centre, and this past Tuesday's birthday of animation legend Ralph Bakshi, who turned 75 on October 29th. 

A lot of people know Ralph Bakshi as "that X-rated cartoonist". Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin - these were the cartoons I wasn't allowed to watch at my birthday parties. But a lot of kids my age who grew up watching cartoons in 1980 small-town Canada watched Ralph Bakshi in another, more dad-friendly form of programming. But in retrospect, I don't think it was any better for us than Coonskin. Sure, there was no nudity or swearing, but it certainly made the perceived influence of drugs seem pretty cool.





Let me explain. The first season of ABC's Spider-Man in 1967 was Ralph Bakshi-free, and was relatively true to its comic origins. In fact, Marvel head honcho "Smilin" Stan Lee was a creative consultant, as was "Jazzy" John Romita, Sr. GrantRay Lawrence Animation produced the series, which was a joint production between the U.S. and Canada. That CanCon connection is the reason why this show was a permanent daily repeat for over two decades, alternating between mornings and afternoons. 

I watched the show for at least one those decades, alternating between mornings and afternoons. And while I enjoyed the first season just fine, with familiar villains and comic-inspired storylines, it was the weird second and third season episodes that I preferred, even though they sometimes scared the living sh*t out of me.

When Ralph Bakshi and Krantz Films took over the series after GrantRay Lawrence went bankrupt in 1968, Stan Lee and "Jazzy" Johnny were nowhere to be seen. The villains from the comic books showed up more sporadically. And all of a sudden, Spider-Man was in outer space amid a background that looked like it was exploding.




To write-off this incarnation of Spider-Man as a complete throwaway from the oeuvre is unfair. Some of the Season 2 episodes, in my opinion, were truer to the comic books than Season 1 was. Some episodes focused on the teenage angst of Peter Parker, and how being a super-hero affected his life as a high schooler. These arcs are what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko first explored in the comic's first issues. The Season 1 episodes of Spider-Man spent more time focusing on Peter's job at the Daily Bugle, attempting to salvage his job in the face of his real enemy, newspaper editor and boss J. Jonah Jameson.

In fact, it wasn't until the start of Season 2 that Spider-Man received his first true origin story (called 'The Origin of Spiderman'), which used dialogue and story elements from the first comic book.

Note how Bakshi's main title reference to our hero ditches the use of a hyphen.





One of my favourite episodes from these later seasons is a one-off called 'Diamond Dust', which shuffles back-and-forth between Peter's personal life to Spidey's super-hero struggles. This one showcases some of the best original animation seen in later seasons of the show. Note: This isn't to say the animation is good. It's just a lot better than what would come, featuring less rehashed footage than usual. It's the Fantasia of Bakshi Spider-Man's.




But these acknowledgements of Spidey's roots were far and few between. Occasionally a trademark villain would show up, like in 'Kingpinned' (which also featured J. Jonah Jameson), but more often than not, the episodes would feature green-skinned monsters or creatures from other another world, who somehow weren't far away from Manhattan.




Sometimes the enemy was a "flying cowboy on an electronic horse". (Note again the spelling of our hero's name!)




Speaking of enemies, I always loved the head-trip induced by a devious filmmaker and his cat in 'Pardo Presents'.




Head-trips seemed par for the course in later seasons of Spider-Man, not only in storyline, but in the artwork itself. 

Every Season 2 and 3 episode of Spider-Man is a trip thanks to those bleached out, acid-washed skies, overseen by art director and comic artist, Gray Morrow. 




Sometimes the storylines were trippy solely due to cost-cutting measures. Bakshi and crew made recycling footage an artform. They shamelessly used scenes and entire stories from an earlier Krantz Films production called Rocket Robin Hood (1966-1969), and reworked them to exist in Spider-Man's present day universe. The result was some of the weirdest cartoons you'll ever see. Even as a kid, you'd watch and think to yourself, "That's eff'd up." 

Spider-Man's 'Phantom From The Depths Of Time' was pretty much an awkward shot-for-shot remake of Rocket Robin Hood's 'From Menace To Menace'. And classic, super-scary Spider-Man episode 'Revolt In The Fifth Dimension' ("Talk about science fiction!") couldn't have existed without the equally scary 'Dementia Five' from Rocket Robin Hood. Compare footage, which is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake with different music and lead voices...






This is a good time to talk about the music in Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man. While some of Ray Ellis's Season 1 music was still used, Season 2 and 3 relied heavily on funky and more experimental instrumentals from KPM's radio production library - a fascinating series of music created by a series of British composers, with names like Alan Hawkshaw, Johnny Hawksworth, Syd Dale and more.

It may not surprise you, but one of the stand-out pieces of production used in 'Revolt In The Fifth Dimension', is a song by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter entitled "L.S.D.". Seems appropriate.





Here's another mini-sampling of music you might remember from Spider-Man, all of which came from KPM...







After I found the source of this music, I started seeking out availability of KPM releases on current formats, and you can still get select cuts on newly remastered packages. Those I do own have a couple of tracks that I recognized from Spider-Man, but those I don't are still great. There are so many fine unknown composers who contributed to the KPM brand, and all of them are cult music legends. 

For more on this music, listen to this awesome podcast which inter-cuts between actual music and dialogue from Spider-Man, into the album tracks the show steals from. Very fascinating, and only begins to touch the surface on what's out there.

But back to recycling for a moment. Bakshi went so far as to spread his money even further by making "new" Spider-Man episodes out of recycled footage from previous Spider-Man episodes! 

Watch how Season 3's 'Rollarama', is basically a rip-off of Season 2's 'Vine' with one major change...






Or how The Master Technician shows no original thinking in his plans for world domination in both Season 2's 'Swing City' and Season 3's 'Specialists And Slaves'.





Or how 'Spiderman Battles The Moleman' (there's that spelling again!) compares to 'Menace From The Bottom Of The World'. Apparently these both aired not-so-subtly in the same season, separated by only one episode! The audacity of these guys is mind-blowing!






Still, I can't stay angry at them. Maybe it's just the nostalgia talking, but I see merit to their cheapie experiment. Despite the lack of resources, I think there was still passion behind the project. And they introduced a never-before-seen (and sometimes jarring!) vision of a comic hero that couldn't be replicated...outside of what they were already replicating, that is. 

Despite the terrible animation and awful drawings, there was still an artfulness to be found. And let's not forget that this provided Bakshi with the springboard he needed to take on other projects, which would eventually revolutionize the way we thought about cartoons. Without Spider-Man, there'd be no Fritz The Cat

I'd like to get into some of Bakshi's later years in a future blog post (especially some of his more unknown kid-friendly material), but for now, Comic Con calls. I'm already late, but I won't speed. It's not becoming of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. 

Or is that Spiderman?





6 comments:

  1. Let's add also "Up From Nowhere" where Manhattan, instead of going up like in "Swing City" and "Specialist & Slaves", it goes down to the bottom of the Hudson river where the Master Technician/Radiation Specialist was modified to be Dr. Atlantean.

    Finally, there the season 3 pair of episodes "The Winged Thing" and "Conner's Reptiles" who recycled season 1 episodes featuring the Vulture and to a latter extend the Lizzard rechristined as Reptila where it's not a transformed Dr. Conner, but a reptile whose intelligence has been augmented in an experiment by Conner gone awry

    Another memorable cheater episode is "Rhino" where they recycled 2 season 1 episodes featuring the Rhino.

    I would had wished then Ralph Bakshi and his staff recycled some season 1 episodes who featured the Green Goblin for a season 3 episode cheater. Imagine Green Goblin flying with the psychedelic backgrounds. ;-)

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  2. Absolutely right, SD. Man, calling your cartoon 'The Winged Thing' in itself couldn't be any better indication that you've run fresh out of ideas. ;)

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    1. I had to deleted my previous post due to 1 or 2 wrong links then I posted. Sorry for the inconvience.

      I spotted one more musical piece of Spider-man, this soundtrack was originally first used in the 1966 Marvel Super Heroes cartoon. and lots of others at http://www.oshannonland.com/spider-man-music.

      A Youtube user Louis Roy recreated another one who was used in season 2. https://youtu.be/YzkJEX91Vrw and one guy named Peter Johnson recreated the music who was mainly used after the season 2 episode "Pardo Presents". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HpZv80o2IU

      It could be interesting to wonder how the 1967 Fantastic Four cartoon made by Hanna-Barbara would had sounded with the Spider-man music? Or how the 1967 Spider-man would had sounded if it had used musical backgrounds made by Hoyt Curtin, composer for Hanna-Barbara at that era or the ones made by Barry Gray who composed music for Gerry Anderson for series like Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet? This one from Fireball XL5 episode "Planet 46" would be nice at home in episodes where Spider-man face Kingpin.

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  5. I remember when the change from Grantray-Lawrence to Krantz Films happened. It was the 2ND episode of season 2. That's right. The 2nd season began with 1 NEW G-L episode, before the studio suddenly went bankrupt. As a kid, I wondered, what the HELL was going on here?

    Strange but true: "The Origin of Spiderman" was NOT based on AMAZING FANTASY #15, but instead, from the redone origin in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #1 with art by Larry Lieber & Bill Everett, which came out only a few months before the episode aired. Some of the (inferior) altered dialogue was used in the cartoon verbatim. This included the line, "This'll teach you to watch where you're goin', ya four-eyed foul-up!" This, despite Peter NOT wearing glassed on the cartoon.

    Over the decades, I've come to love the Krantz Films episodes, but less as adventure shows, and more as "really weird JAZZ VIDEOS".

    The Spidey-Jazz Yahoo Group assembled a 70-min. CD of music from the show trading with other fans in 2004. A 2nd CD was assembled in 2010, and a 3rd one is in the works... eventually. There's also more thana decade of interesting info to be found in the postings.

    Oh, by the way, "L.S.D." was by Alan Hawkshaw, and first appeared on the show in "Menace from the Bottom of the World"-- a story actually adapted by "One of Our Skyscrapers Is Missing" from Archie's ADVENTURES OF THE FLY #2, written by Jack Kirby & illustrated by Al Williamson.

    https://beta.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/spidey-jazz/info

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