John Semper Talks Spider-Man: The Animated Series

For fans of one of the biggest Saturday morning cartoons of all time, he needs no introduction. Part of an already impressive career, John Semper Jr. served as the series producer/story editor for hit Fox Kids animated series, Spider-Man: The Animated Series. He was given the daunting task of adapting Spider-Man's long, complex comic book history onto the small screen and, well, the rest is history. Semper Jr. speaks to Marvel Animation Age about his work on the series.

MAA: How did a story make it from concept to screen on Spider-Man?

Semper: I came up with all of the stories. Some were based on comic book concepts that needed to be tailored to our series. Others were just ideas that I had which I thought would be interesting to pursue as episodes. When you do a continuing storyline as I did in Spider-Man, one person has to have the master plan in their head or else the plots just meander all over the place.

I'd come up with a concept and then sit down with one (or more) of my staff writers and we'd beat it out as a full story. Then it would be submitted to the network for approval, which we usually got, and we'd move on to script. We did lots of drafts. I always wrote the final draft and then, after everybody weighed in with their opinions and notes, it was moved on to pre-production.

When the script was finalized, it would be story-boarded. More notes would be given and then it would go into actual production.

Understand that I always had many scripts being written simultaneously. It's the only way you can keep a series rolling on schedule. So I had to keep a lot of story threads going in my head at one time.

MAA: The first season was more of a "villain of the week" show rather than the season-long arcs that came later. Looking back would've you have liked to use a full-length arc in the opening 13 episodes or do you think it's wisest to introduce the characters first, then create the bigger, longer stories?

Semper: I always prefer story arcs and I think individual half-hour stories are dull and predictable. I originally had planned a season-long story arc for season one, but I was prohibited from doing it because others had agendas that needed to be served first. Toys needed to be featured (those hideous Spider-Slayers), certain characters needed to be rolled out and introduced (the boring Hobgoblin) and so, in season one, I was limited in the things that I could do. When season two began, I had total control over the storylines and as far as I'm concerned, that's when the real fun of the series gets going.

MAA:In the show, Peter Parker had left high school and was a bit older than the classic Romita/Ditko/Lee-era Spidey. Was there a reasoning behind this? Was it to make the show appeal to older audiences?

Semper: That was a decision made before I joined the show. It had been made by my predecessor for reasons that elude me. I just went along with it when I joined the series, after he had been fired and I replaced him.

MAA: In our last interview, you mentioned that both Electro and The Sandman were off limits to you because of the pending Spider-Man movie from Jim Cameron. How would you have used Sandman, if given the opportunity?

Semper: I never gave Sandman any thought because I just accepted that I wasn't able to use him and that was that. I never get too bogged down with villains, anyway. For me the real fun of Spider-Man is the soap opera that goes on in Peter Parker's real life. The villains are mostly interchangeable. There really isn't much difference between Sandman and Hydro-Man when you get right down to it. So look at the way I used Hydro-Man and you'll get a good idea of what I probably would have done with Sandman.

MAA: You've previously mentioned that you had an outline for a Ghost Rider guest spot and a planned Puma appearance, neither of which made it to production. What happened with these stories and were there any other guest spots you would've liked to do but never got the chance to?

Semper: The proposed "Ghost Rider" episode outline sits in a box in my garage somewhere. I don't recall ever mentioning Puma, nor do I really know who he is. Perhaps I did at one time.

I vaguely recall that I had wanted to do one episode of "Secret Wars" that would have brought all of the X-Men back to the series. But that series of stories was running too long and I decided to cut that episode out. Also, I'm sure budgetary restrictions had something to do with why I eliminated it.

I should point out that, at that time, I had the entire Marvel Universe available to me for my Spider series. That probably can never happen again in any Marvel cartoon series. Many characters have now been sold to different studios and production companies, so that getting them together on screen again would prove to be a licensing nightmare. It's impossible for it to ever happen again.

Consequently, seeing Spidey guest-star on TV with so many other Marvel characters is a unique feature that only my series will ever have.

MAA: Although Spider-Man impressively utilized guest-star characters who had their own series such as the X-Men, Iron Man and War Machine (along with their original voice actors), Spider-Man during the run of the show never guest-starred in any other Marvel series. Was the character "off-limits" to other shows/producers?

Semper: Yes.

MAA: Are there any other superheroes (Marvel, DC Comics or otherwise) you would like to take a crack at?

Semper: Too many to mention.

MAA: The show's video game and first wave of its toy line of the show the had the Alien Spider Slayer make an appearance. Were there ever any plans to introduce him in the cartoon?

Semper: No. I think we crammed enough of those boring Spider-Slayer toys into my series, don't you? I can still see the light in Avi Arad's eyes every time he said the words "Spidahhh-Slayahhhh!" It still haunts me in my nightmares (laughs).

MAA: The Kingpin was featured prominently in the series, appearing in the vast majority of the show's episodes. What made you use him as a recurring villain rather than the typical "villain of the week" and successful do you think it was?

Semper: The Kingpin was a major villain in Spider-Man during the 1960s when I first became a fan of the comics. I never intended for him to be so prominent in my series, but as the story arcs got developed, we needed a mastermind quietly manipulating things behind the scenes and he seemed the perfect choice. Also, he doesn't really have any interesting ability to speak of (okay, he's strong -- big deal), so if you're going to use him at all, it just makes sense to use him for his mind. He's like Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He's constantly lurking invisibly behind the scenes, but his presence is always felt.

I think Kingpin was tremendously successful in my series. And, as voiced by Roscoe Lee Brown, he was a real standout star.

MAA: The show mixed things up, and was at times very faithful to the comics (such as "The Menace Of Mysterio"). Other times it tooks its own path with some characters ("The Alien Costume," for example). How important is it to stay faithful to the comics, in your opinion?

Semper: It's only important to maintain the essence of the comics, but not the actual stories, because the actual stories are very badly constructed and mostly useless. The majority of comic book writing is sort of badly-structured and repetitive. If you try to translate it directly to the screen, it doesn't work. So what you try to do as an animation writer is to grasp the essence of what makes the comic book story interesting and then you try to mold it into a narrative that actually functions for TV.

MAA: What inspired the idea for only having the Chameleon speak when disguised as other characters and never in his own voice?

Semper: Just the way my mind works. Makes sense, doesn't it?

It's like Hitchcock never actually giving the lead Joan Fontaine character a name in "Rebecca" to underscore her feelings of unimportance.

It's my little "auteur's" touch.

MAA: Why was the decision made to make Mary Jane a water clone towards the end of the series? When "Turning Point" was originally conceived, did you actually intend to bring her back?

Semper: It was a way for us to do the marriage of Peter and M.J. without having it actually stick. I mean, Peter can't ever get the girl for real, now, can he? And, yes, I always intended to bring the real M.J. back.

MAA: How well do you think the show has aged, looking back and are there any storylines you would change now, looking back?

Semper: I think the show holds up excellently. I'm very proud of it. They haven't had a truly successful Spider-Man animated series since mine. I hear they're trying again with a newly-announced series. I wish them luck.

MAA: Do you have any clue as to who now owns the show, or any news on any further DVD releases?

Semper: Disney owns it now. The last I heard, Marvel was suing Disney over DVD ownership of the show. But I think the series is still playing on Disney Channel's "Jetix" cable TV programming block. As for new DVD releases, I have no idea what's going on these days. I hope they release the whole thing some day soon. I do get tired of seeing bootleg versions of the series selling at comic book conventions that list everybody on the cover credits except me.

MAA: You later wrote two episodes of UPN's The Incredible Hulk during its second season. How did writing for that series compare with Spider-Man on Fox?

Semper: Creatively, there is no comparison between working on that series and working on mine. They had a fraction of my budget and I suppose they did the best they could. But I don't count it as one of my best TV experiences. I've never even seen the finished versions of the episodes I wrote. I only worked on it for the money.

MAA: What are you currently working on?

Semper: I'm doing lots of development these days. And I'm still waiting for the perfect series to come along again. But can lightning ever strike twice in the same place?

Marvel Animation Age would like to thank John for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers John!

-Stu and James