Ralph Bakshi’s career has been all about pushing animation as an art form, overseeing films like the fantasy Wizards – the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings – and American Pop, which chronicles four generations of a Russian Jewish immigrant family of musicians whose careers parallel the history of 20th Century popular music in America; even the first X-Rated animated feature film, Fritz the Cat. Edgy and subversive seem appropriate descriptions for him, even when he was producing a Mighty Mouse animated series for CBS that was unlike any other take on that rodent in a cape we’ve ever seen. He also happens to be the main guy behind the first adaptation of Spider-Man ever.
In 1967, the character arrived in the form of a Saturday morning cartoon series that became an immediate ratings hit, though behind the scenes things weren’t going smoothly as the production company, Grantray-Lawrence, went bankrupt shortly after production of the first 20 episodes, leaving 32 shows yet to be produced for ABC. Krantz Films, the company that had hired the animators, and desperate to live up to their contractual obligation to the network, turned to Bakshi to take over the show and move its production to New York City. The result was a series that offered more attention to detail with considerably richer backgrounds and more effective character animation, despite an annoying reliance on stock footage of Spidey swinging through New York City. Additionally, whereas year one had featured two stories in each half-hour episode, year two, for the most part, focused instead on a single scenario, thus allowing for a greater emphasis on character and plotline, while year three featured a combination of single and dual stories.
“I had just left Paramount Pictures as a producer/director,” says Bakshi, whose credits, of course, include the animated Wizards, 1978 production of Lord of the Rings, and the first X-Rated animated film Fritz the Cat. “Basically I wanted to do adult animation at that point in my life and they promised that I could. But when I showed them what that was, they freaked. So I left the studio and got a job with Steve Krantz, who was doing Spider-Man and Rocket Robin Hood with Grantray-Lawrence, but then they were going bankrupt. I went back to Steve Krantz, who I had already told about Fritz the Cat and he loved the idea, but he said, ‘You have to do my Spider-Man show for me.’ I finally said yes, because I was 20-something years old and it was a chance to open a studio in New York, so I could get ready to do Fritz. I had a lot of friends who came with me from Paramount who needed jobs, so for me, it was also, ‘How do I get my friends jobs?’ Not just myself, but my New York guys who would eventually go on to do Fritz with me.”
Bakshi’s first step upon taking over the Spidey reigns was to hire a number of comic book artists to create designs for him, among them Gray Morrow, Jim Steranko, Joe Kubert and Wally Wood. “What I tried to do with those guys and my animators was to make it more realistic,” he explains. “I should also point out that my distaste for comic book publishers and editors rose vehemently at that point. Marvel Comics could care less what the guys on the coast were doing and they could care less what I was doing. In other words, they didn’t give a shit what I did with the show as long as they got their weekly stipend from ABC. I had to show them nothing. I could have done anything. My whole fight was to try and make the show more adult, and they were no help at all. In other words, a lot of the things the network came back with — they would give you notes like, ‘Do this, you can’t do this’ — I abhorred. Marvel at that point was no help at all. They didn’t care. They were making their money and they wanted to keep it running as long as the network wanted it. So I was on my own trying to get some of the realism that Steve Ditko and those guys had gotten into the comic that I loved so much.
“I remember,” he adds, “that I used to go to Marvel with ABC’s stupid notes and say, ‘Can’t you do something?’ and they wouldn’t. Every time I came up to argue that the network was killing the show, Stan Lee kept saying, ‘What else can we sell them?’ That was my impression.”
One of his proudest achievements, despite his problems with the network and Marvel, was that he was able to add a bit more depth to the show in terms of the animation and backgrounds.
“To me,” Bakshi points out, “it was utterly amazing in those days to get anything realistic. It was all such crap and Spider-Man to me was real. Marvel Comics, Simon and Kirby and Ditko were great. I broke my heart to do the show, which is why I was so angry at Marvel Comics because if they had been even a little helpful, the show would have been so much better. You see, ABC wanted me to turn it into a kid’s show. They kept wanting me to turn it younger and younger, so it became almost like a six-year-old would dig it. My whole thing was that teenagers would dig it, too. So we were at odds with that all the way. I wasn’t there to sell Spider-Man toys, I was there to sell the characters as I loved them in the comic books, with all these hang-ups that were in Peter Parker’s head.”
So determined was Bakshi to make the show realistic, that there were a couple of episodes in which Spidey went through what could only be described as an acid trip (it was, remember, the Sixties).
“I was trying to do what Marvel was trying to do in the comic books, which was to be relevant to what was happening around you. The whole thing about me and animation was for animation to be relevant. In other words, not a fantasy but part of the time you were in. When you spoke to Wally Wood and the rest of the comic book artists, that was their battle, too. So we were all beatniks trying to do what’s happening, and there was tremendous resistance against that.
“The scripts were usually pretty bad,” Bakshi adds with a laugh. “I remember sitting down with the guys and saying, ‘We’ve got to change this stuff.’ A lot was changed in layouts, but because the script might have been recorded already, it caused great difficulties in terms of how much you could change. The best you could do was throw out lines. You couldn’t add lines. I think I gave the guys carte blanche to re-layout the script and get away from some of the bullshit that wasn’t working, and I think they did very well with that. That’s when the network screaming started; that’s when the notes and the fights started because I would ignore them. So the cartoonists were let go to the best of their abilities. That was my frustration, because it showed we had started to rewrite stuff and how much better it would have been. There was an awful lot of fighting, but that’s always the way in television. If you do it, you know you’re going to fight. I try not to do it as much as possible, because who wants to fight their whole life? It’s not like you ever win.”
Despite all the heartache involved, Bakshi enjoyed the opportunity to not only get prepared for a feature film career but to work with a character he genuinely enjoyed as well.
“There are actually very few comic book characters that have gotten to the screen in original condition,” he offers. “Most of the Hanna-Barbera superhero stuff was material originated by them. There were very few successful comics brought to the screen. I remember Max Fleischer’s animated Superman shorts, which were brilliant. I would love to have done Superman. That was the excitement about Spider-Man. I think he was one of the first characters that came out that had social consciousness. He was a superhero that thought about problems that teenagers really had. That was very unusual in those days.”
Spider-Man was canceled by ABC after its third season, though it enjoyed years of popularity through syndication. And, of course, there was that awesome theme song.
Images: Ralph Bakshi, Disney-ABC Domestic Television, United Artists