Continuing my look at the Marvel ‘toons of yesteryear, I’m moving from the ’60s to a decade later to examine a truly bizarre entry– ‘Spider-Woman’. This series debuted on ABC Saturday mornings in the fall of 1979. It was created by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, who had, the year before, created ‘The New Fantastic Four’ which aired on NBC. (I haven’t featured that cartoon yet, but I mentioned it in my discussion of the ’60s ‘Fantastic Four’ series.) The animation studio was best known for creating the various ‘Pink Panther’ cartoons throughout the 1960s-80s, including the animations used in the live-action movies, starring Peter Sellers.
Before I talk about the show itself, though, we need to look at the creation of the character, Spider-Woman. You see, in the late 1970s, after the success of the Hanna-Barbera/ABC series ‘Super Friends’, networks and studios realized it was safe to create superhero/action cartoons again, after parents groups forced them off the air in the late ’60s, because they thought these shows were too violent. One studio, Filmation, began developing several shows including one called ‘Spider-Woman’, about a female crusader who drew her abilities from various bugs of the world.
There was no other Spider-Woman in existence, so that should have been no problem… until Marvel Comics got wind of this. Marvel didn’t have a Spider-Woman, but of course, their flagship hero was none other than Spider-Man, so they were not about to let another company create a Spider-Woman to cash in on their character, or to possibly sully his reputation if the show turned out to be a turkey.
Marvel quickly cobbled together a character named Spider-Woman and she made her debut in 1977’s ‘Marvel Spotlight’ #32. She was created by Archie Goodwin and Marie Severin, with input from Stan Lee. There were absolutely no plans for Spider-Woman to appear in another comic. Marvel was strictly putting this one out to secure the rights to the name.
Because of that, she was given the dopiest origin ever– she had been born an ordinary spider, before being mutated into a humanoid female with superpowers. Along the same lines, because they didn’t plan to use her again, she wasn’t actually connected to Spider-Man in any way. However, this singular issue sold remarkably well, so Spider-Woman did return, and her first backstory was thrown out.
Spider-Woman next co-starred in a four-part story arc in ‘Marvel Two-In-One’ which starred The Thing and a rotating cast of guest-stars. Marv Wolfman established that she was a human born and raised, named Jessica Drew, named after his own daughter, and literary girl detective Nancy Drew. From there, Spider-Woman went on to headline her own comic book which ran for 50 issues. She also became Marvel’s most visible female character outside of comics, appearing on scores of merchandise.
Filmation went through with their planned cartoon, but renamed the protagonist Web Woman. Her adventures were part of an anthology series called ‘Tarzan and the Super 7’. (Another show I haven’t discussed yet, but it’s coming!)
Now that Marvel had a Spider-Woman in the comics, and Filmation had ‘Web Woman’ on the air, Marvel decided that they, too, would put their arachnid femme fatale on Saturday mornings, thus this series.
As for the ‘Spider-Woman’ cartoon, it looked great and the voice acting was solid. Joan Van Ark, who went on to star on the prime time soap opera ‘Knots Landing’ for 13 seasons, voiced the titular hero.
The show’s continuity doesn’t resemble that of the comics. On the cartoon, Jessica gained her powers as a child, after she was bitten by a spider and then treated with an experimental serum by her scientist father. This has a passing resemblance to her comic book origin, but that… is way too convoluted to explain here. Let’s just say, for a cartoon, it’s close enough.
But the ‘Spider-Woman’ comics were pretty dark and gritty. Jessica was a detective and a lot of her adventures touched on the occult. On the cartoon, Jessica was given a Superman-esque makeover, as a reporter for ‘Justice Magazine’. She usually stumbles upon her mysteries while on location, covering a story. She is accompanied by her nephew Billy, and fellow reporter Jeff (who I guess was kind of a love interest). At least they didn’t give her a pet.
To boost interest, Spider-Man guest-starred in a couple of episodes, voiced by Peter Soles, the same actor that had voiced him on the ’60s ‘Spider-Man’ cartoon. Spider-Man’s eyes are colored yellow on this series.
Not only did the comic book Spider-Woman not have a connection to Spider-Man, but she also didn’t have the exact same powers either. In the comics, she had super strength, could glide on wind currents (later fly), climb walls, fire a bio-electric “Venom Blast,” and manipulate others with her pheromones.
She does not have super strength on the cartoon, but she can still cling to walls and glide (her costume’s wings only appear when she uses this power). She has her Venom Blasts, but she doesn’t use them as frequently. Instead, she can fire “webs” from either her fingers or the palms of her hands to either swing or ensnare bad guys.
In addition, she is frequently shown demonstrating a brand new power in most episodes that just so happen to be exactly what she needs to get out of a particular predicament. One such ability is similar to Spider-Man’s “Spider-Sense,” but with hers, Spider-Woman can close her eyes and witness things happening someplace else entirely. She is also shown telepathically controlling ants and using a sonic scream capable of breaking through a wall, among other one-off abilities.
Jessica turned into Spider-Woman by twirling around while weaving a “cocoon” around herself. This spin is very similar to the one used on the live-action ‘Wonder Woman’ TV series, starring Lynda Carter.
The only villain from the comics that she battles that is close to the way he appears in the comics is The Kingpin. She does face villains called The Fly, and Dormamu (above, colored green with a flaming head), but they are different from their comic book counterparts.
Otherwise, the villains were made up for the show. In the episode, “Invasion of the Black Hole,” she battles aliens whose leader
bears a strong resemblance to looks exactly like Darth Vader (left). In another, “A Crime in Time,” Jessica encounters Wookie-like monsters. Just another example of just how popular and influential ‘Star Wars’ was at the time, especially with kids.
That’s also an example of just how lazily-written ‘Spider-Woman’ was. It’s BAD. I only vaguely remember this show existing, but I saw a few episodes on VHS in the ’80s. I remembered seeing Spider-Woman on merchandise and really loved her. That costume remains one of the best, which makes me mad, when I see Marvel screwing with it in recent years. Just leave it alone!
But not having strong memories of the cartoon, I was excited that it was on Disney+. And MAN is it awful! It literally feels like the writers started typing with no story or ending in mind and just kept typing until they had enough pages of dialogue. Plots weave all over the place. Spider-Woman gets into a jam before the commercial break, and when the show returns, she suddenly has a brand new power that is exactly what she needs to get out of that jam.
I’m not sure why this cartoon was made other than spite– Marvel sticking it to Filmation and ‘Web Woman’. At the time, Marvel’s biggest stars, Spider-Man, Captain America, and The Hulk didn’t even have their own cartoons. So Spider-Woman was a peculiar choice, especially since the show changed so much about her.
This wound up being the last cartoon from DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. The company was sold to Marvel, who then began creating their own shows including two starring Spider-Man that ran concurrently. This new company was called Marvel Productions and would go on to create a number of shows with Sunbow Entertainment, including ‘GI Joe’, ‘Transformers’, and ‘Jem’.
One final note on ‘Spider-Woman’– it aired on ABC, the same network that aired ‘Super Friends’ based on characters from DC Comics, so for a year, it presented shows from rivals DC and Marvel. Spider-Woman and the Super Friends also appeared together in ads for the Saturday morning lineup published in comics from both companies. So that’s at least an interesting hidden “team-up.”
If you insist on watching it, ‘Spider-Woman’ is available on Disney+.