Caught in "Ultimate Spider-Man's" web: voice actor Clark Gregg, Marvel Comics Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee and Marvel Studios head of television Jeph Loeb.
For yesterday, today and tomorrow, these guys know comic book heroes.
As Disney XD launches its “Ultimate Spider-Man” animated series, the latest in Marvel Comics’ television adventures of its world-famous wall-crawler (he’s starred in six different cartoon series since 1967), the buzzword “synergy” is being put to good use: Now that the Walt Disney Company owns Marvel outright, for the first time ever a network airing a Spidey show has truly tapped the creative brainpower of a team of folks who have their share of experience with both the comic book and television format.
There’s the legendary executive producer Stan Lee, who besides co-creating Spidey back in 1962 with artist Steve Ditko (as well as, y’know, the entire Marvel Universe) has been shepherding all of Marvel’s properties to film and television since the ’70s. Then there’s Marvel’s head of television Jeph Loeb, an acclaimed comic book scribe (“Spider-Man: Blue”) and accomplished television writer-producer (“Heroes,” “Lost,” “Smallville”). And Joe Quesada, the popular writer-artist and longtime Marvel editor-in-chief who was recently names the company’s Chief Creative Officer.
Along with a roster of behind-the-scenes contributors rich in comic book history, they’re delivering what they believe is one of the most faithful iterations of Spider-Man’s essence ever seen on TV, loosely based on writer Brian Michael Bendis’ long-running revisionist comic book series “Ultimate Spider-Man,” which has reworked the classic story into more contemporary terms for the past dozen years (and yes, Bendis is also writing episodes). They give PopcornBiz a glimpse into what kind of web they’re weaving for Spidey’s animated universe.
Stan Lee: It’s so hip. Spider-Man has his little wisecracks to the audience. Everything about it is ‘today.’ It’s well written, it’s beautifully drawn and it’s cool. In fact, all of the Spider-Man cartoons [over the years] were emblematic: they represented the time they were done, and I think that this "Ultimate Spider-Man" cartoon could only have been done in this period of time. I think it’s just such a beautiful cartoon. It’s so well done – if you can live with the fact that I play the janitor in it. I think they could’ve given me something more glamorous, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.
Jeph Loeb: One of the things that's really exciting about the show is that much in the same way that Joe and Brian Michael Bendis originally came up with the idea to reinvent for a brand new generation and to be able to tell the story, the basic concept, in the Ultimate Universe is to take concepts that Stan had created in the 1960s and make them relevant to the 2000 audiences. So our job on the animation side was to now, believe it or not 12 years later, come back at it and say, 'Okay, how do we tell that story for a new generation?' – because every generation has their favorite Spider-Man cartoon. How do we make this one into, as we like to say, the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon?
Lee: I always wanted the people who read Marvel comics to feel they weren’t just readers but they were sharing a little secret with the people at Marvel. We were all enjoying something that the outside world wasn’t privy to and was unaware of. It’s like we were part of the special little group having fun with these stories and that was the reason I wrote a column called Stan’s Soapbox every month where I would talk to the readers and make them feel we didn’t consider them just our readers. We considered them our friends…I like to feel that our cartoons like the Spider-Man cartoon now, the "Ultimate Spider-Man," there’s a feeling that we’re relating to the viewer. We’re all sharing a little inside joke together that the outside world isn’t aware of. I think it’s important for Marvel and Disney, whoever it is, to keep that spirit alive.
Loeb: You can't really point out what it is that Marvel is. Somehow you seem to know it. In other words, if we were to take five comic books and four of them were from other publishers and one of them was a Marvel comic. Even if they were characters that you were not familiar with, there's something about the way that Marvel Comics stories are told. I like to think of them as being too big to be contained within the page – that it's almost as though its bursting out, that if you're going to be reading a Spider-Man story the webbing will be coming out of the page and into your room. That's what we wanted to try and capture in the television series, that you do suddenly feel like, 'We're not even going 3-D. We're going to go 4-D': that Spider-Man is going to be swinging around in your house, and Lord knows that kids everywhere will be able to explain that broken lamp: it wasn't them, it was Spider-Man. ‘He came out of the television set.’
Joe Quesada: We have a huge treasure chest of wonderful characters that we think haven't been exposed properly over time, but it was also a matter of finding characters that work well within this cast, that would mix well with Peter Parker and characters that would translate to the young audience. So it was a mixture of all of those things and then culling it down to the proper team [of Spider-Man fellow high school classmates/superheroes: Luke Cage, Iron Fist, White Tiger and Nova]. These are absolutely characters that we feel vested in, that we're going to be investing in, in the future and that we thought would just make for a wonderful show.
Loeb: One of the things that I did when I came onboard as the head of television was to take a look at the way that Marvel had been previously working in the animation space, and it's important that everyone knows that up until this time Marvel was not really making its own shows. Certainly, if you go back and look at some of the old cartoon series that have been done you'll recognize some of the names, but it was never something where our own group, the Marvel group, was actually involved. Taking a page, really, from the studio which has done such an extraordinary job of moving from the movies that were made in other places, and once you start looking at things like 'Iron Man' and 'Thor' and 'Captain America' and of course 'The Avengers,' you're talking about Marvel making Marvel. You're talking about a group of individuals who really truly understand the DNA of what it is that we do. Our feeling is that, like with anything, if you have the best people working on something what you're going to wind up with is a better product.
Quesada: It was something that was made very, very evident by studios as we saw Marvel Studios start to make our movies. The thing that we kept hearing back from the hardcore fan and the casual fan was that these movies had a distinctive Marvel feel that they hadn't felt before in previous incarnations, in previous movies. So taking from that, Jeph was so instrumental in this, saying, 'We're going to get Marvel people to make Marvel shows.' I think 'Ultimate Spider-Man' is the first one that's really going to exhibit that Marvel DNA all the way through. It's funny because even when we have some staff members that come on over to work for us they aren't necessarily familiar with the Marvel DNA, and as we start to coach them they start to really get the feeling of it, from the artwork in the show to the tone of the show to the stories.
Loeb: It's important to note that our incredible writing staff, which is made up of the Man of Action Studios guys who created 'Ben Ten' and also 'Generator Rex' – Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, Duncan Rouleau, Steven T. Seagle. These are guys that certainly came from the world of comics as well. Paul Dini, a two-time Emmy-winner who wrote our pilot and serves as a creative consultant to the show, is a huge comic book fan and a Marvel fan. All the work he had done previous to this had always been for, as we like to say, the other team and just no one had ever asked. It was just one of the opportunities where I went to him and said, 'Here you go.' And then you'd think that would be enough, but in typical Marvel fashion we always have to take it one step further and add that little icing on the cake, and so we went to the guy who's written every single issue of 'Ultimate Spider-Man' – which is over a 150 issues in the last ten years – and that's Brian Michael Bendis. So of course if you have someone like Brian as a part of your staff there's going to be that moment he says, 'Well, once I did this story…' and once you get that into it we try to say, 'Okay, how do we do that and how do we make that work and have a lot of fun with it.' Brian has written some of the most fun episodes of the season.
Lee: It did boggle my mind years ago when I saw how popular Spider-Man was getting, but I’ve gotten quite used to it now. If I he’s not on a Kindle yet, they should have their own show – whatever comes along, Spider-Man should be part of it because he has become possibly one of the most popular characters in the world. They know him all over. And more than know him, they seem to love him… People call me legendary now, and iconic. I don’t even know what those words mean, but I seem to have become associated with Spider-Man and with most of the Marvel characters and I love it. It’s a great feeling to feel that something that people like that much, something that brings people so much enjoyment – somehow I’m linked to it as well as all the other people who were involved. In fact sometimes fans will come over to me and they’ll say ‘I just want to thank you for all the enjoyment your stories have brought.’ I find that very touching. It’s really something that makes me very happy.