There's a scene in the very last episode of Spider-Man: The Animated Series cartoon that's particularly touching now, just weeks after the death of Stan Lee.
It's the second part of the story arc called "Spider Wars." Peter Parker, with the aid of other Spider-Men — clones with varying powers and costumes based on the original — have just defeated Spider-Carnage, a Peter Parker from an alternate dimension paired with the Carnage symbiote. With the help of Madame Webb (voiced by Stan's wife, Joan) Peter is about to go find his long-lost love, Mary Jane Watson, who had been cloned and then disappeared a few episodes prior.
Before he goes to find her, Webb has one last thing for Peter to do: He must meet his maker, literally. This leads to a great exchange between Stan and Peter, one that maturely deals with growing up and being confident:
Peter: You know, for so long, I thought I never got any breaks. But now, after all I've been through, I like my life. I like myself. And for the first time ever, I wouldn't want to change anything about me.
Stan: Gee, you're definitely not the same guy I've been writing about all of these years.
Peter: Well Stan, we all have to grow up sometimes, I suppose…
This was more than a fun, MCU-style cameo, according to showrunner John Semper Jr.
"For me, the story was about an epic kind of coming-of-age of Peter Parker, and when he got to the point where he could turn to his creator and say, 'Well, I'm really not the guy you created anymore. I'm somebody else now,'" Semper told SYFY WIRE earlier this month. "When he gets to that point, I kind of felt like the epic hero's journey was over for him."
After his meeting, Peter joins Madame Web to find Mary Jane. Web confirms that Peter has emerged from his odyssey: "It's been a long, hard journey, and I think you're finally entitled to some happiness."
And then, in January 1998, after 65 episodes, the show was over. Even now, after 20 years since the cartoon's controversial finale, fans still talk ask Semper about that cliffhanger ending. "Did Peter ever find Mary Jane? What happens next?" they ask.
But to Semper, it was never meant to be a cliffhanger ending. It was meant to be tidy enough to wrap up Peter's storyline, yet open-ended in case there would ever be a chance to continue the story. Semper just assumed that the audience would pick up on the fact that yes, Peter does find Mary Jane and they live happily ever after.
"Coming at it from an adult perspective, that, for me was, enough finality," he tells me. "I felt like I had done the whole hero's arc for Peter. But unfortunately, that's a very adult way of looking at things. And really, I momentarily forgot that I was catering to kids, and that they wanted to see if Peter got the girl. Yeah... so I left you all with a horrible feeling of incompletion.'
When Spider-Man: The Animated Series began production in 1993, it was the first project by the newly-formed Marvel Films Animation. And it was in feeling growing pains. Deadlines weren't being met, and the show was in jeopardy of not airing on its target date, which would be a disaster, as the show wouldn't come out in time to coincide with the toys that Toy Biz was producing for the show. And without the show, that meant these random toys would be on the shelves at the toy store during Christmas time without any context or demand.
So, Lee brought in Semper.
Semper and Lee had worked together before in the '80s, for a company called Marvel Productions, which was supposed to be the launching point for Marvel to start producing TV shows and movies. That was a longstanding dream of Lee's, what convinced him to move out to Los Angeles. With the exception of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Productions mainly produced shows for the toy company Hasbro, such as My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, and Transformers.
Once Semper came on board, his goal was to get the show on air by the fall, in time for the holiday season. The first episode, "Night of the Lizard," aired on November 19, 1994. According to Semper, he and his team just barely made it. Semper chose this particular story for two reasons: It was based on a comic-book story arc that Lee had written and it was a short, self-contained story that could be easily adapted into a cartoon storyline.
"I knew that nobody could fight over it because it was a Stan story," Semper says. "...and so I thought, 'I'm just going to take the path of least resistance and then everyone will have to agree, and then we'll be able to get a story out the door with minimal fuss."
Spider-Man: The Animated Series ran for five seasons on Fox Kids. It aired on Saturday mornings and later, on weekday afternoons. During that time, while Semper penned most of the episodes, he had help from writers who had previously worked on the critically-acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, such as Brynne Stephens and Marty Isenberg, along with famed cartoon writer Stan Berkowitz. He also hired as legendary comic-book writers Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Gerry Conway, who had written the famous death of Gwen Stacy storyline and co-created The Punisher in the early '70s.
The show focused on a college-aged Peter Parker, who had already become acclimated to his spider powers. Working as a part-time freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle, he juggled his courses at Empire State University while dating Mary Jane Watson and fighting crime as Spider-Man. Semper had access to most of Marvel's comic-book catalog, which meant he could pretty much use any character he wanted, save for the Hulk, Ghost Rider, Sandman, and initially Elektro (though Semper used him later anyway) due to conflicting projects.
At first, Semper's creative control was limited due to the influence of Lee and Avi Arad, who was the CEO of Toy Biz and would soon become the CCO or Marvel Entertainment. The restraints eventually came off, midway into the first season. "I had a tremendous amount of control after Episode 13," Semper says. "And it's the kind of control that you can't even imagine having now. I feel sorry for the guys that have to do a Spider-Man show now because I can feel the heavy hand of corporate governance in their writing."
Spider-Man: The Animated Series was consistently praised by critics, and was nominated for an Annie Award, the highest honor in the animation industry. During its run, it was one of the highest-rated cartoons in America. Its influence can still be felt today, as a sort of precursor to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, with guest appearances from Marvel heroes such as Daredevil, Captain America, and Iron Man. And for those who've been vying for Spidey to appear alongside the X-Men in the MCU, it happened during Semper's run on the show... sort of.
Between 1992 and 1997, Fox Kids ran X-Men: The Animated Series, which aired along with Semper's Spider-Man. In the "Secret Wars" storyline leading up to the show's finale, Storm from the X-Men makes an appearance, as well as all of the Fantastic Four.
Oh, and the recently-released and highly-acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? Thank Semper for that, too. In the '90s, as a way to bridge the toy line with the animated series, Semper would work in storylines featuring alternate Spideys such as Spider-Carnage, Armored Spidey, Six-Armed Spidey, Octo-Spidey, Powerless Spider-Man, and Scarlet Spider, who all appeared as clones from alternate dimensions in the aforementioned "Spider Wars" storyline.
"There was always kind of a little bit of a minor friction between the needs of the show, which was that I needed the show to be good, but also the toy line had to have a little more influence over the show than I wanted it to," says Semper. "When I was a kid it always bothered me if there was a television show and then there was a toy, and the toy, ostensibly was connected to the TV show, but it didn't really have anything to do with the TV show...so I thought, 'how can I come up with a situation where there will be a number of Spider-Men together, so that the kid who bought Armored Spider-Man will see Armored Spider-Man on TV and will not grow up being frustrated that he got ripped off?"
Semper made it work, paving the way for the current Spider-Verse.
Still, it all goes back to Stan Lee and his approach to writing. It influenced how Semper ran his Spider-Man show, as he put the character before the superpowers. "I used to tell my writers, 'We're doing the Peter Parker show. We're not doing the Spider-Man show. Let's approach it from Peter's life. Spider-Man is just one of the many complications with his life.' And I think that's one of the reasons why the show is still resonating with people…it's not about explosions and superpowers and costumes."
As Semper points out, Lee co-created black characters Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Robbie Robertson, a character who featured prominently in Semper's Spider-Man series. To Semper, Lee was ahead of his time when it came to featuring characters of color in comics. But he was also ahead of his time when be brought on Semper, who was the first black showrunner to head a Saturday morning cartoon series. But as he explains, the cartoon industry, like the comic book, and larger entertainment industry, didn't easily hand black creators a lot of work, especially when it came to big-budget franchise shows.
"I was always aware of the fact that being a black man, I was not going to be given anything this industry did not want me in. So, I always had to make the most of what I got," he says. "Now, when I was given Spider-Man, it wasn't all shiny and new. It was just a heap of garbage. And I think that a lot of people just assumed that I was going to go down with the ship."
When it comes to heroes of color in comic books such as Miles Morales, Semper's fine with it. But what he really cares more about is giving black creators more attention. "Let them create what they want to," he says. "It doesn't necessarily mean having a black face behind the mask, which is great. But let's instead turn to a black creator and say, 'What do you want to make?' Black creators matter, and that's the thing that I think is more important."
Despite still ongoing rumors that Spider-Man: The Animated Series was canceled, thus the open-ended conclusion mentioned earlier, it wasn't. Semper initially signed up to deliver 65 episodes, and he did. And unfortunately, there was never a chance for Semper to return to the character. By the time the show ended, Marvel was in the throes of bankruptcy, and characters were being sold off to other companies so they could make movies, and Marvel could stay afloat financially.
These days, Semper stays busy doing mainly freelance work. Most recently, he finished up DC Comics' new Cyborg series and had a hand in co-writing three episodes of Robozuna, an animated adventure series that's currently on Netflix. And next year, he'll be gearing up for the 25th anniversary of Spider-Man: The Animated Series. He anticipates a lot of con appearances, and most likely, he'll be asked that ever-popular question: "Did Peter ever find Mary Jane?"
For those who need to know for sure, Semper wrote an imaginary 66th episode, which you can find on his Patreon page.