How the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon was the third Spider-Man animated series to air

Among the many Spider-Man animated series that have been produced since the late 1960s, by far the most seldom-seen and obscure of those shows is the series simply entitled "Spider-Man", made by Marvel Productions. The series, commonly referred to as the "1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon", is often confused with 1981's Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Though the solo Spider-Man cartoon began production before Amazing Friends, it didn't actually air until much later. And it didn't air at all in 1981, the year it was copyrighted.

The distribution history of the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon plays a key part in why the series has so often been overlooked. To understand the background behind this, it is important to recap the early history of Marvel Productions.

DePatie-Freleng to Marvel Productions

In the late 1970s, DePatie-Freleng Productions, most famous for their work on the Pink Panther series of cartoons, produced two animated television shows based on Marvel Comics characters, namely The (New) Fantastic Four in 1978 and Spider-Woman in 1979. In late 1979, the company began pre-production on a new Spider-Man animated series. However, shortly thereafter, on February 6th 1980, it was reported that DePatie-Freleng Productions was to be dissolved.[1]

The company's assets were subsequently acquired by Marvel Comics by June 19th 1980, when the formation of Marvel Productions was reported on.[2] One of the reasons behind Marvel Comics founding their own animation studio was to ensure that any future series they produced featuring Marvel Comics characters would remain true to the spirit of the original comics thanks to the presence of Stan Lee as Marvel Productions' Creative Director.[3]

To that end, production of the proposed new Spider-Man series that had begun pre-production at DePatie-Freleng was resumed by Marvel Productions. It was determined that the new Spider-Man series would eventually be offered as a package with the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon in future syndication.

This decision resulted in certain aspects of the series, the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon, being deliberately patterned after the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon, including the presence of Betty Brant (a regular character in the 1967 Spider-Man show, but who had been written out of the comics in late 1979), and also visual elements such as Peter Parker in his civilian identity wearing a blue jacket and yellow turtleneck sweater that he wore in later episodes of the 1967 cartoon.

Additionally, according to an account from the Producer and Story Editor of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Dennis Marks, the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon was wholly funded by Marvel Comics, partially with the intent of gaining NBC's interest for purchasing a Spider-Man show from Marvel Productions.

NBC agreed to purchase a new Spider-Man based series from Marvel Productions that incorporated their desired demographic requirements for a Saturday morning network show. The resultant series, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, first aired on September 12th 1981.

However, although the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon had also been completed by the end of 1981, as stated in the opening paragraph of this article, it did not air that year.

The 1981 Spider-Man cartoon, first offered in...1982?

The earliest known trade ad for the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon, from March 1982, indicates that it was offered for syndication alongside episodes of the 1967 Spider-Man series by ARP Films and was specifically described as being "New for '82." International packaging of the series also included the first season of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, reflecting original broadcasts of both series in the U.K. in the mid-1980s, where episodes of both shows were mixed together.[4]

Early sales of the show into syndication may have been either sluggish or non-existent, since, in the latter-half of 1982, Comics Feature #22, cover-dated December 1982, published an article on "The Animated Spider-Man Series You May Never Get to See." This article was likely the first time fans discovered that Marvel Productions had created another Spider-Man series, separate to Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

The article related the production of the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon, while also specifically noting that it had not been aired at the time of writing - this was likely some time before The Incredible Hulk and the Amazing Spider-Man began on September 18th 1982, as the three Amazing Friends episodes for that season are described as not having yet aired.[5]

The following year, in March 1983, ARP Films took out another trade ad, mostly identical to the one from a year earlier, but with the addition of the three episodes from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends' second season for international distribution only.[6]

ARP Films and Marvel, a rocky relationship

From 1968, ARP Films were the distributor to all of Marvel Comics-based animation series, with the exceptions of the 1967 Fantastic Four and (Fred and Barney Meet) The Thing, which both remained with Hanna-Barbera. ARP Films also had an agreement with Marvel Productions that they would distribute the new "first-run" 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon on a commission basis.

The Comics Feature article and ARP Films ads together conclusively prove that, while produced in 1981 before Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon did not in fact air until later.

With 26 completed episodes and a distribution company in place, why therefore was the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon initially so obscure? There are several factors that undoubtedly played a part.

With the series sharing an identical title to its 1967 predecessor that it was syndicated alongside, it is not unreasonable to assume many viewers simply skipped what they believed to be re-runs. One account suggests episodes of the 1981 Spider-Man cartoon aired in Connecticut in 1983. According to at least one other account, a stripped broadcast of Spider-Man episodes in 1984 consisted of two episodes of the 1967 series followed by three episodes of the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon (two standalone episodes followed by an episode from the "Doom-Saga").

Even among viewers who did see episodes of the series in the early 1980s, there was, and remains, much confusion between the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends due to the many shared assets between both series, including character designs, background music, and some of the voice actors.

Perhaps the most important factor impacting awareness of the series was Marvel Productions' relationship with ARP Films themselves, which began to deteriorate in 1981, just as preparation for selling the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon into syndication was to begin.

With the home video market beginning a new age at the dawn of the 1980s, Marvel partnered directly with other distributors to release video tapes featuring episodes of past Marvel animated series. This was a decision that did not sit well with ARP Films, who insisted that, in addition to television distribution rights, they also had home video distribution rights to Marvel's animated shows as well.

Ironically, perhaps with some awareness of the television distribution problems the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon faced, Marvel Productions partnered with Prism Entertainment to create the Marvel Comics Video Library, an extensive series of video tapes from past Marvel Comics-based series, the first eighteen volumes of which were released on September 17th 1985, with a second set of six tapes released the following year. Included on eleven of those tapes were eleven specially-selected episodes from the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon.

In-between both sets of Marvel Comics Video Library tapes, Prism Entertainment also released a special compilation movie of several of the "Doom-Saga" episodes of the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon entitled "Dr. Doom Conquers the World". According to Larry Parr, the writer of the Doom-Saga episodes, this compilation movie was at one point intended for theatrical distribution in Europe and syndicated as a television movie domestically.

The resulting fallout between ARP Films and Marvel regarding home video distribution rights led to legal action between both companies, and, by September 1987, Marvel completely terminated their agreement with ARP Films to distribute any of their animated series for television.[7]

Having been freed from the distribution dispute between Marvel and ARP Films, this finally allowed the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon, alongside episodes of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, to achieve wide television distribution as part of the Marvel Action Universe, a syndicated cartoon block that began airing on October 1st 1988. For many fans, this was the first time they were able to watch the series.

ARP Films eventually served a lawsuit against Marvel Entertainment Group regarding the dispute over home video distribution rights, and the case subsequently went to trial in 1989. It was ultimately concluded by the jury that Marvel had indeed breached their original contract with ARP Films and that ARP were to be awarded $1,220,000 from Marvel.[7]

Selling solo Spider-Man

That the 1981 solo Spider-Man cartoon had an identical on-screen title compared with its 1967 predecessor, understandably caused problems in differentiating both series for prospective buyers. For the purposes of distribution as a separate series, the show was, by 1983, simply offered under the title of "New Spider-Man."[8]

By the 1992, the series had begun to be offered as "Spider-Man 5000" by Marvel's then-owners, New World Entertainment, which would serve to cause confusion for many years.[9] The "5000" never originally appeared on, nor was added to, the series' title screen, and was simply a reference to the series' production code of #5000 (whereas Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was production code #6000).

The 1981 Spider-Man cartoon's obscurity persists to this very day, but thanks to the internet, and as more information on the series is uncovered, it is much easier to illustrate the differences between it and the more famous Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.


[1] Daily Variety (February 6, 1980)
[2] The Hollywood Reporter (June 19, 1980)
[3] Comics Feature #33 (January-February 1985)
[4] Television/Radio Age (March 8, 1982)
[5] Comics Feature #22 (December 1982)
[6] Television/Radio Age (March 14, 1983)
[7] Arp Films, Inc. v. Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc., 905 F.2d 687, 689 (2d Cir.1990)
[8] Broadcasting (March 14, 1983)
[9] Broadcasting (January 13, 1992)

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*All characters are property of Marvel Comics and are used without permission.