It's not easy being a female superhero, especially if you're the less popular female version of a widely known male superhero. For example, while DC Comics makes oodles of cash from the popularity of Superman and Batman, it often seems completely clueless as to what to do with Supergirl, Batgirl and Batwoman.
Over at Marvel, there's Spider-Woman, the female counterpart of one of Marvel's most popular character, Spider-Man. Between 1977 to today, there have been at least three Spider-Women in the Marvel Universe--four if you include the one super villain who assumed the same name. The first Spider-Woman was Jessica Drew, who had her own comic book series that ran from 1978 to 1983. Unlike the other Spider-Women, Drew also had her own short-lived animated TV series that aired on ABC on Saturday mornings in 1979.
I vaguely remember seeing the Spider-Woman cartoon on Saturday mornings way back when I was just a wee lad, so I decided to track down all 16 episodes of the series to see how well it actually was and how it compares to more modern superhero cartoons such as Avengers and Young Justice. While Spider-Woman isn't that great of a show in terms of writing and animation when compared to the superhero cartoons of today, it sheds some light on how Marvel was still struggling in the late '70s to establish their characters in other mediums outside of comic books.
When I watched Spider-Woman during its original broadcast, I tuned in largely for the guest appearances of Spider-Man. Even though he only appeared in two episodes of the series, that was enough for me. Besides, Spider-Woman also gave me the chance to see another colorful spider-powered hero fight all sorts of outlandish super villains, so it was the next best thing to having a Spider-Man cartoon on Saturday mornings. Even though Spider-Man appeared on Electric Company and had his own short-lived live-action series in the late '70s, no Spider-Man cartoons were made during that decade.
Even to this day, Spider-Woman remains unique among half-hour superhero cartoons because it is one of the few shows that features a female superhero as the main character, not as part of a duo, trio, or team of other superheroes. (The second Spider-Woman, Julia Carpenter, would later appear in animated form during the mid-'90s, but only as a secondary character in the syndicated Iron Man cartoon.) Spider-Woman also sets a record within the ranks of Marvel superhero cartoons: While other Marvel heroes had to wait a few years between the launch of their own comic book series and the production of their own cartoon, Spider-Woman aired less than a year and a half after the publication of the first issue of the Spider-Woman comic book in April 1978.
Yet such a background raises a few questions as to why Marvel chose to produce a cartoon based on a superhero who didn't have enough stories or her own rogues' gallery of super villains to transfer to TV. The early animated versions of Iron Man, Hulk, and the Fantastic Four from the '60s might not have been great cartoons, but at least they had super villains and stories that the script writers could use in creating cartoon plots. Another curious detail of the Spider-Woman cartoon was how it differed from the comic book. In both the comic and cartoon, Spider-Woman had spider-like powers and the alter ego of Jessica Drew, but everything else was different. While the comic book Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew was a private investigator by profession and regularly fought the terrorist organization HYDRA and supernatural beings from Arthurian legend, the cartoon Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew was the editor and lead reporter for Justice Magazine who regularly went on adventures with her photographer Jeff Hunt and her nephew Billy. If the cartoon was intended to boost readership of the comic book, then changing the main character so drastically between the two versions seems counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating.
I can only speculate as to why Marvel did what they did with the Spider-Woman character and her cartoon adaptation. It could have been that because so many of the more popular Marvel characters were caught up in other legal arrangements, Spider-Woman was one of the few characters remaining for an animated series. For example, the second Fantastic Four cartoon, which aired a year before the Spider-Woman series, didn't feature the Human Torch because the rights to that character were tied up in a TV movie project that never happened. Marvel was working on live-action TV versions of characters such as the Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange during the late 70s, so this theory could be true.
It has also been suggested that because Filmation had a cartoon superhero character called Web Woman, the Spider-Woman comic book and cartoon were rushed into production to secure the intellectual property rights to the "Spider-Woman" name. Web Woman was part of Filmation's Tarzan and the Super 7 cartoon and while she did have spider-like powers, she had more in common with the Green Lantern than Spider-Man. Her costume even bore some similarities to that worn by Star Sapphire, one of Green Lantern's enemies. However, neither of these theories explain the differences between the comic book and cartoon versions of Spider-Woman.
After watching all 16 episodes, I concluded that Spider-Woman isn't that much better or worse than other superhero cartoons from its time. Since the show relied on the repeated usage of stock character animation of Spider-Woman performing various superheroic acts (flying, spinning webs from her fingers, shooting venom blasts from her hands, etc.), most of the dialogue consists of descriptive, exclamatory statements of events that just happened, are currently happening, or are about to happen. This budgetary limitation would also explain Jessica Drew's profession as a reporter (a quick way to explain how she encounters so many villains and situations that require the immediate involvement of Spider-Woman), the location of Justice Magazine (reusable background art, which would save money on the limited animation budget), and the involvement of Jeff and Billy (characters who can regularly interact with Jessica/Spider-Woman and provide more stock character animation to fill time). While Stan Lee was credited with adapting Spider-Woman for TV, each episode was scripted by veteran TV cartoon writer Jeffrey Scott. Scott's pre-Spider-Woman credits include The All-New SuperFriends Hour, Challenge of the SuperFriends, Scooby's Laff-A Lympics and Dynomutt Dog Wonder, so he knew how to write for cartoons with very low production budgets.
In spite of being a cheap, formulaic superhero cartoon, Spider-Woman does have enough quirks that keep it interesting. On its surface, the relationship between Jessica, Jeff and Billy isn't too much different than the relationship between Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in an average Superman story. Yet where things change in Spider-Woman are in the gender roles, which play out much differently than in other superhero stories with a central male character. Jeff is a well-meaning character, but his attempts to impress Jessica with acts of masculine bravado almost always backfire. For as predictable as this is within the context of the cartoon, I can't think of another animated superhero series that regularly puts the potential love interest of a female superhero in the role of unintentional (and somewhat emasculating) comic relief.
While Jessica comes across as an intelligent and capable person (a characterization that is largely accomplished through Joan Van Ark's confident and playful line readings), she often has to portray herself as a helpless, flighty woman to convince Jeff and Billy that she is not Spider-Woman and provide excuses for her all-too-convenient absences whenever Spider-Woman is around. As a result, Jessica ends up assuming the roles of both the powerful hero and the powerless victim in each episode.
Another feature of Spider-Woman is its occasional indulgence in over-the-top plot twists. Perhaps as a way to compensate for the lack of source material from the then-fledgling Spider-Woman comic book, Jeffrey Scott utilized many sci-fi cliches (mad scientists, evil androids, space invaders, time travel, mind control, secret civilizations, etc.) in drafting scripts, sometimes to the point of absurdity--even by superhero cartoon standards. For example:
* In "The Amazon Adventure", Fort Knox is robbed by a group of powerful women who a dressed as Amazonian warriors. It turns out that they are actually from a secret Inca civilization in Peru, and they steal gold to power their solar technology that is capable of taking over the world. (It is never specified whether the women are Amazonian Incas or Inca Amazons.) They also are ruled by a queen who is over 400 years old but stays young because of a time rift.
* In "The Lost Continent", Jessica, Jeff and Billy investigate the Bermuda Triangle, only to find a secret island where a mad scientist who controls an army of dinosaurs and laser gun-wielding, jet fighter-piloting cavemen. The mad scientist later has his dinosaurs attack New York City.
* In "Games of Doom", an evil scientist Jacques LeRhode replaces athletes at the World Athletic Games with androids so they can each win gold medals. LeRhode needs the gold medals to transmit a radio frequency that allows him to control the minds of people. (I guess silver and bronze medals can't do that.) After Spider-Woman defeats his plans, it is revealed that LeRhode is actually an android who is controlled by the real LeRhode, who looks just like the android but is one-fourth the size of an average human being.
* Spider-Woman featured plenty of monsters, and many of them had the ability to turn people into monsters too. In "Pyramids of Terror", ancient Egyptian mummies are revealed to be alien mummies who intend to conquer Earth, and their attack includes shooting beams from their pyramid-shaped spaceships that turn people into stumbling, groaning mummies. In "Dracula's Revenge", Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster plan to take over the world by turning people into monsters--not by biting them, but by shooting them with energy rays that shot from their hands, eyes and neck bolts, respectively. In a nod to The Fly, "The Spider-Woman and the Fly" features another mad scientist who uses a fly clone to turn himself into a winged human-fly monster who can shoot rays from his eyes that turn other people into human-fly monsters.
Adding to the goofiness of these stories are their poor sense of geography, which make distant locations such as Africa, England, and Romania look like close neighbors to New York City. Indeed, many of the Spider-Woman episodes would be right at home on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
For comic book fans who are interested in the history of Spider-Woman, they should pick up the reprints of the original Spider-Woman comic in the Marvel Essentials compilation paperbacks. If you're a fan of animation history with a particular interest in superheroes, you should watch a few episodes of the Spider-Woman cartoon to get an idea of how this kind of animation was produced in the late '70s. (In particular, Marvel cartoon history buffs will recognize some of Spider-Woman's background music, which was reused in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends in the early '80s.) A Region 2 DVD of the entire Spider-Woman series was released in 2009 and it still available from some retailers, and plenty of video clips can be found on YouTube.