Scripting The Sensational: Stan Berkowitz Talks Spider-Man: The Animated Series
If you’re into your superhero cartoons, you’re probably all too aware of who Stan Berkowitz is. He was a writer for The New Batman/Superman Adventures, Batman Beyond and Justice League over the past decade, but he got his start on superhero animation with the 1990’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series. The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News caught up with Stan via e-mail to talk about his work on one of the biggest cartoons of the 90’s.
Marvel Animation Age/Toon Zone News: How did you actually come to work on Spider-Man: The Animated Series?
Stan Berkowitz: In late 1993, I got a call from my old friend J.M. DeMatteis, whom I’d worked with on The Adventures of Superboy. He told me he was about to start writing scripts for Spider-Man and he thought I’d be interested, too. It sounded like it might be fun, so I sent some writing samples to the story editor, who said he liked them and would get back to me in a few days. When days turned to weeks and I still hadn’t heard back from him, I checked in with the production office and found out he’d been replaced by John Semper. So I went through the whole thing again, sent John some writing samples, and by February of 1994, I was a staff writer on the show.
MAA/TZN: Spidey has been animated more than once a decade since his creation. Were you a fan of any of his prior animated incarnations?
Berkowitz: I never saw the earlier stuff. I was more of a DC Comics guy.
MAA/TZN: In the comics world and in animation, there has been a battle of ethos: “grim and gritty” vs. “Silver Age fun.” Do you have a preference between the two?
Berkowitz: I grew up during the DC Silver Age (’58-’62), and I loved those stories. But as I re-read them today, they seem ridiculous. The laws of physics are violated on nearly every page, and the writers seem to have had absolutely no knowledge of human nature. Yet the stories worked very well for children — they offered young, naive readers secret information. If you were really, really small, for example, you could travel over telephone lines, like The Atom. Or you could communicate with birds, like Hawkman, if you happened to know the birds’ language. Cute stuff, but of little use if you’re trying to do a modern super-hero show. I’m not saying you have to get grim and gritty all the time. I think we’ve shown over the years that there’s room for humor in superhero shows. I’m just saying today’s children wouldn’t tolerate Silver Age-style stories. And neither would I.
MAA/TZN: How much of your script was changed by the time it got to screen?
Berkowitz: In my case, very little, because I was usually one of the last writers to work on a given script.
MAA/TZN: What did you think of the show’s visuals? Is there anything from a viewer’s point of view that you would have changed?
Berkowitz: I liked the Ditko-influenced superhero look; the only thing I would have changed would have been the look of the characters when they were in civilian garb. I prefer a more stylized look, like in the early Batman episodes.
MAA/TZN: Jameson’s reasons for hating Spidey like he does were very different in the show (because his wife was killed by a masked man) than in the comics (jealousy). What was the reasoning behind the change and what did you personally think to it?
Berkowitz: I wasn’t aware there was a change. Until now, I never knew why Jameson hated Spider-Man so much. And I still don’t know why he hated Peter. I just figured he was an irritable guy, much like the Perry White of the first Superman TV series.
MAA/TZN: Are there any storylines or villains you would have liked to explore on the show but weren’t allowed to for any reason?
Berkowitz: My only villain regret was that we couldn’t be a little more explicit about Carnage’s background.
MAA/TZN: As the show went on, Spidey became entangled in far more grand and cosmic battles (“Secret Wars,” “Spider Wars”), often serving in a leadership role. What did you think of this evolution of his character?
Berkowitz: The evolution was necessary; the show would have gotten boring without it, and the fans were demanding it.
MAA/TZN: “The Alien Costume Part One” features no less than six on-screen writing credits, including yourself, Stan Lee, John Semper and Avi Arad. What were your contributions to this obviously very important episode and was there much co-ordination between the five other story people?
Berkowitz: As I recall, there was an existing draft of the script, but everyone had different opinions of it. When I say everyone, I mean Avi, Stan, Supervising Producer Bob Richardson, and the network rep, Sid Iwanter. Nobody seemed happy with it, but everybody had a different cure for it. So John got all the parties to sit down at the same time in a conference room, and we all hashed out a new scene-by-scene outline. It took most of the day, but by the end, we had a skeletal version of a script that everyone seemed happy with – more or less. I wrote up an abbreviated outline, then went to work re-writing the existing script to make it conform to the new outline. Once we had a final draft of Part One, the other two parts were a little easier to do.
MAA/TZN: “The Hobgoblin Part Two” is one of the few episodes where John Semper does not have a writing credit, and where the episode is credited to only one writer. How did writing this particular episode differ from the others you wrote for the show?
Berkowitz: As a First Season script, “Hobgoblin” was subjected to lots and lots of notes from many different people. I had to do several total rewrites of the outline (usually, you only do one or two rewrites), and I suppose by the end of the process, John felt sorry for me and decided to give me sole credit. (All the writing credits on the show were entirely at John’s discretion; in 2002, union rules were changed to allow a credit arbitration system similar to the one the Writers’ Guild of America uses.)
MAA/TZN: You wrote the Iron Man/Spider-Man team-up for Spider-Man: The Amimated Series. Does Spider-Man work best when bouncing off of someone or solo?
Berkowitz: When he’s solo, you need voiceovers, and because you can’t see if his mouth is moving, you sometimes can’t tell if he’s talking (to himself) or thinking. So I prefer having someone else around to talk to.
MAA/TZN: “Carnage” marked your final contribution to the series, and the final appearance of the ever-popular Venom and Carnage. Had you stayed on, would you have used either character in another story?
Berkowitz: Venom was starting to show his age, but Carnage still had a lot of potential.
MAA/TZN: Peter Parker is often compared to Terry McGuiness from Batman Beyond, a show you also worked on. How do the characters compare to you? Did you ever get a sense of déjà vu working on Batman Beyond? Which ultimately did you prefer?
Berkowitz: I never had a sense of deja vu on Batman Beyond; Terry was a tough kid, almost as grim as Bruce Wayne was at that age. Compared to him, Peter’s rather self-absorbed, and far more of a smart-ass. Because of the interplay between the teenaged Terry and the elderly Bruce Wayne, I prefered Batman Beyond.
MAA/TZN:Why do you think Spider-Man (like Batman and Superman, both of whom you have worked on) keep appearing in shows? What makes them so acceptable generation after generation?
Berkowitz: In the case of each of these three heroes, there is a compelling origin story. If Spider-Man had just been a kid bitten by a radioactive spider, he would have disappeared after a half-dozen issues; it was the subsequent death of Ben Parker that made him a haunted man, forever motivated by guilt. It’s also what made him an interesting, complex character that people want to see year after year.
MAA/TZN: Finally, how are Friends and Heroes and Justice League: The New Frontier shaping up? Anything else that you’re working on that you can tell us about?
Berkowitz: Friends and Heroes just completed its first season here in the US on TBN and in England on the CBBC. DVD’s are available from a company called Tyndale; Season Two is set to premiere in 2008, and Season Three in 2009. Readers of this message board will recognize the names of some of the show’s writers: Alan Burnett, Dwayne McDuffie, Robert Goodman, Len Uhley (Static Shock), Paul Diamond (Zeta), Robert Skir (Godzilla) and a few others. The show is designed for a younger audience and there are no superheroes, so you’ll get an idea of just how versatile these writers can be. The show’s Associate Producer is Sid Iwanter, who worked on Spider-Man, and its Voice Director is Tony Pastor, who also worked on Spider-Man.
Justice League: New Frontier seems to be shaping up well; expect more news about it this summer at Comicon. I’m now working on my third script for next season’s The Batman, which will feature lots of superhero teamups, and I’m also working on a script for a new show set to debut on Cartoon Network.
Toon Zone News/The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank Stan for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Stan!