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Mark Hoffmeier Talks Spider-Man: The Animated Series

Mark Hoffmeier started as a writer on Spider-Man from the very beginning, continuing straight on until the show reached it’s 65th and final episode. Now, he talks to Marvel Animation Age about his work on the show and how it varied as time progressed. Takw it away, Mark!

MAA: How did you actually come to work on Spider-Man: The Animated Series?

Hoffmeier: I had just finished a two-year stint writing for Universal and someone recommended me to John Semper. Now, this was the OLD days, so I remember having to drive over and drop off my scripts (no just e-mailing them in!) He liked my samples and called to see if I wanted to write an episode. My first one was the first Spider-Slayer episode. At the time, we were all just freelancing and John was putting it all together.

MAA: You were on the show from the very first season. In various interviews with other members of the show’s writing staff, they explain the ordeal that came with working on the first season with everyone having a different vision for the show. What was your experience like on these early episodes and how much did it change through the course of the series?

Hoffmeier: Wow, that first season was both arduous and fascinating. It made for some very, VERY long days – 8-10 hours of meetings in some cases. (Dopey note: I remember Stan Lee loved Snapple – lunch or dinner he always wanted Snapple…) But also it was great fun for me, a young writer, sitting in a room with all these people arguing about story points: Avi Arad, Bob Richardson, Sidney Iwanter; with John Semper and I trying to make it all work. And then, of course, Stan Lee! I mean, I had to keep my cool while I’m sitting across the table from Stan Frigging Lee! I kept wanting to just shout “Excelsior!” over and over and pick his brain for a few hours. And even though it was long, I think it really helped in laying the foundation for the show. In the end, it was a very collaborative environment even though you thought you might see some chairs flying at any given time. (John really hammered home the point on that season about multiple story lines – most people thought it was too much. But he cited a new show as an example: “Seinfeld.” That’s the reference that really sold it!) I remember on Kraven that first season that Avi and Sidney really wanted some advanced stuff in there – quoting of Russian poets and things and I think that ended up staying in. I just wondered why the biggest hunter in the world was named “Kraven” which, of course, means “cowardly.” I actually asked Stan Lee that and he explained that he “just liked the sound of the name. It sounded good.” (Note: Stan also elaborated that he loved alliterative names like J. Jonah Jameson and Peter Parker because they were punchy and easy to remember.)

The episodes that first season went through many, many drafts. I remember on Kraven getting a note on one draft, which, in general, was “make it funnier.” Then, the very next draft, I got the note “why is this so funny? Make it more serious!” I think only eight or nine drafts later it was done. It’s to be expected on a show with a long run and with a well-known character. It got much easier as the seasons progressed – those long days “camping out” in the conference room ended and John got us all some space where only the brave dared to tread (writers can be an intimidating lot to hang-out with, what with all the mixed martial arts, garroting technique seminars and expounding on the virtues of repulsor rays vs. web fluid.)

MAA: The first season had standalone 22 minute storylines, usually featuring Spider-Man meeting one of his illustrious villains. The later seasons began developing serialized storylines sometimes lasting seasons on end. Which do you prefer as both a writer and a viewer?

Hoffmeier: I prefer long, serialized storylines – hey, most of my favorite shows like “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos” do that. I think almost any writer you asked would say that because we have the show and these characters rattling around in our brains and so you want to push them or do something different or see how their lives progress or digress. But you have to realize that most companies that buy and distribute animated programming DON’T want that and CAN’T afford to do that. It costs both time and money when you syndicate it to make sure it stays in order. It also causes problems for production because shows have to be delivered in a certain order, rather than just substituting one for another if one show runs into problems during animation. And, most companies don’t realize that if it’s done right it can be a major selling point and keep people watching. Currently, I think this works very well on the show “Avatar.” A continuing story…a quest…who doesn’t like that?

Really, that first season, there was no way we could have done a story arc. When John came on he was already behind and everyone was trying to get a feel for what the show should be and how the stories should be told. By the time the second season started, John had some breathing room. I remember sitting down with John and Stan Berkowitz (Stan and I were the first two staff writers) and helping to put together season two. It was really fun to have the freedom to do something like “Neogenic Nightmare.”

MAA: How difficult was it to write an action adventure show with Broadcast Standards And Practices being as strict on the show as they were?

Hoffmeier: Hey, Stu, look over there…it’s a can of worms and you just opened it! BS & P, as they’re affectionately known to writers, can make some things literally impossible. And most people outside the industry don’t know what power they have. For example, I get some fans who ask why we didn’t do this or didn’t do that. As much as I wish they would, it’s EXTREMELY rare for a large entertainment conglomerate to give 15-20 million dollars to a writing team and say “here’s a pile of money and some comic books…do whatever you want.” To them, it’s an investment. And BS & P functions – sometimes very autocratically – to safeguard their investment. They want to prevent anyone from suing for anything. Their big bugaboo is “imitatible acts.” For example: why didn’t we use Ghost Rider? Because we all, as writers, hated the character and are afraid of motorcycles? No, BS & P forbade us from using a character that was ON FIRE. They were afraid little Johnny five-year-old might douse himself with lighter fluid, strike a match and ride his big wheel down the driveway shouting “Lookie, I’m the Ghost Rider! I’m cool! I’m melting! Owie…MOMMIE!” No joke, they worry about that stuff. I say: “Darwin”, but that’s why I’m not a lawyer. Same with, initially, Daredevil – one of my favorite characters. “We can’t have Satan on our cartoon show” they said. We had to explain that he’s not THE devil, he’s a DAREdevil. “Well, he has little horns. Can you take off the little horns? Can you make them look more like ears? He’s got those red, evil eyes.” It’s stuff like that that makes you want to pack-up your laptop, move to a cabin deep in the woods and write thousand-page manifestos against the “moronic imbeciles.” (Note: also a BS & P no-no, using words like “moron” and “imbecile” because they’re actually medical terms used to describe the mentally handicapped.) On a show I recently worked on I got a note about how a sea god shouldn’t use Tsunamis because they now have a “negative connotation.” Unlike before, I guess, when they were as happy-go-lucky as Barney.

Just to summarize, there are some things we would’ve liked to do that we just weren’t allowed to do or were made so difficult that we just gave up even trying it because it would have made the characters too different. (Note: Morbius, needing PLASMA…you got it…BS & P.)

MAA: What did you think of the designs and visuals the show incorporated?

Hoffmeier: I remember the first storyboards for the Venom story were just fantastic. Cinematic, intense…much like a graphic novel. However, it was decided they were too impractical and needed to be simplified. Some of the design work that Bob and his team put together was really great. How it came out in the end, well, sometimes you don’t get what you ask for.

Towards the end of the show it was really tough because they were scrambling to get it all done for the deadlines. In some cases they were using guys that weren’t familiar with Spider-Man. I remember one storyboard where the artist wanted to do something different other than webslinging. So he had Spidey web a line to the tail of an AIRPLANE, so he could be pulled through town. We had to point out that it might end up with him being pulled INTO and/or THROUGH a building so they changed it.

MAA: According to numerous other people from the show’s creative team, The Alien Costume was one of the more difficult episodes to develop. What was your experience like with the storyline? A lot of viewers site it as the show’s best – do you agree?

Hoffmeier: It really turned out well in all aspects: story wise, visually, and acting wise as well. I remember Hank Azaria blowing-out his voice as Venom! John was very smart in wanting to stick to the comic-book version, but really plus it where we could and pump it up. I think we did that and I remember being told that on that last episode to really make Venom chasing Spidey down – really, REALLY push-it. It’s fun for a writer when you get notes like that because you can do a scene like the one where Venom is using Spidey like a puppet hanging off a highrise. Or you can give Venom that sick, twisted sense of humor that made him such a fun character.

It was a difficult storyline to develop, simply because Venom was really big at the time and everyone had a different opinion of how he should be done. I think it’s one of the best arcs in the series.

MAA: Which characters do you consider your favourite to write? Are there any characters you would’ve liked to use but never got the chance to?

Hoffmeier: I was involved in the whole Daredevil (not Satan!) storyline and it was one of my favorites. That and “Six Forgotten Warriors.” I think of all the opening teasers for the show that I outlined, my favorite was that first Daredevil: Peter Parker is found guilty of treason, sentenced to life in prison in front of all his loved ones, hustled into the back of an armored car and then rescued by…Spider-Man?! It was a fun way to start an involving storyline that revealed Daredevil and the Kingpin.

As for other Characters, I would have loved to have some sort of Avengers storyline. As a kid, I dug the Vision. Not sure why, just thought he was cool. He looked cool…no pupils and all.

MAA: You worked on Dr. Strange. Did you find it difficult to bring the stranger aspects of the characters world and mesh it with our relatively down to earth Spider-Man?

Hoffmeier: Okay, here’s a confession: I was a Marvel kid, but I’d never gotten into Doc Strange. He and Silver Surfer I just didn’t get as a kid (I still get ribbed about it by some, but there it is.) So, when John wanted me to work on it, I got to go to his “big file cabinet” where he had THE ENTIRE COLLECTION of Spider-Man comics (except for some of the rarer issues) and a whole bunch of Marvel reference books. I got PAID to read-up on Dr. Strange. That kind of research is fun. I came to appreciate what an interesting character he was and ended up really liking him and his odd, mysterious world.

MAA: What do you think to the other Spider-Man shows, both before and after Spider-Man: The Animated Series?

Hoffmeier: I think ours is still the best and will hold-up. We were lucky, though, in that we got 65 episodes to do things with. That means you can tell those multi-part stories the way they were meant to be told. I worked on “Spider-Man: Unlimited” for Saban and another Spider-Man writer, Larry Brody. It was okay, but not the same. (Dopey note: At that time, Saban was looking to develop a whole slate of Marvel shows – Captain America, The Avengers, Silver Surfer. They were even wanting to do a stand-alone Daredevil show until an executive, in a meeting, said “A show about a blind lawyer? Nah.”)

MAA: You wrote part of Spider-Wars, the show’s finale. Where you satisfied with how it all ended? Do you think he should’ve reunited with Mary Jane?

Hoffmeier: Truth be told, that last season is all sort of a blur to me. We were going so fast and all of us had a hand in many of the episodes (it was a very collaborative process) and having to get it all done, that I don’t really remember. I’m sure we discussed it, but I think John made that call and I think he deserved to make that call based on having brought Spidey full-circle from that first, difficult season.

MAA: What’s your overall opinion of the show? How well do you think it has aged?

Hoffmeier: I think the fact that it’s still playing in syndication and that the videos are still selling after all these years shows how well it was done. Those stories hold up very well because of their intricacies and the series as a whole holds up because it lets you imagine yourself with Spider-Man’s kind of problems: I’ve got school and a girl and some homework…but I have to save the world! Stan Lee and John Romita really came up with a universal formula, and we were able to really build on it. You can argue with certain stories, or certain characters or whether it should have gone this way or that, but if you’re a Spidey fan or not you can enjoy the series. That says so much.

MAA: What are you working on these days?

Hoffmeier: I’m story editing a series called Combo Ninos for SIP Animation. It’s been very fun and I’m working with Ernie Altbacker (Note: most of the Spider-Man writers keep in touch – I see Jim and Ernie quite a bit and John and I stay in touch. And Stan and I go get barbecue every now and again because he lives nearby.) I’m also writing a spy novel set in Honolulu during WWII (I’m a WWII nut and I grew up in Honolulu.) I’m also developing some shows for a couple different companies and working on a screenplay. Oh, and I have therapy several days a week to prevent me from being driven over-the-edge by BS & P notes (“The medication helps but…still…the nightmares come!”)

The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank Mr. Hoffmeier for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Mark!