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John Semper Talks Venom From Spider-Man: The Animated Series

The Marvel Animation Age was able to catch up with John Semper, to talk about his contributions to the 1995 hit animated series Spider-Man, currently running on ABC Family.

MAA: You took a dramatically different take on Venom and Carnage. No doubt two extremely popular but different characters to pull off, especially for Fox. How did these character's origins come about, and what problems did you run into because of simply using these characters?

John Semper: From the start, we knew we had to do Venom and Carnage, because at that time they were the biggest things in the Spider-Man universe. I can't take credit for the final Venom result. It was a group thing. Everybody had a hand in it -- at that point I wasn't in as much control of the series as I would be later. Everybody was all over me, led by Avi Arad -- and I just had to slog it out. We had a few aborted drafts of the first Venom script. Len Wein wrote the first draft, delivered it VERY late, almost got me fired because of his tardiness and then we ended up throwing it out and starting from scratch.

Nothing of Len Wein is left in that episode except his credit. I don't remember who did the bulk of the later drafts. I know I did a lot of writing on it, as did Stan Berkowitz. Mark Hoffmeier probably had some piece of it -- he had a hand in most of the early good scripts. "Venom Part 1" was just this political football that kept getting passed from person to person. Then, when the first part was settled, we went into slogging our way through part two. I remember coming up with the idea that part two ought to be like Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" with Eddie Brock following Peter like Robert Walker did in that movie. So we did that. Then at some point I started to feel like we hadn't really milked the Venom franchise for all it was worth. Ultimately, I pitched the idea to Avi Arad that we ought to do a "middle" part with the black suit. So many fans were asking about the black suit that it seemed like it would be a shame not to do it, so part two became part three and we hurried to get a new part two stuck in the middle. Those were hectic times.

Carnage came much later in the series and I had much more control over the series by then. Carnage was difficult, but it had more to do with toning him down to make sure Broadcast Standards let things get past. I don't remember Carnage being a real ordeal though - not at all like Venom. By that time I could think an idea through and then get it on the screen without too much hassle or outside interference. The coolest thing about the Carnage episodes was that Carnage's voice was done by a Scottish actor named Scott Cleverdon. I was chatting with him one day between sessions and he told me that his wife was also an actress. I asked him what she had done. He mentioned a series called "Sharpe's Rifles." I was a big fan of "Sharpe's Rifles" and I instantly knew that his wife had to be an actress named Assumpta Serna. He was stunned that I knew who she was. I was a HUGE fan of hers! So he did me the favor of bringing her to a later recording session and I got to meet her. Fantastic!

For the final four seasons, they were all done in an ongoing arc sort of fashion (SINS OF THE FATHER, PARTNERS IN CRIMES), so this no doubt caused trouble with the network. How did the idea come about to do these season long stories where something happened in a third or fourth episode would impact a later on season (and series)?

That was all my idea. I felt very restricted by the half-hour format (which these days boils down to only 22 minutes of ACTUAL screen time) and I had always wanted to play around with something longer. In the sixties, when I first became a hard-core Spider-Man fan, part of the charm of the series was that the stories went on forever. Stan Lee was the first to do a "longform" comic book with a continuing story line, and I wanted to do for Saturday morning TV exactly what Stan did for comics in the sixties. Everybody was vehemently opposed to the idea (network, studio, etc), but I just did it anyway. I had to wait until the second batch of thirteen epidodes and then I did it when nobody was paying much attention. When they finally realized what I was doing, it was too late. I made a lot of enemies, I'm proud to say. I had the whole series leading up to this big ending, and only I knew what the ending was going to be. That drove everybody crazy.

Can you give me some examples of some of the restrictions the network put on for Spider-Man? I've heard some rumored ones (Spider-Man can't throw a punch, no blood, can't say 'kill', etc...) and I'd like to see what were some of the guidelines hold you back so to speak.

I'd have to look in my records for those. I used to make appearances at comic conventions and just read the BS&P notes. It would always get laughs. I only remember a few off the top of my head. "Caution that when Spider-Man lands on the roof, he doesn't harm any pigeons." That was a good one. Another one was, "You may have a villain sent to jail, but you may NOT give him a bus ticket and send him to Florida." Things like that.

But we couldn't throw punches, toss anyone through glass, put children in jeapordy, have anyone threatened by fire -- things like that. And no, we couldn't say "kill" (we always said "destroy"). Yet, we still had a number one show. I'm proud of that, too.

I'm happy that the show is still doing so well on TV, and still getting good ratings. The new Spidey:TAS home video ("Ultimate Villain Showdown") was a top-ten seller. And the series has NEVER gone off the air, so I guess I did something right.

The staff at The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank John for taking the time to talk to us! Cheers John!