Not only does December’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sport a stylish, comic-book-derived animation style, but Sony Pictures Animation revealed at San Diego Comic-Con, and now in a new full-length trailer, that three of the most beloved incarnations of Spider-Man (of the many, many alternate incarnations of Spider-Man) will appear in the film alongside Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Stanfield).
Joining the team from pockets of the multiverse are Spider-Man Noir, who’s from the 1930s of a noir-influenced Marvel world, has Spider powers but also uses guns, and is voiced by Nicolas Cage; SP//dr aka Peni Parker, a Japanese middle-school student adopted by the Parkers who psychically pilots a spider-mech suit, voiced by Kimiko Glenn; and John Mulaney as Peter Porker, otherwise known as the Spectacular Spider-Ham.
It’s that last one that’s surely got some people excited and others confused. After all, while John Mulaney is unquestionably one of the biggest and best standup comedians working today — if you’ve not seen his special Kid Gorgeous on Netflix, go do that now — his diehard fans are probably wondering: Who or what the heck is Spider-Ham?
That’s an easy question to answer. He’s Spider-Man, but a pig. But it’s comics, so it’s also not that simple.
When Spider-Ham was just a piglet
Created by writer Tom DeFalco (a co-creator of the X-Men character Dazzler and a long time Spidey writer who’d wind up as Marvel editor-in-chief in 1987) and artist Mark Armstrong (a funny animal comics veteran), Spider-Ham premiered in “--If He Should Punch Me!” as part of Marvel Tails #1 (Nov., 1983).
The all-ages one-shot, published when Marvel was flush with cash due to the success of The Uncanny X-Men and could afford to take some risks, saw Peter Porker, a photographer for J. Jonah Jackal at the Daily Beagle (yes, all the animals have animal names; it’s like 90% of the humor), team up with Captain Americat (aka Steve Mouser, a reporter at the Beagle) to stop the Masked Marauder, a villain terrorizing a popular arcade. They wind up battling Hulk-Bunny (created when Bruce Bunny was trapped in an arcade cabinet and bombarded with gamma radiation).
The statistics website, Comichron, which tracks and estimates sales figures across the comics industry, only goes back to 1991, so there’s no definitive way to know how Marvel Tails #1 did. But it must’ve sold well; in 1985, Marvel launched the bimonthly Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham.
Mainly written by Steve Skeates (who’s worked on everything from this to Hawk & Dove) and Steve Mellor (a jack of all trades who wrote and drew several backup strips for this book too, including the introduction of Goose Rider), and drawn by comedy cartooning greats like Fred Hembeck, Armstrong, and Joe Albelo, Spectacular Spider-Ham was the flagship title of Star Comics, which is a pretty interesting story in its own right.
Comics are for kids again
Star Comics was an imprint founded by Marvel in 1984 that explicitly appealed to kids. Granted, kids were still the assumed target audience of superhero comics at the time, but this was really for kids.
For most of the 20th Century, comic book publishers operated on something of an age curve. For young kids, there were the licensed Disney/Looney Toons comics put out by Gold Key and Dell Comics (this is the scene that birthed Scrooge McDuck and other Disney creations of the iconic Carl Barks) and Harvey Comics, creators of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, and so on). For slightly older kids, there was Archie (this was long before all the murder, zombies and angst that’s defined modern Archie) or superhero comics (with Marvel being considered edgier than DC from the 1960s on, although the Big Two stole and adapted from each other as time went on). But by 1983, Gold Key and Dell were both gone, and Marvel, ever looking to expand its market share, tried to fill the gap.
By the 1980s, superhero comics still had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority, though it had been considerably loosened, and they were still sold to and thought only to be read by kids. But there was a subtle change going on. As creators like Chris Claremont, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller and others aged along with their audience, they began creating more labyrinthine continuities and began bringing in more sophisticated themes and more mature content. It’s worth noting that “Roulette,” one of the most harrowing issues of Miller’s legendary Daredevil run, was approved by the CCA and published just a few months before Marvel Tails #1.
Star Comics was an attempt to bring kids into the fold — and hopefully keep them hooked long enough to buy Amazing Spider-Man a few years later. Given that this was taking place at the same time Marvel was seeing huge success with licensed titles like G.I Joe and Transformers — after being saved from financial ruin in the ‘70s by getting the license to adapt Star Wars — much of the Star titles were licensed. Comics for Strawberry Shortcake, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies and, of course, more Star Wars (Ewoks and Droids comics based on the then-current cartoons, decades before Marvel & Lucasfilm were corporate siblings) were published.
But it was Spider-Ham that was the major Marvel original attraction. Each issue, set on Larval Earth, found Porker going up against foes like Ducktor Doom, Hogzilla and the King-Pig. Most issues had backups starring other “Superhero meets funny animal” characters like Goose Rider, Iron Mouse and Deerdevil. It was a breezy, fun mix that’s a perfectly silly comic.
Spider-Ham wasn’t without its downsides. Reading the comic as an adult, a lot of the non-obvious humor falls flat, particularly with the Beagle Brigadiers, kid sidekicks to Spider-Ham not based on any existing Marvel parallel. There was J. Jeremiah Jackal, Jr (JJJ’s nephew), who was rich and speaks in unnecessarily long sentences. There was Bunson Bunny, the Simon the Chipmunk of the group, who … also spoke in unnecessarily long sentences. And there was Upton Adam Stray, a cat who was the token black character. They weren’t actively annoying or anything and were quite capable, but they just feel like, from a modern standpoint, reductive audience stand-ins put in where none were really necessary. Huey, Dewey and Louie, they ain’t.
Spectacular Spider-Ham folded at 17 issues, with Star Comics also going defunct in 1988. After appearing in a string of backup tales in Marvel Tales (a comic that was Spider-Man reprints) and in Marvel’s comedy title What The--?! which made fun of the entire Marvel Universe, Spider-Ham faded away as the grim and gritty ‘90s took hold.
He was gone but not forgotten. And when he finally came back, it got even weirder.
A whole lot of Spider-People
People who aren’t super into Spider-Man might be surprised to learn that, for a friendly neighborhood, down-on-his-luck superhero, he tends to meet as many multiversal counterparts of himself as The Flash. There are a lot of different Spider-Folk, especially after the infamous “Clone Saga” of the ‘90s, from the aforementioned Spider-Verse cameos to Spider-Girl (May “Mayday” Parker, Peter & Mary Jane’s daughter from an alternate universe future) and Spiderling (Annie May Parker, Peter & Mary Jane’s daughter from a different alternate universe future).
The apotheosis of this tendency of Marvel to create many Spider-Folk was 2014’s Spider-Verse event by writer Dan Slott, artists Olivier Coipel and Giuseppe Camuncoli, inkers Wade Von Grawbadger and Cam Smith, colorist Justin Ponsor and letterer Chris Eliopoulos. This story, which Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is taking its title and concept from, sees our main Spider-Man (who at the time was actually Dr. Octopus in Peter Parker’s body) team up with fellow 616 Spider-Folk like Spider-Woman, Silk, Spider-Girl (Anya Corazon) and others from all over the multiverse like Spider-Man Noir and Miles Morales and brand new ones like Spider-Gwen and Sp//dr (both of whom debuted in this event) to fight Morlun, a supervillain who wants to kill every Spider-person in the multiverse, and his deranged superfamily, the Inheritors. And right in the thick of it, recruiting fellow Spideys and cracking wise? Spider-Ham!
Spider-Verse was Peter Porker’s first real appearance in decades, but he’d made some small appearances since then. In a story set in the world of the Spider-Girl comic starring May “Mayday” Parker, she watched a Batman: The Animated Series parody starring Spider-Ham. In the Marvel Zombies universe, Porker had gotten bitten and turned into Ham-ibal Lector.
Tom DeFalco had even returned to Larval Earth to write a two-part story in 2009’s Amazing Spider-Man Family miniseries that gave Spider-Ham that greatest of all comic book traditions: A retcon. In the ‘80s, Spectacular Spider-Ham #15 had established that Peter Porker had once been a spider who was bitten by a radioactive May Porker (a scientist) and morphed into a pig but still had spider-powers, though he had to invent web shooters. The retcon not only gave him and Mary Crane Watson (a crane, you see) a daughter who became Swiney-Girl but retold his origin so that Peter was an ordinary pig bitten by a radioactive spider.
Porker got his first big exposure on TV. After being alluded to and appearing in small cameos on Disney XD’s four-season Ultimate Spider-Man TV show, he finally appeared in season three, voiced by Ben Diskin, as a member of the Web Warriors, that show’s team of Spider-Men.
That name is also used for the team Spider-Ham was last a part of that protected the Multiverse, also called the Web Warriors. Said name was suggested by … the Spider-Man from the TV show, who’d appeared in “Spider-Verse.” And they say comics are confusing.
So for even a simple comedy character, Peter Porker has gotten up to just as many shenanigans as any other Marvel superhero. How much of his history will make it into Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse? Probably next to none.
But one thing’s for sure: audiences aren’t likely to forget Spider-Ham once they meet him.
Tom Speelman is the former manga/anime critic for the Eisner Award-winning Comics Alliance. He’s proofread and edited several books for Seven Seas Entertainment and other clients and can be found on Twitter @tomtificate, where he’s usually yelling about comics.