Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
The new Ghost Rider movie’s ticket sales aren’t very hot, but the controversy raging in the comic-book community is an inferno.
The story begins in 1972, when the flaming cyclist was created at Marvel Comics by writer Mike Friedrich, editor Roy Thomas and artist Mike Ploog. Comics creators in those days – and often today – don’t own anything they create for the major publishers, because of a contract called “work for hire.” But when the first Ghost Rider movie came out in 2007, Friedrich sued Marvel for partial ownership of the character on a technicality – which would result in a windfall from the movie.
A windfall he desperately needed. Friedrich, now 69, is unemployed, broke and suffering from a liver ailment. He has been making ends meet by selling signed Ghost Rider items at conventions as a paid guest, which according to documents filed in the lawsuit, amounted to a total of $17,000.
But ownership of trademark and copyright isn’t something comics publishers take lightly. Both of the major comics publishers make more money from licensing their library of characters than they do selling comic books, and have even dropped the word “Comics” from their names – they are now Marvel Entertainment and DC Entertainment. And here’s the real bugaboo: According to U.S. law, failure to defend a trademark can lead to losing it.
So Marvel – and parent company Disney – went after the lawsuit with their own heads on fire, including a countersuit demanding the $17,000. And they won. In December, Judge Katherine Forrest of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York threw out Friedrich’s suit, and ordered him to pay Marvel the 17 grand. Also, his future income was constrained, in that he can only sign and sell Ghost Rider material that he buys retail.
This judgment sent a shock wave across the comics world. Fans were appalled at what looked like the Disney Goliath slamming a sick old David who had done them great service in his youth. Freelance comics creators – which is most of them – shuddered at the prospect of this fate in their own future, and of losing the “gentleman’s agreement” allowing them to supplement their income at conventions with sketches and signatures.
Parsing their words carefully – Friedrich plans to appeal – Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley and Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada told the Comic Book Resources website that the latter, at least, isn’t likely. “Marvel is not looking to make any new policy announcements through this lawsuit,” quoth Quesada. “We in no way want to interfere with creators at conventions providing a positive Marvel experience for our fans,” sayeth Buckley.
Even so, the creative and fan community responded. Blogs across the Internet excoriated Marvel, or started petitions for the $17,000 to be forgiven. Steve Niles, creator of “30 Days of Night,” led a charge on Twitter (@steveniles) and set up a Facebook page for contributions (www.steveniles.com/gary.html). Creators such as Gail Simone (Batgirl) and Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother) tweeted encouragement. Longtime creators’ rights champion Neal Adams was one of many who auctioned original art, with proceeds going to Friedrich.
“Yesterday the comic industry brought me to tears because of selfishness,” Niles tweeted on Feb. 10. “Today, because of community. … You guys rock.”
And, naturally, there were calls to boycott Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, despite that not really serving anyone. That might have led to the film’s disappointing third-place finish on its opening weekend, with a $22 million box office. Or it might have simply been lack of enthusiasm, as the first Ghost Rider performed tepidly.
My own take on the movie is that it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It’s an over-the-top popcorn movie that doesn’t attempt any deep philosophy or subtle storytelling. It leans instead on bombastic special effects, beautiful Romanian-Turkish scenery and Nicolas Cage being typically unhinged. I’ve always said Ghost Rider is an impressive visual looking for a story, and this movie is Exhibit A.
But even if the movie was Citizen Blaze, it would still be overshadowed by the story behind the story. I won’t waste any breath faulting Marvel’s lawyers for protecting the company’s copyrights, because that’s like criticizing a shark for eating. I choose instead to focus instead on the amazing tale of comics creators and fans rising up like a tidal wave to help one of their own.
It’s the best superhero story I’ve seen in years.
1. Ghost Rider first appeared in the fifth issue of a try-out book called Marvel Spotlight in 1972, before quickly graduating to his own eponymous title. Courtesy Marvel Entertainment.