Creators, fans race to support 'Ghost Rider' creator

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.

 

Go to the “Support Gary Friedrich” Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SupportGaryFriedrich) for more. Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Photos:

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.

2. Nicolas Cage (left) and Idris Elba are the nominal stars of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, but the real star is the special effects. Photo by Egon Endrenyi, copyright 2011 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. 
3. Ghost Rider can not only take a bunch of bullets, he can also spit them back. Courtesy Columbia Pictures. Copyright 2011 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

Views: 273

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on February 27, 2012 at 3:30pm

According to U.S. law, failure to defend a trademark can lead to losing it.

Corporations are bound not only to defend their trademarks, but the legal term is to “vigorously” defend them. That’s why Disney (or it may have been Warner Bros.) came down on a local pre-school for having painted various cartoon characters on their walls and fences. Once such a matter comes to a corporation’s attention, it can’t decide to look the other way and let the nursery schools and Gary Friedrichs slide lest a legal precedent be set. That’s why the local nursery school is now adorned with figures that only vaguely resemble Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.

Comment by Figserello on February 27, 2012 at 5:29pm
It was Disney, I believe, and the publicity was so bad for Disney that they signed a special waiver for that nursery to use the characters. So some punter on one of the Gary Friedrich threads declared anyway.

(ie I read it on the internet. Lol.)

Nice piece, Cap.

Marvel/Disney might be so interested in the individual trees here that they miss sight of the forrest, in that the public are becoming more and more aware of how yicky their dealings with their creators have been. Feel free to tell me 'twas ever thus', 'Capitalism, Bub!' or whatever, but its still yicky.
Comment by John Dunbar on February 27, 2012 at 6:52pm

Definitely yicky. 

I get that Marvel/Disney has the law on their side, that they are required to vigorously defend trademarks, and all that.  Maybe the way Friedrich was treated, the contracts he signed, etc was all nice and legal - but as far as I'm concerned, it sure as heck was not right.

Comment by Figserello on February 27, 2012 at 7:18pm

It would be a pity if for many people the term 'Marvel Comics' or 'DC Entertainment' makes them think not of iconic heroes that fight to make the world a better, safer place, but instead their first association is of the mistreatment and lack of respect for the creators.

 

We are slowly getting to the point where the mistreatment narrative is gaining ground outside geek/devotee circles.  DC and Marvel have been on notice for at least 30 years that this issue might get toxic for their brand, but look where we are today.

 

For myself, there is a gulf between the type of comics Marvel is generally producing and the type of comics I want to read, but all the yicky stuff makes it that bit less likely that I'll look for and support the good stuff, even.

Comment by Philip Portelli on February 27, 2012 at 8:21pm

As I said before, you would think that it would be cheaper, better publicity and less of a hassle to simply give a character's creators a "reward" or "consultant's fee" than go through all this every time a movie is made. The creators don't really want ownership but credit, acknowledgement and a small sliver of a slice of the pie.

That being said, it would be difficult to decide who gets what. When Daredevil came out, who deserved to get credit. After Stan Lee who co-created DD and the Kingpin, Bill Everett  who drew the first issue only? Wally Wood who designed the all-red outfit? Gene Colan who carried DD through the 60s and 70s? John Romita who co-created the Kingpin? Marv Wolfman who created Bullseye? Frank Miller who created Elektra, made the Kingpin the arch-foe of DD, amped up Bullseye and caused DD to become the sensation and high water mark and most probably the reason the movie was made in the first place?

Creators should get their due but it's not all cut-and-dry. 

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