A few days ago I donated some money to Gary Friedrich, the co-creator of Ghost Rider, one of Marvel Entertainment’s most popular properties.Due to a recent lawsuit with Marvel, Friedrich owes a substantial sum of money to the company, and I sent some cash his way because I felt it was the right thing to do. My next step was to write a very heartfelt column about the situation that vilified Marvel for picking on the downtrodden creator. This too, seemed like the right thing to do at the time. However, as the story of what happened between the two parties became more and more fleshed out, I was reminded that not everything that happens behind the scenes in making comics is as morally black-and-white as the stories contained in them.
The controversy over who owns Ghost Rider began back when the character’s first film came out and Friedrich sued Marvel for using the character even though the copyright had allegedly reverted back to him. Marvel counter-sued, with the news breaking last week that he was ordered to pay Marvel $17,000 for selling his own Ghost Rider merchandise. According to some posts about the case, Friedrich must also never again credit himself as the creator of the House of Idea’s ironically named Spirit of Vengeance.
While the news was originally taken (or perhaps reported) as a large company kicking a guy while he’s down, the details of the dispute about who owns Ghost Rider have become increasingly more murky since last week. In a recent Ty Templeton comic strip, the cartoonist explained to fans that their outrage is unfounded because Friedrich was selling Mike Ploog’s artwork as his own merchandise (Ploog being the artist that worked with Friedrich on Johnny Blaze’s first appearance), and because the court case cost Marvel a ton of money. Marvel’s CCO Joe Quesada and Publisher Dan Buckley also spoke out in an interview at CBR , in which they said that Friedrich still has the right to sign authorized products and sell his autograph.
On the other side of the argument, we were given a very detailed rebuttal to Templeton’s cartoon from artist Stephen Bissette about why Templeton was “talking out of his ass.” Bissette said that his personal legal advisor told him the judgement gives Marvel precedent to go after any creators that sell sketches of copyrighted characters at conventions. The advisor also told Bissette that media such as DVDs and video games weren’t around at the time of the contract, so Friedrich was never given a chance to negotiate the compensation he’d receive from Marvel carrying the Ghost Rider over into those forms.
There was also a story at ComicMix that showed the credits for Ghost Rider’s appearance saying Friedrich conceived of the story in addition to simply being the writer, something that lawyers warned companies not to do because it could lead to ownership disputes (incidentally, Roy Thomas, the other creator in the mix, was credited as having simply “aided and abetted”). It also asserts that Marvel’s western interpretation of the Ghost Rider, which pre-dates the one Friedrich and Ploog worked on, was ripped off almost wholesale from another company.
While originally my goal was to burst into some kind of tirade about the disgusting injustice being done here against Friedrich, I don’t believe that my opinion can hold that same intensity anymore. At the moment it seems that the story keeps changing, with each side of the debate still having plenty of ammo to fire back at each other.
On one hand it is tempting to come out in favor of the creator rather than a comic book company that has, over the years, developed a reputation for not treating creators fairly, and is now backed by an even more powerful company that is known for finding loopholes in copyright laws. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like things are really that black and white. We might have to wait for things to develop more before we can make a firm judgment of our own.
The thing is, this story comes at a time when legal disputes between the “Big Two” and the creators of their characters are frequently making headlines. It also comes right after Marvel was shown to be in favor of recent legislation that threatened to endanger net neutrality, legislation I was vehemently against. As such, I am finding myself becoming increasingly skeptical about the companies that sell the comics and movies I purchase, and it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to ignore these kinds of problems while still patronizing these companies. I’m just not sure about buying morality tales from supposedly morally objectionable people.
This is a bit of a conundrum for me as a comic book fan as well. What does it mean for superhero comics if these stories are true? Is it all a lie? Certainly Jack Kirby didn’t think so when he was crafting his mythologies. I’m sure Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster didn’t think so when they were concocting the very first Superman stories.
I’m willing to bet that those people didn’t think that the ideals their characters represented were a farce to be used solely to promote t-shirts and lunchboxes. Just as I’m willing to bet that the creators that are currently employed by Marvel don’t consider the moral themes of the characters that they work on to be a mere selling point. I read their interviews, I follow their Twitter accounts, and I can see that a good number of them love what they do. The characters mean something to them. They don’t see them as logos or brands, they seem as symbols. They become artistically and emotionally invested in the lives of these characters, as any artist would, and they strive to tell the best stories that they can in order to do right by those that have come before them.
So what are fans like me to do? If you want to support the creator community and keep those guys employed, you have to vote with your wallet and monetarily support the monthly titles. But by doing that, your $4 per issue is largely going toward supporting the non-creative businessmen who can ostensibly use that money to turn on the creative people who put them where they are. That’s not so good.
On the other hand, downloading comics illegally, which can be interpreted as fans sharing stuff they like with other fans, which is no more harmful than me borrowing the latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man from a friend of mine, isn’t supporting the people who make them. Even if you could donate money to creators through personal PayPal accounts, it wouldn’t translate into sales and would lead to the book being cancelled if sales dropped too dramatically. So that isn’t an ideal solution either.
I don’t know. I’m stumped. All I can recommend is to help creators out, if nothing else. You can show your support for them by donating to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and to Hero Initiative. A PayPal account was also set up by Steve Niles recently for donations to Gary Friedrich in order to help the Ghost Rider co-creator square his debt with Marvel. I would also recommend signing petitions against ACTA and other bills and treaties that hand control of the Internet over to the entertainment industry.
Other than these few suggestions, I am not sure where to fall in this controversy. I’ll admit that doesn’t make for a very satisfying opinion column (and if you’ve stayed with this article for this long, you deserve a metal), but it has made me realize that not everything in the world of comics is as cut and dry as a comic book, and sometimes it’s best to take a step back instead of diving head first into a prejudiced conclusion. I should probably stick to talking about Superman’s underwear.