Marvel’s Spirit of Vengeance

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.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. I, too, have been following this story with interest, but I haven’t had the same sense of disillusionment you describe. To be honest, I was never all that interested in the merits of the lawsuit or Friedrich’s claim of being the “creator.” Such claims are almost always overstated. (If I remember correctly, Jack Kirby–unquestionably one of the greatest and most mistreated of creators–claimed at one point to have created Spiderman.) Likewise, the notion that Marvel had a Western character named “Ghost Rider” or that the Western character was lifted from another company is also not particularly relevant. Did Neil Gaiman create “The Sandman?” Does the existence of Simon and Kirby’s series from the 1970s (or the Golden Age crime fighter) make Gaiman’s character unoriginal?

    So if Friedrich’s claims are overstated, I don’t much care. I don’t even have an opinion about whether he should have won his case. I can’t pretend to have an understanding of 1970s copyright laws, film rights, or Marvel’s contracts. Legal stuff pretty much baffles me.

    What does interest me is that one of the guys who unquestionably was involved in creating “Ghost Rider” is a senior citizen in bad health who, according to Neal Adams, is in danger of losing his house.

    In a perfect world, when a corporation turns an old character into a movie franchise, the original creators, legal rights or no, would be brought into the fold and given some form of token involvement and small financial reward. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Thus, creators (or at least those with legitimate claims for being co-creators) often sue. They also rarely win.

    This case, however, appears to go far beyond that. Friedrich didn’t just fail to win; he lost. The notion that any corporation would attempt to recoup money from someone in his position is unconscionable.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that Friedrich doesn’t have to be a saint for us to be outraged by this. Nor do the guys at Marvel have to be demons. (I’ve always had a pretty favorable impression of Joe Quesada, for example.) The final judgment still remains outrageous.

    Even if the court system is tilted so far in favor of corporations that Friedrich’s lawyers felt they had to agree to the $17,000, the corporation should still waive the fee. And those of us who are interested in the comics industry can pressure them to do the right thing.

    Likewise, you’ll notice that the Marvel officials are very careful in their language when they say that he can still sign official merchandise and he can still sell his autograph. What they don’t say is that he can put up a sign that says, “My name is Gary Friedrich and I co-created Ghost Rider.” Of course he can sign official merchandise and of course he can sell his autograph. He just can’t add the one thing that makes his autograph special or valued.

    And I certainly think that Bissette is right when he says they are establishing a precedent here. Can someone like Eric Powell sell a sketch of Bizarro at a convention without going through DC’s legal offices? (I actually doubt that he would want to–just using an example.) Obviously, artists do this sort of thing all time. But now, if one of the corporations wishes to make life difficult for a specific creator, don’t they have precedent to bust them?

    Again, the outrage isn’t that Friedrich is a saint and is being martyred. It’s that the judgment renders inhumane punishment on an old man with no money, it redefines truth and reality (Friedrich was unquestionably a co-creator), and it provides the corporations with far more wide-reaching power than they have exerted before.

    All of which is to say, I think the initial outrage remains justified. So long as we don’t give in to the romantic desire to see everything in black and white, the morality and ethics within the grey scale still seems pretty clear.

  2. David Balan says:

    Gotta say I’m with Greg on this one. The counter-arguments cited that claim there’s nothing to be outraged about all skirt the issue that Friedrich is forced to pay Marvel $17,000 for no conceivable reason.

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