Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hell On Wheels

Out of the thousands of comics I've read in my life, I've only read one Ghost Rider comic. It was in Marvel Treasury #18, in which Ghost Rider teams up with Spider-Man to fight a motorcycle-riding criminal named The Orb. The Orb's appearance was perhaps even freakier than Ghost Rider's flaming skull; he had a giant eyeball for a head.

I've never seen the 2007 Ghost Rider movie, starring the inimitable Nicholas Cage, either. I don't remember it having been a hit, but apparently it was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Nicholas Cage has not aged well.

Ghost Rider is Johnny Blaze, a stunt motorcyclist who makes a deal with the Devil to become a super-powered motorcycling vigilante. There's not much to recommend the character beyond his visual design. And it is an awesome design! Ghost Rider is one of a subset of superheroes who received their powers from the Devil, including Spawn, Etrigan The Demon, and Hellstorm. One might think that using Satan-derived powers to fight evil would be a big conflict of interest, but maybe Satan has a slack legal team.

You know whose legal team isn't slack? Marvel Comics. Over the past two decades, the value of superheroes as intellectual property has skyrocketed exponentially as they have been licensed for video games, merchandise, and especially to Hollywood. The Batman and Spider-Man films showed that superheroes could become the basis of massively lucrative franchises, and 1998's Blade showed that even an obscure character could provide fodder for a successful media adaptation. As major media alchemy has turned these old leaden characters into gold, companies like DC and Marvel have faced legal challenges by the characters' original creators, or their estates, trying to get a portion of the profits generated by these characters, or complete ownership of the characters outright. None of these efforts has been successful. The courts have fairly consistently found that these characters were created under work-for-hire conditions, meaning all rights to the characters and stories are owned by the corporate publisher. Marvel's paychecks to their freelancers included a 'legend of assignment' printed on the back; by signing their check to get paid for their work, writers and artists would also be signing a contract waiving all claims to ownership.

The latest lawsuit has been by one Gary Friedrich in an attempt to claim ownership of the Ghost Rider character. Friedrich was the original Ghost Rider writer in 1972 and claims to have been the sole creator of the character, though editor Roy Thomas and artist Mike Ploog dispute that characterization. Friedrich never really had a chance of winning; writers and artists with much stronger cases have failed. Probably he was hoping that Marvel would offer a quick settlement to avoid a lengthy lawsuit and negative publicity.

Gary Friedrich was wrong. Marvel fought and, of course, won; the judgment coincidentally coming down just days before the new Ghost Rider movie opened. But Marvel didn't just defend themselves. They also counter-sued Gary Friedrich. Friedrich had been attending comic book shows, promoting himself as the creator of Ghost Rider and selling prints of the first issue of Ghost Rider and other artwork. Marvel sued him for copyright infringement and won a settlement of $17,000 in compensation for his revenue of sales from unlicensed material. In addition, he is prevented from even saying that he is the creator of Ghost Rider.

At any comics show, and all over the internet, you will find artists selling image of characters whose copyright they do not own. Some are aspiring artists, and some are current working professionals. This is a a way of garnering attention for the former and a significant supplementary income for the latter. And at every comic con you will find elderly men selling prints of characters they dreamed up decades ago, for which they were paid a modest page rate and which have earned their corporate publishers millions. These prints are clearly unauthorized merchandise, but for the most part companies like DC and Marvel have turned a blind eye to the practice. Until now. Many of these artists are now, understandably, shitting their pants. Marvel executives Dan Buckley and Joe Quesada have assured them that there's no reason for them to worry: "We in no way want to interfere with the creators at conventions who are providing a positive Marvel experience for our fans. We want fans to speak and interact with the creators who wrote, penciled, inked, lettered , colored or edited their favorite stories. Part of that positive interaction is that a fan can walk away with a signed memento or personalized sketch from an artist." But there is nothing to stop Marvel from cracking down on the practice at any time, especially now that Marvel is owned by Disney, which has sued nursery schools for having murals of Mickey Mouse on their walls. 

Friedrich may have forced Marvel's hand. Maybe he refused a settlement, gambling that he could obtain full ownership. And once in court, Marvel may have felt compelled to counter-sue in order to enforce their claim of copyright. Still, it's hard not to see Marvel's action as a very blunt warning to writers and artists, past and present: don't rock the boat and you can sell your memorabilia, step out of line and expect a call from our Legion of Lawyers. 

Legally, Marvel is in the right. Friedrich's Ghost Rider comics were done under work-for-hire, and he did later explicitly sign away any claims to copyright (He signed an agreement waiving any claims to ownership of the character in exchange for being considered for further freelance employment ... he was never actually employed by Marvel again.). And the prints he sold were unauthorized merchandise (not to mention, they were prints of other people's art.) 

But still ... Marvel is a hugely profitable entertainment company, now a subsidiary of an ever huger corporation. Gary Friedrich is a lone old man, in poor health, unemployed, bankrupt, and reportedly on the verge of losing his house. Forty years ago, he had an idea for a character. Over the past few years, he made $17,000 selling drawings of that character. The first movie of that character grossed over $230,000,000. Could not Marvel have passed along some small percentage of that to Gary Friedrich? 

Around the same time that Friedrich was writing Ghost Rider for Marvel, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams created a villain for DC Comics named Ra's Al Ghul, and Len Wein created a minor supporting character named Lucius Fox. These characters were created under the same work-for-hire conditions, but when they were used in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, O'Neil, Adams and Wein were all compensated. DC Comics has its own fraught history with creators' rights, but here they did right. Len Wein also created Wolverine, the most popular of Marvel's X-Men. He has said he has received more payment for creating Lucius Fox than for Wolverine. 

Which IP do you think is more valuable?

Gary Friedrich's situation is unfortunately not unique. Every year, there are reports of older writers and artists who are in financial straits at the end of their lives, as the characters they created generate more and more revenue for the companies that own them. There had been a Paypal donation site set up by writer Steve Niles to raise funds for Friedrich, but I can't find it now. However, there is still The Hero Initiative, a worthwhile organization that helps comics creators in need.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece, my friend! But did you get permission to use those copyrighted images? Huh, DIDJA?!?