I finally caught the 2007 version of Ghost Rider over the weekend, and gave it two searing-hot thumbs up. It had the proper balance of pulpy horror fun that made the original comics such a joy. But an episode back in the real world has overshadowed the release of the sequel, out on Friday–and this is one battle that Johnny Blaze, and the man that brought him to life, are set to lose.
The idea of comic writers and artists being the masters of their own creations is a recent one. The so-called Golden Age, when most of the characters we know and love were born, was a time of onerous conditions for those at the sharp end of the creative process. They were brought in on work-for-hire agreements, and anything they dreamed up became the property of the companies who signed the cheques. There was a queasy inventiveness in the process. The contract was printed on the back of the cheque, and the only way for the creative to get their money was to endorse it, signing away all their rights in the process. These work for hire contracts have become increasingly controversial. Leading creators like Jack Kirby, who along with Stan Lee defined the modern idea of the superhero, have been forced into court actions to get some measure of recognition for their iconic work. Other authors such as James Sturm have declared a boycott of upcoming Marvel movies to protest the treatment of Kirby and Joe Simon, the artist who brought us Captain America. Let’s be clear, Marvel was by no means the only comics company to shaft the talent it brought on board. But recent events have locked the focus firmly onto The House Of (other people’s) Ideas.
Gary Friedrich was the writer that brought us Ghost Rider, and in light of Marvel’s push to exploit the character and merchandising and movies, sued for a share of the profits. Marvel, unwilling to let a cent go to one of the guys that created the character they were putting on t-shirts, moulding into action figures and sticking up on the big screen, won the case, and lobbed in a countersuit for good measure.
Then they started throwing their weight around. In order to settle the countersuit, Friedrich has to pay $17,000 in damages, stop selling his own Ghost Rider merchandise and prints at conventions–and refrain from promoting himself as the creator of the character for financial gain. Not only has Friedrich lost control of his character, but he can no longer call Ghost Rider his creation.
Now, Marvel have done nothing underhand here, of course. Friedrich signed the cheques with the contracts on the back. He kind of had to. Friedrich will most likely appeal. But the whole thing has a worrying aura for all the comics creators out there who earn a decent chunk of their annual income from convention appearances, selling merchandise, drawing sketches and the like. The Friedrich decision might have just slammed the door on that revenue stream.
The one bit of good news for Gary Friedrich is the timing, of course, as the story appears less than a week before the premiere of Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance. The news is all over the comics press, and with good reason. It has implications above and beyond the old story of big publisher screwing the little guy. This is the big publisher continuing to screw the little guy, and putting the boot in for good measure. There’s a level of vindictiveness in the Marvel countersuit that honestly takes my breath away.
Everything they have done has been perfectly legal and above board. But the morality and ethics at play frankly leave a foul taste. Gary Friedrich is 68 years old, and nearly penniless even before Marvel decided it would be a good idea to stop up his revenue stream. If Ghost Rider was to put his Penance Stare onto the genius that dreamed up the Friedrich countersuit, it’s unlikely that he’d find any soul to burn.
So now what? If you want to help Gary, Steve Niles, the creator of 30 Days Of Night, has set up a donation page with a Paypal button. Brandon Graham and James Stokoe are both donating art to the cause. I think every comics creator that has ever worked for Marvel or DC will be carefully watching for the decision on Friedrich’s appeal. Convention sketches and mercy has always been a gentlemen’s agreement, and it’s blindingly clear that the people at Marvel are anything but.