Monday, February 13, 2012

A Few Thoughts Regarding The Curious Case Of Gary Friedrich!

The big news this week is Marvel winning the suit Gary Friedrich brought against it, and especially the $17,000 Marvel is demanding in lieu of a counter suit.  Mr. Friedrich is now prohibited from selling his customary unauthorized prints, and in a particularly odd result, Friedrich is no longer allowed to claim himself creator of Ghost Rider.  He is still allowed to charge for his autograph on items, provided they are properly licensed.  Thank God for class and good taste on that result.

Anybody familiar with myself or the Chronic Insomnia podcast knows that I have long been an ardent and enthusiast Marvel basher.  In fact, I dare anybody to find an entity more critical of Marvel.  It's going to take you awhile, I'd advise against the effort.  When they earn it, I load up and give them both barrels.  With glee.

In truth, I'm not in support of that $17,000 pimp smack against Friedrich, who clearly can't pay it.  They know this, of course.  The court documents claim that figure represents the unwarranted profits Friedrich secured violating Marvel's copyright.  The reality is that the figure represents a message to any creator past or present looking to challenge Marvel's ownership of their intellectual property catalog:

Mess with a nickel of the Big Dog's money....expect to get bit.

That's the message, and it's a bully's message, and I despise bullies and tyrants.  I want to be clear about that.

When I read the blogosphere's reaction to the Friedrich debacle, though, I hear a lot of talk about boycotting, and a lot of reductive logic about how the Big Bad Corporation is once again beating up on the Little Guy.  Marvel's culpable on several fronts, but before we throw throw them into the Lake of Fire, I think it's valuable to keep a few thoughts in mind.

Thought # 1:  Gary Friedrich says he created the Ghost Rider, but nobody else remembers it quite that way.

Roy Thomas, (editor of Ghost Rider for both the western revamp and the flaming motorcycle version) says that Friedrich pitched the idea originally as a Daredevil villain, and that penciller Mike Ploog and he designed the visuals.

Ploog says he doesn't remember who exactly came up with the flaming skull part, but he does describe a very collaborative effort, pulling design cues from the old original western character, and adding the stripes down the black costume to keep track of the body.  He certainly never gives the impression that Gary Friedrich handed them a completely formed template.

That's important, because even inside of comics, a strongly visual medium, Ghost Rider's appeal is very much a visual appeal.  No way to verify this without a time machine, but if Johnny Blaze is just a guy who makes a Faustian bargain and looks like an unshaven Kurt Russel knock-off, that character doesn't really fly.  That character pops because there's a demon-looking guy with no flesh on his face, and fire shooting out of his skull.  Mike Ploog's contributions, even if they did come from Friedrich's description, are (in my opinion) more important to the success of the character.  Again, assuming that those design cues did come from Friedrich at all.

That's Friedrich's story, and he's the only one that recalls it as such.  While it's clear that Friedrich has a significant role in Ghost Rider's birth, it feels a bit false and presumptuous to claim full ownership.  

"It was my idea.  It was always my idea from the first time we talked about it, it turned out to be a guy with a flaming skull and rode a motorcycle.  Ploog seems to think the flaming skull was his idea.  But, to tell you the truth, it was my idea."
                               - 5/2001 issue of Comic Book Artist

That claim seems spurious to me partially because.....

Thought # 2:  Ghost Rider is a revamp of a revamped western character, not a Friedrich original

Ghost Rider was not a new concept in 1971 when Marvel Spotlight # 5 hit the stands.  It wasn't even a new concept when Friedrich and Roy Thomas first put out a Ghost Rider western character in 1968.  That character was directly ripped from a property that Ray Krank and Dick Ayers came up with ages ago.

When I say "ripped", I don't mean to imply that Thomas and Friedrich did anything unseemly.  The original Ghost Rider's copyright had lapsed, it was open for exploitation.  But it wasn't Friedrich's idea.  It was a microscopic tweaking of and then a modernization of a weird, justice-seeking, horse riding character that came before him.  The horses were now in the engine of the motorcycle, is all.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Friedrich did nothing - making the horse mechanical is a significant twist.  Marvel and Friedrich had the legal rights to do the western Ghost Rider and to develop the concept further.  Nothing criminal about that.

But all I keep hearing about in Pundit Town regarding the Friedrich ruling is "It's not just a matter of what's legal, but what's right and fair"!  OK, but that being the case, where is the outrage for Krank and Ayers and the true origins of the property?  Why isn't Friedrich advocating for their rights and acknowledging their contributions?  Why isn't anybody worried about their remunerations?

Thought # 3:  Like it or not, work-made-for-hire was (and still is) the standard

When Freidrich and Ploog created the Ghost Rider, work-made-for-hire was the standard.  We may not like that idea in 2012, and frankly, nobody (other than the publishers) liked it in 1971.  Guys like Neal Adams and Steve Gerber took a fair amount of heat and trouble for vocally not liking it back in the day.  But it wasn't like it was a big secret.

If you weren't aware of this unsightly little detail, your paycheck spelled it out for you in great detail, right by the endorsement line.

"By acceptance and endorsement of this check, payee acknowledges, a) full payment for payee's employment by Magazine Management Co., Inc. and/or Marvel Comics Group, b) that all payee's work has been within the scope of that employment, and c) that all payee's works are and shall be considered as works-made-for-hire, the property of Magazine Management Co., Inc. and/or Marvel Comics Group."

Just in case you didn't get the memo, they put the memo on your paycheck, where you'd be sure to find it.  "Hey, you don't own these characters, we do."  Again, this may not be pleasing to our 2012 taste buds.  It probably shouldn't be.

But the idea that Gary Friedrich didn't know that he was signing away his Ghost Rider rights?  Not possible.  And that's not what he was arguing, actually.  He was arguing that Marvel never filed a proper copyright back in 1971.  Back then, you had to file paperwork to secure a copyright.  A court found that Marvel did. 

Gary Friedrich was not bamboozled by Marvel.  They offered a shitty deal, and Friedrich decided a shitty deal was better than starving and took the page rate.  That doesn't make Marvel a hero.  But the idea that this was slipped under creator's noses in the fine print?  Preposterous.  For better or worse, work for hire was the established standard.

Yes, Ryan, but back then there weren't multi-million dollar toy deals, and blockbuster movies, and grand licensing opportunities - shouldn't we return to the idea of just compensation now that the scope of the game has changed?

The answer is - probably.  Gary Friedrich did not know in 1971 that he was signing away movie money, or he may have made a different decision.  Maybe.  I think Marvel could find a better way to deal with this Brave New World apart from trying to take Friedrich's last few dollars, and I'll get to that before I'm done, promise.

Yup, the game has changed.  But I object to the constant refrain I keep hearing that goes:

"Marvel made millions of Ghost Rider dollars off the back of this poor man and gives nothing in return!"

Not true.

Thought # 4:   What does Ghost Rider look like today without Marvel?

It's easy and intuitive to look at the Ghost Rider movie, smell the millions of dollars in play and then say - "Without Gary Friedrich, none of that is possible."

In truth, it takes a lot to make that possible, and Friedrich was simply a tiny but important cog at the beginning.  Ask yourself what happens to Gary Friedrich's Ghost Rider without Marvel Comics:

  • Does it even get published or distributed?
  • Without the context of the shared Marvel Universe, does anybody read it?
  • Is it popular without the mighty marketing muscle of merry ol' Marvel?  (after Stan Lee)
  • Do we have a publishing history worth making a film without Marvel?

Without Marvel, Ghost Rider is a non-entity.  This was not some floundering fly-by-night operation waiting for Gary Friedrich to save with his incredible motorcycle guy.  Ghost Rider is what it is today largely because Marvel was big enough to combine a collection of inspired creations and market them into a cohesive machine.

Gary Friedrich was undoubtedly a part of that.  I think there's plenty of wiggle room for Marvel to give more to Friedrich than just his old page rate.  But the millions of dollars?  Friedrich didn't hand that to Marvel.  Marvel spun that out of a few threads of Friedrich and Ploog gold.

And frankly, a lot more people than that.  My attraction to the Ghost Rider, however much there is, is mostly due to a double splash page panel that Todd McFarlane drew in Spider-Man # 7.  I bet for a lot of people, the seed of attraction was planted in that ghastly but oh so sexy glow in the dark cover for Ghost Rider # 15.  And that was Danny Ketch, not Johnny Blaze.

This idea that Marvel made a gajillion dollars off Ghost Rider and so Gary Friedrich and Friedrich only should get paid?  I just don't buy it.  I can't prove it scientifically, but I think Mark Texeira has as much to do with the character's strength  as Friedrich.

Thought # 5: Boycotting is Bullshit

The common solution I hear to resolve all this is boycotting.  They're going to boycott the Ghost Rider film, or they're going to boycott Marvel...or at the very least, they're going to say that's what they'll do in the harshest post possible on their local chat board.  I think all that is irrational rubbish.

It’s fine to assert your principles and it's your money, you can do what you want with it.  I get wanting to make a statement that Marvel will hear. The problem with boycotting is that if you hold consistent with it, I think you’re forced to not only give up the Ghost Rider movie and all of  comics...but anything else you purchase.  It’s the 1 Corinthians 5:10 effect – if you stay so pure that you never come in contact with an asshole, you will have to leave the world to do so.

Every company has done various and sundry shitty things to their employees and their customers.  It’s how the world works.  If you want to boycott those entities that trod upon the innocent, you better start growing your own food and killing animals for their pelts, because no corporation has skated a clean program yet.  I wish you the best of luck with your purity project, and I sincerely hope you don't go digging too deeply.  You'll be burning your house down by the end of the day, because everything in it was the unfortunate fruit of some diabolical prick torturing some other innocent bastard.  

And if you think about, you're not just a victim, either.

Thought # 5:  You're a lot more like Marvel than you think

Did Marvel pay Gary Friedrich less than it could have for the Ghost Rider property?  Surely.  This is how the world operates.  It's how you operate.

All day, every day you make value decisions.   Not every decision is a value decision, but mostly you’re looking to get maximum payoff for your dollar.  So if that milk shake is $4, and it’s only worth about $2 to you, the odds are good you order something else.  But if that feels like a $30 shirt, and it’s on clearance for $13.60, do you voluntarily hand the store that extra $16.40, or do you take the value and run, content inside at what a wonderful frugal person you are?  I’m betting you paid $13.60, because that was the contract. It's called "Consumer Surplus" in the economy game.

Marvel paid Gary Friedrich his page rate and nothing more because that was the contract.  If you have a problem with that, you should probably start paying your actual valuation for the goods and services you buy.  If you wish to remain pure, that is.  Otherwise, you’re just going to have to live with the fact that you have more in common with Marvel than you might find comfortable.

Listen, Marvel still sucks.  Gary Friedrich was not a threat to Marvel selling prints and t-shirts.  The guy is unemployed, reportedly not in the best of health, and a complete sweetheart according to anybody who comes in contact with him.  Going after Gary Friedrich for $17,000 is the wrong thing to do, period.
Rather than punishing the people that helped make them great, I think it would be advisable for Marvel to negotiate with these creators and offer them reasonable compensation.  Not because it's legal, but because it right, and ultimately I believe, better for their future long term.

There are precedents for giving back to creators.  Deals have been struck for Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, the Siegels, etc.  It shouldn't be unthinkable for Marvel to go to Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog and say:

"Hey, what do you say to either a one-time lump settlement of six figures or a point on all future profits on collections and multi-media considerations?"

This would not break Marvel.  What it would do is send the message to creators that they now have an incentive to create again.  Is it any wonder why comics suffer from stagnation?  Why would anybody create anything new for Marvel or DC, when they know full well that they will never share in the gains of a new hit?  Offer a piece of the action, and offer it on the profits, so that there is nothing to be lost.  If the creators are only getting a chunk of the black, it will be in their best interest to produce work that makes money.  Everybody wins. 
Marvel will never do this, of course.  Too short-sighted to begin with, and now that they're under the Mouse umbrella?  Forget it.  There has never been a more hypocritical attack demon regarding copyright than the Disney corporation.  

Here's the thing, after all of that philosophical back-and-forth.  Marvel is wrong to play the bully, and I donated to the Gary Friedrich fund that Steve Niles set up.  Steve Niles is a stand-up cat (when he isn't stealing your girlfriend) and I trust him to handle the money accordingly.  I encourage anybody with a heart to do the same.  Don't let Neal Adams hog all the charity, let's all get involved!
Yes, let's help Gary Friedrich.  But it's more complicated than "Gary Friedrich good, Marvel bad", and I don't think anything gets solved with a boycott.  But can we give Marvel another black eye on the blogs?  Yeah, I think we can and should do that.  And I think I just did.

- Ryan


Jesse said...

Just in case you haven't heard it enough today, Happy Valentine's Day. I know VD is your favorite.

Oh, great editorial, btw.

Chronic Insomnia said...

No doubt! Me and Lindsay Lohan....BIG fans of VD.

- Ryan

Aleksandre said...

I get that they are using this 17000 settlement as a way to discourage people for suing them in the future but this whole "Can't claim to be a creator of Ghost Rider" is an unreasonably dick move

If I was reading Ghost rider I would probably drop it but then again I would only be hurting my LCS not marvel