Friday, February 10, 2012

On the Importance of not being a poor winner

Surely you've heard by now about Gary Friedrich, who attempted to sue Marvel for a portion of the money they've made on his creation, Ghost Rider. 

Gary is like a WHOLE lot of creators from the golden and silver age of comics, living a meager existence on the money they make at conventions, sketching the characters they either created, worked on or are otherwise associated with.  And as a rule, the companies turn a blind eye to what goes on in Artists' Alley.  And the artists are cautious enough, tossing trademark and copyright notices on their small print-run sketchbooks, always making sure not to make TOO much money, lest it tickle the noses of the big booths in the center of the hall.

Gary saw the money being made on Ghost Rider, both on the comics, and moreso the inexplicably popular films starring Nicholas Cage.  He needed the money, and likely (conjecture here) either got the idea, or someone gave him the idea that a lawsuit near the release of the film might get him some bit of creator's credit, and perhaps a small stipend from said profits.

Once again, this one of those MUST and SHOULD situations.  Gary signed a work-for-hire contract like every other creator has since Jerry and Joe signed the worst one ever.  He knew damn well what he was doing.  Marvel doesn't HAVE to do anything for these people.  But in most cases, there's a sense by the general comic reading public that when this much money is made from a film, or whatever, that something SHOULD be done for the creators, out of shher humanity, and when / if they DON'T get done, the public sides with the creators who ask for them, sometimes with the help of lawyers.  DC wrote some very nice checks to several creators before the release of the recent Batman films, both as PR moves, and very lilely in exchange for signing very large documents ceding any right to claim more.

In addition to the fact that a perfectly understood contract was signed, Gary's sitation did not resemble Jerry and Joe's in any way.  He didn't sit up in bed at 3AM, wake the wife and scream "I've GOT IT!  A guy on fire, and his motorcycle is on fire too!"  The character was (according to various reports) first hashed out between Roy Thomas (editor of the original book) and artist Mike Ploog, and Gary was brought on board as writer.  This over and above the fact that the whole impetus was to find a new use for one of Marvel's golden age character names, as they did with The Vision and a few others.  He absolutely added concepts to the book, I'm sure, but this was clearly a creation by committee, and not a Writer As Creative Overlord scenario, as Peter David uses to describe it. 

So Gary's claim was tenuous at best, and that he lost the case does not make Marvel a soulless beast. It's the fact that someone in marvel's legal team thought it would be a good step two that since it had been established that Gary was NOT the creator of the character, they should sue HIM over any money he made at conventions sketching the character, and by advertising himself as said creator.  They did so, and this week, were awarded the sum of $17,000, which Gary must now pay Marvel.
The counterclaim is going to hurt them badly, if only from a reputation viewpoint.  The sum is staggering to Gary, but lilkely wouldn't cover the catering bill for the meetings the Marvel legal team had, let alone the legal fees themselves.

The amount of money is immaterial. If there were a major convention this weekend, that amount could be raised in no time. It's the bad PR that it's already earned Marvel.  The second film comes out next week, and I'll lay odds that we'll see a couple of TV reports about this blunder.  Especially if the right people get Gary in contact with folks in the media.

That this was announced at the end of the week is to Marvel's benefit. It gives the news media two days to find something better to talk about, and gives the more image-aware portions of the company to sit the legal-aware portion down and explain that this needs fixing. There's a fair to middling chance we'll see a change come Monday.  Note that there has been no statement from Marvel editorial
Meanwhile no end of plans to raise the money for the payment have arisen, and if by some staggering poor choice, they actually choose to go after said payment, it will likely be ponied up quickly, and without Gary having to pony any of it up.
Isn't it a relief that the days of such unfair and lopsided contracts are long gone, and no one is trying to actively screw people out of millions of dollars anymore?
Well....not so much.
Tony Moore is suing Robert Kirkman, claiming Kirkman "duped" him out of signing away his rights to The Walking Dead, and as such says he will see nothing from the shambling success of the TV series.  How true it is, I've no idea, but considering how well liked Robert is, I'll be curious to see how this news will shake out.  Robert, too, is very lucky over the placement of this story - Gary and Marvel's headbutting has wildly outshadowed this story, and will likely continue to do so, long after it's resolved.

The major difference here is that while Jerry, Joe and even Jack had no clue what their creations would wreak, folks nowadays pretty much do have an idea, in the general if not in the specific.  Even Gary couldn't be faulted for assuming all that he might see for his creation was a reprint fee a couple years down the line.  Nowadays, comics are being optioned for mythical sums before they're even published - there's literally no comic that some producer couldn't concievably see as the next Coming Thing, and open his wallet.

The advice that has bounced around has proven ever more true - get a lawyer. Have them read over the stuff you're going to sign. And remember that the more money that's on the table, the more possible people may choose to act for their own good, and not the common good.     


  1. "Surely you've heard by now about Gary Friedrich, who attempted to sue Marvel for a portion of the money they've made on his creation, Ghost Rider."

    Hate to say this, Vinnie, but this is the first time I've ever heard of the situation. Not that the story surprises me much. An enterprising professor could fill an entire college term with lectures on how creative people in comics have been screwed over royally.

    And not just comics, either. Any sort of creative effort (writing, music, etc.) is prey for people whose intentions are Less Than Pure.

  2. The saddest part of the Walking Dead situation is that Kirkman & Moore had been long-time friends. Proof again if any is necessary that money trumps (no pun intended) friendship.

    In the case of Friedrich, it is more the case of Marvel/Disney going after him for 'chump change' to put fear into anyone else considering a similar suit.

  3. This is a publicity NIGHTMARE for Marvel and Ghost Rider. Marvel has stepped in a GIANT steaming pile of public relations poop. And they need to figure out how to get that off their shoes before it stains and stinks up the red carpet at the premier of "Ghost Rider 2."