Marvel vs. Gary Friedrich and the Destruction of Artists Alley

Update: Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley speak to CBR about Marvel's side of the Ghost Rider lawsuit. The sky isn't falling on Artist Alley.

By now you've surely heard about Marvel and Gary Friedrich. If you haven't, a recap is in order.

Marvel recently won a lawsuit against Friedrich regarding Ghost Rider (check out the full text here). More specifically, who's actually the "owner" of the Spirit of Vengeance. In 2007, Friedrich sued Marvel, Columbia Pictures and Hasbro that copyrights used in Ghost Rider (the movie) were actually his. Friedrich claimed to have created the character in 1968 and agreed to publish the character through Magazine Management, which eventually became Marvel Entertainment.

Friedrich alleges that—despite Marvel claiming the copyright to the character's origin in Marvel Spotlight #5—Marvel never registered the work with the US Copyright Office. As such, the rights to the character should have reverted to Friedrich in 2001. This didn't happen, and Marvel won the suit and, recently, also won the rights to $17,000 in damages due to Friedrich continuing to sell Ghost Rider merchandise of his own creation.

The $17,000 will get Marvel to drop the countersuit and provide him the chance to continue signing licensed Ghost Rider merchandise. Now people are panicking that Artist Alley is about to be blown up. That's probably not going to happen.

The origin of Ghost Rider is a little fuzzy, as is the case with a lot of characters. It should be noted that for as much as we hate big corporations, Marvel isn't entirely in the wrong here regarding the copyrights. I'm no lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), but neither Marvel nor Friedrich can legally claim rights to the character. Friedrich created him and doesn't dispute his work-for-hire contract he signed with Marvel in 1972. It would seem that since Marvel published the character then technically the rights are implied to be with them. Again though, I'm not a lawyer, so don't quote me.

The issue that seems to be getting lost here is that, despite the haziness in the character's copyrights, Friedrich continued to market himself as the creator of Ghost Rider. Because of that marketing, he saw nothing wrong with creating Ghost Rider merchandise and selling it at shows. Marvel clearly disagrees and realizes the money to be made because of the movies and the surge in popularity of comics in general.

Friedrich's claim to the creation of Ghost Rider has been and will most likely always be, subject to interpretation. According to his Wikipedia page, Friedrich has publically disagreed about the character's origin. In 2001, Roy Thomas claimed that:

I had made up a character as a villain in Daredevil — a very lackluster character — called Stunt-Master ... a motorcyclist. Anyway, when Gary Friedrich started writing Daredevil, he said, 'Instead of Stunt-Master, I'd like to make the villain a really weird motorcycle-riding character called Ghost Rider.' He didn't describe him. I said, 'Yeah, Gary, there's only one thing wrong with it,' and he kind of looked at me weird, because we were old friends from Missouri, and I said, 'That's too good an idea to be just a villain in Daredevil. He should start out right away in his own book.' When Gary wasn't there the day we were going to design it, Mike Ploog, who was going to be the artist, and I designed the character. I had this idea for the skull-head, something like Elvis' 1968 Special jumpsuit, and so forth, and Ploog put the fire on the head, just because he thought it looked nice. Gary liked it, so they went off and did it.

Friedrich responded:

Well, there's some disagreement between Roy, Mike and I over that. I threatened on more than one occasion that if Marvel gets in a position where they are gonna make a movie or make a lot of money off of it, I'm gonna sue them, and I probably will. ... 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 [who] rode a motorcycle. Ploog seems to think the flaming skull was his idea. But, to tell you the truth, it was my idea.

Ploog recalled, in a 2008 interview:

Now, there's been all kinds of dialog about who was the creator of Ghost Rider. Gary Friedrich was the writer on it. ... The flaming skull: That was the big area of dispute. Who thought of the flaming skull? To be honest with you I can't remember. What else were you going to do with him? You couldn't put a helmet on him, so it had to be a flaming skull. As far as his costume went, it was part of the old [Western] Ghost Rider's costume, with the Western panel front. The stripes down the arms and the legs were there merely so I could make the character['s costume] as black as I possibly could and still keep track of his body. It was the easiest way to design him.

What's troublesome to a lot of artists though is Marvel going after $17,000 from Friedrich for continuing to use Ghost Rider in his creations. $17,000 is chump change to Marvel and will likely represent one theater's worth of profits from Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. For Friedrich though, that's his livelihood. Artists typically make their living on conventions and shows, and while the legality of an artist selling a rendering of a character they didn't create is technically questionable, it's part of what makes comics great.

Readers have their favorite artists and their favorite characters. A lot of times, the two don't align for whatever reason. That doesn't stop a reader from imagining though. Then, when they find out said artist will be at said show, that's their one chance to get that illustration they've always wanted. Maybe you want to see an illustration of Spawn by Alex Ross (to my knowledge he's yet to do that).

I doubt Todd McFarlane would freak out because Ross did a Spawn commission. Now, if Ross solely began to do Spawn commissions at shows, then he'd probably have a problem. A few commissions here and there though won't hurt. (And Mr. Ross, if you're reading this, I'd love to see your version of Spawn). When an artist is relying strictly on one character though for their illustrations, that's where things start to get hairy.

What's caught Marvel's ire (most likely at the behest of Disney) is that Friedrich is capitalizing on a property he may or may not own the rights to. Considering the fact that Marvel hasn't come out (to my knowledge) and proven they are, indeed, the copyright holders to the character is a little telling. In today's era of piracy and companies looking at lost profits, they often hyperreact to situations like this.

The point isn't necessarily to rob Friedrich blind, but to send a warning to artists that commissions are an extent. It would be one thing if Marvel were going after Friedrich for legal fees and everything he's ever made on Ghost Rider. Instead, what they're going after is the profits he's made since 2001, when he felt the rights reverted to him. It is indicative of a larger trend though, where publishers are getting antsy when it comes to intellectual property.

Just last year Comic Mix reported a DC ban on tattoos. It's an article that sounds so ridiculous you have to wonder if it's a joke. Corporations are constantly looking for ways they're being slighted when it comes to profits, and commissions are just the latest in the crosshairs. It's nothing new in corporations, and as more and more publishers sell more and more comics, you would expect to see this more and more.

When it comes to commissions though, often the artist isn't getting paid for the character but the experience. Being at a convention with your favorite artist drawing your favorite character is something a lot of people live for. It's part of the fabric of comics, where everyone is one big, happy family.

It's an industry that has seen ups and downs, and, more than once, been on the brink of being irrelevant. You can say blockbuster movies, Kickstarter or the accessibility thanks to the internet has led to an increase in talent in the industry. Whatever it is, it's not going away any time soon.

Success in comics is a double-edged sword. More and more creator-owned properties are getting to readers, giving comic book fans a cornucopia of new material to check out. We're at the point where a superhero, blockbuster movie is the norm rather than the exception. This year alone we have Avengers, The Amazing Spider-man and The Dark Knight Rises. Past years we'd be lucky to get one of those in one year, let along all three. With the rise of comics also comes a rise in profits, which leads to a rise in trouble.

We've seen trouble at home in the past, with industry heavyweights Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane at odds over character copyrights. Hell, just last week Tony Moore sued Robert Kirkman over The Walking Dead. As comics get more and popular, the revenue pie will only get larger and larger. For the more marquis properties and characters, the parent corporations (Disney and Time Warner) will pay more attention to the properties to ensure they're not infringed upon.

It's not necessarily implied though that Marvel, DC, IDW, Dark Horse, etc., will have people patrolling Artists Alley, looking for violations of their copyright. Marvel has yet to speak publically regarding the Artist Alley furor, although I would expect (hope) Joe Quesada issues some sort of statement allaying fears to that effect.

This isn't to say that Marvel or Friedrich is right. The entire issue is very hazy, as are a lot of things in this day and age when it comes to things such as fair use. Some artists have said that they'll stop doing commissions at conventions, while others will continue with the status quo. Artists Alley as a whole shouldn't change too dramatically. You just might not see as much Gary Friedrich. Other than that, Artist Alley as we know it isn't going anywhere though. Your dream commissions are safe.

For now.


  1. We hate to tell you, but the ComicMix article was in fact a joke (note the April 1st date).

    It's funny, of course, because it's so very very believable.

  2. It read like a joke, but the sad thing is with Time Warner and Disney managing these companies it wouldn't be too much of a surprise to find out it's true!


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