Uneasy Rider

I've received quite a few e-mails from folks asking me to comment on or promote two reader-initiated campaigns to right injustices in the comic book industry. One is a call to boycott the upcoming motion picture of The Avengers — and any other Marvel movie involving a character that was created or co-created by Jack Kirby — until Marvel comes across with a royalty arrangement for his children and a proper creator credit for Jack. The other relates to a sad tale involving a very nice, sad man named Gary Friedrich.

I don't really have much to say about the Kirby matter. Everyone knows that I think Jack should have shared in the success of the zillion-dollar properties that would not exist if not for him and that he wanted to be able to leave that kind of money to his kids. In fact, just about everyone I know, including a lot of folks who've worked at Marvel, thinks that. The family lost the first round of a recent legal action and an appeal has been filed. It'll be at least a year before we find out if there will be further rounds. If there are, I may be a witness so I don't feel free to go on at length about that case.

Gary Friedrich was responsible for the Marvel character, The Ghost Rider. That comic has been made into a very profitable movie with a sequel about to come out but Gary received nothing. Advised by attorneys that Marvel's acquisition of the property could be challenged, he filed a lawsuit, lost his first round and is now in the horrifying position of having to pay Marvel money ($17,000) that he does not have.

Gary Friedrich

I know little about the merits of Gary's legal case but I feel sorry for the guy. He's a recovering (maybe I should say "recovered") alcoholic whose medical problems have severely limited his abilities to write or do any kind of decent-paying work. To put it in the most dignified way I can, he is needy. A few years ago, he was voted the Bill Finger Award, which I administer and which is given to a writer who like its namesake, did not receive the proper amount of recognition and/or financial reward in the industry. Gary certainly qualified. We also gave it to him because with the award comes a free trip to the Comic-Con International in San Diego. Gary could never have attended if he'd had to pay his way there and he badly needed the small amounts of money he could make at the con by selling old scripts and autographs. Those small amounts are now among the $17,000 that is being demanded of him.

Though I am considered by some an expert on this industry, there are many things I do not quite understand about it. One of them is the occasional adversarial position that some in power choose to take against people of limited means who at one point handed their company a property worth millions. When I first began working in the field, I was stunned by how a few folks at DC Comics — this is in the early seventies — had what I can only describe as an anger at Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and an urge to punish them. Over and over, I was reminded of the scene in Oliver Twist where the title character dares to ask for more gruel ("More?") and Bumble and Limbkins immediately concur that he should be hung for the sheer crime of asking.

The analogy is not precise. Oliver, for instance, had not made Bumble and Limbkins very wealthy. They did not derive any part of their livelihoods from his creations. Still, there was that outrage that he was unwilling to starve in silence.

As I said, I do not understand that way of thinking. Didn't then, don't now, doubt I ever will. It makes a wee bit of sense from a business/legal standpoint, although even there it would seem to make more to have a mature, inarguable agreement with those who birthed your company's most valuable assets. Every single lawyer who has ever worked for a comic book company wishes his or her predecessors had done things differently; that the paperwork that secured the firm's claim to its characters was not so inadequate, sloppy, drafted with no vision of how the laws might change…or in many cases, lost or non-existent in the first place.

At times, they deal with this by making new, non-contentious agreements with the creators or their families, thereby creating a win-win situation for all parties. There is an aspect of this that goes to sheer human decency but even for those who see no value in that silly way of thinking, it's just good business. It removes any dark clouds over a property that some may shun because they feel it was built on Indian Land. It makes others who work for you more comfortable building on that land. It brings the creators into the "family" where perhaps they can make further contributions of value, creatively and/or promotionally. It removes all questions of ownership, some of which scare off partnerships and licensing. It sets a good example for current talent about how your outfit treats and honors those who contribute to its successes. And it's usually much, much cheaper for the company than fighting the folks you should be honoring in your retrospectives. Why spend a million bucks on lawyers to crush someone who'll settle for a third of that? It makes no sense to try and crush those people at all but especially not when it's not cost-effective.

There are those who are or have been in positions of power in the comic book industry who are proud to have done things the humane and smart way. I suppose I do and don't understand why there's any other approach. Perhaps some day in the future, I'll write a piece on why I believe these disputes ever reach the stage of filings and depositions when doing right by the Gary Friedrichs would almost always be less costly in terms of time, company image and plain ol' cash.

I have not spoken to Gary. It's difficult to talk to him because he's almost deaf and I wouldn't know what to say to him anyway. Obviously, I hope he is not destroyed by this. Obviously, I think Marvel would be wise and heroic not only to not demand money from him but to give the guy money as well as a creator credit. I don't have a dollar figure in mind but I'll bet there's an amount that would be statistically microscopic compared to what Ghost Rider has already grossed but which would allow Gary and his family to live in comfort and dignity.

Many of Gary's fans and friends have been sending him donations and you can do that on this page. If you have ever enjoyed his work on Ghost Rider or any of the many comics he wrote back in the sixties and seventies, here's a chance to say thanks and also to play super-hero via PayPal.