The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 201 | Ghost Writer: The Final Chapter?

Leaving Proof 201 | Ghost Writer: The Final Chapter?
Published on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by
In today’s column, we recap the long-running dispute between Gary Friedrich and Marvel over the ownership of Ghost Rider and discuss what the impending out-of-court settlement could mean for the larger comics industry.

As many of you have no doubt heard or read by now, Marvel and Gary Friedrich are edging towards an out-of-court settlement that is intended to put an end to the long-running dispute over who owns the Ghost Rider character. Here’s a quick summary of how the claimants got to where they are for those of you who can’t be bothered to click on the link above:

April 2007: Gary Friedrich files a lawsuit asserting copyright infringement against Marvel Enterprises and its partners “arising from the unauthorized creation and profiting from the Ghost Rider film” and for the unauthorized use of the Ghost Rider character “in the creation of toys, video games and other products.” Friedrich contends that Ghost Rider was not a work-for-hire creation commissioned by Marvel but a character that he had already created (and therefore owned) prior to its use in a Marvel publication.

December 2010: Marvel Characters, Inc. files a counterclaim against Friedrich, alleging that it was the writer who had committed copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and violations of the Lanham Act on the basis of false description, false representation, and false description of origin.

December 2011: U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest rules in favor of Marvel in the original lawsuit, stating that Marvel owns Ghost Rider regardless of whether or not the character was an original work solely created by Friedrich or a work-for-hire property produced in collaboration with other Marvel employees and contractors, owing to the fact that the terms of the contracts Friedrich signed as a Marvel freelancer in 1971 and 1978 conveyed to the publisher all ownership and renewal rights to works he created while under contract.

February 2012: U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest rules in favor of Marvel in the counterclaims lawsuit and orders Friedrich—allegedly destitute at the time—to pay Marvel $17,000 in punitive damages, the amount based on an estimate of the money the writer earned over the years from the sales of memorabilia and other collectibles on the basis of Friedrich’s representation of himself as Ghost Rider’s sole creator. Friedrich appeals the decision.

June 2013: Judge Denny Chin of the Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit) overturns Forrest’s decision in the counterclaims suit, noting that the language of the contracts Friedrich signed granting Marvel ownership of Ghost Rider was “ungrammatical” and “awkwardly phrased,” ambiguous on its face as to whether or not it applied retroactively to Friedrich’s work on Ghost Rider’s first comics appearance and similarly ambiguous on the matter of conveying the character’s future renewal rights to Marvel. A new trial to be presided over by Forrest is scheduled for December 16, 2013.

September 2013: Reuters reports that a letter stating that Friedrich and Marvel “have amicably agreed to resolve all claims between, among, and against all parties” has been sent to Judge Forrest by Friedrich’s lawyer.

Spotlight_5_coverI will admit that when I first started following this story several years ago, I was a little skeptical of Friedrich’s claim as the sole creator of Ghost Rider. There are many competing stories and theories as to who among writer Friedrich, artist Mike Ploog, or editor/staff writer Roy Thomas—all listed in the credits for August 1972′s Marvel Spotlight (Vol. 1) #5, Ghost Rider’s first appearance in print—was directly responsible for the character’s basic conceit as a motorcycle-riding, supernaturally-empowered vigilante and its striking flaming skull head and black leather suit design, and I’d read or heard about many of them long before Friedrich filed his lawsuit in 2007.

For his part, Friedrich has long claimed that he developed the idea for Ghost Rider’s origin and character design independently before starting work on Marvel Spotlight #5. In a 2001 interview with Comic Book Artist magazine, he stated that

[Ghost Rider] 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. [Mike] Ploog seems to think the flaming skull was his idea. But, to tell you the truth, it was my idea.

Friedrich’s version of events is supported (albeit not definitively) first and foremost by the credits box in said comic book, which gives Friedrich a “conceived & written by” credit. In addition, Marvel Bullpen Bulletin articles that appeared in Marvel publications released in the spring and summer of 1972 pointed out that Friedrich “dreamed [Ghost Rider] up.”

Artist Mike Ploog however, was quoted in a 1998 Comic Book Artist magazine interview saying that

[Ghost Rider] was a Roy Thomas idea. Roy asked me if I wanted to do ‘Ghost Rider.’ I thought, ‘Yeah! Horses!* Get me away from these city scenes!’ It wasn’t until two or three weeks later they called up and said, ‘Can you do some drawings of costumes and the motorcycle?’ This was the first I’d heard about a motorcycle. So off I went; I did a bunch of drawings for the character, and off I went.

Mike Ploog’s account was corroborated by Thomas in a 2001 Comic Book Artist magazine interview, the former Marvel editor-in-chief recounting 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…

… Gary wasn’t there the day we were going to design [Ghost Rider], 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.

In an interview in 2008′s Modern Masters, Vol. 19, however, Ploog admitted that his version of events may not be as definitive as he once thought

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 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.

spotlight_6Unless we hear a retraction from one of the parties involved and given the wide disparity in their accounts, I think it reasonable for an observer to assume that the truth of Ghost Rider’s creation probably lies somewhere in the muddled middle of the competing Friedrich and Ploog/Thomas narratives. A suggestion occasionally floated in fan circles that Ploog and Thomas conspired with Marvel against Friedrich doesn’t hold water: Ploog certainly has no love lost for Marvel—the artist was among a large group of freelancers who refused to sign contracts with the publisher in the late 1970s because of what they deemed to be unfair terms and he has barely worked with the company since. I’m not saying that any of the three parties are lying, of course, but human memory is a tricky thing, and while Friedrich, Ploog, and Thomas may honestly and sincerely believe that their respective recollections are true, it could very well be that none of them are very accurate as to the actual facts, or that they present an incomplete picture of what really happened with regards to Ghost Rider’s creation.

Gary Friedrich in 2008 (© Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons)

Gary Friedrich in 2008 (Image © Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons)

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Friedrich settling with Marvel, though. On the one hand, it’s great that Friedrich will be getting compensated what I assume will be a fair amount for his contributions to the creation and design of Ghost Rider, and I hope this also opens the door for Mike Ploog to benefit financially from Ghost Rider-related media and merchandise, even if he hasn’t publicly disputed, as far as I know, Marvel’s original contention that Ghost Rider was a work-made-for-hire. (Thomas probably doesn’t have a legal claim to any monies from Ghost Rider seeing as how he was a Marvel employee, and not a freelancer like Friedrich and Ploog, at the time of the character’s creation.) And I understand why Friedrich agreed to settle despite what I think is a potentially strong case on his side given the legitimate doubts Judge Chin cast on the legality of the contracts Marvel had freelancers agree to in the 1970s: he’s getting up there in age (he turned 70 years-old last month), the strain of the past few years on his health and finances have to have been quite significant, and who knows how long the new trial would take. I’m not going to chide Friedrich for “getting that paper, paper” as the cool kids say.

On the other hand, had Friedrich pursued his case and won, the implications for the comics industry would have been enormous. It would have helped pave the way for freelancers who worked for Marvel in the 1970s—presumably under the same “ungrammatical” and “awkwardly phrased” (and legally shaky) work-for-hire contracts that Friedrich signed and that Marvel replaced sometime in the 1980s—to lay claim to some portion of the billions of dollars in profits the characters they created are generating and will be generating for Marvel and its parent company Disney in current and upcoming films (hello Guardians of the Galaxy!), video games, toys, and other merchandise, particularly if they can furnish sufficient evidence that these characters had been developed independently as original creations before appearing in any of Marvel’s publications.

*Marvel had previously published stories in the late 1960s written by Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich featuring a non-superpowered vigilante named “Ghost Rider” (later renamed Phantom Rider) in a Western-themed comic bearing the character’s name as its title.

“This is Information” by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Reproduced without permission, the story below first appeared in print in 9-11: Artists Respond, Vol. 1, jointly published in 2002 by Dark Horse Comics in collaboration with Chaos! Comics and Image Comics. (Click images to view in larger size.)

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