Ghost Rider, Walking Dead, and The Comics Industry's Spartacus Moment (Op-ed)

In a bit of news unfortunately timed with the upcoming release of the new Ghost Rider movie, it seems that ol' flame-head's creator, Gary Friedrich, has been given a $17,000 "bill" by Marvel Entertainment's lawyers. The said reason? Selling unauthorized prints featuring Ghost Rider at comic book conventions.

Had Friedrich been actually making big bank over these prints -- and his claim to be the creator of Ghost Rider -- I could understand, and even approve of, Marvel's position here. It would be very easy for someone to simply draw famous characters like Batman and Spider-Man, reproduce those images, and make a tidy business: "Batman Art Sold Here." They could even mix it up and have paintings where Batman fights Spider-Man; I'd buy those.

But Gary Friedrich is a 68-year-old man who, according to reports, is destitute and not in the greatest of health. He did not make a fortune selling those prints, or going to comic book conventions proclaiming to be the creator of Ghost Rider. Friedrich was doing the bare minimum in order to survive. And while I seriously doubt he will be thrown in jail for not paying the 17 grand out, he could spend his later years facing tons and tons of collection notices and calls -- which is really demoralizing.

But Friedrich is also being told not to go around publicly and say he is the creator of Ghost Rider "for financial gain." I would suppose "financial gain" would cover things like comic book conventions and other personal appearances, books, etc. The problem here is that such a ruling takes away the only thing Friedrich has left. This is a situation beyond monetary value or "financial gain." This isn't about money; this is about soul.

Friedrich is only one of many aging comic book freelancers currently in desperate times. Some are far younger than Friedrich, but no less troubled and in need of support, direction, and a way to make a living. Some have publicly threatened suicide or actually have carried it out. As the comic book industry rapidly goes through a sea-change in the methodology and technology used to sell their wares, literally hundreds of writers and artists are left out in the cold.

Now, is this the responsibility of the big comic book companies to solve? No. Should these freelancers have developed alternate skills/streams of income, in anticipation of a changing economy? Sure. Was it Friedrich's responsibility to find the way to adequately support himself in his later years? Yes. But I'm not talking about should-have could-have would-haves. I'm talking about an elderly penniless man with an immediate problem. If somebody was standing in front of you bleeding, would you withhold help because you had questions regarding their possible alcoholism or bad financial decisions or other issues? Or would you say, "F**k! There's a person bleeding over here! I better do something!"

And this problem could end up touching the lives of many many other comic creators who sell prints and commissions of copyrighted characters at conventions. Might they be next in line for a "bill" from a big publisher...or maybe that will only happen if they get out of line and agitate for their rights to a certain character, as Friedrich did with Ghost Rider.

Ironically, the same day that saw the public furor over the Ghost Rider situation ended with the news that Robert Kirkman's former Walking Dead collaborator, Tony Moore, was suing him over copyright issues. This is an issue that is just not going away. The age of the compliant freelance comic book creator keeping his or head down, not wanting to seem like a "troublemaker," is over -- the genie is out of the bottle. The issues on the table are rights, benefits, and quality of life.

This post isn't about the legitimacy of Friedrich, or Moore's or Jack Kirby's or anyone else's copyright claims. Each case is different and complex. Sometimes the publisher is in the right and sometimes they are not. Further, I don't like seeing the people of Marvel specifically being bashed in the press over this. I'm sure this is not a situation editors and other workers there are thrilled to have happen. This is a business issue. Dollars, precedents, copyrights, etc.

What I'm trying to say is that beyond these issues of business are amorphous but no less real matters of love, caring, respect, creativity, and freedom. These issues have a life of their own. They cannot be legislated or ruled upon with one edict or another. They cannot be boiled down to a specific dollar amount. They can't really be contained by even the best of public relations maneuvers. It's Spartacus, man. You can't beat Spartacus -- he's everywhere.

UPDATE: Steve Niles has a collection going on for Gary at his site!

By the way, a great place to donate money to help elder creators in need is the HERO Initiative. There's also a Facebook page up in support of Gary Friedrich.

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