I know that voice. It's the ghost of Steve Gerber, trying to get my attention, because something has happened in the comic book world, a publisher throwing their weight around.
I slowly wake up and look to my nightstand on my left. Twilight, my new tablet computer, is sitting there. I start her up and start checking the news sites I go to in search of whatever has Gerber upset this time.
And I find it. The next chapter in the continuing saga of Marvel versus Gary Friedrich.
It starts back in 1971, when Friedrich was writing comics for Skywald and created a character called Hell-rider, a Vietnam war vet and stunt cyclist whose motorcycle was outfitted with a flamethrower. Next year, he was working at Marvel on a Daredevil story with Roy Thomas and created a character called Stunt-Master, a motorcycle rider with a flaming skull. This was deemed too awesome to be a guest villain, and Ghost Rider was developed to be his own title. Friedrich stated from the beginning that, if Marvel tried to take the rights, he would sue them.
Marvel didn't care. After all, they had managed to beat Steve Gerber over ownership of Howard The Duck, and Gerber had a much better legal leg to stand on. Friedrich not only signed an agreement that his stuff was work for hire and was specifically created for Marvel to exploit (as opposed to the happy accident that gave us Howard), but this was when Marvel issued paychecks with the quitclaim language on the back -- endorsing the check was signing a contract that you surrendered all rights to whatever you created back to Marvel.
Friedrich griped for years, but with the movie version of Ghost Rider hit big screens, Friedrich filed a lawsuit, claiming he was owed big bucks from the movie, despite being warned he couldn't have won before, but with Marvel now owned by Disney, he's screwed. Friedrich also went to comic conventions, selling color photocopies of the cover of the first Ghost Rider comic book with his signature for $20 a pop (he turned up at C2E2).
Last December, the judge ruled that Friedrich had wasted his time and money -- there was the work-for-hire agreement and the signed checks. Friedrich wasn't owed a dime. Disappointing, but what can you do?
Now, Marvel has done something that smells like, "We're doing this just to screw with you, Friedrich." Marvel claims that Friedrich owes them $17,000 from the sales of the photocopies with his signature, since Ghost Rider is Marvel's character and that means Friedrich was unfairly profiting from it. It's $17,000 he does not have. Literally. He has no job and no income coming in. His health is failing. No one is hiring him, and he's 68. And Marvel is saying the ruling says he can't claim to be the creator of Ghost Rider for financial gain (con appearances, interviews, etc.). And Marvel wants the money right fucking now.
This has sent a chill down the spines of artists who work the Artist Alley at shows. Publishers sort of turn a blind eye to these people selling sketchbooks full of their art of the company's characters or doing commission sketches or prints. It's how the artists pay for their trips, and the fans love it. The publishers do occasionally drop the hammer. Last year (I don't remember if it was C2E2 or Wizard), Marvel shut down a guy who showed up at his Artist Alley table with hundreds of sketch cards for sale, claiming copyright violation and trademark infringement. I had never seen that happen before. And I didn't know why. There were plenty of others with sketch cards. Hell, some of them were Rule 34'ing the characters, which you'd think Marvel would object to as corrupting the brand. But no. It was just this one guy, and I never found out the real reason why.
Some people say, "Well, Marvel can't do that!" Actually, yes they can. It's legal, and they can be as inconsistent or hypocritical as they want. It's their characters. And if they allow some people to do their sketchbooks and such and prevent others, that's their right. It doesn't matter if you aren't making a lot of money or even giving them away for free. It's their sandbox, and if they say stop, you have to.
(Because of the various fandoms, several companies have developed their own policies for dealing with this stuff. Paramount, for example, is fine with Trekkies making fanfilms and fanzines and shit, as long as they aren't making any money on it or outrageously misrepresenting the property. The BBC has taken a similar stance with Doctor Who. Hasbro is still trying to come up with an official policy, but has indicated they are fine with the My Little Pony fandom as long as they don't get too far out. Doesn't matter that I did my Doctor Whooves fanfic for the hell of it or that, at DanCon, I'll be giving away some Doctor Whooves comics for free (yeah, other artists sell sketchbooks with copyrighted characters, but I'm not a big enough name to be left alone). If the Beeb or Hasbro says, "Stop that shit!", the only option I have is, "Sir, yes, sir!")
Publishers will suddenly enforce their rights at different times, like the crossdresser who attended the con as Catwoman or the guy with the cards that I mentioned. This does, however, mean that, if you do do stuff like this, they control you. Honk them off, and they are well within their rights to stop you, and close off the revenue stream that could have been counting on to pay for your show appearance. Or even worse, going through your history. See, the part of the ruling that has everyone nervous is that Marvel wants money for things that happened long ago. There's always been the possibility of this happening. Now, it actually has, for $17,000. There is fear that, if Marvel decides to sue you, they can go back through commissions you've made for years and claim those moneys. Moneys you've already spent and, being a comic book worker, don't have a lot of extra just laying around. And, since you had the money all this time, can Marvel ask for interest on top of it all?
This smells like payback to me. Some people opine that the difference is Friedrich was mass producing photocopies for sale while a commission sketch is not intended for publication. But that's bull. The publishers could easily stop commissions. They could make Andy Price take down his display with Batgirl sitting in bed naked except for covering up with Robin's tunic and thinking "Boy Wonder, indeed." Once again, it's their stuff (people like me who ask for legally safe stuff like parodies or characters that he actually owns are pretty rare). So those of you thinking you'll have to ditch taking commissions of Marvel and DC characters, no you won't.
As long as you play ball. Forever and ever.
Nat Gertler, the creator of Licensable Bear(TM), hasn't done anything with About Comics or LB(TM) in a long time. Gertler brought LB(TM) out of retirement to take a shot at Marvel over this. Also, Steven Niles (30 Days Of Night) has started a fundraising page to help out Friedrich. Donate if you wish, or don't. The choice is yours. I won't tell you what you should do.
Besides, right now, Steve Gerber needs someone to talk to.