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Gary Friedrich, Rest In Peace


I was originally just going to let everyone else handle the tributes here. But part of Friedrich's history dovetails with a point that I'm probably going to be making in a column in the very very near future. So I might as well do this.

Gary Friedrich died two days ago at 75. He was a longtime comic writer who was best known as the creator of Marvel's infamous Ghost Rider. Ironically, such a simple act soon became a starting block for controversy. One that no one really saw coming and, ironically, made some of the debate about the character seem rather quaint.

Friedrich was born and raised in Jackson, Missouri. While growing up, he became friends with a fellow by the name of Roy Thomas. Call it luck, call it kismet, but whatever it was, Thomas eventually wound up as a staff writer at Marvel Comics, and in 1965, reached out to Friedrich, saying that comics were experiencing a rebirth and there might be work for him in New York. Friedrich jumped at the chance.

Friedrich's first published work was in a romance comic for Charlton Comics (believe it or not, romance comics were a great way to get your foot in the door at the time). From there, he wrote more genre fare until getting to Marvel and its Western line-up like Two-Gun Kid. He also wrote the Western-themed character Ghost Rider with Thomas. This wasn't the Ghost Rider everyone thinks of, he was more like Batman in the Old West (he's sometimes known as Phantom Rider nowadays). It only lasted six issues. But it sowed the seeds that would eventually become who we know.

Friedrich became known for his war stories that were featured in Sgt. Fury. This was when the Vietnam War was ramping up but still technically undeclared. Friedrich specialized in stories that weren't short on action, but carried an undercurrent of humanity, musing about the effects of war, even "just wars," and the effects they had on everyone, from the soldiers to the civilians. Friedrich won awards for his work and was a goto guy for quality work on a tight deadline.

And now, it gets tricky....

In 1971, Friedrich created a comic series called Hell-Rider that ran at Warren Publishing. Warren didn't bother with the Comics Code Authority, so its material could push the envelope. To that end, Hell-Rider was Brick Reese, a Vietnam veteran who was a martial arts master and had a motorcycle with a flamethrower. It lasted for two issues, with the planned third never seeing publication.

Cut to the following year. Marvel Comics debuts a new title called Ghost Rider, starring the Spirit Of Vengeance we all know. How exactly the character came about is unclear -- Roy Thomas, Mike Ploog, and Friedrich all had their own Rashamon-style stories about who exactly did what. Friedrich eventually left comics, content to go around the convention circuit, selling prints and identifying as the creator of Ghost Rider. But then Marvel got into financial trouble and started selling spin-off media rights to raise fast cash. Friedrich noticed this, and was watching closely. See, the whole "work-for-hire" thing is a house of cards that needs everyone to cooperate to maintain -- someone with enough money and drive can undo the whole thing. Companies don't want this, as it means a lot of money that would go to them (and has gone to them) would go to the rights holders or their estate. Basically, everyone knows it's bullshit, but it's legally enforceable bullshit. But Friedrich was confident in his position, believing the rights to the character reverted back to him in 2001. He said, "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's here that I need to explain one of the dirty tricks of the comic book industry. Comic books didn't pay well, so people were desperate for money (Gene Colan, the legendary Daredevil artist, had to draw four books a month just to provide for his family and sometimes had to take speed to get the work done). Part of how this was done was the paychecks. You know how you have to sign the back of a check to cash it, right? Well, publishers like Marvel put a little fine print message in the spot saying that, by signing this check, you were surrendering all rights to what you were being paid for. Basically, it was a quitclaim deed, and if you didn't sign it, you didn't get paid because the check couldn't be cashed without you signing it. (The only person I know of who successfully beat this was Jim Steranko, the Madman Of Comics, resulting in a Spider-Man story that can never be republished. But that's a story for another day.) And since most people in the comic industry needed their paychecks, they had no choice to go along with it. This will factor in later.

And so came 2007, with the release of the Nicolas Cage movie Ghost Rider. And Friedrich sued. Specifically, he sued Marvel Enterprises, Sony Pictures, Columbia TriStar Motion Pictures, Relativity Media, Crystal Sky Pictures, Michael DeLuca Productions, Hasbro and Take-Two Interactive. He alleged copyright violation through a "joint venture and conspiracy". It went to trial in 2011.

The results of the trial were crushing. Marvel prevailed on all but one count. U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest ruled that Friedrich gave up any ownership claim when he signed the checks I mentioned above.

In response to this, Marvel countersued, but dropped it when Friedrich agreed to pay $17,000 in damages (the amount determined he had gotten from selling his Ghost Rider stuff at conventions) and to no longer sell Ghost Rider merch or identify himself as the creator of Ghost Rider for financial gain. Well, for the most part -- Friedrich was still allowed to sell his autograph on officially licensed (read that: Marvel gets a cut) Ghost Rider merch.

By now, Marvel was owned by Disney. And people were fuming about this. $17K was pocket change to a Disney company, and here was a Disney subsidiary putting the squeeze on a guy with no money. The money wouldn't even cover lawyers' fees. It was denounced as a move just to spite Friedrich and jam it up his ass. Fundraisers were held to help pay off Friedrich's debt, with people like Neal Adams and Nick Powell turning in sketches to sell on eBay and dig Friedrich out. Fortunately, they succeeded, so Friedrich didn't lose his house or anything. Friedrich, meanwhile, had appealed the ruling. In 2013, Judge Denny Chin overturned the original decision. He called the contract language for the quitclaim "ambiguous" and sent the case back to trial. A couple of months before the trial was to go down, Marvel and Friedrich announced they had reached a settlement and that was that. Friedrich was free to resume his convention circuit work.

Well, sort of.

Friedrich had Parkinson's disease, resulting in his eventual loss of hearing. It eventually took his life a couple of days ago.

Friedrich had a rough scare a few years ago, being bullied in a show of force, but he managed to survive it. Rest easy.

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