The history of comic books is rife with the undercutting of creators in the credit process. Few had the ability to retain the rights to their creations, and up until the very late 1970’s/early 1980s many were contractually obliged to create and walk away from their inventions. The names that have been through this legal bind range from Siegel and Shuster (Superman), Bob Kane and Bill Finger (with Finger going largely unknown through most of the period as a Batman co-creator), Jim Starlin (Warlock) and Steve Gerber (Howard The Duck).
You can now add to that list Gary Friedrich who recently attempted to sue Marvel Comics over creator rights for Ghost Rider, claiming copyright over the character which he overhauled into that which we know now, while working for the company as a freelancer in the 1970s. Ghost Rider, or Johnny Blaze, is the stunt motorcycle rider who is overtaken by a demon of vengeance, and is transformed into a leather-wearing, death’s-head-flaming, bike-riding vigilante. He’s also a fairly small light in the Marvel Universe, but as movie audiences have come to find out, even if you’re a little dim, Marvel will still make a movie out of you.
The bone of contention, pardon the pun: Did Marvel have the rights to license the property to Sony Motion Pictures without Friedrich’s consent or an offer of financial remuneration to him? New York federal judge Katherine Forrest threw out the case on December 28, confirming Marvel as the copyright holder and ruling the company was well within its rights to license Columbia Pictures for 2007’s Ghost Rider and the sequel that is coming soon. Your next question would be, why would they make a sequel to a movie as poor as the original Ghost Rider was? The answer– because they can.
Forrest said Friedrich signed two contracts in the 1970s which, together, ceded all rights to his employer. Essentially, his paycheck was fulfillment of his employment duties and the end product was just that; not a creation per se, but completion of a task. Contracts such as these were the standard in the industry which, at that time, wasn’t a troubling compromise. No comic book at that point had successfully leapt to the big screen. TV was the home for most of the properties crossing media streams, and it is dubious information to believe that too many were getting rich off those shows. Sign your rights away to work in the comic book field? Why not?
By that late 70s/early 80s period though, it was becoming clear why not. Creators, being wooed by other comic book companies for the properties they helped create, and being hamstrung by the respective companies they signed on with when they wanted to assert creative control, found they had no claim to any of that. Movie studios wanted to make films. Superman was a bona fide sensation. Some defected and created companies of their own, with the tantalizing promise of property ownership in their grasp. The only problem with this was that they really didn’t have the infrastructure to push their new products into the marketplace and, therefore, many of these new properties were hard to monetize.
It’s not that the material was bad, but it certainly was difficult. Steve Gerber’s solution to the Howard the Duck dilemma was a graphic novel (illustrated by the late, great Gene Colan) called Stewart the Rat, followed later by the series Destroyer Duck. Both of these came out through Eclipse Comics, as did the dream-team of Don MacGregor and Marshall Rogers with Detectives Inc. and, with writer Steve Engelhart, I Am Coyote. None of these titles are likely to ring a bell with the modern comic book readership.
Strangely enough, Coyote would migrate to another creators-rights-contracted company, Epic which happened to be a Marvel imprint. Jim Starlin, while purportedly disillusioned with his time with Marvel, nonetheless contributed the Metamorphosis Odyssey serial to their Epic Magazine, a sort of competitor to Heavy Metal Magazine. From that came Starlin’s Dreadstar series. Epic Magazine had a few things going for it including deluxe printing as a magazine, on full-color glossy paper, creator rights retained, and a hands-off approach as such. While it had its share of sexuality and violence, it almost never went as lurid as Heavy Metal did (although an Epic story by Berni Wrightson called “The Potty’s Over” was pretty darn shocking anyhow. I’ll let you hunt that one down yourself, thank you.) The point is that, in the end, many of the writers and artists that left Marvel and DC wound up coming back.
Another thing, although they tried to keep Epic and it’s more mature material separate from the established Marvel Universe, the poor buggers just couldn’t leave that stuff alone. Epic Magazine wound up presenting material that would have been in their regular offerings, going so far as to cram Galactus and Silver Surfer stories in. Fault Marvel for many things, but they never, ever leave a property half-wrung-out.
So in among all of this are series like Marada The She-Wolf, the aforementioned Dreadstar and Coyote, The Sisterhood of Steel, Six From Sirius, and more, all free to expose breasts, blurt four letter words and skull-crack, and some of them were right to indulge in that amount of freedom. Most however were not and the efforts came across as exploitation in search of a reason to exist, and the properties themselves drifted from consciousness and were relegated to non-starters as saleable commodities. Marvel and DC persisted. I’m not sure what that says about artistic freedom.
I know that there is a specific point of ownership that could stand to be upheld. With the ringing of 1979’s toy store registers going non-stop for Star Wars toys and action figures, other space-minded creations were forged to get in on this lucrative market. The company Mego make a collection of very slick, very 1980s kinds of toys called Micronauts, but few of the creations had personalities. Aside from the Darth Vader-cum-centaur Baron Karza and the Greek-based warrior Acroyear, the primary figures were blue and yellow, semi-transparent figurines.
Having had decent success with their ongoing Star Wars comic series, Marvel yet again saw potential in a property and developed a series based on the toys. From that came the eye-popping art of Michael Golden and the very realized microscopic universe forged by writer Bill Mantlo. For a whole swath of fans, the characters we know are not the toys but Golden and Mantlo’s realization of them after the fact.
In 1992, Mantlo was the victim of a hit-and-run accident while he was out rollerblading. He was in a severe comatose state for a period afterward. He is still alive but has lived with irreversible brain damage ever since, in a healthcare facility. I bring this up because J.J. Abrams has licensed the Micronauts property for his Bad Robot production company. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the screenwriters of Zombieland, are handling the script.
Of all the people that creator rights should be conferred upon, given what is likely a massive health care price tag involving what will be twenty years of facility life, Mantlo definitely deserves it. It is not about charity either. Mego made the toys and, obviously, they own the property and the trademarks and all of that. However, even with the limitations of its time, Mantlo and Golden made a fully-realized world and characters to fill them. They provided the guts for the plastic shells, and if any of that final product has DNA from those Marvel Comics issues, this team is most deserving of some form of credit. It’s good for Golden but it’s absolutely fair for Mantlo.
Will that happen?