Harlan Ellison on Litigious Rampage

By Neal Comment

Last month, we discussed how Harlan Ellison’s lack of restraint made him the goat of this year’s Hugo Awards. Well, the pugnacious science-fiction writer is as used to attacking as he is to being attacked, and he’s proved that this week with a lawsuit against Fantagraphics Books, the Seattle-based independent comics publisher. Describing himself in the general allegations as “a famous author, screenwriter, commentator and public speaker,” Ellison claims that Fantagraphics, along with its principals Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, have defamed him in the forthcoming Comics as Art (We Told You So), as well as violating his “right of publicity” under California law by “wantonly trad[ing] on Ellison’s name” when publishing The Comics Journal Library 6: The Writers, a collection of interviews which describes Ellison as a “famous comics dilettante” on the cover. You gotta love a complaint that refers to the alleged defamatory statements as “First Big Lie” and “Second Big Lie,” but it’s not like any of the parties involved on either side come across all that well.

This contretemps follows on the heels of another dispute a few weeks ago, in which Ellison discovered that Pocket Books was publishing a Star Trek novel, David R. George III’s Crucible: McCoy, which builds off the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode (note to non-Trekkies: the one where they go back in time and meet Joan Collins). Thing is, Ellison wrote that episode, and claims he’s owned the publication and adaptation rights to that story ever since it first aired, and “Pocket Books has ABSOLUTELY no right to use the characters and/or the story I created, IN ANY WAY without my permission.” In his original statement to the fans who populate his message board, Ellison added:

“If they play nice and tug their forelock and acknowledge where the material came from and pay me a trailer-truck full of cash, I will not sue them in Federal District Court, I will not serve them with an injunction to cease distribution of THIS book, and I will not sue them for a fortune on the ‘forthcoming’ books, which I may or may not allow them to publish. Whether I insist they withdraw all copies of the book out there now, and make them add my credit to the cover and indicia, or just reprint it in its entirety, I have also not decided. We will see if they’re smart enough not to drag their feet, thus annoying me the more, and if they’re conciliatory, thus permitting me to be civil and not scorched-earth. If they know how I behave in litigious situations, and my track record—sixteen lawsuits, O losses—they will move fast, speak straight, and clean this up. It is clearly a case of their left hand not knowing their right hand is in my pocket, and they will be paying the price for having no sense of history or business protocal. They have a smartass generation of know-nothings who act arrogantly and unilaterally, without checking their Contracts Department, or their Rights & Permissions Departments, and they deserve to be whacked over the head to wake them up.”

Reaction in other quarters is mixed. Julio Angel Ortiz sparked a lively debate when he mentioned the dispute, singling out Ellison’s “arrogant attitude and condescending tone,” but Peter David, who concedes that his own Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Imzadi is “basically an inversion of ‘City'” which features characters from the episode, reports that Ellison has promised he’s off the hook: “First, he’d never cause a close friend that kind of grief, and second, way back in the day when I first came up with the plot, I called him and asked permission.”