While two former friends fight over "violation of right of publicity" and defamation, artists are donating works on eBay to help with firm's future.

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The first time was to stave off bankruptcy. Now it’s for legal bills.

As fans answer Fantagraphics’ latest plea for help, artists have begun to donate their work for eBay auctions to benefit Seattle’s alternative comic-book publisher in its defense against a lawsuit by author Harlan Ellison.

Ellison is suing Fantagraphics and its co-owners, Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, for defamation and “violation of right of publicity.” The particulars may seem obscure, but they’re the culmination of a nearly three-decade feud between former friends Groth and Ellison.

The alleged defamation regards statements in Fantagraphics’ forthcoming self-history, “We Told You So: Comics As Art.” The book says that Ellison tried to get out of paying his share of legal bills when he and Groth were co-defendants in a 1980 libel suit by comic writer Michael Fleisher. (Ellison and Groth won.) Ellison denies it while the Fantagraphics folks say they’re just commenting on a part of their history. Due out this summer, the book’s already been serialized on the publisher’s Web site.

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See Fantagraphics at this weekend’s Emerald City Comicon, with guests including Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring and Ellen Forney.

The “violation of right of publicity” charge is for what Ellison says is the unauthorized use of his trademarked name on the cover of Fantagraphics’ “Comics Journal Library Vol. 6: The Writers,” released last summer. The volume reprints the inflammatory Groth/Ellison interview that prompted Fleisher to take them to court in the first place.

Ellison wants unspecified damages and an injunction to stop both books from being distributed. Ellison, 72, has won a vast number of awards and is best known among non-geeks for writing the most popular episode of the original “Star Trek” (“City on the Edge of Forever”). He was recently named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Fantagraphics’ talent includes Los Bros Hernandez (“Love & Rockets”), Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”), Jim Woodring (“Frank”), Peter Bagge (“Hate”), and the legendary Robert Crumb. It’s also home to The Comics Journal with Groth as editor, one of the few venues for serious criticism of the art form, with a circulation of 4,500.

Groth, who called Ellison’s lawsuit “absurd,” said supporters have ponied up about $11,000 in cash donations so far. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) and several artists from Fantagraphics’ roster have also put signed works up for auction on eBay to benefit the defense fund.

Displayed prominently on www.fantagraphics.com: “HELP DEFEND FANTAGRAPHICS & THE FIRST AMENDMENT.” “We want to emphasize that at the core of this dispute is freedom of expression,” the appeal to fans says. “Without additional financial assistance, we will have to reconsider many of our commercially marginal books (approximately half of them); the money that would make those books possible will instead be spent on legal fees. We hope you are willing to help us.”

Whether it’s really free speech or libel is what both sides say a trial will decide. Whether the fan donations are to support the First Amendment or to subsidize a personal feud that could cripple the company is a harder question to answer.

“There is no First Amendment issue here, but it’s the only way he [Groth] can get any sympathy at all,” Ellison said from his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home. “Everybody who isn’t an [expletive] knows the First Amendment has restrictions. You cannot for instance yell ‘Fire’ when it’s not true in a crowded theater. That’s the one that everybody knows. But he libeled me and the court found that, yes, these are matters that need to go to a jury.”

The rhetoric from both sides could rival the fulminations of Nancy Grace.

“Mostly he’s a rejected lover,” Ellison said of Groth. Prior to their falling-out over the seven-year Fleisher case, Ellison said Groth “thought I walked on water.” Now, he said, “I wouldn’t believe Gary Groth if he told me the sun was shining. I’d go outside and check.”

Groth, 52, said, “You have to be very tolerant to be a friend of Ellison’s. I think it was a friendship of convenience. I don’t think I recognized it at the time.” Groth went on to serve on the board of advisers for a group called “Enemies of Ellison” (later “Victims of Ellison”). “I felt that it seemed to be an awfully worthwhile organization.”

At one of the feud’s more absurd points, supporters on both sides sported buttons that said “EOE” or “FOE” (Friends of Ellison). And now, whether the echo is intentional or not, donors can be listed as a “Friend of Fantagraphics.”

“It’s a street fight,” said Milton Griepp, publisher of ICV2, a trade site that tracks pop-culture trends. Asked to comment on the fight, Griepp hesitantly said, “Both Fantagraphics and Ellison have contributed a lot to comic literature and science fiction and speculative fiction. Everyone admires the work that both do and regrets the fact that they’re in this very public, unpleasant fight.”

Both men are also known as polarizing, highly opinionated figures. A sampling of comments from the message board at the neutral comic industry site Newsarama (www.newsarama.com):

• About Ellison: “You’re suing one of the most important historians of a medium you claim to love.”

• “Groth maybe an [expletive], but he’s a productive [expletive] whose efforts benefit enthusiasts and comic fans alike.”

• “Ellison loves legal scraps. It thus seems imprudent for Fantagraphics to republish the “controversial” interview without letting him know. If you bait the bull & take a hit, that’s your lookout.”

• “… This sounds like a couple of old men just bein [sic] crotchety. … I would have to say that a publisher re-printing an interview he’d already been sued over is just asking for some sort of action.”

So far, Fantagraphics has suffered a couple of setbacks: Its motion to dismiss the case was denied. (The company is appealing the denial.) And the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund denied its appeal for aid.

Groth estimated that the litigation could cost up to $300,000. The company’s finances have always been precarious, and he said the suit has “thrown a wrench” into what stability it had finally achieved from publishing Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” collections in 2003. Before that, Fantagraphics had asked fans to help stave off bankruptcy by shelling out for books, taking in about $120,000.

There’s some irony in Fantagraphics’ plea for handouts. Ellison had asked his own fans for donations when he sued AOL for online copyright infringement. But this time he says, “I will not ask for any help on this case, because it’s a personal matter and has nothing to do with the First Amendment.” AOL settled that case, and Ellison has never lost a suit, including a well-known one against the “The Terminator” director James Cameron for plagiarizing ideas from a couple of “Outer Limits” episodes that Ellison wrote.

“We think that’s made him overconfident,” said Groth’s longtime business partner, Thompson.

Have he and Groth just been kicking a hornet’s nest over the years to the detriment of the rest of Fantagraphics — for instance calling Ellison a “famous comics dilettante” on the cover of “The Writers” volume?

“We’ve been sort of shooting the occasional verbal cannon at each other over the last 20 years and we never thought he would take it legal,” Thompson said.

Ellison and some others such as columnist Clifford Meth at www.comicmix.com say Fantagraphics should have standard publisher’s insurance that foots the legal bill; but because the company doesn’t, it’s asking fans to pay for a bad business decision.

Groth’s response: “We don’t have it because it’s awfully expensive, and if we were actually paying premiums for the past 20 or 25 years, we couldn’t afford it. It’s not a bad business decision because we haven’t been sued in 25 years and we would have been paying a substantial annual premium, which would be at least as much as this lawsuit’s going to cost us.”

Calling the suit “a nightmare,” Groth said, “I’m prepared for the long haul.”

Ellison says the long feud has taken a toll on his health, even blaming it for a heart attack 12 years ago. But he says, “I promise you I will live long enough to see this through — just to annoy him.”

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