With San Diego Comic-Con International quickly approaching, many comic book fans have one big thing on their minds: the world premiere of The Killing Joke film by DC Comics. The animated version of one of the most popular and controversial story lines with a juicy R-rating from the MPAA will screen during SDCC this year in July before release of the film for the rest of us. One person not so happy about the release of the film is the creator of the comic book, Alan Moore, but why is the creator of the story unable to control his copyrighted work?
Alan Moore is the notoriously prickly creative genius behind original print versions of The**Killing Joke, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and* The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The Killing Joke*, published as a graphic novel in 1988 by Alan Moore and DC Comics, is widely regarded as the best comic in Batman’s universe. The graphic novel’s origin story for the Joker with his “one bad day,” and its controversial plot are cherished by fans of the darker side of Batman. The plot focuses on the Joker’s attempts to drive Commissioner Jim Gordon insane by abducting his daughter and subjecting her to various forms of violent torment while Gordon is forced to watch on a twisted ride through a run-down amusement park. With “The Killing Joke,”Alan Moore pushed the limits for Batman and the Joker’s eternal battle, acknowledging that their strife could only end with the death of the other. The last page of the novel includes a dark, rainy scene that has been solidified in comic history as one of the best scenes between Batman and the Joker.
What would Mr. Moore think of DC’s newest adaption of his work? Judging by his testy interviews about DC over the past decade, Moore probably isn’t too thrilled. Regarding film in general, Moore has been famously quoted with, “[Hollywood] spoon feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open, waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms.” He has stated that he fervently believes that his creations should remain in print form, and even went as far as to refuse accreditation on the film adaptions of his work and any revenue generated by them.
So, why can’t Moore prevent the film adaptions of his works? You guessed it: ownership rights. Back in the 80’s, when Moore worked for DC, he signed a contract encompassing all of his creations to be owned by DC, with a reversionary clause that would kick in after one year if DC decided not to print his creations. During his time at DC, Moore created some of the best graphic novels of all time (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke, etc.) and of course, to this day DC continues to print them, rendering his reversionary clause utterly useless. Moral of the story: Have an attorney check those contracts!
Ultimately, Moore can’t kill The Killing Joke even if he desperately wants to. Signs show that he may actually quietly support this adaption, as his named accreditation is portrayed instead of the usual “Original Writer.” Perhaps the film’s comic book form is what Moore tolerates, or maybe the material in this adaption is close enough to be what Moore always wanted for his work. Warner-Bros. Animation President, Sam Register, stated “[f]rom the start of production, we encouraged producer Bruce Timm and our team at Warner Bros. Animation to remain faithful to the original story, regardless of the eventual MPAA rating. We felt it was our responsibility to present our core audience, the comics-loving community, with an animated film that authentically represented the tale they know all too well.”
So if you as an artist, writer or creator and want control of your work, be careful what you sign. As many comic book legends have learned, even if they created something it doesn’t necessarily mean they own it or have creative control over it.