The owner of the popular Wimpy Kid franchise is suing an upstart publisher for releasing an illustrated “diary” featuring a haggard, blood-spattered version of the wimpy protagonist. The “Diary of a Zombie Kid” lawsuit is a feast for headline writers (cue your “He’s No Wimp” lines) but will also test the fine line between a joke and a rip-off.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” began as an online comic strip in 2004 featuring the travails of a tormented middle-school kid named Greg Heffley. Its popularity led to the publication of a hardcover in 2007 and soon after sequels, merchandise and a movie.
According the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, the books have sold more than fifty-two millions copies and the wimpy kid become a full-fledged cultural icon with an appearance last year in the Macy’s Thanksgiving today parade.
The zombie kid arrived on the scene this August via a small publisher, Antarctic Press, which released the book in a similar color and cover design. But the protagonist of the new title, is not just wimpy:
Middle school is horrific enough for any 5th grader’s first day. But for Bill Dookes, it’s a festering, rotting, undead nightmare! Since Bill’s deadbeat dad got arrested trying to burn the house down for the insurance, Mom’s had to make ends meet by volunteering to various medical research companies for cash. This would be fine if she hadn’t brought home a mysterious zombie virus! Now Bill has to deal with skin problems and body chemistry changes that make puberty look like a walk in the park! And then there’s his ever-growing appetite for BRAINS!
Needless to say, lawyers for Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney are throwing the kitchen suit at the zombie, demanding a temporary injunction and a galaxy of copyright and trademark damages.
Antarctic Press could not immediately be reached for comment but, given the visual similarity of the two books, the publisher will no doubt try to avoid liability by asserting a fair use parody defense.
Parody cases like this one raise a dilemma for literary types. On one hand, parody is a vital part of free expression but, on the other, it can be a fig leaf for rascals and rip-offs. Recent parody efforts show this tension.
Few objected, for instance, when Little Brown decided to publish “Goodnight Bush“, which mimicked the beloved children’s classic to produce a bedtime story showing a clock stuck at 9:11 and “war profiteers giving three cheers.”
There was little such indulgence in 2009 when a Swedish man published “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye” that purported to be a satirical modern-day version of Holden Caulfield. A court granted the late JD Salinger an indefinite injunction banning the book
And then there is The Wind Done Gone, a historical novel that retold the classic southern tale from the perspective of an African-American. The estate of Margaret Mitchell sued but the parties soon settled after the former agreed to call the book a parody (even though it doesn’t really fit that definition).
This year, the grouchy publisher of the syrupy “Elf on the Shelf” sued the authors of a humorous version for parents called “Elf off the Shelf.”
As for the upstart Zombie Kid, a court will look at factors like the amount of originality in the new work and its potential effect on the original market. At first blush, the case seems borderline — the zombie book seems both a satirical original work but also seems less an inspired parody than a pretty blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Wimpy Kid. Readers?