Wednesday, 13 February 2013

On "The Law Of Superheroes" by James Daily & Ryan Davidson

Writing with the enthusiasm of fans as well as the expertise of attorneys, James Daily and Ryan Davidson never once use The Law And Superheroes to deride the sub-genre's typical lack of interest in worldly affairs. As generous to their fictional subjects as they're expertly informed, they draw from a wide range of examples in order to discuss how aspects of American and International Law actually work. To do so in a way that entertains and enlightens without expressing even a trace of frustration with the self-absorbed tradition of the costumed crimefighter is no little achievement. Indeed, Daily and Davidson often travel a considerable distance to make sense of the absurd way in which comicbook law often operates, and they're rarely entirely defeated. How can super-people possibly escape being constantly sued for assault and trespass? How could Bucky Barnes have been extradited to Russia when there's in fact no such treaty? How might property insurance work, and the economy continue to function, in a world that's perpertually being flattened at random by the likes of the Hulk? From obscure legal nooks and crannies to the first principles of the Republic's Constitution, The Law And Superheroes delights in comparing fiction with reality in order to make better sense of both.    

Sequence by Wally Wood, Stan Lee et al, from Daredevil 7, 1966
It’s of course no surprise that the cape'n'chest-insignia book has typically paid as little attention to the law as it has to the likes of science and politics. But then, a tradition which playfully portrays radioactivity as the gateway to fantastic abilities is hardly likely to focus on the real-world details of criminal procedure, corporate tax breaks, contracts and citizenship. Yet The Law And Superheroes does suggest that a greater interest in legal matters could inspire stories which were both more compelling and less morally questionable than is sometimes the case. It's certainly hard to grasp how the superhero comic, which characteristically touches on ethical issues and social policy alike, wouldn't benefit from reflecting more of how the world truly works. (The achievements of writers such as Peter David, Mark Waid and Gail Simone, who most certainly have reflected reality in their work, would strongly suggest that's so.) Yet even the simple fact that the Martian Manhunter would, as an alien representative of an almost-extinct race, only receive legal protection in Missouri if he could prove he was a vertebrate is surely worth spinning a tale around. Put simply, Daily and Davidson's book isn't just an agreeable, illuminating read. It's a goldmine of material that's begging to be put to use.

Panel by Kevin Maguire from the cover of Justice League: A New Beginning TPB, 1989
With its wide-ranging content, there's always the danger that some sections of The Law And Superheroes will appeal more than others. Similarly, it's a book which by its very nature debates a substantial amount of theory and practise, and it may well be best enjoyed in relatively short bursts. But it's also informative, sharp-minded and repeatably fascinating. Yes, it would be utterly ridiculous to conclude from its contents that all comicbook creators ought to have an academic grounding in the law. Less contentious might be the suggestion that most of us could learn a great deal from an hour or three in the affable, knowledgeable company of Daily and Davidson's book.

The Law Of Superheroes is published, appropriately enough, by Gotham Books. 

To have even begun to list the things it taught me, or the misunderstandings it put right, would require a column many times the length of the above. 

As the reader will most probably know, James Daily and Ryan Davidson also run the excellent Law And The Multiverse site, which can be found here.



  1. I'm sure you are also aware of The Physics of Superheroes by University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios. He takes a similar approach of using examples from comics to explains physics concept. It's also best digested in pieces rather than in one long sitting. I found particularly interesting the explanation of how the Golden Age Superman's ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound could be explained if the planet Krypton had begun its life as a burned out neutron star - and that Seigel imagined Krypton before the existence of neutron stars had been theorized.

    1. Hello Rob:- Yep, Kakalios' book is well worth the reading. And it does have alot in common with The Law And Superheroes in terms of the demands it makes - in the best sense of the word - upon the reader. They're both undoubtedly enjoyable reads.

      I was only reading Gail Simone Tumblr today as she discussed how she likes to discuss the science of her comics. Of course, the superhero comic as we know it is largely if not entirely incompatible with science. But where the two can work well together, it does make sense for it to happen. And as with science, of course, so with the law.

  2. Egad! I simply must find this, and buy it and read it.

    For one thing, I too have always wondered about some of these things. For another, that is one helluva gorgeous picture of Namor.

    I know that Marvel at least had Damage Control, which was the company that came in a fixed all the mess left after the Superheroes got done with their latest city-flattening brawl, and it was absolutely hilarious. I think Marvel also pointed out that just about every company in New York carried Superhero Insurance. I'm not so sure that DC ever went in this direction, which is rather a shame.

    1. Hello Sally:- I think you'd enjoy it, I really do. And if you found Damage Control a beguiling concept - and I certainly did - then that certainly suggests to me that you'd not regret reading this. (I am a considerable admirer of the McDuffie/Colon Damage Control, to say the least. It was never in any way pompous or over-serious, but the playful way it touched on the consequences of super-people punch-ups was both smart and fun.)

      I should tell you that the Namor picture doesn't appear in the book. I couldn't resist lifting it from Daredevil #7, which is surely one of the finest ever Marvel stories, and certainly one of the most influential. Wally Wood's work on that brief run was simply splendid.

      In retrospect, I ought to have added the Joker-Fish issue of Detective by Englehart, Rogers and Austin, which is referenced in the book. But Damage Control and those DD and Bats tales do show how social/legal/political issues can be used to tell fascinating super-people stories.

  3. Wow, I'd thought about some of these issues myself in recent years and it's great that someone has come up with a book of this sort, a companion piece with those books that reflect on superheroes and science. BTW, I work at a county courthouse, as supervisor in the Probate/Guardianship Department. Anyhow, just looking at things from a legal point of view, there's all sorts of just plain goofy stuff, even by the best of writers and artists. How many times, even late in the Bronze Age, have we seen supervillains in prison still wearing their costumes, even when its evident they've been in for quite some time! And if the only witness against a particular villain is the costumed hero who beat him up but isn't about to unmask and testify against him in a court of law, how is it that the villain is convicted and serves any time at all? And, of course, if the hero is unmasked, he'd be endangered not only by revenge-seeking foes, but by a potential avalance of lawsuits! Actually, I have read somewhere that during the brief period between Spider-Man's unmasking and his deal with the devil, J. Jonah Jameson sued Peter Parker for all the money Jameson had paid him for pictures of himself in action. I'm sure that plotline wasn't resolved before they hit the reset button.

    1. Hello Fred:- I think you're the ideal audience for the book, being both comics fan and a worker in the justice system!

      One of the problems for the superhero book is that a society in which the miraculous is commonplace would swiftly take a form which differed dramatically from the real-world. It's something which Steve Englehart touched upon in Big Town, a mini-series set in an MU where things like Reed Richards' scientific inventions had become part of everyday life. Of course, such a world would have little to do with ours. The trick, for my point of view, is to avoid that as much as possible, so that the superbook can be used to comment on the present day. Another form of fannish mind tends towards the opposite situations, in which creators possess endless excuses to pretend that their work doesn't comment on today's politics because the superheroic world and ours are so different. Yet of course, the commenting still happens, after the way of fiction, even as those involved seem to pretend that it isn't. Pretending that the law just happens to be different "over there" may give creators the illusion that they can somehow just focus on genre set-pieces. It's a daft illusion which often ends up with dull, self-involved stories which, as a rule, express reactionary values.

      As for that entire period of Spider-Man, from his joining the Avengers through the unmasking to the devil-powered re-set button; pah!