Balloonless | The Law of Superheroes
James Daily and Ryan Davidson intend to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that every subject, even one as dry and forbidding as the law, is more fun when you add superheroes. Exhibit A: The Law of Superheroes, their new book based on their blog Law and the Multiverse, which seeks to do for their area of expertise what James Kakalios’ 2006 book The Physics of Superheroes did for his.
I lack a black robe and a gavel, so I’m not certain exactly how authoritative my judgment on this particular case can be, but I think the pair did a rather admirable job. I can’t say in good conscience that their book is a rollicking, can’t-put-it-down read — even with superheroes, it’s still a book about the law and other, um, legal stuff — but it’s certainly interesting, and, for those of us coming at it as longtime comics fans, it presents new ways of thinking about classic characters and their weekly adventures.
The book’s 13 chapters are divided into rather broad subjects like constitutional law, criminal law, international law and so forth, and breaks the subject down further with various articles falling under each chapter’s subject, pulling examples from comic books (and a few movies based on comic books, particularly the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies, Iron Man and the Spider-Man movies).
So, for example, the chapter on constitutional law contains articles on mutant rights, superpowers and the Second Amendment, forcible removal of superpowers, the death penalty as it might apply to immortal or nigh-invulnerable characters, and so on. It’s discussion of the law that mainly drives the book’s construction; where the superheroes come in is when it’s time to apply that law to the Marvel and DC universes (as well as the Ultimate universe and movie universes and so on). Copious footnotes are provided to direct an interested reader back to particular comics stories or particular laws and court rulings.
Dan Slott’s run with the She-Hulk character last decade, which was premised as a sort of David E. Kelley-produced lawyer dramedy set in the Marvel Universe, provides a lot of material, as does the Marc Andreyko-written Manhunter, what with its vigilante heroine who is a lawyer by day (longer-lived lawyer/vigilante Daredevil comes up a few times, but not as much as one might think; apparently his comics have been more focused on the Daredeviling than the lawyering).
The examples they choose are generally the most popular superheroes, so Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Superman and Wolverine come up a lot, but the writers are quite conversant in comic book minutiae, as much as any of us around these parts, I’d imagine: There’s an article on whether the surviving Earth-616 Beatles could sue Nocturne from Earth-2182 for copyright infringement for bringing Beatles music from her alternate dimension to theirs in 2006’s New Excalibur #4, for example.
While their examples generally range from the Silver Age to today, Daily and Davidson are mostly quite up-to-date, weighing in on such relatively recent questions as whether Superman could really renounce his citizenship as he said he planned to in that “controversial” short story David S. Goyer wrote for Action Comics #900 (maybe, but he didn’t go through with it) or whether Lex Luthor could really torture Superman in the New 52’s Action Comics #2 because, as an alien, he didn’t have any legal protection (Mmmmaybe).
The most fun part of the book, for me, was at the extremes of scope, seeing how the lawyer/writers weighed in on some big events like the “No Man’s Land” story from the Batman comics (apparently, nations pretty much never excise parts of their holdings) and Marvel’s Civil War which was particularly rife with extremely dubious assertions of the federal and international laws from start to finish (which is kind of odd, given that the casus belli of the conflict was, itself, a law).
On the other end of the spectrum, I enjoyed seeing them delve into the weeds of this sort of fantasy-universe law, like how the courts might handle superheroes testifying in masks, or making sure there weren’t shape-shifters or telepaths involved in criminal prosecutions (apparently, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar actually thought about this during their brief, late-’90s Flash run, by having the DC Universe’s Twelfth Amendment allow registered meta-humans to testify while masked).
Some of the issues are surprisingly cut and dry, like whether The Joker is eligible for an insanity defense: No way. The test most courts use to determine whether someone is insane or not is two-part. They have to not know what they’re doing, and they have to not realize that it is wrong. Whatever state Gotham City is located in, therefore, it must have a seriously low bar for proving someone is insane and thus not responsible for their mass murders and terrorism.
Others require a bit more consideration, like how the insurance system might work in the Marvel Universe when it comes to dealing with collateral damage from super-people fighting one another (kind of like flood insurance, maybe?), or whether it makes more sense for S.H.I.E.L.D. to be a United States organization or a United Nations organization (the former, for what it’s worth).
For the most part, the writing is on the dry side, which is perhaps to be expected, given that the book leans toward a textbook for amateurs, and the authors steer pretty clear of judging the quality of the stories they deal with by almost any criteria, up to and including the degree of legal knowledge on display: There’s a basic understanding implied, and occasionally stated, that comic book readers agree to take Superman’s flight and Cyclops’ optic-blasts as believable enough, so there’s not much point in castigating a comic book story for being less than realistic when it comes to stuff like Superman’s citizenship status or how realistically U.S./Wakanda relations are depicted.
The pair are perhaps at their sharpest in the captions for the many illustrations that pepper the work, which leads me to believe the tone of the book is as it is more due to the writers’ goals for it rather than their inability to assume a snappier, more engaging style.
Even after reading, I still feel fairly inexpert about most legal matters — although I did learn the word “tortfeasor,” which I really like saying out loud — so I remain particularly ill-suited to rendering judgement on that aspect of the book. As for the superhero part of the equation, Daily and Davidson sure know their stuff, and I think their book should be of special interest to Big Two super-comics writers and super-comics readers, as it offers plenty of material to think, write and perhaps occasionally even argue about.
The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson, Gotham Books, 286 pages, $26