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Graphic Justice:

The Emerging Field of Comics & Legal Studies

Comics and the Law might seem like unlikely bedfellows but once you start thinking about them, they are more closely entangled than you might expect. Within legal academia there is growing interest in these overlapping fields, dating back at least to Catherine Ribot’s 1998 study in French, Droit et bande dessinée and only last year in Le droit dans les bandes dessinées, the collected papers from a study day on June 15th 2011 published by the Law and Social Sciences Faculty of Poitiers University. In English this year, Justice Framed: Law in Comics and Graphic Novels in Vol 16 of Law Text Culture appeared from the University of Wollongong, Australia, available open access here and New York University Press published Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and The American Way by Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl, who offer “a comprehensive understanding of crime and justice in contemporary American comic books”.

And next month in London,  Dr Thomas Giddens, Lecturer in Law at St Mary’s University College, is organising Graphic Justice, a one-day symposium on the intersection of comics and graphic fiction with the concerns of law and justice on Wednesday September 11th 2013. Speakers include Ian Rakoff and American lawyer and expert Mark Zaid. Demand has been high and this free conference is already fully booked, but you can follow the related Graphic Justice Blog. I will be chairing one of the opening panel sessions and decided to interview Thom to find out more about this innovative conference.

Paul Gravett:
Did comics have any influence on your decision to study and now teach law?

Thom Giddens:
No, not really. Although I read comics as a child (primarily things like Beano and Dandy), I have only relatively recently taken a serious interest in the medium, since starting my PhD. This was entitled ‘Comics, Crime, and the Moral Self: An interdisciplinary study of criminal identity’, and it critically explored moral identity, legal theory, and criminal responsibility through Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s classic Watchmen, asking how we are able to understand people as responsible beings.

What is your particular field of expertise in the Law and how does it relate to your interest in comics?

My field relates mostly to criminal law and justice, with a large helping of moral philosophy. My underlying research theme is basically that life and morality are both extremely complex and ultimately involve real, living humans. Comics not only have obvious criminal justice relevance in the huge variety of mainstream publications, but like other cultural forms such as literature and film also explore the complexity of life and human morality. Much of academic (and especially legal) discourse focuses more on the ‘rational’ ways of understanding the world, but there’s a whole other discourse around aesthetics and the use of artistic and cultural expressions to do the same thing - to understand the world, but in a more ‘enriched’ or ‘living’ or phenomenological way. People have used film and literature to explore legal and moral concerns, but comics have been largely overlooked. I see comics as a vital tool in exploring morality and philosophies of selfhood from an aesthetically enriched perspective, not just because of their ‘cultural’ or ‘artistic’ nature, but due to their ‘in-betweenness’: the dual textual-visual dimensions explore the boundaries of rational knowledge and the limits of text. The basic idea is that comics can enrich our understanding not only of human moral experience, but also of how we construct (orthodox) knowledge about human moral experience.

My Dad was a solicitor and I got my degree in Law but never pursued it or qualified. That was partly because there’s obviously a big difference between the Law and Justice - just look at Judge Dredd! What made you decide to call this field of study ‘Graphic Justice’?

I can’t take full credit for the label: I was in conversation with my (ex) PhD supervisor about the idea one day, and ‘graphic justice’ was his suggestion. But it stuck - it’s catchy and precise. Part of the reason I used it was that there’s a whole raft of interdisciplinary approaches to law such as ‘law and literature’, ‘law and popular culture’, ‘law and film’, ‘law and economics’, and so on. These have become known as the ‘law ands…’, and I wanted to avoid being simply lumped in as another ‘law and’ (so ‘law and comics’, for example, was not an option). I was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, inspired by ‘Graphic Medicine’. But the use specifically of the term ‘justice’ (as opposed to ‘law’ or ‘crime’, for example) was because I wanted the project to be as open and inclusive as possible. I didn’t want it to just be about crime, or just about legal theory. Comics have a huge potential for legal studies more broadly, and ‘justice’ is a very wide and encompassing theme that doesn’t realty have much in the way of boarders. Graphic Justice invites insight from all walks of legal studies, and criminal justice, social justice, ethics, moral philosophy… But all with a focus on the complex problems of justice—this is why I call it a ‘research alliance’, rather than a network. The full name is actually ‘The Graphic Justice Research Alliance’, which also has something of a superhero team ring to it!

Several people were surprised when I first told them about Ian Williams’ concept of Graphic Medicine and couldn’t see how comics and medicine interconnected. The same initial bafflement will probably be true for Graphic Justice. You’re a Lecturer in Law. What have been the reactions from your colleagues and peers to this first symposium to bring comics and legal studies together and how do you answer them?

Generally, people have been quite open and supportive of the idea. I’ve talked about the Alliance at legal conferences and with colleagues, and there is very much an appreciation in legal studies nowadays that these kinds of interdisciplinary approaches not only hold water, but are important for tackling legal problems in today’s society. Having said that, there are still some quite orthodox corners of the legal establishment which have less time for such things - those involved in policy making, practice, or doctrinal research, for example. During my PhD I had some challenging questions thrown at me by some members of the faculty, and these have helped me rehearse my arguments for the relevance of comics to law—my basic line is that comics are a way of engaging with theory and philosophy about law and morality. A judge may not obviously see the relevance of comics to the decision they have to make in a particular case, as these decisions have to be based on the application of hard law; but once you start questioning the principles, assumptions and moral concepts that underpin the hard legal rules we find in statutes and judgements, and accept that law does not exist or operate in isolation from the rest of vast world of human experience, the use of comics (as well as other interdisciplinary resources) makes a whole lot of sense. Judges may benefit from reading comics - they’re only human, after all - but Graphic Justice is more about this wider academic context of research.

How did you decide to set up the website and blog and what has been the response from legal academics and from comics readers and creators? Is their interest from both sectors?

I set up the blog just as a way initially of publicising the Alliance and as a hub for those interested to get and share information. I’m hoping as things develop that people will start to contribute short or informal pieces or thoughts on their research and so on. The interest I’ve received has been primarily from legal and criminological academics, but also some independent researchers and a few legal practitioners. I haven’t heard much yet from those who are just comics creators, but this is something I’m hoping to develop in the future - perhaps with an outlet through future conferences or something like that.

I am aware of at least two previous conferences in Belgium in 1997 and 2009 with related essay collections in French or French and Flemish on this topic, more specifically focussed, I understand, on authors’ rights and advice on contracts and copyright etc. How will these internal aspects of the comics industry be covered at the conference?

As I said, I don’t want to exclude perspectives on how comics and law interact and can increase insight. So, although my own research is on using comics to engage with legal theory and philosophy, studies which look at how law regulates the comics industry and the rights of people working in that industry are very welcome. We actually have a couple of papers at the conference looking at these kinds of issues: one looking at how law has shaped the comics industry, and another looking at issues with copyright and user-generated content (e.g. ‘fanfiction’).

I’m a supporter of The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund which supports the industry, retailers, readers and others whose right to read comics is threatened (the Article opens with Jaime Hernandez’ poster and T-shirt design for 2013 members). They continue to fight cases all the time. What do you think of the fact that American comics today still require this sort of protection and funding of legal fees in the face of complaints, attempted bans and other issues? How does this situation compare say to Britain or elsewhere?

Whilst this isn’t an area that I’m overly aware of the details, I do think that the existence of the CBLDF is a good thing. Whilst it would be better if we didn’t need it, and it might be something of a hangover from the days of strict comics code regulation, the fact that these rights are being protected and the issues are being given a platform is very important for the industry. The protection of the freedom of expression is important—and the right means nothing unless it is enforced. So I’m happy that the Fund is helping ensure the comics industry is not overlooked in this regard. The issue with aid for legal fees is a much wider issues through the legal system, at least in Britain, and it is great that there are some funds available to help people needing legal protection in this area.

Of course, the law raises its head in many comics. From those who work within the system like Judge Parker, the American newspaper strip from 1952 (above) and somehow still hanging on over sixty years later, to Marvel’s Matt Murdock (alias Daredevil) or Jennifer Walters (aka She Hulk, below) who work as lawyers. James Daily and Ryan Davidson cover superheroes and the law on their website Law and the Multiverse and now a book, The Law of Superheroes from Gotham Books. What are some of your favourite characters and stories in comics about the legal profession?

I’m something of a Batman fanboy. Besides the dark urban overtones and his complex anti-hero status, I love the way he interacts with legal system of Gotham City. Many of his narratives encounter problems with the legitimacy of state coercion and the use of force, as well as tapping into the rich ‘living’ dimensions of the human psyche with all the psychoanalytic and gothic overtones. The duality of Harvey Dent as Two-Face (below) is also fascinating; obviously you’ve got the good vs evil tension he represents, but the way to dishes out justice via the flip of a coin poses a radical challenge to the idea of legal objectivity. What could be fairer or more objective than a coin toss? But it’s not fair at all… great stuff!

What areas of Graphic Justice do you feel need greater investigation? This initial conference seems quite Anglo-American in focus, for example.

Yes, you’re right about that. I really want to develop a greater balance between Western comics and bandes dessinées and the rich tradition of manga. I’m a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, for example, as well as others like Masamune Shirow (Appleseed involves some great musing on the boundary between human and machine). In terms of themes, I think gender issues need to be encouraged. This seems such an overt aspect of comics - especially in the mainstream of hypersexualised superheroes - and there is rich discourse in legal studies focusing on gender issues; I’m hoping to make this a central theme of the next conference.

Do you have any comics creators you’d especially like to present at a future Graphic Justice symposium?

Indeed! I’m a huge Alan Moore fan and I’d love to hear him talk about some of his themes around morality, gender and metaphysics. Neil Gaiman is another hero of mine, and one who seems eminently well-read. I’d love to hear some of his thoughts about how themes of morality, myth, and human nature are explored in comics.

Could you envision legal textbooks being adapted into graphic novels? 

I know that some areas of the US use comics to educate people about the law - usually stories about illegal downloads and copyright infringement. Legal education is another angle on graphic justice that I’d really like to see developed. I’m trying to integrate a few comics examples into my own teaching, for example as problem solving scenarios and so forth, but it would be great to see some of these being used in other teaching contexts and in textbooks. We have a paper on comics and teaching constitutional law at the conference which sounds very interesting.

How do you see Graphic Justice developing over the coming years?

There has been a huge amount of interest in the project already, and I really think it has a long way to go. The symposium is already fully booked, a month ahead of time, so there is definitely scope for another, larger conference next year. I am working on developing a selection of papers from the symposium into an edited collection. I’d like to do some more collections in the future, perhaps on specific themes (such as gender, or vigilantism). Promoting the development of comics on graphic justice themes is also a really interesting (and at this point, embryonic) idea. Basically, the future is bigger and broader. More themes, more people, more papers, more publications, more conferences, more involvement from more sectors - at least, that’s the hope!

Posted: August 27, 2013


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