Better Call Galactus

Not everyone can take the preposterous and examine it through the lens of the practical. Doing so for comic effect is the The Onion's gig, but those guys are old pros. Larry Niven did it for both comic and scientific effect in "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex", but most of us aren't Larry Niven. (Geek-life brag: I once talked to Larry Niven about that column at a concert of Star Wars music.) Too often the "what would happen if [extraordinary character] encountered [mundane circumstance]" shtick falls flat, like a Usenet flame war or a tiresome Saturday Night Live skit.

That's why it's impressive that attorneys James Daily and Ryan Davidson have pulled it off so flawlessly in the educational and fun "The Law of Superheroes." Their publisher sent Popehat an advance copy.

The book introduced me to the authors' blog Law and the Multiverse, which I shall now follow. The book concerns the same subject: how would the law treat the sorts of things that happens in the comics?

Is Batman a state actor? Does the newest Robin inherit the old Robin's assets or liabilities? For that matter, is Robin liable when Batman goes nuts and kills someone? How, exactly, can you expect to testify wearing a cowl? Are mind-readings admissible? All those buildings that get knocked down — who pays for them? Should the Avengers have a charter with an arbitration clause, and will it be enforceable if they do? What's better, tax-wise, for the Fantastic Four — a corporation or an LLC? And everybody in every Alan Moore comic should be in jail, right?

Those are the sorts of subjects Daily and Davidson tackle. They apply constitutional, criminal, and civil law issues to comic book heroes and villains, from the familiar to the (to me) obscure.

There are so many ways they could have handled this wrong. They could have been too serious about comics and not serious enough about the law, or vice-versa. They could have written the book in to much detail, like a law review article, or too little, like a comic book. They could have assumed too much of their readers' legal acumen, or too little. Instead, they did it just right. "The Law of Superheroes" is both entertaining and informative. People who aren't lawyers or law-geeks will learn something about the law, and lawyers and law-geeks will be thoroughly entertained at the application of familiar principles to comic extravaganzas. (This means, of course, that I disagreed with some of their legal analysis, and thought about how I would have explained it better. The book would have been intolerable had that not been the case.)

I gripe a lot here that the media does a terrible job at explaining the law to the American public. "The Law of Superheroes" shows that it can be done clearly and directly and effectively, even if you are talking about people in tights who have mood issues and talk funny. It's an enjoyable read; I suspect I'll return to it. Recommended.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    I need to note that a friend of mine, Steve Long, now publisher/owner of Hero Games, wrote up a long series of essays on this topic in the RPG supplement "Dark Champions" in the 1990s. It will be interesting to compare his take (he is, or was at the time, also a lawyer) with this one, especially given some of the shifts that have taken place on issues like warrentless searches (does X-ray vision count?) in the post 9/11 era.

  2. wgering says

    I've always wondered about legal ramifications of, oh, anything involving Captain America.

    Also, the whole Civil War storyline.

    I think this will nicely compliment my copy of "The Physics of Superheroes."

  3. Chris R. says

    I personally think the law would ruin superheros, especially civil cases. Could you imagine Peter Parker having to cover property damage on a freelance journalist pay?

  4. KronWeld says

    @Ken – Have you ever read Groklaw? PJ has done a pretty good job explaining legal issues to geeks. After reading it for 9 years, I've learned quite a bit.

  5. Dan Weber says

    If I time travel 30 years to the past, am I allowed to keep on using the open source software I brought with me?

  6. Chris Berez says

    Wow. Definitely going to have to read this book and start reading that blog as well. That's awesome!

  7. Mercury says

    Legal fantasy speculation is fun. The more totally unrealistic the better.

    What if the fate of the economy were at the mercy of central planning?
    What if the environment had more rights than people?
    What if practically everything were illegal and selective enforcement made a constitutional republic indistinguishable from a plutocratic dictatorship?
    What if winning official wars became politically unfashionable and private interests built new, profitable business models around losing unofficial wars?
    What if math actually mattered and liabilities that were orders of magnitude bigger than assets meant someone was going to take it in the neck?
    What if the government decided to go into business for itself and treat its actual, official responsibilities as overhead?
    What if voting didn’t matter?

    Or, yeah…and what color tights would Super-Biden wear?
    I wonder about that too.

  8. Noah Callaway says

    Nice! The blog was a great read, and I'll definitely be picking up the book.

    Quick question for Ken: If I click your "buy from Amazon" link, then navigate from that page to purchase the Kindle edition do you still get those sweet affiliate dollars? If not, could you post an affiliate link to the Kindle edition? I loves me some Kindle, and I love to give you some affiliate monies!

  9. says

    Chris Gwinn can maybe back me up on this, but there was a guy who used to do a column, I think in the 90s, titled "The Law Is A Ass" (from the Dickens, yes) that used to discuss legal issues in comics. Mostly he made fun of the awful and unwieldy attempts to use/portray the law but occasionally he commended what the writers did. His favorite target was a comic called Vigilante. This made me think of that.

  10. says

    As a non-lawyer geek, I thought the way She Hulk (Slott & Bobillo incarnation) was a pretty neat way of handling it all. Too bad when they decided to move her back to more Hulk-Smash and less Walters Subpoena.

  11. says

    Ah — so it wasn't the Marvel book after all. Better yet; that one's already on my radar and I hadn't heard of this one at all. (I did read a great piece recently about Firefly as a study in contractual agreements, but that's a tangent.)

    There's a great issue of Astro City where a lawyer gets his client off by saying there's no proof that it was him and not a clone, shape-shifting alien, etc. — in a world where stuff like that happens all the time, I expect reasonable doubt is a lot easier to achieve.

  12. says

    @Noah: Yes, if you buy the Kindle version after clicking, Popehat still gets a cut. They'll get credit for anything you buy for (I think) 24 hours after you click, unless you click someone else's affiliate link after theirs. Keep that in mind if you don't want Ken to see everything you buy.

  13. James Pollock says

    Jeremy, the answer to your question would depend on whether or not Wonder Woman acts as part of the government. If you go to Law and the multiverse, they've analyzed to death whether or not Batman is a state actor, and some of that analysis might apply to Wonder Woman.

    However, to short cut, I don't think the lasso of truth is a 5th amendment violation because it prevents people from lying, but it doesn't compel people to speak. Thus, a lassoee would still have the option of remaining silent under questioning. (The interesting question is whether or not the sixth amendment is implicated.)

  14. says

    Wonder Woman's lasso both forces the victim to speak the truth and (in some versions at least) also allows Wonder Woman to compel them to speak. However, such compelled speech would only be a Fifth Amendment violation if Wonder Woman were a state actor, and she usually acts independently of the US government.

    I'm curious as to your theory regarding the Sixth Amendment. If WW isn't a state actor, then why would her use of the lasso give rise to a right to an attorney (I assume that's the part of the Sixth Amendment that you mean)? Interrogation by WW is not an adversarial proceeding.

  15. James Pollock says

    Mr. Daily, I apologize if you've previously extended the state actor analysis beyond Batman to WW on your site; I don't know enough of WW's various iterations to do so myself. I do know that in at least one incarnation she was an employee of the federal government, but I don't recall what the exact scope of her duties was. (I was more interested in how Ms. Carter was able to run in that costume.)

    If WW *IS* a state actor, then how is interrogation by WW different from interrogation by any other law-enforcement agency? (Obviously, if she is not, then the sixth amendment is just as irrelevant as the fifth, or the fourth… I can't recall her ever Mirandizing anyone she's interrogating, but I'm more familiar with Wonder Girl's exploits.)

    Also obviously, if she is NOT a state actor, then she has no immunity to civil claims for battery, assault, or unlawful imprisonment by people she has lassoed and restrained, and will have to defend each case as best she can by arguing an affirmative defense, if any apply.

  16. Josh C says

    Astro City has a collection titled "Local Heroes", where one of the stories is about a lawyer defending someone mundane in a world full of superheroes, and briefly flirts with the ethics of the situation too. I thought it was really quite good, though I am not a lawyer.

  17. says

    @Josh: Right, that's the one. Astro City: Local Heroes #4 was the original individual issue, if I'm not mistaken. Thanks for helping place it.

  18. says

    I think way too much about what happens after a movie ends.

    John McClane blows up an airliner full of people. Arrested on terrorism charges.