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Comics and the Law

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It is the current fashion, both in academics and popular culture, to convey information about more serious topics, such as war, chemistry, military life in a combat zone, autobiography, cancer, and pandemic preparedness in graphic novels. As a librarian and a reader, I’ve enjoyed the ability of graphic novels to communicate dense non-fiction material in a way that scarcely seems like work to absorb. Recently, a copy of The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law landed in the office, and the arrival of this new acquisition seemed like a great time to highlight items in our collection that cover law and comics and graphic novels.

The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law is Nathaniel Burney’s “attempt to debunk … [the many popular myths about criminal law]” (p. 7). Burney blogs regularly in graphic form at his website; you can find out how attention and memory work in criminal cases, view a Fifth Amendment flowchart, and read about traffic stops. He covers the basic principles of criminal law “in a way that was more accessible to a high school kid than my wordy and obscure law blog.” The content from the book is similar to the content of the website: purposes of punishment, mens rea, entrapment, and other basic concepts of criminal law are explained with humorous illustrations and movie quotations. Burney draws in occasional commentary from Lady Justice, a virago whom he depicts as “a sort of modern Athena/Roma.” He also employs stick figures (“Stickie McFigure” in the rape explanation) and anthropomorphic maps (England wearing a Union Jack top hat in the history of Blackstone’s influence). His cartoons are reminiscent of Marvel comics, Joe Palooka, and in at least one instance, George Herriman. Readers seeking a better basic understanding of criminal law would want to include this volume in their research bibliographies.

Similarly, readers of Trevor R. Getz’s and Liz Clarke’s Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History can learn quite a bit about colonial law, the history of slavery in England and Ghana, Ghanaian history, English colonialism, and 19th century women’s history for a class of women whose voices are not often heard. Documents from the Gold Coast Colony Supreme Court Records, Regina v. Quamina Eddoo 1876, were used in the writing of this book, making it an interesting starting point for legal scholars and historians; the actual transcript from the case is included in the second part of the text. Abina Mansah, a native of the Gold Coast (the former name of Ghana), was the plaintiff in the case in which she charged a wealthy local planter, Quamina Eddoo, with enslaving her, which was against English law at the time. Mansah was pursuing her freedom as well as punishment for Eddoo for enslaving her. The book is designed for classroom use, so it is accessible to a wide variety of users. The volume is accompanied by Clarke’s illustrations, fully colored realistic drawings of the actual history of Abina Mansah’s life as narrated by her testimony given in Eddoo’s trial. Viewing the panels adds a new dimension of content to the history.

Excerpt from Abina and the Important Men [Photo by K. Carroll]
Excerpt from Abina and the Important Men [Photo by Kurt Carroll]
Lawyers, legal scholars and artists who are interested in law as it pertains to comics and intellectual property can find relevant print material in our collections as well. Thomas A. Crowell’s The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Books: A Legal Toolkit for Indie Comic Book Artists and Writers provides legal guidance for independent cartoonists, promising that “[r]eaders will learn to protect their trademarks, hire artists so everyone wins, and learn the ins and outs of contracts with this helpful resource. ” Marc Greenberg’s Comic Art, Creativity and the Law discusses law and the creative process, copyright law as it applies to comics, the formation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the First Amendment and comics, and instances of censorship of comics. Whether you are a visual thinker or a verbal one, there’s material here to engross your attention.


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