Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2010 Issue

Superheroes Face the Law at the Yale Law Library

Not even Batman, Superman and the Hulk are above the law.


By Michael Stillman

The courtroom is ordinarily a dull place. Lawyers argue over motions, defendants plea bargain, delay is followed by delay, and incomprehensible legalese replaces intelligible thought. There is little excitement in the everyday business that goes on in court. Then, suddenly, a spectacular case rivets the public attention. A major celebrity finds himself on trial, and the people follow every word. It may be O.J. or Bernie Madoff, Superman or Batman, we can't take our eyes off... Wait! Superman? Batman? Have we pierced the veil between reality and fantasy? While certainly much of what is said in court emanates from the world of fantasy, the Yale Law School has moved a step beyond with an exhibit now on display: Superheroes in Court! Lawyers, Law and Comic Books.

From now through December 16, the Lillian Goldman Law Library at the Yale University Law School will be hosting a display of comic books, mainly from the collection of attorney and comic collector Mark S. Zaid. Zaid is also a dealer in comics as well as a co-founder of the Comic Book Collecting Association. His specialty is the connection between comics and the law. Mostly, this concerns the adventures of superheroes, and ordinary comic characters in court.

Generally, these episodes end in Perry Mason-like dramatic events, outbursts in court, tearful confessions, or outright violence, such as displayed by the Hulk when he was placed on trial. We are not sure why the local District Attorney was so foolish as to attempt to put this beast on trial, but a quick look at the cover of this 1972 comic, with the Hulk breaking free from his chains, shows that green gentleman was not pleased. And, while his words may not have been intelligible, it is evident that he did not choose to exercise his right to remain silent. Of course, not all the celebrity defendants were quite so irrational, with more "normal" superheroes, such as Superman and Batman, also being dragged before a jury of... their peers?

While superheroes graced the covers of some of these legalistic comics, others involved more regular types of people, detectives, or those involved in romance and some of the sordid activities that accompany this institution. Then there are the horror comics where various ghoulish creatures make their appearance in court. It is perhaps the staid, proper image that courts hold in the public eye that makes the appearance of bizarre creatures in their midst so fascinating to us.

The exhibition also contains items related to the more mundane side of the law. There are documents related to copyright issues, the legal right to Superman, and 1950s battles over free speech and censorship of comics. As recent events have shown (such as the sale of a Superman comic for $1.5 million), this form of art/communication/information/entertainment has developed a wildly devoted following over the past few decades. The law, at least in the cartoonish form of Judge Judy and Nancy Grace, has its loyal following as well. Now these forces have come together, like Batman and Robin. You may view them at the Yale Law Library in New Haven, Connecticut, now through December 16. For hours and directions, visit www.law.yale.edu/library.

Rare Book Monthly

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