Where Do Comic Books and the Law Collide? James Daily Knows

James Daily, MSCS ’07, JD ’08

James Daily is the founder of lawandthemultiverse.com, a blog that examines the legal implications of scenarios presented in comic books. (Mary Butkus)

Do Superman’s flying powers violate Federal Aviation Administration codes? Are mutants protected under anti-discrimination laws? Is Batman a state actor?

All of these questions are answered in lawandthemultiverse.com, a blog started by James Daily, MSCS ’07, JD ’08, and his partner-in-production, Ryan Davidson. The blog has been so successful that the dynamic duo signed a book deal with a subsidiary of Penguin books and signed a movie and TV series deal with Sony early this spring.

And Daily’s success could not have happened without the relationships he forged at Washington University. The blog was born in November 2010 when Daily was talking with his wife and another couple, all alumni. (His wife is Jennifer Beasley, AB ’07; his friends are Maia Elkana, AB ’07, MSW ’09, and Paul Bender, AB ’07, MA ’08.)

Daily had been wondering about the privacy laws on Superman’s home planet of Krypton, if everyone there had X-ray vision. Bender suggested he start a blog about the legalities of comic book scenarios, and KA-POW! — Daily’s destiny was sealed as surely as good triumphs over evil.

Daily found support for his idea in his boss and former patent law professor, Scott Kieff.

The blog’s litigation-packed pages garner more than 10,000 hits a week and have been featured in The New York TimesMother Jones and NPR’s All Things Considered, among others.

A blogger by night, Daily is an intellectual property lawyer who works for the Stanford University Hoover Institution’s Project on Commercializing Innovation.

Daily spoke with Washington Magazine about learning, the politics of comics and attorney superheroes.

Washington Magazine: Why should people care about the legality of comic book situations?

James Daily: They make for some pretty interesting legal hypotheticals, certainly much more interesting than you find in a typical casebook or a real-world case. Because in the real world the facts tend to be very, very boring or very, very complicated or both. Comic books offer the benefit of being both simple and interesting.

WM: Are people surprised to hear that a lawyer is interested in comic book plots?

JD: I think they often are, but they shouldn’t be because we’ve actually gotten a lot of fan mail from law students, lawyers and law professors who’ve all had really great things to say about the blog.

WMX-Men: First Class was a big summer movie this year that utilized the classical comic book characters and scenarios. How do the legal issues in these types of movies differ from the books?

JD: Times have changed. The comic books, when they first debuted in the late ’60s and early ’70s, were a product of their time.

Mutants in the comic books have often been used as a stand-in for various oppressed groups in society, often for racial minorities. There was a storyline involving a fictional country where mutants were secondary citizens, based on apartheid in South Africa.

Today, mutants are characterized in a certain way as minorities, and in movies there’s also a reference to discrimination against homosexuals. One of the characters [in X-Men: First Class], when he finds out he’s a mutant, says, ‘You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell.’

WM: What are the defining characteristics of modern superheroes? Are they law-abiding?

JD: The comic book authors are much more sophisticated about the legal issues raised by what superheroes do.

When Superman got his start, comic books were very straightforward and there wasn’t a lot of self-conscious consideration of, ‘is this even legal?’

Nowadays, it’s fairly common to have characters consider, ‘I can stop these criminals, but I need to do it in a way where the police can come in and arrest them and they can be convicted and go to jail.’

There are a number of characters now who are attorneys by day, and they can take on legal issues in a direct way.

WM: Which superhero commits the most crimes?

JD: The classic answer would probably be the Punisher, who is a gray-area hero, or even an antihero who is certainly opposed to criminals, but his methods are very violent and fall on the wrong side of the law.

WM: Who is the most law-abiding, and how does he or she manage that?

JD: Certain versions of Batman probably come closest. He tries very hard in most versions not to kill anyone, so that helps a lot. He also never uses guns, which helps a lot too because many cities and states have very strict gun control laws, especially in regard to concealed weapons. By not using them, he’s getting himself out of a lot of trouble.

In certain versions, he has a very close working relationship with the police. There are other versions where he’s anything but law abiding and is actually quite the rogue.

WM: Do the legal issues in the books reflect contemporary politics?

JD: Yes. There are two great examples:

Marvel Comics addressed the post-September 11 tension between civil liberties and security in a major storyline called “The Marvel Civil War.” In the comics, hundreds of people were killed in a fight between superpowered heroes and villains. In response, the government passed the Superhuman Registration Act, and superheroes divided into two sides: one in favor of registration and one opposed to it. The arguments made by each side paralleled the arguments surrounding controversial real-world laws like the Patriot Act.

The other example is how mutants have been a stand-in for certain oppressed groups.

WM: If he were a superhero, what would Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s superpowers be? His alias?

JD: Marky Mark might be a pretty decent superhero name for starters. As chancellor, he has overseen a lot of new buildings, and I think a fitting superpower would be super strength so he could put them all together overnight.

WM: What do you want readers to take away from your blog?

JD: I want people to be able to take away two things: that comic books can be a really well-written and sophisticated storytelling medium and that the law does not have to be confusing or boring if it’s explained in the right way.

Michelle Merlin, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12, is a summer writing intern in University Marketing & Design.

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