Shubha Ghosh, Framing the Law: Review of Thomas Giddens, On Comics and Legal Aesthetics (Routledge, 2018)
Framing the Law
Review of Thomas Giddens, On Comics and Legal Aesthetics (Routledge 2018)
Thomas Giddens is lecturer in law, University of Dundee, and the founder of Graphic Justice Research Alliance. So I gather from the words on the back of the book. I imagine what Dr. Giddens’ avatar would look like. Or what his book would look like in graphic images. After finishing On Comics and Legal Aesthetics, these questions burrowed through my mind. Words create our reality but so do images, whether in graphic form or in the sights that confront us through ordinary experience, as we walk down the street or look out a window. Law of course is just a bunch of words, but what if law were built on pictures, arranged through frames? Would our sense of justice and legal interpretation be different?
Keith Aoki was the master in integrating comics and the law. He wrote books and articles on legal doctrine in comic form. Giddens acknowledges Keith’s importance at the start of his book, and the Aoki spirit permeates the book. Graphic images break us free from the prison of words and permit a cultural legal aesthetics that Giddens explores through his experiences with Dr. Manhattan, Spiderman, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Judge Dredd, Dr. Manhattan’s colleagues in the Watchmen, Adamtine, and others. Not only do comics challenge linear modes of reading, they foster ways of thinking that merge experience and rationality. A reader can go deep into a comic frame and jump back across images. Comics were interactive long before digital media made that possible as the reader can modulate how frames are absorbed and assessed. Compare the experience of comics with the reading of a judicial opinion or a statute that forces word by word, comma by comma, parsing in search of the meaning. Textualism reinforces this way of thinking. Comics can us to break free of textualism.
The tension between comics and words strikes me as strange. Words, after all, are just images on the page. The graphic in “graphic novel” refers to the visual art, pictures, drawings, and lettering. But the letters that words consist of are more than drawings. They go beyond the graphic to some mental, ideal realm. Words connote images that we see in our head and, in most instances, coincide with what goes on in the heads of others. But words are often accepted uncritically as detached from culture, neutral forms that guide judgment according to a consensus seemingly accepted, but actually manufactured. Comics are subversive because they make us rethink words.
Scholars like Marc Greenberg of Golden Gate Law School trace the importance of the comics for the development of First Amendment doctrine. Giddens goes further to show how our reading of comics affects methods of interpreting and applying the law. As he concludes:
Law’s texts…are part of the complex multiframe of law,but also the broader multiframe of knowing—interconnected, boundless. Comics are…the opening of the cracks in the system, the seeing through the surface, the exposure of the fantastic beyond and the infinite abyss outside knowing…
Comics not only challenge legal doctrine but also infuse much needed imagination in interpretation of legal texts. Graphic images force us to reimagine words.
Law’s relationship with images, however, has a history beyond comics. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher of language, had a legal basis for the picture theory of language. Under this view, words have meaning through their representation of things. The word “chair” corresponds to an actual chair in the various form it may take. Inspiration for this picture theory, or so the story goes, is from watching a legal trial in which reconstruction of an accident through graphics corresponded to the actual accident that occurred.
A picture theory of language ignores the way words interplay with memory and imagination. The correspondence through a picture between a word “chair” and an actual chair reflects my experience with chairs. And as I experience different types of chairs my picture corresponding to the word “chair” will change. Furthermore, as new things enter the world through the processes of invention and discovery, new words must be created to create new associations. Where these new words originate may be a matter of context and arbitrariness. I call a device that allows me to move across the screen of a monitor a mouse because the cord reminds me of a tail. The phrase “smart phone” captures the capabilities of the new communications device that allows me to call a friend while completing multiple other tasks. Words and things are in constant interplay as users seek to capture meanings that may go beyond simply capturing a picture.
As I understand Giddens, comics reveal the limitations of words. In law, this limitation extends how unsatisfying words can be in capturing notions of justice. Words may help us to picture what happened in the world but they are inadequate to capture what the world should be. Graphic images convey emotions that words may not, offering for the reader an indelible view into the reactions of people to the world, whether laughter or tears, screams of joy or screams of fear. My first inclination was to wonder why film does not serve the same purpose, but I realized that the way film has traditionally displayed, in a theater or broadcast on television, forces the viewer into a linear experience, meted out in time-measured chunks. Streaming movies may make them more like comic books as viewers can scan back and forth across frames, reordering them, to read more deeply or shallowly as one wants. That convergence of experience may explain, in part, why the comics has served as source materials for so many recent movies (although the difficulty of creating an original work may be a more robust explanation). But even with film’s limitations, its framed images (at least in the analog world) come close to matching the power of comics to subvert and repurpose the word.
Giddens unleashes the power of the comics through his Graphic Justice Research Alliance, an organization that not only provides advocacy in cases involving comic books but also reworks the medium for representing and communicating law. A visit to the Alliance’s website shows how the group uses the comics to instruct about legal rights and duties, such as in a recent post about organ donation. Visit the site to see Giddens’ ideas in action.
While comics are entertaining, energizing, and empowering, the pressing question is whether they are ultimately liberating in the pursuit of justice. Can comics undercut the pervasiveness of the word? Does the knowledge provided by comics translate into power? These are questions I continue to ponder even after learning about Giddens’ research and activism. But it is good to see the spirit of Keith Aoki live on and continue to expand the frames of law, wherever we end up.
Shubha Ghosh is Crandall Melvin Professor of Law, Syracuse University College of Law and a member of the Hedgehogs and Foxes Board of Editors.
[N.B.: Professor Ghosh received a free copy of Thomas Giddens, On Comics and Legal Aesthetics, from the publisher, Routledge, in exchange for his honest review.–Ed.]
 Thomas Giddens, Thomas Giddens, On Comics and Legal Aesthetics (Routledge 2018), at 210.