31 May 2015

BCCS Comics/Cake Day Report

The British Consortium of Comics Scholars (BCCS) 'Comics Day and Tea Party' took place yesterday, 30 May 2015, at the University of Sussex in Brighton (see here for more details). It was a rip-roaring day of academic and creative comics revelry!

The day began at a very civilised 11:30 am, with tea and coffee in the luxurious surroundings of a Moroccan Tent, perched on the campus lawn amidst trees and institutional concrete building. Nicola Streeten (@NicolaStreeten), co-founder of the glorious 'Laydeez do Comics' (@laydeezdocomics) opened proceedings with a very warm welcome, before we delved headlong into a critical report on this year's Angoulême festival.

But this insight into one of the world's largest comics gatherings was a mere precursor, an aperitif, for the rest of the day.

We had a lovely lunch (still in the Moroccan Tent), complete with mystery salad and pick-n-mix bread, before migrating across the lawn, amidst the trees and concrete, to a shiny lecture theatre. A very orthodox academic space, which we appropriated (and, at one stage, queered) for our nefarious comicsy ends. The afternoon began with a session on comics and academic research, with Will Brooker (@willbrooker) giving us a world premier of the kickstarter for My So Called Secret Identity vol 2, Matt Green leading us through his critical insights into the nature of academic research and the place of comics within it, Janette Paris displaying her development of Arch, and Ernesto Priego (@ernestopriego) expounding the intricacies of the open access academic publishing being promoted at The Comics Grid (@ComicsGrid).

After this tour de force, the main event took place: CAKE! And it was delicious. There was an apple one (that was the one I had), and there was a blueberry one (which I now regret not having). The cake was enjoyed with tea and coffee, and much conversation. We then returned to the shiny lecture theatre, to be confronted with the reality of what we had just ingested. This was no ordinary cake—but feminism cake! Famous feminist quotations had been cunningly baked into the cakes on sheets of icing paper, in an act of critical aesthetic genius. In retrospect, the cakes became slightly tastier...

We were then treated to another tour de force, this time from artists and creators talking about the role that comics-making has played in their lives and the relationships between living and comicsing. Annie Lawson talked about her early career at art school in the '70s, and how her artistry had evolved across her life. Kate Evans (@cartoonkate) shared her politically fuelled early works, inspired by legislation, activism, amongst other things (worth checking out as quintessential examples of graphic justice, I would suggest!), and her later works inspired by childbirth and motherhood. Still on a graphic justice theme, Sofia Niazi outlined her work, highlighting the DIY Justice project that takes place at the Rich Mix, which uses arts and comics to tackle issues of social justice. Rachael House (@RachaelLHouse) then queered the space and shared her back catalogue of transgressive and norm defying zines, before Steven Appleby recounted a charming insight into his comics obsessions, from transvestitism, to science fiction, to death, to sex, to hidden fears.

The day closed with yet more cake, and also wine, and also conversation and a surging increase in the level of revelry. From Morrocan Tent to shiny lecture theatre, to the 'cake space' (later, 'wine space'), the day was a wonderful trip through a cornucopia of comics madness, research, and insight, interspersed with human treats (not least of which was cake). Special thanks goes to the organisers, most notably Nicola Streeten, who helped make the day the warm, friendly and beautiful event that it was.

A delight!

26 May 2015

Law and Culture Conference 2015 Call for Papers

Law and Culture Conference 2015: Change
10-11 September 2015, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London

Law and culture are two significant forces in human life, both shaping and influencing the conduct of individuals, communities and societies, and the values they develop. The emergence of values and norms, of traditions and beliefs—of laws—is a chronological phenomenon, taking place through the evolution of history and the influential forces of the present. But these laws are not static: change is an on-going process: a restless development and dynamic interaction of legal, cultural, social, and human reality.

Beyond the multifaceted avenues of change that traverse the history of law and its relationship(s) with culture (changing laws, values and practices; the changing presence and visibility of law in mainstream society and culture; the changing presence of women and others in law; changes in the philosophical grounding of justice), there are also widespread changes afoot in the present of 2015. In Europe, for example, there is the possibility of enormous political change with general elections, with the ebb and flow of the corporate giant, and with the EU facing challenges that may result in its reconfiguration. Beyond politics, present life is also bringing fresh challenges for law and culture globally, such as: the increased use of technology in law and human life (including amongst other challenges the darknet, and the integration of our online and physical selves); the shifting authority of law’s cultural presence and its increasingly complex relationships with science, religion, and society; the challenges of globalisation and transnational crime; the blurring of the first, second and third world; the fluidity of values as our relationship with modernity becomes ever more strained.

The Law and Culture Conference 2015 will engage with this question of change: of how law and value have developed and changed in the cultures of the past; of how it might develop in the future; of the forces and changes acting and taking place in the cultures and societies around law today (locally, globally; nationally, transnationally); of how representations of law and justice in culture (television, film, literature, comics, newsmedia) might be evolving today, yesterday, tomorrow; of how law might respond to or encounter change or changing cultures, or challenges to its authority from other sources of value and justice; of how change might be effected within law, intentionally or otherwise, for good or for bad; of how law and culture could change one another, for better, for worse, or for something else…

These are but indicative examples of the on-going process of change, all of which require fresh perspectives to decipher and understand its significance for law, and for law’s place in contemporary culture. Such questioning also provides new opportunities to visualise and explore the frontiers and changing dynamics of law and culture. Submissions are thus sought from all areas of law and cultural legal studies, engaging in some way with this broad and open question of ‘change’.

Please submit (abstract 300 words plus 3 keywords) by email, no later than 30 June 2015.

The organisers are happy to discuss potential ideas in advance of submission.

Organisers’ contact details:

There is an anticipated registration fee for the conference of £100, plus booking.

12 May 2015

Costumed Visions: Depictions, Impacts and Ethics of Enhanced Bodies

First Meeting of the ‘Costumed Visions Network
16 September 2015

Superheroes and supervillains are human approximations possessed of abilities or capacities beyond those considered species-typical.  These beings may acquire their powers in a variety of ways: divinity (e.g. the Mighty Thor); mysticism (e.g., the Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Stephen Strange); fictional forces such as the Power Cosmic (e.g., the Silver Surfer); and more. Of particular interest, however, are those empowered by genetic and/or techno-scientific means. The processes by which they gain their increased capabilities frequently approximate those by which scientists are currently seeking to intervene in our physiology, or the way futurists are anticipating that our physiologies will be modified, and they can be distilled into the following archetypes: 

  • Those who experienced an evolutionary jump or germ line genetic mutation at birth (e.g., mutants, or homo superior, such as Wolverine, Storm, and Colossus). 
  • Those subject to an induced genetic transformation as a result of ethical or unethical science (e.g., mutated humans such as Captain America, She-Hulk, and Spider-Man).
  • Those who rely on implanted or overlaid technology that is somehow integrated with their organic beings (e.g., Deathlok, Misty Knight, and Cable). 
  • Those who rely entirely on high technologies, typically worn externally (e.g., Iron Man, Guardian, and Vindicator). 
  • Those who are designed and rely on machine intelligence to achieve autonomous awareness (e.g., Danger, the Vision, and the Human Torch).

These archetypes encompass a number of approaches to, and realisations of, the enhanced human or post-human, and they are a useful device by which we can understand and critique different states of being and doing, some of which may be just over the horizon.  Their visions of enhancement and social interaction offer popular and increasingly compelling imaginaries that can be analysed from a number of angles, offering new insights around existing practices, including those around innovation trajectories, social deployment of technologies, ethical and legal control of science and human interaction, and different forms of embodiment.  In short, they offer a novel way to think about contemporary constructions of normative bodies, health, embodiment, and equality; one that is of interest to a wide range of publics not normally engaged with the academy.

The Costumed Visions of the Enhanced Body project, kindly funded by the Wellcome Trust, is a collaboration between the Institute for Science Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, and the JK Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and Law at the University of Edinburgh.  It will explore graphic fiction portrayals of the enhanced body, engaging with questions such as:

  • What do the depicted enhancements say about current ideas of treatment and enhancement?
  • How are different embodiments treated, and what does that say about value or values?
  • How is science and technology portrayed, and are comics useful for science communication?

On 16 September 2015, at the Manchester Meeting Place, the project team (David Lawrence, Shawn Harmon, Gill Haddow) will join with other interested contributors (including Professor Scott Bukatman, Mr Dan Abnett, Professor Andy Miah, Dr Simon Locke, Mr Alan Cowsill, Mr Mik Scarlet, Dr David Kirby, and Dr Thomas Giddens and Dr Yasemin Erden, both of the Graphic Justice Research Alliance), to undertake an interdisciplinary discussion around these questions.  It will serve as a nexus of culture, media and literature studies, and will provide a unique lens through which to focus on persistent academic debates about embodiment and the ethics and regulation of enhancement.  Key outcomes of the project will be (1) the formation of the Costumed Visions Network, which will in future work collaboratively with the Graphic Justice Research Alliance, (2) publication of an edited collection based around the content of the meeting, and (3) the preparation of a proposal for further research at this novel intersection of fields.

Information on the meeting is available on the Mason Institute website http://masoninstitute.org/our-research/.

Attendance at the meeting is free but ticketed, and registration is through Eventbrite (at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/costumed-visions-of-enhanced-bodies-tickets-16885777816). 

If you wish to join the Costumed Visions Network, please contact David Lawrence (david.lawrence@manchester.ac.uk) or Shawn Harmon (shawn.harmon@ed.ac.uk).


11 May 2015

Introduction to 'Graphic Justice'

To acknowledge the publication of Graphic Justice: Intersections of Comics and Law, my introduction to the collection is reproduced below (originally posted here, with kind permission of the publisher; twitter handles/etc and footnote references added to text):

We are surrounded by emanations of graphic storytelling: comics-inspired films fill our cinemas; prose narratives become adapted and transported into graphic novels; graphic novels become computer games and television series; superhero merchandise fills the shelves of supermarkets and clothing stores. Feeding from this wide cultural significance, this collection of essays examines the multi-faceted intersections of comics and law. Although there has been increased engagement with literature, film, popular culture, and even ‘the visual’ in general within legal studies (though see S Greenfield, G Osborn and P RobFilm and the Law: The Cinema of Justice), despite the medium’s recent surge in cultural capital the significance of graphic fiction to law remains conspicuously under researched (though see 2012 special issue on ‘Justice Framed: Law in Comics and Graphic Novels’ in volume 16 of Law Text Culture and T Giddens, ‘Comics, Law, and Aesthetics: Towards the Use of Graphic Fiction in Legal Studies’ (2012) 6 Law and Humanities 85) On its most basic level, the significance of comics to law can be couched in these terms: comics are an overt and widespread part of contemporary society and culture, and law is in part an attempt to regulate that society and culture and in part a reflection of its values; therefore, an understanding of the intersections of comics with law is important in making sense of law and its place in today’s world. But this very general observation is just the beginning. 

Even glancing at the mainstream surface of comics, diverse issues of justice and social order are instantly apparent. BatmanDaredevilSpider-ManThe Justice League of America—all these narrative worlds navigate issues of right and wrong, of morality, of retribution and vengeance, of methodologies of control. Theirs are worlds populated with good and evil, with power and responsibility, with duty and moral choice. But this, too, is only a start. Even lightly scratching at this mainstream surface, one finds a raft of non-superhero narratives. Some of these, like stories in other media, are stories directly about law and justice (crime narratives, legal dramas); others are about making difficult moral choices. Others tap into deep metaphysical questions about the nature of self and what it means to be human in the first place. Like other narrative forms—literature, film, theatre—comics and graphic fiction try to explore and express the multiple and complex dimensions human life.

Are we there yet? No, far from it. The content and themes of graphic fiction may be richly vast and diverse, but there is more to comics than their content. Narratives can be told in many different ways, using many different tools and devices. A simple oral tale has a certain quality, and related limitations. A huge cinematic production similarly has its own set of capacities. This is not to suggest that these forms are static and unchanging—innovative creators can challenge the way a form is used, or expose previously untapped dimensions. But the form of a narrative shapes its meanings; the way a story is told is part of that story. Meaning derives from form as well as content. Graphic fiction is a particular form of narration, and one that (like many things in this world) is not easy to define. But the complexities inherent in the comics form itself can provide avenues for conceptualising and engaging with issues in legal theory, notably around the relationships between words and images, and the limits of textual representation. Indeed, as our opening chapter ‘Lex Comica’ demonstrates, comics can even be used as a direct vehicle for legal theory.

From what has been said so far, it is apparent that the significance of comics to law is not simple or unitary, but is complex and multi-faceted. Accordingly, the aim of this collection is to demonstrate (albeit in a necessarily preliminary way) some key examples of the ways in which law and comics interact. On, through, between, and within the pages of this collection a picture will emerge of the vast and varied potential of comics and graphic fiction for critical reflection on the concerns of law and justice.

Part One gives a brief collection of examples of how comics can contribute to legal debate in a number of areas, from doctrinal copyright law, to legal ethics, education, public discourse, and legal philosophy. Beyond form and content, even beyond broad cultural significance, Kim Barker (@BabyLegalEagle) examines the comics form from a very legal perspective. Unpicking the complex intellectual property rights in a work of comics is not simple, and through her analysis of this complexity Barker demonstrates that understandings of comics in copyright law, particularly around online user generated content and the copyright that can rest in specific characters (including, absurdly, the Batmobile) can lead to a blurring of fundamental copyright principles such as the distinction between ideas and expressions that has shaped intellectual property law for over a century.

Continuing the focus on the traditionally legal sphere, Graham Ferris and Cleo Lunt look at issues of legal representation in comics. Representation, for Ferris and Lunt, is a dual problem: it is about both the way graphic fiction portrays lawyers and their work to the public (and, importantly, to potential future lawyers), and the ethics of advocating for (that is, ‘representing’) guilty clients. As they argue, the fictional world of heroic comics may have important significance in their portrayal of the world of the legal profession, but works such as Daredevil need to develop a more sophisticated depiction of the ethical difficulties involved in representing the guilty.

Another mainstream legal issue is taken up by Richard Glancey (@RichardGlancey) in the following chapter. He is concerned with the education of the students on his undergraduate Constitutional Law module, specifically with the difficulty that is often present when it comes to comprehending the theoretical complexities of core concepts. But comics may also have unique benefits to legal education—in steps Judge Dredd, adding a significant experiential dimension, bringing to life ideas such as the rule of law and the separation of powers that can springboard students into deeper understandings of these important concepts.

Continuing the theme of using comics to communicate legal issues and ideas, Shawn HE Harmonshows how futuristic science fiction can be specifically developed and deployed to increase both public understanding and engagement with bioethical issues. Telling the story of his own involvement in a project to do just that, his chapter demonstrates the potential for graphic fiction to both articulate and participate in legal discourse.

Futuristic science fiction has additional critical importance, as Thomas Giddens’s (@ExplodingCanon) chapter shows through its philosophical reflection on the uncertain boundary between human and machine in Shirow Masamune’s The Ghost in the Shell. This issue is important for law, because law is both created and applied by humans as well as being reliant upon knowing what a human is for the construction of key legal doctrines (such as murder, or the difference between person and property). But, as this chapter argues, the human is fluid and not easily pinned down.

Part Two moves to specifically consider one of the most prominent themes apparent in graphic fiction: crime and criminal justice. Looking to the cultural dimensions of crime and how it is mediated through fiction, specifically the communal and social experience of being part of mainstream US comics readership, Nickie D Phillips (@nickiep) and Staci Strobl (@Staci_Strobl) examine the concept of deathworthiness through the retributive lens of Cry for Justice and Red Team. Drawing rich links between the notions of justice and desert that these two series articulate and the popular discourse around the real-world killing spree of Christopher Dorner, Phillips and Strobl ultimately show how the narratives of comics are a deeply significant way in which many people process and make sense of complex questions of morality.

In the following chapter, Angus Nurse blurs the seemingly clear division between retributive and restorative justice through his analysis of 100 Bullets. In a world of inequality, where the powerful and those who ‘have’ make the rules in their own interests, and justice remains elusive for those who ‘have not’, taking the quintessentially restorative move of giving the victim the ability seek their own personal justice becomes a meaningful alternative to official pathways. Through Nurse’s analysis, he builds up a picture of an extreme restorative justice, which often spills over into retributive violence and unsettles the boundary between the two.

Turning away from the notion of retribution, James Petty (@petty_theft) examines a classic of the comics form: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. In his rich conceptual analysis of this work, inspired by cultural and visual criminology, Petty demonstrates how the superhero genre, when deployed with the skill of auteurs such as Moore, can effect a radical critique of western ideologies of justice and violence, and deeply question whether the existence of these spandex-clad guardians of justice would actually make the world a better place.

Perhaps worryingly following Watchmen’s unsettling warning, Nic Groombridge (@criminology4u) gives a provocative discussion of people actually trying and take up the mantle of the costumed vigilante—but rather than bringing justice to the world (whatever that might mean, as Boge will highlight in Chapter 13) there seems to be something ineffectual about the would-be heroes Groombridge considers. Regardless, focusing on the use of the superhero in UK fathers’ rights protests, Groombridge ultimately communicates the cultural resonance of the superhero in individuals’ approach to understanding how to achieve justice outside the official system and the need to deepen our understanding of such phenomena.

Part Three takes on a distinctly international flavour, focusing on questions of international law, global justice, and human rights atrocities. Chris Comerford kicks us off by pointing out the connections between Barak Obama and Batman, specifically in terms of their deployment of Agamben’s state of exception. Focusing on Obama’s executive assassination of Osama bin Laden and the development of Batman Incorporated, both of which rely upon the necessity of exceptional action to justify their extreme measures, Comerford suggests that such exceptional actions (to paraphrase the Dark Knight himself) might be what we need, but not what we deserve.

And still levelling critique in Obama’s direction, Chris Lloyd examines the US President’s controversial drone programme and his killing of US citizens without charge or trial—an examination articulated through the critical and deeply satirical art of 2000AD’s authoritarian lawgiver Judge Dredd. Taking his journey with Rancière, Benjamin and Derrida, Lloyd draws out the problematics surrounding Obama’s becoming (like Dredd) a terrible conflation of judge, jury and executioner, an authoritarian vision warned against in political philosophy and the critical art of Dredd.

Turning from Obama to a more general analysis of international justice, Chris Boge capitalises on the potential for superhero narratives to help us explore the complex problems of that elusive legal concept, ‘justice’. Focusing on two Justice League series, and deploying insights from post-colonialism, international law, practical ethics and human rights discourse, he highlights the vast complexity exposed even by seemingly ‘straight-forward’ or ‘non-reflexive’ visions of superhero justice, pondering on the difficulty in understanding what global justice might look like.

Finally, stepping back from analysis of graphic fictionJérémie Gilbert and David Keane consider how graphic fact (specifically, comics aimed at reporting on real-world human rights atrocities) might be a real force for international justice. Examining issues in human rights reporting and the seminal graphic reportage of Joe Sacco, amongst others, Gilbert and Keane clearly identify both a growing body of journalistic comics and the human enrichment that the medium can bring—particularly to the reporting of events such as the deep trauma of mass rights violations.

So ends the collection of essays in this volume. As can be seen, we have come a long way: from the doctrinal view of comics as regulatory objects within intellectual property law, through concerns of representation, education, communication, and philosophy, across the complex role of comics in understanding crime and criminal justice and the tensions between reality and fiction, to the value of comics in understanding issues of a truly global significance: exceptional executive violence and international concepts of justice, and ultimately to the use of comics not simply as a tool or object of analysis, but as a meaningful and important participant in the protection of humans against mass harm. The aim of this volume, if it is not already clear, is to demonstrate and showcase the diverse potential for comics and graphic fiction to enrich the various discourses of law, justice and legal studies. But rather than examining the legal potential of comics in the abstract, for the most part the papers in this collection ‘argue by doing’. As we have seen: on, through, between, and within its pages you will find rich seams of analysis engaging many themes important to law and justice—and importantly, these are undertaken with comics and graphic fiction as a not-so-silent analytical companion.

It is hoped that following these analyses, when observing a collection of superheroes or their proliferating merchandise, no longer will it simply be a hoard of dazzling superficiality or childish nostalgia that is seen—but a complex array of conceptual models and critical engagements relating to legal theory and the meaning of justice; no more will the comics aesthetic be pushed from your critical radar as a distraction or mere entertainment—but will be sought out as a source of critical inspiration, example, and insight; never again will the combination of words and images simply mean crude, childish escapism—but will signal the complex limits of law’s language and of legitimate knowledge; no more shall legal discourse be constructed only through text—but will be populated by and articulated through engagement with the richly constructed panels and pages of graphic fiction. In short, the combination of diverse texts in this volume seeks a unitary aim: that legal studies embrace the comics medium as a real and significant critical resource and object.