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Law is a Ass by Bob Ingersoll
Join us each Tuesday as Bob Ingersoll analyzes how the law
is portrayed in comics then explains how it would really work.

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THE LAW IS A ASS for 07/13/1999
DOCKET ENTRY Installment # 1
Published in The Comics Buyer's Guide # 510
August 26, 1983

The first born.

Over the past two weeks, I've explained how "The Law is a Ass" came to be-how Tony Isabella pounded upon me to write this piece and, by extension, all the ones that have come since. And I explained how I wrote up the first installment of my column on spec and sent it off to Don and Maggie Thompson at Comics Buyer's Guide. Well, what follows is that first on-spec column, the first one I ever wrote.

Like any proud papa, I have a special place in my heart for my first born. To be sure, it has its rough spots-passages I look at now, years later and years wiser, and can only wonder, "I thought I was supposed to be good at this, why did I write it that way?" and for which my only answer is that "it seemed like a good idea at the time." Still, I am as proud of it as any father is of those first teeter-tottering steps of his one year-old child just learning to walk-those halting foot shuffles leading, at first, to headlong plunges, which become the confident strides that begin a journey. Here, then, is that first born presented with all my paternal pride.

I promise, I'll only show a few pictures.

The Law Is A Ass
by Bob Ingersoll
Installment # 1

When comic book writers explain how the various super heroes and villains can defy natural law with their exploits, many mumble something like, "The laws of physics work differently in the comic book universe." How else can we explain Action # 544, wherein Superman creates the cosmic redundancy of a vacuum in outer space-one wonders what exactly was there before, lime Jell-O?-which sends the heat and radiation of an exploding sun back into said sun and creates an instant black hole.

The laws of the courtroom must work differently in the comic book universe also. It certainly isn't the same law that I studied and currently practice. Instead it's some hybrid: part Perry Mason, part Death Wish, part G. Gordon Liddy, and all woefully inaccurate. In other words, in the omniversal theory of things Mr. Bumble, is correct, the law is a ass.

(No angry letters, folks. The reference-vulgarity, bad grammar, and all-is a classic. Dickens, in fact. It's from Chapter 51 of Oliver Twist. When Mr. Bumble, a beadle, which is to say a petty and corrupt petty official in the London courts of the time and, himself, a vulgar and ungrammatical man-learns that he's about lose his job for the actions of his wife because English law at the time presumed a wife acted under the direction and control of her husband, he responds, "If the law supposes that . . . the law is a ass-a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor." Go ahead, look it up. I had to.)

It is the intention of this column to cast a probing, critical, and (I hope) humorous eye on the law as it is used or misused by comic book writers past and present. To point out that the law and justice may be blind, but it isn't as blind as it is portrayed in the four-color world we all love. Basically, to point out how the law in comics and other popular media is usually wrong and then explain how it really should have worked in the given situation.

However, in order for me to be able to do this with any degree of credibility, I guess I'd better establish my bona fides first. I am a comic book fan and collector. I have been for some twenty-five of my thirty years. My collection, at last count, numbered in excess of ten thousand comics. I know comics.

I am also a lawyer. I went to an accredited law school and graduated in the top ten percent of my class. I work for the Cuyahoga County Public Defender Office in Cleveland, Ohio and practice criminal defense law, which is the type of law generally used in comics. I can also use Latin phrases like bona fides, corpus delicti, and mens rea without blushing. I know the law. And don't worry if you don't know what those high-prices Latin phrases mean, we'll be revisiting them in the weeks to come with explanations.

Now, having set out my mission goals, let's get started with the actual mission and analyze something.


Let's talk about something that's fairly universal in comics first. Let's talk about masks. Or cowls. Or secret identities. Or any of the other trappings of incognito, which super-heroes feel are essential to the job.

Masks would, in reality, prevent super-heroes from super-heroing.

In the first place, masks are commonly illegal. When most of the states found their citizens accosted by highwaymen, the Klu Klux Klan, or crazed skiers with a bad sense of direction; the states outlawed masks. With the possible exception of Halloween, it is usually illegal to travel the open road while masked. Imagine that, J. Jonah Jameson was right about Spider-Man all the time; Spidey is a masked lawbreaker who should have been arrested the first time he set foot on the open road. (To all you nit-pickers, swinging over the open road on a web would count too.)

Masks have an even bigger drawback. A typical scenario -yes, TV super-heroes like Ralph (The Greatest American Hero) Hinkley are also proper grist for my mill-can be found in Detective # 529 and 530. It involves that paradigm of the masked super-hero, the Batman.

The Batman is on patrol and finds Anton Knight, the Night-Thief, committing a burglary. No one else sees the event, only the Batman, which is fortunate as this paradigm of masked herodom needed three tries, before he could actually catch the rather wimpy Knight-hint for future Batman writers; it really doesn't do much for his rep if you have him taking on villains even I could catch. Eventually, the Batman does capture Knight, but again no one else sees it. Finally, in Detective # 530, Knight stands trial for his malefactions.

Now, as the Batman was the only person who saw Knight committing any crime, the Batman's testimony would be needed in order to convict Knight. Needed? Try essential. Without the Batman, there would literally be no case against Knight. And sure enough, in Detective # 530, the Batman-in full cape and cowl-testifies against Knight.

Anyone out there care to explain to me exactly how the Batman accomplished this little feat?

He couldn't just swing into the courtroom and testify, you know.

I mean, how did the Batman prove he was the Batman?

If I were Anton Knight facing trial and I knew the only witness who could convict me was a man dressed in a gray and blue costume complete with mask and earpieces suitable for playing ring toss on; I'd want to keep that person from testifying. And, unless the witness could prove that he was the same man dressed in a gray and blue costume complete with mask and earpieces suitable for playing ring toss on who caught me, that person would never testify against me.

Before super-heroes whose real identities were unknown could testify in a court, they would have to prove they were really the hero they claimed to be and not some imposter in a costume. For all the judge knows the costumed witness could be a flunky hired by the defendant to lie and get the defendant acquitted.

Some heroes would have no problem proving their identity. Superman could crush a big rock. Stone Boy could turn into a big rock. Captain America could three-cushion-billiard shot his shield off a big rock. Wonder Woman could... Wonder Woman wouldn't have to do anything, really. She could tie up the judge with her magic lasso of obedience and order him to let her testify.

But how could the Batman prove his identity? It could be anyone behind those earpieces. (Well, not anyone. With my pot belly, it could never be me, unless Gotham City had gotten used to seeing Adam West in the costume.)

Perhaps the Batman could deduce where each juror was from by observing how far some parsley had sunk in the clay on their shoes. (And, he inquired in his best, squeaky Andy Rooney voice, did you ever notice how Gotham City as some 2,476 different varieties of clay, each one of which was indigenous to exactly one square block of the city?)

Or perhaps the judge could devise some other test. I can just imagine the bailiff wheeling a large aquarium tank, manacling the Batman inside of it, then filling it with sulfuric acid and tiger sharks. "If you get out within ten minutes, you're the World's Greatest Escape Artist, which proves you're the Batman. If you don't and you die… Well, we weren't going to let you testify anyway."

If you think testifying in court would be a problem, just imagine what would have happened if Captain America had run for President of the United States in Captain America # 250 and had been elected. "Yes, Sir, I realized the Russians have launched a full scale preemptive nuclear strike. But you can't order a retaliatory strike, unless you prove that you're the President under that mask."

Finally, there's the simple trick of keeping that secret identity a secret. Super-heroes think nothing of breaking into criminals' offices or homes to rifle their files. That's burglary or breaking and entering or theft or, at least, criminal trespass. If any super-hero did that to me, I'd have him arrested on the spot, processed, booked, and fingerprinted. Oh, and the mug shots, they'd be without the mask on. (Don't let what happened in Flash # 326 fool you. Mug shots are always taken without the mask on.) Then we'd see just how secret that old secret identity would be.

Masks and secret identities would create real problems for the practicing super-hero. Of course, the heroes have other problems with the law, too. Other areas where comic book law runs afoul with real world law. Areas which future installments of this column will explore.

For example, where do the Gotham City Police go to get four or five people of similar size, build, and complexion to put in a line-up with the Joker?

<< 07/06/1999 | 07/13/1999 | 07/20/1999 >>

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