Abnormal Interviews: James Daily and Ryan Davidson of the Law and the Multiverse Blog

Today, Abnormal Use once again continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners, and other commentators in the field. For the latest installment, we turn to lawyer bloggers James Daily and Ryan Davidson of The Law and the Multiverse blog, an incredibly fun site in which the authors apply the laws of the real world to the exploits of comic book superheros. In so doing, they’ve earned much press, including a New York Times profile and a Mother Jones interview, and they’ve even have their own Wikipedia entry. That’s not bad for a blog which only came into being in November 2010. The site’s two authors were kind enough to submit to a brief interview with Abnormal Use:

1. How did you get the idea for the blog, and what prompted you to bring it to fruition?

JAMES: My wife and I were having dinner with some friends and the subject turned to Superman’s X-ray vision and whether privacy rights on Krypton might be very different. One of our friends suggested that this kind of thing might make for a good blog, which I was a bit skeptical of at first. I thought about it for a few days and wrote up the first few articles, then I posted about the blog on the personal projects section of MetaFilter, a kind of shared blog that Ryan and I are members of. I’ve been a member of MetaFilter since 2005, and it’s a fairly close community with a strong emphasis on member contributions. So I think what really prompted me to start the blog was a desire to contribute something interesting to that community, although I had no idea it would be so well received.
After the post to MetaFilter, Ryan immediately responded with an offer of collaboration, and so he was involved almost from the very beginning. We’ve both been pleasantly surprised by the positive reception the blog has received every step of the way.
2) Your site focuses on the application of real world legal concepts to comic book superheroes. How well do comic books depict the legal process?
JAMES AND RYAN: Relatively few comic books depict the legal process beyond villains being arrested by police after the superheroes do their thing. But what depictions there are hold up pretty well, especially considering most (if not all) comics are written by non-lawyers. The stories that have courtroom scenes usually don’t have any glaring technical errors, even if they don’t show a lot of detail. On the whole, most modern comic book courtroom scenes are on par with the depiction of court scenes in TV shows and movies.
That being said, comic book stories containing plot elements that are significantly legally problematic show up with some regularity, e.g. nobody ever seems to pay taxes or get audited. Some of that is excusable given the common genre trope of not showing boring details—no one ever seems to go to the bathroom either—and warrantless searches and arrests are so commonplace in comic books that it would be kind of surprising if they *didn’t* show up.
But we do occasionally see things that simply don’t work. For example, the criminal law definition of “insanity” isn’t represented in comic books very well. The Joker may be emotionally unbalanced, even to the point of meriting involuntary commitment, but he does not appear to be insane in a way that would excuse him from criminal liability. Similarly, maintaining a secret identity without government support is reasonably difficult even over the short term, and the problems get even worse for abnormally long-lived characters like Wolverine or R’as al Ghul. But again, the few times that comic books do explicitly deal with legal situations, they do fairly well.
3) What is your favorite depiction of a legal issue in a comic book?
JAMES: In one of the Manhunter comics, Manhunter’s alter ego, Kate Spencer, who is a criminal defense attorney, is at a grand jury hearing. The comic book mentions that the proceedings are sealed and that as a representative for the defense Kate is only there as a courtesy and can’t object to anything. I was very pleasantly surprised by the mention of those technical but important details. So that stands out in my mind.
RYAN: I find that the very early Iron Man comics (i.e. the mid-1960s), Tony Stark actually ran into significant difficulties switching between the Iron Man and Stark personae. It’s one of the few times that a superhero seems to have been bothered by the masquerade beyond mere fear of discovery; Stark started to have money problems. It’s one of the reasons he took off the mask, as it were: maintaining the double life was simply too difficult given the highly public life of Tony Stark.
4) What has been the reaction of the legal field to your site?
JAMES AND RYAN: The response has been consistently positive. We’ve heard good things from attorneys, law students, and law professors, some of whom have mentioned using ideas from the blog in their courses. No one’s really called us out on getting anything completely wrong either, so that’s good. We’ve also been mentioned on several law blogs, including The Volokh Conspiracy.

5) There are, as you may know, real life citizens out there donning costumes in an effort to fight crime, just like comic book superheroes. Are these potential clients for you now, in light of your work?
JAMES AND RYAN: We’re pretty careful about trying not to give legal advice on the blog. If the exposure directs people to us in our day jobs neither of us would complain, but for legal ethics reasons the blog and related projects are strictly literary. We certainly do not intend or want any real-life superheroes to rely on anything we post, which they would be crazy to do anyway, since we tend to write about general legal principles and broad factual examples rather than focusing on the specific law applicable to particular facts the way one would for a client.

6) What has been your favorite legal issue that you have discussed on the site?
JAMES: My favorite issues have been the ones closest to my day job, which is focused on intellectual property. Posts like “Batman and Patents” and the “Superpowered Merchandising” series are my favorites. I did really enjoy writing the recent post on legal ethics, though, since I don’t think the writer realized that the character was committing an ethical breach (improper in-person solicitation), and I don’t think many readers would realize it either. I enjoyed the opportunity to inform people about the ethical standards for attorneys, especially since this is an issue that they might encounter in their own lives.
RYAN: I’ve enjoyed the more historical topics, so outlawry, the non-human intelligence series, and the posts touching on immortality have been especially fun to write.
BIOGRAPHIES: James Daily is an attorney licensed in Missouri and a graduate of the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is also registered to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office. By day, he works for the Stanford University Hoover Institution’s Project on Commercializing Innovation and represents clients in intellectual property matters. Ryan Davidson is an attorney licensed in Indiana and a graduate of Notre Dame Law School. He practices in Fort Wayne, Indiana, mostly in insurance law. The two of them started the Law and the Multiverse blog in November of 2010. You can follow them on Twitter here.

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