Law and Conversation

September 29, 2011

The fascinating history of comic books

The other day I posted about Banned Books Week here in the US. In the mid-20th century there was a powerful movement against comic books in this country, complete with public burnings. I’ve noticed, though, that comic books don’t usually rate mentions during Banned Books Week. Indeed, though I’ve always loved comics, until just a few years ago, when I happened to be listening to podcasts reviewing David Hajdu’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” I had no idea about that interesting and appalling part of US history.

Jeet Heer’s article in Slate, “The Caped Crusader: Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books,” reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Hajdu’s book for some time and ought to move it up on my list. Now that I know that Wertham and his partisans succeeded in whipping even Congress up into a frenzy over comic books, I understand why, when I was a child a couple of decades later, my parents didn’t want me to tell anyone I had my own subscription to MAD magazine. But Heer’s nuanced treatment of Wertham, which I haven’t seen elsewhere, also reminds us that many comics of that period contained story lines and imagery that even those of us who oppose banning books would find shocking and repugnant today.

I mentioned Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novelization of the mid-20th century’s comic book age, in my last post. The fictional storyline of Chabon’s novel reminded me strongly of longtime MAD magazine artist Al Jaffee’s real life story, which Mary Lou Weisman tells in collaboration with her subject in “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life.” (What, you don’t remember which cartoons Jaffee drew? He invented the brilliant Fold-Ins back in 1964; NOW do you remember?) You can read more about Jaffee and Weisman’s book, including the entire prologue, complete with some of Jaffee’s wonderful illustrations, on HEEB’s website.

To summarize, here are three reading recommendations for books about the fascinating history of comic books:

1) The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu

2) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

3) Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, by Mary Lou Weisman

As always, I’d love to hear other recommendations for further reading in the comments.

UPDATED: Neatorama has a great post on the history of comic books. Hat tip: Judex Jones.

September 26, 2011

Read this: a Banned Book

DailyLit, among many others, reminds me that it’s Banned Books Week here in the US.

Isn’t it paradoxical that the books someone’s periodically kicking up a fuss over and trying to ban, or succeeding in banning, from schools and libraries are frequently classics? Those that aren’t, it seems to me, end up as merely forgettable and forgotten, not influential. In either case, the fussing seems silly to me, as in last year’s case of the brouhaha over Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak.”

DailyLit invites readers to post their personal favorite banned book; so far responses include Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher In The Rye, and The Bible. The American Library Association has lists by year here.

Some banned books that have a special place in my own heart, though I don’t see them on the ALA’s or DailyLit’s lists, are comic books, which Frederic Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist who emigrated to the US in the 1920s, campaigned against in the mid-20th century. A recent novelization of that period is Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001. More on Dr. Wertham, including a cartoon of him from an issue of MAD magazine, is here.

I’ll have more on comic books and books about them in my next post. (Redhead, are you still there? Thanks to you, I *finally* read Chabon’s book!) In the meantime, I hope readers will join me in commemorating Banned Books Week by reading a book from the ALA’s lists. DailyLit has “The Scarlet Letter” available for free!

September 23, 2011

Mental health and criminal justice: The Treatment and The Cure

Challenge ButtonI posted a review of Australian writer Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” over on The Europa Challenge Blog this week. Kocan’s work is a worthy addition to the canon of literature dealing with the treatment of mental illness – the criminally insane, in particular. He knows what he’s writing about: he himself was sentenced to life in prison for attempting to assassinate the Australian Labor Party leader in 1966, when he was 19. After spending around ten years in a prison asylum, he was released. Since then, he’s made a career as a writer and has won major literary awards in Australia. Hope you’ll click on over and have a look at my review. Even better, read Kocan’s autobiographical book for yourself. It’s a compelling, and chilling, story.

Treatment of the mentally ill has a long and sordid history. In recent years, some judicial systems have tried addressing offenders with mental illnesses through setting up specialty courts, which I wrote about in the April 2008 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal. Kocan’s narrator doesn’t appear to be mentally ill at all; he describes a system in which, from his point of view, treatment in the form of medication or electroshock sessions is administered more for punishment, or on whim, than for therapy.

Other memorable stories of mental illness include Joanne Greenberg’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” and the movie based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nobel laureate John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind.” Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” of course, is a classic novel about a prison mental hospital made into an equally classic movie with a superb performance by Jack Nicholson.

What are you reading this weekend?

September 22, 2011

Davis executed

Last night I posted about two executions in the US yesterday, one of which, Lawrence Brewer’s, had happened at the time I posted and the other of which, Troy Davis’s, had been postponed. I now see that Davis’s execution did take place late last night after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his application for a stay. (Hat tip: Ava George Stewart.)

George Stewart also posted on Davis’s execution last night on her Chicago Criminal Law Blog. She concluded by asking “Is this the America that makes you proud?” Her question reminded me of an occasion a long time ago on which I expressed a sentiment that was petty and maybe also a bit vengeful to a good friend. To my surprise, my friend responded not with agreement, but with “Aren’t you better than that?”

As Amnesty International reports, the world is moving toward abolition. But 58 or so countries, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Nigeria, and North Korea, retain the death penalty, with the US ranking toward the top of countries who actually carry out the sentences. Though that list also includes the first-world country of Japan, the general tilt of the list is backwardness and repression. To the questions posed by my other friends – does this make us proud? are we not better than that? – I add “Is this the sort of company we want to keep?”

The death penalty is a pretty uncomfortable topic, and, as I wrote a while back, I spent quite a bit of time thinking I supported it while preferring not to think about it too much. The crimes for which people are executed in the US are horrible – just read the background on the Brewer and the Davis cases – and those convicted, assuming no mistakes (and guilty verdict mistakes do happen), probably aren’t nice people. Certainly, there are lots more pleasant things to spend your time thinking about.

I finally did start taking apart the issue in my own mind after reading Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of the settlement of Australia, in which he described a public execution in 18th century England. The barbarity of crowds turning out to cheer and jeer the condemned man on his way to the gallows revolted me.

Then I started wondering whether it’s any better for a government to kill a person in private. Is it okay to do something behind closed doors, or in secret, that you think is so horrible or shameful that it can’t be done out in public, in the light of day? So if we’re going to continue to have executions, why should we not make them public, so that all can see? If you buy the argument that killing the person who killed someone else will provide comfort, or “closure” (whatever that is) to the victim’s family members – which I do not – then wouldn’t it be a good idea to let the entire world witness the execution, so as to provide that comfort to even more people, along with whatever deterrent or moral lesson we think capital punishment provides? And shouldn’t we bring the kids?

Those are all really uncomfortable questions, as was my friend’s to me so many years ago. And I’ve hardly even touched on the serious issue of mistaken guilty verdicts. But shouldn’t we be asking ourselves those questions and more, as long as we have state-sanctioned killing?

September 21, 2011

Executions today

As I write this post, absent an eleventh-hour stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Davis awaits execution in Georgia.  You can read about the many issues with Davis’s conviction on Amnesty International’s site, among many others. In a far more clear-cut case, Texas executed Lawrence Brewer this evening. (Hat tip: Mike Cane.)

I recently posted about the death penalty and what I see as its barbaric quality, even in such a repugnant case as Lawrence Brewer’s. A classic novel about a man found guilty of murder and executed that’s not read so much these days is Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” I read it more than thirty years ago, but it’s stuck with me, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

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