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date: 23 November 2017

Crime, Justice, and Anglo-American Comics

Summary and Keywords

Criminal justice is a perennial theme in modern comics published in the United States and United Kingdom, with dominant narratives revolving around the protection of the innocent from crime and harm or the seeking of justice outside the authority of the state. The history of the comics medium and its regulation in the mid-20th century, particularly in the United States, shows how the comics medium itself—not just its popular content—was embroiled in questions of criminality, in relation to its perceived obscenity and fears that it caused juvenile delinquency. Indeed, the medium’s regulation shaped the way it has been able to engage with questions of crime and justice; the limitations on moral complexity under the censorship of the 1954 Comics Code in the United States, for example, arguably led to both a dearth of critical engagement in crime and justice concerns, and an increased evil or psychopathy in criminal characters (because more nuanced motivations could not be depicted under the Code). From the 1980s onwards, the restrictions of the Code abated, and a broad “maturation” of the form can be seen, with a concurrent increase in critical engagement with criminological questions. The main themes of comics research around crime and comics after the 1980s include questions of vigilantism and retribution, seen as the dominant concern in mainstream comics. But other leading questions go beyond these issues and explore comics’ engagement with the politics of crime and justice, highlighting the medium’s capacity to question the nature of justice and the legitimate exercise of state power. Moreover, stepping back and considering the general relationship between comics and criminology, comics can be seen as important cultural forms of expression of moral and social values, as well as potentially alternative orders of knowledge that can challenge mainstream criminology. From free speech, juvenile delinquency, and vigilantism, to politics, culture, and disciplinary knowledge, there are significant interactions between comics and criminology on a variety of levels.

Keywords: comics, crime and media, crime in popular culture, cultural criminology, graphic fiction, graphic justice, politics of crime and criminal justice, representations of crime and criminal justice, superheroes, visual criminology

Introduction and Overview

Criminal justice is a perennial theme in modern comics. Even since the earliest superhero series began in the 1930s, the driving narratives have revolved around the protection of the innocent from crime and harm—albeit by turning to super-powered beings outside the official legal system. Think of Superman and Batman, seeking justice where state criminal justice systems are unable or unwilling to do so. Significant crime narratives and representations of criminal justice are also found beyond the superhero genre. This entry will give a chronological overview of some key examples of the intersections of crime and justice across the 20th and 21st centuries, identifying major themes in the analysis of comics, before finally assessing the significance of comics for the study of crime in modern society.

This entry is divided into three main sections: “Crime, Justice, and Comics History”; “Crime and Contemporary Comics”; and “Comics and Criminology.” The first section will trace criminological themes and concerns in and around early comics and their development across the 20th century. The second section will then examine criminological issues in relation to more contemporary comics that have emerged since the broad maturation of the medium in the 1980s. The final section steps outside the chronology to reflect briefly on the significance of comics for criminology and understandings of crime in modern society and culture.

(NB: The limited space of this entry means that its overviews will be necessarily brief and indicative; there is so much material that not everything can be covered, or has indeed been studied. This entry is intended to give a representative flavor of the engagements with crime and criminal justice that comics and comics studies traverse. Reflective of the bias in Anglophone criminological research, this entry also only deals with Anglophone comics (i.e. those published primarily in the United States and United Kingdom), and does not consider Francophone bandes dessinées or Japanese manga.

Crime, Justice, and Comics History

The origin of the comics medium is much debated, and is deeply interwoven with uncertainties over the definition of the medium (see, for example, Harvey, 2005; McCloud, 1993; Meskin, 2007; Pratt, 2009). But the familiar modern comics form, of which the superhero has become largely emblematic in the popular consciousness of the English-speaking West, arguably arose in the United States during the 1930s. Although the superhero genre was immensely popular then, as it is now, many other types of comics were also widely read, including romance, crime, horror, adventure, and war comics. This section will outline some major themes in the relationship between comics and crime from this early period up to the 1980s, tracing in particular the development of the (now abandoned) Comics Code as a response to fears that comics caused juvenile delinquency and the impact this had on the development of the medium and its treatment of crime and justice. It begins with an overview of the debate on the link between comics and juvenile delinquency, before moving on to the impact that the limitations of the Code had on the representations of crime in comics up to the 1980s.

Comics and Juvenile Delinquency

In the first half of the 20th century, there was public outcry against the “new” medium of comics. It had a seemingly viral popularity amongst children, and its depictions of immorality, violence, and sex became increasingly visible alongside fears that such comics would lead to moral degeneracy in the younger generation. A number of early comics detailed “true crime” stories, with other titles focusing on fiction and more fantastic tales. Indeed, one of the most significant early occurrences of crime in comics comes courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover. In 1936, recognizing the potentially wide cultural influence of comics, he commissioned an FBI-sanctioned comic book, War on Crime, to positively shape the public image of law enforcement (Lovell, 2002). Such propaganda-style use of comics was well in line with the co-option of many comics around that period to support the Allied effort in World War II. But with the abatement of war stories through the 1940s, the comics market was flooded with “true crime” and other crime-related publications (Lovell, 2002, pp. 337–339). Hoover’s efforts helped to popularize the crime comics genre, and was soon followed in the late 1940s by series such as War Against Crime!, Crime Patrol, and Crime Does Not Pay!, that broke away from purely “true” crime to also explore fictional accounts, which generally portrayed criminal justice as “winning the war” against crime (Lovell, 2002).

Horrific and gruesome crime was particularly popular, with some publishers exploiting the fascination with not only the details of criminal activity, but also with the motivations and psychology of criminality (see Hajdu, 2008, pp. 53–70). Despite their early instrumentalization by the FBI in the interests of the U.S. government’s popular image, crime and horror comics also emerged as the object of a moral panic around childhood morality. The immoral dimensions of criminality and violence were of particular concern, with such crime and horror comics purportedly making up a quarter of all comics sales by the 1950s (Crime comics and the constitution, 1955, p. 237). The comics publisher EC Comics is worth noting as a company that specialized in publishing crime and horror comics, alongside other genres such as war comics. Today EC are well-known for their critical engagement with social and political issues during the 1940s and 1950s, but at the time they faced the brunt of the popular moral backlash against the medium in response to their leading crime and horror titles.

In the United States, comics were protected from arbitrary censorship under the First Amendment, as was held (backhandedly) in the case of Winters v. New York 333 US 507 (1948): “Though we can see nothing of any possible value to society in these magazines, they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature.” And legal analysis agreed that “most crime comic books are probably not obscene when considered as a whole” (Crime comics and the constitution, 1955, p. 241). But public outcry and moral panic was not sated. One of the most vocal opponents to comics, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, made claims of direct links between comics and juvenile delinquency (see Wertham, 1954). This connection was hotly contested in the academic literature at the time. A brief overview of the debate at the time can be found in Crime comics and the constitution, (1955, pp. 249–251), with the assumption that comics are primarily “for children” overtly framing much of the debate. The public outcry and fears of links with delinquency, spearheaded by Wertham’s vocal opposition—despite the generally equivocal academic studies—led to comics being included in the 1953 Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. (Wertham spoke before the Subcommittee, as did William Gaines, the publisher of the then-controversial EC Comics.) The hearing ultimately led to the (politically forced) self-regulation of the industry under the Comics Code of 1954 (Adkinson, 2008, pp. 242–246; Fennell, 2012, pp. 307–308; Nyberg, 1998).

This was a blanket code, covering all comics and leaving no avenue for publications aimed at different age groups. Comics were seen to be only for children, and thus all comics had to be appropriate for consumption by children. Although adherence to the Code was optional (and thus arguably would be unsuccessful in achieving its aims (Crime comics and the constitution, 1955, p. 255)), the political climate was such that there was no longer a market for non-Code comics as no-one would distribute or stock them (Nyberg, 1998; Adkinson, 2008). EC Comics suffered in particular, and ultimately were unable to survive under the restrictions of the Code; they eventually dropped all of their titles except the satirical Mad magazine, which is still published today by DC Comics. In the United Kingdom there was a similar movement, stemming from the importation of U.S. horror and crime comics, influencing the enactment of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 (see Barker, 1984). In Canada, too, “crime comics” were explicitly outlawed under the obscenity provisions of the Criminal Code (see McGinnis, 1988).

In both North America and the United Kingdom, then, comics were seen in both law and culture as being inherently or exclusively for children, and thus their censorship was an issue of child welfare, which politically trumped arguments based on the protection of free speech. It has been argued, however, that such a strongly repressive response to the comics reflects a deeply ingrained acknowledgement of the informative and educative power of the medium, particularly on issues of state power and the legitimacy of criminal justice control (Adkinson, 2008, pp. 244–245). Nevertheless, these comics regulations acted in effect to solidify and perpetuate the view of comics as childish (Nyberg, 1998, pp. 129–154; Versaci, 2007, pp. 7–12), which has had huge ramifications for the development and cultural reception of the medium. Accordingly, the historical contours of the medium have arguably been shaped directly by the connections seen to exist between comics and crime. Indeed, there can be seen a complex nexus of crime, culture, power, and legitimacy, in the history of comics censorship that plays into much of the symbiosis between crime, media, and popular culture (Adkinson, 2008, pp. 242–246).

Crime and Justice under the Comics Code

Intentionally designed to control how creators portrayed agents of hegemonic order, the Comics Code serves as an example of how hegemonic pressure can shape popular media’s construction of criminal justice ideology.

(Adkinson, 2008, p. 245)

Under the Comics Code, the representation of crime and justice can arguably be seen to be “watered-down,” with no moral ambiguity or critique of the state’s criminal justice processes being permitted (Adkinson, 2008, p. 246). The regulations meant that criminals could never be portrayed in a way that evoked sympathy for them; established authority needed to always be upheld; and good always needed to triumph over evil, with the criminal always being punished (Adkinson, 2008, p. 246; Fennell, 2012, p. 308). As Fennell summarizes:

In short, crime was to be unpleasant and nasty, never profitable, objectively “evil” and totally unattractive, and there would be no logical reason given as to why anyone should engage in criminal activity. Crime simply happened because it was what “bad people” did; “evil” was the compulsion to engage in crime for its own sake.

(2012, p. 308)

Such censorship of the way comics could portray crime and law enforcement meant not only that the leading mainstream crime and horror comics were no longer viable, but also that the immensely popular superhero genre (predicated on the enforcement of “justice” against wrongdoing) was severely impacted (Adkinson, 2008, p. 247), directly risking the cultural and economic survival of the medium itself. But the superhero genre had not been the focus of the debates over moral corruption and free speech, and so remained politically viable (Nyberg, 1998, pp. 158–159) and managed to adapt, with Superman and Batman publisher Detective Comics (DC), followed by Marvel in the 1960s, introducing a range of new heroes to fight for justice within the bounds of the Comics Code (Adkinson, 2008, p. 247).

But despite the generally negative opinion held of the Comics Code and the impediments it put in place for the development of aesthetic complexity and social and political critique, it has been argued (Fennell, 2012) that the Code had a positive effect on one particular class of character: the supervillain. The popularity of the superhero genre can be linked to the historic cultural presence of vengeance as an impetus towards justice and punishment—a motivation Fennell (2012) argues is epitomized in traditional practices of the punitive mutilation (branding, scarring, and so forth) of the condemned. Such physical marking of offenders may no longer be widespread in the liberal democracies of the West, but arguably the stigmatizing labelling of a criminal is a form of conceptual branding (Fennell, 2012, p. 318). The strong tendency for supervillains to be disfigured or physically scarred seemingly derives from this cultural predilection for violent, vengeful punishment, reflecting the sovereign power of the superhero and buoying up their legitimacy as extralegal forces of justice (2012, pp. 319–324). Moreover, the dehumanized “evil” of many supervillains can be seen as a product of the limitations of the Comics Code, which prohibited any understandable logic or sympathy with criminals—villains thus became evil by nature, and often physically embodied the nature of their evil in their “deformities” (Fennell, 2012). The prohibitions of the Code, then, directly shaped some of the most well-known characters that endure today (think of the Joker’s clown-like facial scarring and chaotic psychopathy), as well as the mechanics of the superhero genre itself as a cultural discourse around crime, punishment, and the othering of criminality.

As the moral furor over crime and horror comics abated following the medium’s regulation, and culture began to shift, there began to emerge comics that challenged the Code’s legitimacy and appropriateness. One of the key comics runs in this regards is widely cited to be issues 96–98 of The Amazing Spider-Man, published in 1971 (Adkinson, 2008; Fennell, 2012). Beginning life in the 1960s, well within the boundaries of the Code, Spider-Man broke the mold of previous heroes, with its use of a teenager as the hero, and the hero’s explicit engagement with the moral difficulties of life and the responsibility that came with his power (see Adkinson, 2008, pp. 247–249). Writer Stan Lee, at the request of President Nixon, wanted to use Spider-Man to raise awareness of the dangers of drug use, but such a storyline would not be sanctioned under the Comics Code. Despite the presidential mandate, issues 96–98 of The Amazing Spider-Man were rejected by the Comics Code Authority—but Marvel continued to published them without Code approval (Adkinson, 2008, pp. 253–254). As a mainstream comics publication, this represents something of a watershed moment in the decline and eventual abolition (in 2011) of the Comics Code. Adkinson (2008) integrates this challenging of the social legitimacy of the Code into a wider discussion on the potential counter-hegemonic forces at work in the idea of vigilante superheroes, highlighting the “hegemonic paradox” evident in the fact that most superheroes, although operating outside official avenues of law and order, pursue the aim of re-affirming hegemonic values of justice (2008, pp. 249–253). Regardless, these three issues of Spider-Man, widely acclaimed at the time, resulted directly in the reform of the problematic regulations of the Code, opening the door for comics to engage with critical questions of law, order, and criminal justice administration (2008, pp. 254–257). As the 1980s unrolled, other comics also started to be published without Code approval, with works such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus widely seen to be key in the cultural and aesthetic “maturation” of the medium as the Code abated.

Crime and Contemporary Comics

This section considers some major themes and issues in more recent comics (since the broad maturation of the medium following the recession of the Comics Code in the 1980s). The first section examines perhaps the most high-profile criminological theme in comics, vigilantism, and retribution, before the second section moves on to the wider intersection of crime and politics, including examples of the various ways mainstream comics move beyond or challenge populist notions of retribution.

Vigilantism and Retribution

Nickie Phillips and Staci Strobl adopt a broad cultural criminological approach focusing on meaning and style over positivist objectivity (Phillips & Strobl, 2006, pp. 305–306; see also Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2008) to explore the general themes of crime and justice found in modern mainstream U.S. comics, alongside their wider cultural significance within popular discourses on justice (Phillips & Strobl, 2006; 2013; 2015). Connecting the popularity of comics with wider cultural understandings of crime, Phillips and Strobl argue that “crime media and entertainment—including comic books—become spaces in public life where the meaning of crime and punishment is created, consumed, and recreated” (2006, p. 307). The depictions in mainstream comics, then, are significant in terms of the shaping of social and cultural values in relation to crime and justice. Some criminologists have thus expressed deep concern with the presentation and perpetuation of various rape myths in many mainstream comics series (notably myths that rapes are violent and perpetrated for sexual gratification), which could lead to the internalization of problematic or dangerous understandings of what constitutes rape versus consensual sex in comics readerships (Garland, Branch, & Grimes, 2016).

Through their content analysis of a sample of 20 bestselling comics series from 2003/2004 (2006, pp. 311–314), Phillips and Strobl construct an image of the medium’s dominant forms of justice in mainstream U.S. publications. Against their hypothesis that street and low-level criminal activity would dominate, they found a prevalence of organized crime and state corruption (2006, pp. 314–315). In terms of criminal justice ideology, the dominant ethos discovered was one of retribution by the “good” against the actions of the “evil,” and a desire to return to an idyllic or nostalgic social order of peace and certainty, generally supportive of the need for U.S. global hegemony, and achieved via extralegal methods outside of state authority (2006, pp. 315–328). Archival analysis of comics has identified that, during times of increased social threat (such as the cold war) comics present an increased conservatism in their themes and maintenance of the social order (Peterson & Gerstein, 2005). But Phillips and Strobl’s research has found a broad and persistent skew towards conservative, even reactionary, maintenance of the social order in contemporary mainstream comics—a skew that extends well beyond their initial 20-comic sample, as their more recent study of over 200 comics demonstrates in its confirmation of the underlying retributive ideology of mainstream U.S. comics publications (Phillips & Strobl, 2013). Although a more limited study, focusing only on recent Batman and Superman comics, Reyns and Henson (2010) have similarly found a preponderance of conservative “crime control” approaches to justice that see law and due process as hindrances to the just punishment of criminals.

Such research indicates that crime in mainstream comics is couched in a conservative retributive ideology, with criminality being a product of psychopathology or “evil” (as Fennell identified, above, as a product of the Comics Code’s restrictions), with little concern for structural forces that might cause crime. But Phillips and Strobl’s work also explores the cultural role that comics have in popular understandings and the processing of questions of crime and justice. For example, the question of “deathworthiness” that is so central to the jurisprudence of the death penalty in the United States is explored and mediated through the assessments of criminals’ need to die in comics series such as JLA and Red Team, as they are through online social media discourse around high-profile police killings of fugitives such as Christopher Dorner (see Phillips & Strobl, 2015).

The Punisher is a key example of an extreme retributive attitude. Although an outlier in mainstream superhero publishing, his deep retributive anger has garnered enduring popularity over the years. Whereas heroes such as Batman or Spider-Man, although vigilantes, gain a limited acceptance or even co-operation of established law enforcement, the Punisher actively rejects abstract and formal legal authority and regulation in favor of the “true justice” of his own anger, an anger that is moral in its purity (Worcester, 2012). Although not representative of most superheroes in his extreme violence and rejection of all legal authority, he brings into sharp relief the concerns that many have of the problematically conservative vigilantism seen to be found often in the superhero genre. His rise to popularity occurred through the 1980s, concurrent with a supposed rise in the tide of crime and, more importantly, public fears of crime and the inability of institutional police to protect them. Indeed, links can be made between this pervasive public concern during the 1980s and the general trend towards vigilantism in mainstream comics (Scully & Moorman, 2014). Some go further, and claim that the ideology of the vigilante superhero is deeply connected with that of right-wing lynch mobs, with these fascist origins still permeating the genre more generally (Gavaler, 2016).

The Punisher can be seen as an extreme example, with the lesser known (but aptly named) Vigilante representing a more conflicted meditation on the taking of justice into one’s own hands. Whilst the Punisher proceeded with little moral baggage, the Vigilante eventually went mad trying to cope with his internal conflict over the justifiability of his methods. More mainstream characters, such as Green Arrow, can be read as being somewhere between these two extremes: undertaking a justice project without state authority but also remaining relatively well-balanced, symbolic of the average person standing up for justice in the face of perceived state failure (see Scully & Moorman, 2014).

Deepening the critical significance of vigilantism, it can be argued that the very idea of the superhero—as extralegal—raises questions about the legitimacy of legal authority (Bainbridge, 2007; Giddens, 2015), and, as Sharp (2012) contends, “the superhero’s persistent vigilantism as a quest for justice is based on retributive concerns that are manifested within a contemporary popular imagination” (pp. 354–355). Sharp (2012) moves beyond the idea that superheroes, as vigilantes, necessarily undermine legal authority, to assess the way they navigate the complexities of the relationship between law and justice, and what “justice” might be, in the control of crime. She argues that the extralegal status of the superhero, generally deriving their authority from the failures of the legal system and the concomitant need to protect or serve the people in its place, represents a kind of popular sovereignty. It is the people of Gotham, for example, who give Batman his legitimacy, as he emerges as a symbol of justice and protection in place of a corrupt and failing government (see Sharp, 2012, pp. 363–366). Indeed, superheroes are occasionally invoked in “real life” to mediate attempts at rectifying situations where state law is seen to produce injustice, such as in the costumed protest activities of “Fathers for Justice” (see Groombridge, 2015).

In this way, superheroes and vigilantes in comics can be seen to navigate the limits of state authority, to question what it means to “do justice” in response to crime and disorder, and to raise challenges to the very notion of “order” itself. To continue with Batman as an example, his use of violence can be seen to raise complex issues around the legitimacy of state force, the public nature of justice, and the role of natural law in resisting state domination (Giddens, 2015). But here the “hegemonic paradox” identified above by Adkinson (2008) re-emerges, as it is often the case that mainstream narratives will work to affirm state power or dominant capitalist orders (for example, Batman seeks justice, but it is the justice of Bruce Wayne—a rich white man). Turning back to superheroes in the “real” world, more generally the culture of “real life superheroes” seems to focus on modelling good citizenship (patrolling streets, working with homelessness and social outreach programs) in order to reshape the world for the better without relying on state intervention (Fishwick & Mak, 2015). Although not the violent vigilantism typically seen in superhero comics, the superhero is still here being invoked as a symbol of justice beyond the state, in the sense of making the world a better, safer place.

Crime and Politics

In tension with broad empirical assessments of mainstream comics as inherently containing a conservative retributivism, outlined above, Neal Curtis’s (2016) interpretive and theoretical examination of the concept of sovereignty in superhero comics paints a potentially more progressive picture of criminal justice ideology. Traversing a range of mainstream (DC and Marvel) superhero comics, Curtis demonstrates a pervasive and persistent concern with the exercise of legitimate power that at many turns resists hegemonic ideologies, questions state authority, and restlessly seeks a grounding for these heroes’ multiple projects of achieving justice. To highlight a few of his conclusions: Batman exposes the difficult and complex line between legitimate and illegitimate violence (2016, pp. 67–72; see also Giddens, 2015); Captain America polices not only the power of the U.S. state, but works to defend the promise of freedom on a global level (Curtis, 2016, pp. 34–53); Wonder Woman challenges patriarchal notions of family that expands understandings of humanity (2016, pp. 128–152); and delineations of “friend” and “enemy,” and the near-constant shifting of many characters from one side to the other, upsets clear understandings of “good” vs “evil” (2016, pp. 82–100). Ultimately, Curtis highlights the tensions at play in many superhero comics that enable them to open up critical pathways to progressive explorations and understandings of the politics of state power.

To highlight a specific example from outside the superhero genre, Nurse (2015) argues that the series 100 Bullets moves beyond simple retributivism to consider the complex tensions between revenge and the ideals of restorative justice. The premise of 100 Bullets places a gun and ammunition into the hands of crime’s victims and gives them a free reign to do what they will, thereby placing justice back directly with the victim (a hallmark of restorative justice) but in a way that quickly spills over into the violence of retributive vengeance; “extreme restorative justice” is the concept Nurse uses to encapsulate this complex tension and interplay of different punishment ideologies when placed directly in the hands of crime’s victims. At the same time, the series engages in discourse around the rooting out of state corruption, crimes of the powerful, and the vast inequalities of contemporary society. 100 Bullets thus shows how “the criminal justice system itself perverts the lives of its protagonists,” suggesting citizens seek redress for their own victimhood to counteract ineffective state justice (Nurse, 2015, p. 140).

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is another key work to consider in the context of crime and justice. Ostensibly a typical superhero narrative, it works to deconstruct and critique the very premises of the superhero genre and the notion of heroism itself (Thomson, 2005; see also Miettinen, 2014). Originally published as a 12-part series in the mid-1980s, and set in an alternate 1980s United States where masked vigilantes are a common occurrence, it is a work of gritty psychological realism that is often held up as a classic of the medium, and key to its “maturation” following the restrictions of the Comics Code. Set against the backdrop of looming nuclear war and public tensions over the legitimacy of masked heroes to police citizens, it asks difficult questions about both superheroes’ and our own paths to justice. With the noir-esque character of Rorschach, for example, the seductive fantasy of retributive violence becomes threatening and uncontrollable, and with his hero mask made from a shifting Rorschach inkblot, the reader is themselves implicated in his violent actions (Petty, 2015, pp. 156–157). The unlikability of nearly all of Watchmen’s “heroic” characters, at odds with the generally uncritical presentation of heroes in comics up to Watchmen’s publication, challenges their legitimacy, and thus the ideologies behind both the superhero genre and the justice project itself:

The masked avengers in Watchmen are nuanced beings, inescapably mired in all-too-human complexities, prejudices and their own shallow and self-serving desires . . . Even ostensibly “noble” motivations are tainted by absolutist worldviews and fascistic sympathies, revealing to the spectator the kind of personality that would seek out the life of a masked vigilante.

(Petty, 2015, p. 159)

Through its critique of the superhero, Watchmen asks a classic and enduring question, quoted from Juvenal in the pages of the comic itself: who watches the watchmen? Who regulates the activities of the powerful as they shape the world(s) we inhabit? The heroes of Watchmen—struggling to ground any sense of objective justice in the complex and diverse social world they navigate and try to protect—may have no regulatory oversight, but through its deconstruction and dark realism, Watchmen reveals that “we are all subjected to that same power—that of ideology” (Hughes, 2006, p. 556).

In a more satirical vein, the U.K. series Judge Dredd explicitly critiques right-wing, conservative ideologies. Created in 1977 as a direct response to the criminal justice policies of Reagan and Thatcher, Judge Dredd is an overblown, hyperbolic symbol of “hard line” crime control, where the different agencies of state order (police, prosecution, judiciary, punishment) are rolled into one; Dredd is the quintessential “judge, jury, and executioner” figure (Glancey, 2015; Lloyd, 2015) dishing out the dream of “instant justice” on the dystopian streets of Mega-City One (Kozin, 2014). In Dredd’s futuristic world, the massive expansion of the human population has necessitated strong law enforcement to combat a concomitant rise in criminality: the “Judges,” armed with high-tech surveillance and weaponry, and the unquestioned force of law, dish out judgment on the very streets they patrol. The “critical art” of Dredd brings deep critique of the violent exercise of state power, as Lloyd (2015) highlights, in its troubling connections with the U.S. drone program: the comics of Judge Dredd “house an inherent critique of the unchecked and yet legitimate police power wielded by both the [Mega-City One] judges and the [Obama] Administration” (2015, p. 208).

Following from the link between Dredd and unchecked U.S. executive power, a general shift can be identified after 9/11 in the way a number of mainstream superhero comics engaged with public and foreign policy. Indeed, the Batman series Batman Incorporated, in which the Dark Knight establishes a global peacekeeping organization to tackle terrorist threats, can be read as a critique of the ongoing state of exception invoked in the war on terror (Comerford, 2015). Marvel’s multi-title Civil War series also gives a thinly veiled allegorical critique of the increasing security powers in the United States that deeply threaten principles of liberty (Sanchez, 2007). Captain America, in particular, has been the subject of critical analysis in relation to the moral crusade against evil, a fight that arguably stems from religious foundations, giving rise to a “zealous nationalism” of which the war on terror—its rhetoric and methods—is a problematic emanation (Jewett & Lawrence, 2004). And despite accusations that Bush’s rhetoric of good vs. evil was “comic bookish,” it has also been argued that comics actually engaged with the war on terror more critically, and meaningfully, than many political or intellectual responses at the time (Jenkins, 2006). Although political engagement in comics may not be new, the post-9/11 industry appears to have a renewed fervor to critique and question policy decisions in relation to the security/liberty anxieties common in contemporary Western society.

As these latter examples show, there is more than just a simple nostalgic retributivism at work in comics’ engagement with crime and justice. And beyond these examples, questions of race are also important in understanding the political dimensions of comics, as works such as Howard and Jackson (2013) indicate. Although, as we saw in the previous section, retributive vigilantism is commonly encountered in many popular comics series, such critical work argues that even mainstream superheroes can be read as undertaking a deeper questioning of justice and politics than the simple quest for vengeance that wide angled analyses and popular perceptions often see. And analyses of more explicitly critical work, such as Judge Dredd and Watchmen, shows how some works try to unpick dominant ideologies and question the nature of state power and the way we seek justice.

Comics and Criminology

In the previous sections we have seen, in very broad strokes, how crime and justice are interwoven with the history of the medium, as well as being ubiquitous concerns in contemporary comics. With the recent explosion of comics-based movies, notably from Marvel’s own film studio, and the increased visibility and popularity of so-called “geek culture” (note TV series such as The Big Bang Theory, the expansion of comics sections in high street bookstores, the countless “comic-cons” taking place around the world, and the omnipresent merchandise and branded clothing), comics are an important part of contemporary culture. The mainstream industry is obviously of particular relevance in the shaping, presentation, and negotiation of juridical and moral values. But this arguably indicates that, even beyond the mainstream genres, the medium itself strikes a certain resonance in its ability to encounter and negotiate criminal justice. Indeed, there is some work on crime and comics that engages with issues around epistemological questions of knowledge.

In a speculative vein, the Image Comics series Chew can be read as a challenge to the typically visually oriented approach to criminal justice and forensic evidence (see Lam, 2012). Chew features Tony Chu, a “cibopath” who can receive psychic information through the ingestion of evidence, in a hypothetical world where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), following pandemic scares of diseases such as bird flu, has expanded to have the widespread regulatory powers typically associated with crime and security. Chu, with his food-related evidence-gathering skills, is an asset for the FDA in the tackling of culinary crimes. The approach to criminal justice in Chew, moving away from the visual methods seen with the prioritizing of eyewitness (over taste- or nose-witness) testimony, the use of visual metaphors in legal and criminological discourse, and the study of the criminal body as a site of visual evidence in criminological history (e.g. Lombroso), imagines how justice might be approached through the mechanics of taste (Lam, 2012, pp. 157–161). In this way, it suggests a recognition of embodied knowledge that arguably challenges traditional modes of objectivity—since taste is intricately linked with the physical encounter with an object, whilst visuality is typically associated with requiring a certain distance from what is seen (Lam, 2012).

In a broader epistemological sense, an alternative reading of Batman (particularly Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s famous work, Arkham Asylum) might focus on the way the Dark Knight navigates the frayed line between reason and madness, symbolic of the edge of orthodox criminological knowledge. In Arkham Asylum, Batman encounters an array of his institutionalized enemies, led by Joker—the “maddest” of them all. Arkham Asylum makes explicit the more general level of Batman’s encounter: it is not just between Batman and Joker, but between Batman and his repressed insanity, between Batman as a force for rational order and the chaos and madness of irrationality (see Giddens, 2015). In expressly criminological terms, Batman might be read as an epistemological edgeworker, challenging and pushing the limits of criminological reason thereby bringing valuable awareness and understanding of its limits in relation to the complex fluidity of life (Giddens, in press). Indeed, in a more general sense, the multi-modal quality of comics (as text, image, sequence, page, and so on) can be understood to encounter the complex borders between different ways of knowing about the world beyond the avenues of reason and rationality (see Giddens, 2012).

Conclusion and Summing Up

This entry has outlined some key examples that indicate the various ways the interaction between crime and comics has been understood, traversing both contemporary comics and the form’s modern history. From free speech, juvenile delinquency, violence, state power, vigilantism, punishment, and responsibility, to cultural mediation, moral philosophy, politics, epistemology, and the limits of criminological knowledge—comics interact with concerns of crime and justice on a wide variety of levels.

Review of Literature and Primary Sources

The main body of this entry indicates a few key examples of comics and contexts to take as objects of study, but such primary sources are too numerous to attempt to list. This review section thus focuses on existing trends in the scholarship that has been undertaken into the mass of crime- and justice-related comics, and where gaps might be located that are in need of greater exploration.

There are empirical and analytical approaches to studying the relationships between crime and comics. On the one hand, empirical studies employ social science techniques (such as quantitative or qualitative content analyses) to assess trends and broad representative themes in large amounts of comics, such as U.S. superhero comics (e.g. Phillips & Strobl, 2006; 2013; Peterson & Gerstein, 2005; Reyns & Henson, 2010). On the other, theoretical or discursive analyses explore meanings in either a wide range of particular comics publications (such as superheroes in Curtis, 2016; Gavaler, 2016; or Bainbridge, 2007) or in particular significant works or series (such as Batman in Giddens, 2015; Batman and Daredevil in Sharp, 2012; Watchmen in Petty, 2015; or Spider-Man in Adkinson, 2008).

This more theoretical approach fits into a growing engagement with comics from a cultural legal perspective. Cultural legal studies traverses general questions of law and legal theory, but explicitly includes criminal justice and political concerns around the legitimacy of state control. Sharp (2012) and Bainbridge (2007) are good examples of this, as is much of the work contained in Giddens (2015)—Phillips & Strobl (2015), Nurse (2015), Petty (2015), and Groombridge (2015) constitute a section on “graphic criminology,” for example. Volume 16 of Law Text Culture is a special issue on law and comics, with a number of key criminal justice analyses included, such as Sharp (2012), Lam (2012), Worcester (2012), and Fennell (2012). From the other direction, the emergence of “visual criminology,” as a development out of cultural criminology and the more general “visual turn” in cultural study (see Carrabine & Brown, in press), also raises distinct possibilities for further and more specifically criminological engagement with comics as a visual discourse on crime and justice.

Philosophers have also got hold of comics, and introductory collections such as Superheroes and Philosophy (Morris & Morris, 2005)—as well as engagements with particular mainstream series, such as X-Men and Philosophy (Housel & Wisnewski, 2009), Superman and Philosophy (White, 2013), or Watchmen and Philosophy (White, 2009), amongst others—articulate various core philosophical questions through comics engagement. These collections (many of which are part of the Blackwell Popular Culture and Philosophy series) are not particularly critical, but serve as a good window into the way various comics can be thought about more deeply. Criminological concerns are common, with questions such as retributivism (e.g. Held, 2009), morality (e.g. White, 2013), free will (e.g. Ward, 2009), and race (e.g. Pierce, 2009) being tackled often. More critically, works like White (2016) and Curtis (2016), and collections such as McLaughlin (2005), take comics seriously as a form or object of detailed philosophical study.

More general comics work also opens up to many criminological concerns around the regulation of free speech, and the part that “regulated” works play in navigating the boundaries of legitimacy and the limits of the democratic state. Key works engaging with this question include Nyberg’s (1998) seminal history of the Comics Code, Barker’s (1984) classic study of the concurrent regulation of comics in the United Kingdom, and Wertham’s (1954) much maligned treatise on comics as a direct cause of juvenile delinquency—as Groombridge (2015) notes, Wertham has a status in comics studies akin to Lombroso in criminology: “important, but mostly wrong” (2015, p. 173; see also Tilley, 2012 for a critique of Wertham’s work). Adkinson’s (2008) specifically criminological engagement with comics regulation is also worthy of note.

The body of comics work is huge, but the academic engagement with its criminological dimensions is only scratching the surface. Work engaging with crime beyond the comics mainstream—in smaller independent publishers and zines, for instance—is much needed, as are cultural criminological examinations of comics creation and production. Cross cultural analyses, engaging with Francophone bandes dessinées (e.g. Miller, 2007; see also, on crime and justice in the bande dessinée Blacksad, Hanley, 2012) and Japanese manga (e.g. Perper and Cornog, 2011), would also be of great benefit to understanding the criminal justice dimensions of the comics medium more globally (this entry, like much of the criminological comics work thus far, has only focused on the Anglo-American context).

As a final note, the discipline of comics studies should not be overlooked. It is only recently gaining limited accepted status within the academy (arguably part of the hangover from the moral panic bound up with the Comics Code), but is making large strides towards theorizing and critiquing the medium. Although not discussed directly in the body of this entry, key works in comics studies include Groensteen (2007) and Miller (2007), who approach the medium as a complex semiotic system of communication; Miodrag (2013), who critiques the purely semiotic approach, seeing comics as a complex interplay of different forms of language; Cohn (2013), who researches how comics communicate from a cognitive psychological perspective; or Barker (1989), Pustz (1999), or Brown (1997), who examine comics within their cultural contexts. Although under-theorized, the classic work of McCloud (1993) should also be mentioned. Other key writers, who examine alternative or particular non-mainstream traditions (comix, zines, independents, etc), include Hatfield (2005) and Sabin (1996; 2000). Key journals in comics studies include Studies in Comics, the Comics Grid, and the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. Studies wishing to engage with the crime and justice dimensions of comics should at least be aware of this discipline, and the complexities and sophistication of the comics medium in terms of both its reading and cultural reception, and thus avoid assuming it to be the inherently simplistic form implied by the limitations of the Code or its seeming “low culture” status. Such work is arguably important for understanding the medium in general—its meanings and cultural interactions—prior to or as part of an engagement with its criminological dimensions, particularly within a cultural criminological frame.

This list includes a number of useful websites of both specifically criminal and more general comics studies interest.

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: The website of the leading organization working to protect comics creators and raise awareness of free speech and censorship issues in comics publishing. Includes a news reel and other resources.

Comics Alliance: A general digest site of mainstream comics and culture, but with some critical opinion columns and discussion.

Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship: An open-access, peer-reviewed comics journal, focusing on comics-specific criticism and analysis.

Comics Forum: General comics studies site, linked with an annual U.K. conference, and packed with resources, news, and a scholar directory.

CrimCast: A general crime and popular culture blog, run by Nickie Phillips, one of the authors of Comic Book Crime, and thus often posting comics-related content.

Graphic Justice Research Alliance: An international, multi-disciplinary research network exploring the intersections between law and justice and comics of all kinds.

Multiframe: The blog of comics/politics scholar Neal Curtis (author of Superheroes and Sovereignty), with commentary on and reviews of wide a range of comics.

Volume 16(1) of Law Text Culture: A special issue of the leading cultural legal studies journal on law and comics, with a number of texts engaging specifically with criminal justice.

Further Reading

Adkinson, C. D. (2008). The Amazing Spider-Man and the evolution of the Comics Code: A case study in cultural criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 15(3), 241–261.Find this resource:

Barker, M. (1984). A haunt of fears: The strange history of the British horror comics campaign. London: Pluto.Find this resource:

Barker, M. (1989). Comics: Ideology, power, and the critics. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Curtis, N. (2016). Sovereignty and superheroes. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Fishwick, E., & Mak, H. (2015). Fighting crime, battling injustice: The world of real-life superheroes. Crime Media Culture, 11(3), 335–356.Find this resource:

Garland, T. S., Branch, K., & Grimes, M. (2016). Blurring the lines: Reinforcing rape myths in comic books. Feminist Criminology, 11(1), 48–68.Find this resource:

Gavaler, C. (2016). The rise and fall of fascist superpowers. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 7(1), 70–87.Find this resource:

Giddens, T. (2015). Natural law and vengeance: Jurisprudence on the streets of Gotham. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 28(4), 765–785.Find this resource:

Giddens, T. (Ed.). (2015). Graphic justice: Intersections of comics and law. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Giddens, T. (in press). Graphic justice and criminological aesthetics: Visual criminology on the Streets of Gotham. In E. Carrabine and M. Brown (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of visual criminology. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Howard, S. C., & Jackson, R. L., II. (Eds.). (2013). Black comics: Politics of race and representation. London: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

Jenkins, H. (2006). Captain America sheds his mighty tears. In D. J. Sherman & T. Narmin, (Eds.), Terror, culture, politics: Rethinking 9/11 (pp. 69–102). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

Jewett, R., & Lawrence, J. S. (2004). Captain America and the crusade against evil: The dilemma of zealous nationalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.Find this resource:

Miodrag, H. (2013). Comics and language: Reimagining critical discourse on the form. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

Nyberg, A. (1998). Seal of approval: The history of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

Phillips, N. D., & Strobl, S. (2006). Cultural criminology and kryptonite: Apocalyptic and retributive constructions of crime and justice in comic books. Crime Media Culture, 2(3), 304–331.Find this resource:

Phillips, N. D., & Strobl, S. (2013). Comic book crime: Truth, justice, and the American way. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Sharp, C. (2012). “Riddle me this…?” Would the world need superheroes if the law could actually deliver “justice”? Law Text Culture, 16(1), 353–378.Find this resource:

Tilley, C. L. (2012). Seducing the innocent: Fredric Wertham and the falsification that helped condemn comics. Information and Culture, 47(4), 383–413.Find this resource:

Wertham, F. (1954). Seduction of the innocent. New York: Reinhart.Find this resource:

References

Adkinson, C. D. (2008). The Amazing Spider-Man and the evolution of the Comics Code: A case study in cultural criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 15(3), 241–261.Find this resource:

Bainbridge, J. (2007). “This is the Authority. This planet is under our protection.” An exegesis of superheroes’ interrogations of law. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 3, 455–476.Find this resource:

Barker, M. (1984). A haunt of fears: The strange history of the British horror comics campaign. London: Pluto.Find this resource:

Barker, M. (1989). Comics: Ideology, power, and the critics. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Brown, J. A. (1997). Comics book fandom and cultural capital. Journal of Popular Culture, 30(4), 13–31.Find this resource:

Carrabine, E., & Brown, M. (Eds.). (in press). The Routledge international handbook of visual criminology. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Cohn, N. (2013). The visual language of comics: Introduction to the structure and cognition of sequential images. London: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

Comerford, C. (2015). The hero we need, not the one we deserve: Vigilantism and the state of exception in Batman Incorporated. In T. Giddens (Ed.), Graphic justice: Intersections of comics and law (pp. 183–200). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

“Crime comics and the constitution”. (1955). Stanford Law Review, 7(2), 237–260.Find this resource:

Curtis, N. (2016). Sovereignty and superheroes. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Fennell, J. (2012). The aesthetics of supervillainy. Law Text Culture, 16(1), 305–328.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., & Young, J. (2008). Cultural criminology: An invitation. London: Sage.Find this resource:

Fishwick, E., & Mak, H. (2015). Fighting crime, battling injustice: The world of real-life superheroes. Crime Media Culture, 11(3), 335–356.Find this resource:

Garland, T. S., Branch, K., & Grimes, M. (2016). Blurring the lines: Reinforcing rape myths in comic books. Feminist Criminology, 11(1), 48–68.Find this resource:

Gavaler, C. (2016). The rise and fall of fascist superpowers. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 7(1), 70–87.Find this resource:

Giddens, T. (2012). Comics, law, and aesthetics: Towards the use of graphic fiction in legal studies. Law and Humanities, 6(1), 85–109.Find this resource:

Giddens, T. (2014). Natural law and vengeance: Jurisprudence on the streets of Gotham. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 28(4), 765–785.Find this resource:

Giddens, T. (2015). Navigating the looking glass: Severing the lawyer’s head in Arkham Asylum. Griffith Law Review, 24(3), 395–417.Find this resource:

Giddens, T. (in press). Graphic justice and criminological aesthetics: Visual criminology on the Streets of Gotham. In E. Carrabine and M. Brown (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of visual criminology. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Glancey, R. (2015). I am the law teacher! An experiential approach using Judge Dredd to teach constitutional law. In T. Giddens (Ed.), Graphic justice: Intersections of comics and law (pp. 54–70). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Groensteen, T. (2007). The system of comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

Groombridge, N. (2015). Stepping off the page: “British Batman” as legal superhero. In T. Giddens (Ed.), Graphic justice: Intersections of comics and law (pp. 164–179). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague: The great comic book scare and how it changed America. New York: Picador.Find this resource:

Hanley, J. (2012). Noir justice: Law, crime, and morality in Díaz Canales and Guarnido’s Blacksad: Somewhere within the shadows and Arctic-nation. Law Text Culture, 16(1), 379–410.Find this resource:

Harvey, R. C. (2005). Describing and discarding “comics” as an impotent act of philosophical rigor. In J. McLaughlin (Ed.), Comics as Philosophy (pp. 14–26). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

Hatfield, C. (2005). Alternative comics: An emerging literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

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Housel, R., & Wisnewski, J. J. (Eds.). (2009). X-Men and philosophy: Astonishing insight and uncanny argument in the Mutant X-Verse. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.Find this resource:

Howard, S. C., & Jackson, R. L., II. (Ed.). (2013). Black comics: Politics of race and representation. London: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

Hughes, J. A. (2006). “Who watches the watchmen?”: Ideology and “real world” superheroes. Journal of Popular Culture, 39(4), 546–557.Find this resource:

Jenkins, H. (2006). Captain America sheds his mighty tears. In D. J. Sherman & T. Narmin (Eds.), Terror, culture, politics: Rethinking 9/11 (pp. 69–102). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

Jewett, R., & Lawrence, J. S. (2004). Captain America and the crusade against evil: The dilemma of zealous nationalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.Find this resource:

Kozin, A. V. (2014). Judge Dredd: Dreaming of instant justice. In A. Wagner and R. Sherwin (Eds.), Law, culture, and visual studies (pp. 917–942). Berlin: Springer.Find this resource:

Lam, A. (2012). Chewing in the name of justice: The taste of law in action. Law Text Culture, 16(1), 155–182.Find this resource:

Lloyd, C. (2015). Judge, jury, executioner: Judge Dredd, Jacques Derrida, drones. In T. Giddens (Ed.), Graphic justice: Intersections of comics and law (pp. 201–218). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Lovell, J. (2002). Nostalgia, comic books, and the “war against crime!”: An inquiry into the resurgence of popular justice. Journal of Popular Culture, 36(2), 335–351.Find this resource:

McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

McGinnis, J. D. (1988). Bogeymen and the law: Crime comics and pornography. Ottawa Law Review, 20(1), 3–23.Find this resource:

McLaughlin, J. (2005). Comics as philosophy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

Meskin, A. (2007). Defining comics? Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65(4), 369–379.Find this resource:

Miettinen, M. (2014). Men of steel? Rorschach, Theweleit, and Watchmen’s deconstructed masculinity. Political Science, 47(1), 104–107.Find this resource:

Miller, A. (2007). Reading bande dessinée: Critical approaches to French language comic strip. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect.Find this resource:

Miodrag, H. (2013). Comics and language: Reimagining critical discourse on the form. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

Morris, T., & Morris, M. (Eds.). (2005). Superheroes and philosophy: Truth, justice, and the Socratic way. Chicago, IL: Open Court.Find this resource:

Nurse, A. (2015). Extreme restorative justice: The politics of vigilantism in Vertigo’s 100 Bullets. In T. Giddens (Ed.), Graphic justice: Intersections of comics and law (pp. 130–146). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Nyberg, A. (1998). Seal of approval: The history of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

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Phillips, N. D., & Strobl, S. (2006). Cultural criminology and kryptonite: Apocalyptic and retributive constructions of crime and justice in comic books. Crime Media Culture, 2(3), 304–331.Find this resource:

Phillips, N. D., & Strobl, S. (2013). Comic book crime: Truth, justice, and the American way. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

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Tilley, C. L. (2012). Seducing the innocent: Fredric Wertham and the falsification that helped condemn comics. Information and Culture, 47(4), 383–413.Find this resource:

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Ward, A. (2009). Free will and foreknowledge: Does Jon really know what Laurie will do next, and can she do otherwise? In M. D. White (Ed.), Watchmen and philosophy: A Rorschach test (pp. 125–135). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.Find this resource:

Wertham, F. (1954). Seduction of the innocent. New York: Reinhart.Find this resource:

White, M. D. (Ed.) (2009). Watchmen and philosophy: A Rorschach test. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.Find this resource:

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