Of Comics and Legal Aesthetics: Multimodality and the Haunted Mask of Knowing

By Shaw, Julia Ja | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Of Comics and Legal Aesthetics: Multimodality and the Haunted Mask of Knowing


Shaw, Julia Ja, Law & Society Review


Of Comics and Legal Aesthetics: Multimodality and the Haunted Mask of Knowing. By Thomas Giddens. London & New York: Routledge, 2018

Comics have traditionally been considered to be a children's medium. Up until the late 20th century they were typically shortform, quirky and mischievous; deploying the witty interplay of words and images to tell stories, with speech and thought expressed in word balloon format. The escapades of characters such as Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, Minnie the Minx, Billy Whizz and Johnny Fartpants from The Beano (1938) and Viz (1979) are not only familiar to older generations but are still entertaining children, and adults, today. Along with the no less playful but more serious superhero genre, exemplified by the UK's Eagle (1950-1969) featuring Dan Dare and the earlier creations of American DC Comics, Superman (1938) and Batman (1939), they present a complex world in which there is right and wrong, good and evil, crime and punishment. Such visual aesthetic forms increase awareness of 'a multiplicity of dissident perspectives' which stimulate 'free play of the imagination and assist in our understanding of the world through our senses'; with the corollary that 'the communicative power of this sensory information allows for richer intellectual and emotional engagement with objects and concepts as they really are' (Shaw 2019: 28).

Like law, comics use a hierarchical vocabulary of signs, symbols and icons which is synonymous with the symbolic order of intersubjective relations, and 'produced in the dialogue and discourse all about us: in all the things that we read and say, in the music we listen to, and in the art we grow up with' (Manderson 2003: 93). Accordingly, comic books and the increasingly popular graphic novel format routinely engage with topical issues relating to legality, order, morality and justice, yet have been largely neglected within legal scholarship. In order to rectify this oversight, and as part of the literary, cultural and visual aesthetic turn in law, Thomas Giddens applies a novel means of 'framing' this emerging intertextual or more accurately multimodal field of legal inquiry, by removing the frame. Of Comics and Legal Aesthetics: Multimodality and the Haunted Mask of Knowing enlarges the scope of what may constitute a legitimate source for legal research by exploring the multitude of meanings and critical value that the comic medium can bring to law. Rather than focusing on the political and legal content - including their potential as a site for social critique and protest - law and the comic medium are juxtaposed as two examples of the same thing, namely, 'orders of knowing'; being, for example, not only textual and visual but also rational and aesthetic. By traversing, even removing, the interactive boundaries between different orders of knowing, meaning-making and communicating with the world, Giddens claims it may be possible to 'open a space... for an unbounded encounter with law... where we may be free to engage, imagine and create law in a different form' (5, 24).

The visual narratives of comics comprise complex multimodal interactions between written language and the visual language of images, where either one may direct the meaning and/or narrative structure. Just as the 'textual expression of law is visual' (199) yet 'visible descriptions are not reducible to their verbal explanations' (Goodrich 2015: 20), the adoption of 'multiframe' thinking, as opposed to narrow instrumentality, can assist in the interpretation of legal texts and challenge legal doctrine. …

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