The rare books collection at Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library is a trove of legal-literary treasures that archives treatises on Roman and canon law, notebooks from law students who attended the venerable institution in the 19th century, and essays on justice written by a 16th century French jurist.
This fall the library began showing off its newest addition to the collection: comic books.
These aren’t just any comic books, however. They are part of a collection of rare funnies that showcase the influence of the law and lawyers on the genre.
“The law and comic books are very connected,” says Washington, D.C., lawyer and comic book collector Mark Zaid, who curated the exhibit. “The way comic books are created had legal origins. The way comic books were distributed, the way they were written—all of that was shaped by the law.”
Called Superheroes in Court! Lawyers, Law and Comic Books, the Yale exhibit features 30 titles—almost all from Zaid’s personal collection—that highlight the interplay between lawyers, the law and graphic literature.
Zaid organized his collection into five categories to best reflect the law’s influence on comics. The categories include comics in the courtroom; depictions of courts in comics; comics that show the influence of the First Amendment on the genre; and items that show how intellectual property law shaped characters, storylines and titles.
The exhibit showcases, for example, comic book covers featuring superheroes like Superman and Batman on trial (though the storyline inside may depart from the legal theme). Others are focused on legal storylines or characters such as “Mr. District Attorney,” whose comic books originated from a radio show of the same name.
Zaid also included in the exhibit “ash cans” from 1939. These mock comic books were printed to use as part of a trademark registration application. Another comic book bears the evidence stamp of a New York federal court from when it was used as an exhibit in an intellectual property dispute.
Also on display are documents from a 1955 congressional hearing on comics and juvenile delinquency to show a more controversial relationship between comics and the law, says Mike Widener, the rare-book librarian at the Yale library.
The Superheroes exhibit is not the first time that the law library’s rare-book collection has showcased something rather unexpected. Earlier this year, the library displayed the complete set of the Green Bag’s Supreme Court bobbleheads.
Widener, who came up with the idea for the comic book exhibit, hopes Superheroes will bring new faces into the library. “I thought it would be an exhibit that would generate a lot of interest because it cuts across not just law students and the legal community but people that are interested in comic books,” he says. “There are just some great pieces here.”
Superheroes in Court will be on exhibit until Dec. 17.