Jonathan Krop

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Law school was making my brain clench up. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’ve learned a lot, but there’s no denying that it inculcates a certain rigidity of thought: this is the proper way to frame an issue, this is the approved structure for a legal brief, make sure to always begin your oral argument with “May it please the court,” etc. CyberOne was the antidote to the paralytic agent injected by my legal education. Above all, I learned the importance of flexibility: adopting new perspectives, shifting paradigms, cutting the Gordian knot in the name of effective advocacy. Sometimes a lunatic dressed as a ninja is worth a dozen serious scholars.

Speaking of lunatics dressed as ninjas—one of my favorite things about CyberOne was that it provided opportunities to have fun with my work. Professor Nesson showed that serious points can be made in entertaining ways when he used “8 Mile” to drive home his point about empathy. In fact, he went further, teaching that entertainment value can be crucial to getting your message heard, particularly when you’re trying to generate online buzz. I decided to base my Scratch game on the novel Siddhartha mainly because I loved the sheer absurdity of premising a cartoonish video game on a work of serious literature. I also couldn’t resist the bizarre appeal of the title, “Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha: The Game!” (imagine walking through an amusement park and seeing “Brothers Karamazov: The Ride!”). In fact, it occurs to me that I may have found my oeuvre; I employed the same improbable juxtaposition of pop culture and high culture for my final project, which attempts to demonstrate that superhero comic books can be used as a vehicle for addressing serious legal and social issues.

And of course, there’s the central idea of empathy. This is yet another concept that my other classes have not emphasized. One thing that struck me was how counterintuitive it was. Unless I was deliberately trying to make my points empathically, I tended not to. Instead, I would fall back into the decidedly unhelpful habit of using logic, ideology, and sheer forcefulness to try and “corner” my listener and make them agree with me. It really is amazing how effectively you can argue when you adopt an empathic paradigm. Professor Nesson wasn’t joking when he told me I’d even be able to fight better with my girlfriend.

The class reminded me that good lawyers are more than just analysts and logicians; they’re teachers and storytellers, even entertainers if the situation calls for it. I tried to keep this in mind as I developed ideas for my project. I chose the topic of the Superhuman Registration Act, a fictional statute from the comic book series “Civil War.” The Act, if enacted by Congress, would require all superhuman persons in the United States to register with the federal government. Crime-fighting without government authorization would be a federal crime, as would refusal to register. In the “Marvel Universe” (the fictional reality in which the events of Marvel comic books take place), the issue is extremely controversial and divisive, sufficiently so to create a schism in the “superhero” community. However, Professor Nesson felt that without an element of dispute in the real world, my project would have no real emotional core. Essentially, it would just be a clever conceit, not an argument that people would care about.

Professor Nesson allowed me to keep my topic, but his critique stuck with me. It occurred to me that there was a deeper argument to be made here: not about a fictional event in a comic, but about comics themselves, and about argument itself. “Civil War” and the Superhuman Registration Act clearly have thematic links with real world issues and events, most prominently the policies of the United States government after September 11th, 2001. I realized it would be possible to use the Marvel Universe as a sort of “scale model” of our own society: more colorful, a little simpler, certainly more action-packed, but reflecting many of the same contemporary concerns. In this light, comics are potentially very powerful tools for illustrating ideas and making arguments about real-world issues. They would also have the added bonus of engaging children about ideas they might not otherwise look into, although children are not the only people who read comics (clearly). These unique capabilities of comic books as argument-enablers would form the premise of my project.

My classmates supplied another insight after listening to my podcast in class. I’d recorded the podcast from the perspective of a person in the Marvel Universe, arguing against the Superhuman Registration Act to others in his fictional America. Several students commented on the podcast’s ambiguity: was I talking about the Bush administration? Was I just talking about an event in a comic? Professor Nesson seemed to think I was talking about the threat of government regulation tarnishing the uninhibited openness of cyberspace. What was I talking about? Some of my classmates felt that this ambiguity hurt my argument, but the consensus seemed to be that it was a strength. I never broke character, never stepped aside and said, “Ok, guys, now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to talk to you about…” I wasn’t arguing the issue; I was arguing parallel to the issue (or, rather, issues – Professor Nesson’s interpretation was equally valid). I didn’t directly challenge my listeners to change their ideas about, say, individual liberty post-9/11; I just talked to them about a fictional event in a comic book. They’d make the connections to the issue—and possibly reevaluate their ideas—without any prompting from me.

I decided that my project would take the form of an Open Courseware site for a class existing only in the Marvel Universe, called “Law and the Constitution in the Superhuman Age.” I created the site to demonstrate, in an entertaining and lighthearted way, the potential that comic books possess as tools for engaging people on serious issues. It does so without having to make the point directly; as with the podcast, I don’t break character, except to provide links to the homepages of Harvard Law, CyberOne, and Marvel. Instead of confronting viewers with my agenda, the site draws them into the “virtual world” of Marvard University, where they should hopefully arrive at my conclusions.