Monday, September 30, 2013

Addendum to the Previous Post on the Uncanny X-Men, Alpha Flight & Criminal Code of Canada

It's not very often that one can write a blog entry and only weeks later enjoy a conversation with one of the creators you wrote about. But this happened for me yesterday when I had a delightful conversation (and got a few autographs too) with legendary comics creator Chris Claremont at a comic shop here in Toronto.

Some of the autographed comics from Sunday's signing with Chris Claremont. 
I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to finally meet Mr. Claremont. I've been a fan for as long as I've been reading comics (1986?) and found him to be every bit as friendly as I could have hoped. In chatting I mentioned my previous blog entry about Section 16 of the Criminal Code of Canada and we had a nice discussion about it. He mentioned that the point of the story was not to imply that Georges Baptiste would be punished automatically. Rather, that it was to explain that the Canadian justice system would have to go to work and ensure Mr. Baptiste was treated fairly and received the help, punishment or a combination of both that justice required. This is exactly what Section 16 and the mental disorder defence is about.  

Anyways, it was a fantastic little Sunday vingette and I encourage anyone who has an opportunity to meet Chris Claremont to get out and do so. I'm sure he'll be as appreciative of the encounter has you'll be.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Alpha Flight, X-Men and Secton 16 of the Criminal Code of Canada

I was reading the Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past trade paperback by Chris Claremont and John Byrne recently. Alpha Flight fans may remember that the arch immediately prior to Days of Future Past (and featured in its trade) is an Wendigo-focused story that happens in northern Canada and has the X-Men and Alpha Flight working together, something that had been a rarity up until that point. One of the later panels of Uncanny X-Men #141 particularly caught my attention. Have a look: 

Wendigo reverts to Georges Baptiste and is promply arrested in Uncanny X-Men #140 (December 1980).
Later, Guardian explains what will happen to Mr. Baptiste after his arrest. Also from Uncanny X-Men #140 (December 1980).
Alpha Flight has always been somewhat of an anomaly in comics because its an early state-sponsored superhero group. Of course, we saw groups like this in Golden Age WWII comics; the aftermath of Marvel's Civil War event in late 2000s; and even the U.S. government employed Superman in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns in 1986. But from their very beginnings Alpha Flight has always seemed to be working on behalf of the Canadian government in peacetime. Which is what brought these “super-mounties” into contact with the X-Men and Wendigo in the first place. 

But what exactly would happen “under Canadian law” in this instance? Could Mr. Baptiste be held responsible for any crimes while possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo? And what defences could his lawyers use so the courts "aren't too hard on him" as Guardian suggests? In this short piece I'm going to examine Section 16 of the Criminal Code of Canada and how Mr. Baptiste might use the defence of a mental disorder to prove to the court that he should not be found criminally responsible for his actions.


Simply put, defences are the means by which defence lawyers prove to the “trier of fact” (which in most cases is a jury in Canada, but at times can also be a judge) that the Accused should not be found guilty of the alleged crime. Serious crimes in Canada must have both a Mens Rea (a guilty mind) and an Actus Reus (a corresponding guilty act). This is very important because it's against natural justice, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and even common sense to seriously punish someone who didn't have a guilty mind when they committed a crime.

In Canada, our bedrock document relating to criminal law is the Criminal Code of Canada. This massive tome, while not containing all Canadian criminal law, contains the vast majority of it. First created in the 1892 in an effort to put into statute or "codify" the criminal law of Canada, the text has been amended over the years as Canada's changed. The Code not only contains offences that a person can be charged with, but also defences that can be used by the Accused to prove they are not guilty or criminally responsible. These range from age capacity (Section 13) to the defence of property (Section 40). For the purposes of today's discussion, the defence that applies to the events of Uncanny X-Men #139 and #140 is the mental disorder defence, which is Section 16.  

The "Super-Mounties" of the Marvel universe. Here's Alpha Flight from X-Men and Alpha Flight Vol. 2 #2 (June 1998)
Section 16

Taken directly from the Criminal Code, Canada's mental disorder (we do not say "Insanity") defence is:  

No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of: 1) appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or; 2) of knowing that it was wrong.   

Like much of Canadian law, this section of the Criminal Code reaches back to English criminal law, specifically the judgment of M'Naghten's Case of 1843. In M'Naghten, the accused, a Mr. Daniel M'Naghten (pronounced, and sometimes spelled, McNaughtan or McNaughton), attempted to kill British Prime Minister Robert Peel. He was unsuccessful, but in the melee ended up killing one of the prime minister's aides. The resulting trial eventually found its way to the House of Lords, then the court of last resort in the United Kingdom, where the judgment reflected the longstanding idea that mental illness should not be met with retribution, but with mercy.   

Of course, the press and many elected officials vociferously denounced the verdict, something that happened when John Hinkley, Jr. successfully used the defence after his failed assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan almost 140 years later. Congress and a number of states took immediate action to ban the so-called "insanity defence" outright, but the M'Naghten defence still remains on the books in a number of US jurisdictions, just as it is used in Canada and in England and Wales.  

Guardian getting it done in X-Men and Alpha Flight Vol. 2 #2 (June 1998)
Which takes us to the case at hand. In defending Mr. Baptiste, I would say counsel's best move is a Section 16 defence, something Guardian even alludes to. Of course, because the curse of the Wendigo is enacted by the consumption of human flesh, we would have to prove that Mr. Baptiste did not consume the flesh with the intent of becoming a monster, but only out of a desire to survive in the wilderness. This is because we would not want to use the analogous logic of someone using "liquid courage" to commit a crime and then claiming intoxication as a defence. But if Mr. Baptiste didn't understand that his actions would lead to him becoming Wendigo and this subsequent magical mental illness made him loose control of his actions (thereby negating any Mens Rea) I think a Section 16 defence would work. 

It is important to understand that what constitutes a "mental disorder" is a question of law and therefore left to the judge to decide. So while cases involving Section 16 inevitably involve psychiatric experts testifying under oath (and there are provisions to prevent an endless "battle of the experts"), ultimately the judge will decide if there is a disease of the mind in play. She or he will then instruct the trier of fact (jury) to answer: 1) at the relevant time of the crime the accused was incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of his/her action, and if so; 2) he or she did not know that it was wrong. 

And as in all Canadian criminal law, there is case law to guide a Section 16 defence, such as what "appriciate" actually means or how Section 16 relates to specific illnesses, but that is beyond the scope of our piece today. Hopefully however you're leaving here with a better understanding of Canadian criminal law, The Criminal Code of Canada and the Claremont/Byrne run on Uncanny X-Men. Using Section 16 with regard to a magical possession seems a little bit of a stretch, but that's the fun of comics and may even have even been on Guardian's mind he says Mr. Baptiste's actions were those of an "insane man". Thanks again for stopping by and I hope you're having a great September.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

WGTB Reviews Two Books on Superman

With Superman having turned 75 this year, it's a truism to say he is one of the most enduring fictional characters in pop-culture. But where did he come from and how has he changed over the decades? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question or just want to brush up on the Man of Steel’s history, then you’re in luck: in recent months two great books released that will help you get to know Superman better. 
Superboys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- the Creators of Superman, Brad Ricca, St. Martin's Press, 2013, pp. 448, $33.99

The first we'll look at today is Superboys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- The Creators of Superman written by Brad Ricca. Superboys is an updated creator-focused account of Superman's origins and the personal highs and lows, two of the most famous men in comics experienced while creating their iconic character.

Ricca, educated at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland-born himself, makes the Ohio roots and the personal and professional lives of Jerry and Joe the focus of his work. Examining early accounts of the Seigel and Shuster history, the book takes us all the way back to the Netherlands, Russia and Canada before we finally arrive at Glenville High School in Ohio, where the two met and became close friends and collaborators. The book also focuses on the early science-fiction fanzines of Joe, the famous Reign of the Superman story, and the sale of the rights of Superman to National Publications. Along the way the book explores the minds and personalities of the creators with special focus on how these two teenagers longed for something better and eventually found this in Superman, only to have it torn away by a bad deal.

The research of this book is extensive and it's especially good when dealing with the legal aspects of the early Superman story. Siegel and Shuster were paid very little ($130) for use of the character and Ricca does a fantastic job at detailing what exactly happened after they made their ‘work for hire’ deal. Because the book was published in 2013, the author was also able to draw, not just upon the widely known episodes of the early years of Superman, but the latest legal proceedings, the likes of which only recently wrapped up in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Reading dialogue taken almost directly from depositions is always interesting, and certainly fits the comprehensive nature of Superboys. Much of the story of Siegel and Shuster has been told before, but if you’re looking for an up-to-date version par excellence, you will enjoy this well written and comprehensive volume. 4.5/5 STARS.

Next we turn to Superman: the Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon. This book is a great place for anyone who wants to know the history of the Superman character as he appeared in the various mediums that have told his story. Weldon, a freelance writer who makes regular appearances on National Public Radio in the U.S., hasn't written an "origin story" per se and barely touches on the Siegel and Shuster aspect of Superman. Rather, he surveys how Superman has evolved over the course of his distinguished career in comics and other media. 

Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon, Wiley, 2013, pp. 353, $27.45

Beginning with the Golden Age character -- who at times seemed more like a self-righteous bully than the superhero we know today -- Unauthorized tells us how Superman has evolved, how his powers changed, and even mentions some of the other stranger powers that have fallen on the wayside. 

Whedon also goes through the early comic stories issue by issue, drawing on examples from the early comics to demonstrate how as the Golden Age gave way to the Silver, Bronze and Modern ages, Superman has evolved and changed with American society. We learn of the earliest and lasting villains; the Mad Men-esque conflicts with Lois Lane of the 50s and 60s; and the gimmicks, reboots and costume changes of later years that have all intended to sell more comics. 

Slogging through Golden and Silver Age comics (not to mention Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) is a challenge for even the most die-hard fan, and having done this Weldon proves his mantle as both fan and expert on the topic of Superman. Writing with a humour, style and detailed understanding of the subject matter, this book is without a doubt a great start for anyone who wants to get caught up on Superman and learn how the character has evolved over the years. The latter chapters – from the 1980s onward – are especially good at offering trade paperback suggestions for those lapsed fans looking to get caught up. As such, this book earns a 4/5 STARS

In the early part of his book, Glen Weldon boils down Superman's fundamental attributes to: 1) he always puts the needs of others ahead of himself; and, 2) he never gives up. Both of the above books, while focusing on different aspects of the Superman character, demonstrate that these common threads are what make him such an enduring and enjoyable character. Superman is and will remain one of the greatest superheroes, but his past remains just as interesting and worth knowing if you're willing to take the time. Thanks for stopping by and enjoy the rest of your summer.