A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Manhunter #1: The Trial of Copperhead

A commenter asked about how well the law was handled in the first Manhunter storyline. So I flipped through a copy at the shop, and I can now say: a little better than the Shadow Thief story, but not much.

In large part, that's because there's really not much a trial shown. All we're shown is closing arguments and the verdict. There's simply less room to be wrong. But those pages have about as much bad law as they can hold.

Of course, the case against Copperhead is in federal court, but this time it's OK. Copperhead committed his murders during a bank robbery, and federal courts have jurisdiction over bank robberies. So long as the bank was in Kate's district, this case is perfectly within the scope of her office.

Unfortunately, one of the federal details that is gotten correct in the Sands trial is done incorrectly here. When the verdict is read, the case's name is given as "The People of California v. Copperhead." That would be correct for a state case, but federal criminal cases are "United States v. ______." It should also use the defendant's legal name and not an alias, but I don't believe any writer ever stated Copperhead's real name.

We're dropped into the story as Kate and Copperhead's defense attorney are giving their closing arguments, but I couldn't tell what they were the closing arguments *for*. Kate tells the jury that Copperhead deserves to die, and the other guy claims that his client is compelled to murder because of the meta-gene.

Death penalty cases have two phases. The first is your standard old 'guilty-or-not-guilty' trial phase, also called the fact-finding phase. The defendant is charged with committing a certain murderous act (since murder is the only crime that gets the death penalty), and the jury has to decide the question of whether the defendant actually committed the act. It's a factual determination: did he or didn't he?

If the jury acquits the defendant, then the trial is over and everybody goes home. If the jury convicts, then they move on to the sentencing phase. It's sorta like a second mini-trial, but with a lot of aggravating and mitigating evidence that wasn't allowed in the first time because it wasn't really relevant to the "did he do it" question. The prosecutor tells the jurors that the defendant beats up puppies and orphans in his spare time, and the defense attorney stresses that his client goes to church every Sunday and helped raise his three little sisters after his mom ran off with the milkman. The jury sees home movies, hears lots of character evidence, and gets all sorts of criminal history details. This is the time that the victim's family would take the stand to talk about how much they miss the deceased. And the prosecutor also has the burden of proving some sort of aggravating factor that merits the death penalty. The question asked of the jury is not whether the defendant *did* the crime, but rather, having already established that he did do it, whether he deserves to die.

So is Manhunter #1 showing us the end of the trial phase, or the end of the sentencing phase? That depends on where you want your errors to be.

Read Kate's closing for yourself (see if you can spot the two or three errors about Copperhead in the courtroom). If this is a closing argument for the sentencing phase, it's actually pretty good. Kate stresses the gruesomeness of the crime, the impact on the victims, and the continued threat that Copperhead would pose to society if allowed to live. And she closes by saying, "There is but one verdict you can arrive at: Death." It's an effective argument that snake-guy needs to take the eternal celestial dirt nap.

If, on the other hand, this is supposed to be the end of the trial phase, then Kate probably just bought herself a mistrial. Calling the victim "a metagene-amplied serial killer," and warning "he has killed again and again without mercy or compunction," are prohibited statements. Those are prior criminal acts (which he may or may not actually have been convicted of), and if this is the fact-finding phase, Kate is asking the jury to find Copperhead guilty of the bank murders because he'd committed murders before. Bad form, and virtually guaranteed to win a strong objection and a mistrial.

Plus, while her comments are well-scripted for a sentencing phase closing, they're largely out of place in a trial closing. "For the safety of your neighbors" is a plea for punishment, not for factual guilt. She makes absolutely no effort to rebut the defense argument discussed below. And Kate would properly finish her trial closing with a request for a verdict of "guilty," not "death."

(Kate also appears to be poor with math, which isn't terribly uncommon for lawyers. "Twelve dead. Three in persistive vegetative states. Two with severe PTSD in addition to their missing limbs... Fifteen lives shattered by the defendant." 12 + 3 + 2 = 15?)

After Kate is finished, the defense attorney makes his closing argument. (This is probably wrong too, since prosecutors usually get the final word, but I'll need somebody else to back me up on the federal rule.) And practically the first words out of his mouth are to tell the jury that there's no question that Copperhead actually committed the murders he's charged with.

Usually, defense attorneys don't begin their closing arguments at trial by saying 'Let's be honest, clearly my client massacred those people...'

Then again, it's not like he had much room to argue that Copperhead was truly innocent. Kate did just show a videotape of his client ripping the victims' limbs off. He goes on, telling the jury why Copperhead shouldn't be held to account for murders he clearly committed because of the metagene. He closes with a request for a verdict of "not guilty."

If this is a sentencing phase, then the defense attorney should be asking for some punishment other than death (e.g. incarceration or commitment), and probably not a "not guilty" verdict. But the rest of his comments could potentially fit either phase. This 'metagene' argument sounds analogous to the Irresistible Impulse version of the insanity defense: "My client did it, but he shouldn't be held responsible because he couldn't stop himself." (Incidentally, the American Psychiatric Association does not endorse this test.) I don't believe this is a terribly successful defense, and I think it'd be hard for the defense attorney to meet his burden of showing this impulse. But given the videotape, there weren't exactly a lot of available options for defense strategy here.

But the jury inexplicably hands down a "not guilty" verdict, leading me to suspect that the L.A. of the DCU is just as crazy as our L.A. The judge then issues some orders about where Copperhead should be held until some permanent arrangement is made. A person found not guilty by reason of insanity is typically committed to a mental hospital, so it makes sense that a parallel treatment would be true following a not guilty by reason of the metagene verdict.

So is this the guilt or sentencing phase of the trial? Courtroom drama usually focuses on the guilt phase, and here that's supported by the "not guilty" talk and verdict, as well as the overall tenor of the defense attorney's closing. On the other hand, Kate's closing is utter dreck for a trial closing but perfect for a sentencing closing. I suspect that this was intended to be the end of the regular trial (as is strongly evidenced by the defense attorney's boasting of his "win" in #6), but Kate comes off looking a lot better the other way 'round. Not only does she avoid a mistrial if these are sentencing phase closing arguments, but it means that she actually won the guilt phase of the trial.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Ex Machina #11

Before I managed to get to the shop and buy the issue myself, the Shrew Review brought the legal premise of Ex Machina #11 to my attention. Mayor Hundred tells the police commissioner that he wants the NYPD to start enforcing 165.35 and...y'know, I'll just let you read it yourselves:

As the Shrew observed, New York Penal Code 165.35 is a real law. Specifically, it's a Class B Misdemeanor, which (as best I can tell) is punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Laws against fortune-telling can be found in many places, varying from states that outlaw any fortune-telling (both free and for-profit) to those that (in my opinion, insanely) license fortune tellers. I've heard that some places license astrologers, so I'd guess the standards are about the same for both. As in, 'no standards at all.'

Michigan apparently repealed its anti-fortune-telling law, but while it was still on the books, it included this rationale for the ban:

"There may be some question whether this conduct should continue to be criminal. However, persons holding themselves out to possess occult powers very often proceed to take advantage of the gullible and persuade them to turn over money or property. While this activity amounts to theft by deception, it may be difficult to prove. A prohibition against fortune telling, etc., as such drives the activity underground and reduces somewhat the opportunity to practice frauds."

I also like this quote from a Pennsylvania prosecutor, particularly the middle clause:

"If it's for entertainment purposes, and that's clear, it's not illegal."

Lately, I've started watching DVDs of the Showtime program Penn & Teller: Bullsh!t. In it, they go after psychics, alternative healers, alien abduction therapists, feng shui experts, and more. People who aren't marketing their services as "entertainment," but as genuine scientific methods, and getting paid hundreds or thousands of dollars in the process. And what do their customers get in return? At best (as in the case of feng shui) a lighter wallet, and at worst (as with abduction therapy) actual harm. I find it nauseating that John Edward is not only allowed to hornswoggle people, but it allowed to do so on national television. Not only do I like the notion of Mayor Hundred going after the fortune tellers, I wish he'd do more.

Of course, in a fictional world where fortune telling is a legitimate skill, the law takes on a different aura, as observed by another character a few pages later. The mystical is commonplace in the Marvel and DC Universes, as illustrated by the Madame Xanadu that Hundred refers to. In fact, one could argue that those worlds have a greater need to license its paranormal experts in order to weed out the frauds. Is fortune-telling legit in the world of Ex Machina? Could be, but the existence of the Great Machine is certainly not the proof that the fortune-teller would claim. After all, every indication is that its world was all but identical to our own up until Hundred's experience.

Two final points and I'll be through. First, the two balloons of foreign dialogue spoken by the fortune-teller's cousin are actual Romani phrases. The second means "It is God who brought you," and I'll let you follow the link for the first.

Second, the police commissioner tells Mayor Hundred that "Mayor Beame ordered raids on fortunetellers in the late seventies, and I heard three guy involved in the busts ended up dying in totally freak...," before he cut her off. This has the ring of Brian K. Vaughn historical trivia, but I can't find anything about it. Any help?

Saturday, May 28, 2005

"The Batman" on Ice

I recall an interview with a Batman creator (possibly Ty Templeton) from some years back, in which the writer complained about the use of certain deus ex machina in certain Batman stories. One was the "mud that only comes from one part of Gotham" gimmick, where the writer tries to create the illusion of detective work, but without requiring any real sleuthing. Another is when there is a speeding subway train on a dead-end track that exits out on the face of a cliff. As he pointed out, no one builds tracks through cliffsides over open water. It's an effort by the writer to make drama out of a situation that should be absurd on its face, but in the hopes that the audience won't notice how ridiculous the scenario is.

I was reminded of that second example while watching this morning's new episode of The Batman. Entitled "Fire & Ice," it had Mr. Freeze and Firefly teaming up to freeze the city for some reason (if they ever provided a motivation, I missed it). Mr. Freeze steals some liquid nitrogen from Wayne Industries (something I'll get back to in a moment), and uses it in a giant cryo-cannon that his abilities will power. The whole set-up is in an underground chamber full of pipes that Freeze says provides heat to every building in Gotham. And Freeze proceeds to freeze all the people in every building by sending frigid air (or ice; it's sorta unclear) through those same pipes. Sure enough, the plan works, and we see a lot of people get frozen in ice.

In case you don't consider Freeze's word about the facility's function reliable, Batman himself settles that. He saves the day by flipping the switch on the facility's "boiler," which then pumps nice hot air throughout the city via the pipes, thawing all the innocents.

Apparently, the entire city of Gotham has central heating. Out where I live, we tend to heat our buildings with a little thing called 'natural gas.' Or 'electricity.' But in the Gotham City of "The Batman," they seem to be unfamiliar with those resources, so instead there's a giant underground boiler that heats the entire city. Does this also mean that Gotham also has a giant central air conditioner too? Or how about an aquarium-sized municipal hot water heater?

It's just a variation on the railway cheat. "Mr. Freeze needs to ice the entire city from a central location? Then let's say every building in Gotham is heated by a single massive boiler, and hope that no one realizes that makes no sense."

I also wanted to say a bit on the subject of liquid nitrogen. Freeze pulls a massive heist to steal a handful of canisters from a Wayne Industries laboratory, each of which held maybe a half-gallon of the liquified gas.

I wonder if the writer thinks liquid nitrogen is much harder to obtain than it really is. You can buy the stuff from a great many gas suppliers at relatively low cost. In fact, Freeze's only difficulty would be in finding a dealer interested in selling that small an amount of the gas. OK, it's not like he can stroll into a store and place an order, but there's very little point in breaking into a secure, high-rise building in the middle of the night when he could more easily rob a gas supplier or, better yet, just send Firefly to the store with a couple of bills. He might was well be robbing Wayne Industries to steal their supply of ink toner or propane.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Walking Dead of Dixie

I got the third Walking Dead trade the other day. It was a very good read, as were the previous trades. I started buying the series for two reasons: 1) I’d heard a lot of good buzz, and 2) the story was initially set in the Atlanta area. There aren’t a lot of comics set in my neck of the woods. The first few issues of Damage were set in metro Atlanta, and Owly is ostensibly set in a Georgia forest, but that’s about it.

But to my disappointment, Robert Kirkman’s knowledge of Atlanta specifics apparently ends with “It’s south of Kentucky.” It’s difficult to point to particular examples of what he got wrong, because the series mostly suffers from a severe lack of details. Imagine a story about NYC, but without mentioning any boroughs, or suburban areas, or roads, or anything else by name. Characters are either ‘near’ New York City or ‘in’ New York City, and that’s it. (Authors can also go too far in the opposite extreme; H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds drove me crazy with its constant reliance on the reader’s knowledge of London geography.) The few particulars given are:

- Rick says that Atlanta is a five-hour drive from his Kentucky hometown. Not knowing what part of Kentucky he’s from, that could be a fair estimate.
- Allen says that he and his family are from Gainesville, “about fifty miles from here.” I’ll get back to “here.”
- Glenn says he’s from Macon, Georgia. And Macon, um, exists (it’s about 80 miles south of Atlanta).
- When they’re not too much further than “20 miles from the city,” a local says that they’re on highway 64. State highway 64 is in south Georgia, and Interstate 64 runs through Tennessee without entering Georgia. I imagine Kirkman just picked a number, but this could've been an easy real detail.

There’s also one panel showing Rick riding into Atlanta, with the skyline looming before him, but I don’t know if Tony Moore was working from an actual image or just creating a cityscape out of scratch. But that’s it for quantifiable details in the first twelve issues. No references to Perimeter I-285 (the freeway circling Atlanta), or highway I-75 (which Rick must have taken down from Kentucky), or any of Atlanta’s multiple suburbs. “Atlanta” is the only point of reference.

It’s never even stated where in relation to Atlanta their camp is. Given that Rick finds them as he rides into the city, it must be the northern side of Atlanta. The skyline and buildings suggest he got a fair way into town. But their campsite is a very large and open greenspace within walking distance of the city. Kirkman and artist Tony Moore seem to think that Atlanta is a fairly small city that suddenly…ends, and then is surrounded by countryside. That sounds more like James Robinson’s description of Opal City than Atlanta.

This depiction continues in the second trade collection, as the survivors leave their camp. They travel on two-lane, rural roads, through wooded countryside. And this is only about 20 miles from their adjacent-to-the-city campsite. They are surprised to come across a plantation house and a gated subdivision, as if they’d encountered no other homes since leaving camp. Not far beyond there, they find a farm. In reality, Atlanta has a hugely built-up suburban area that extends a great ways in every direction. There is still undeveloped land around Atlanta, but I can't imagine how the survivors could avoid all populated areas like they seem to do.

In the third trade, the survivors settle at a prison which is said to be a four-hour drive from the gated subdivision (Kirkman's Georgia is apparently largely undeveloped). Again, there are no details given (even cardinal directions), so it’s not like there’s anything I can point to that’s wrong. It’s not even mentioned whether they’re still in Georgia or not. But for what it’s worth, four hours’ driving in any direction other than south should put a traveler outside the state.

The biggest geographical flaw would be a story element that is significant to the plot on more than one occasion, appearing in several issues and on the second trade cover. I’m talking about the snow.

We don’t get snow in Atlanta often. The yearly average is just 1-2 inches for the entire season, and even that doesn’t stick to the ground long, if at all. Many winters produce no snow at all; ice is more common. What little snow we do get comes between January and March. Snow is always a surprise in this city; it’s never expected.

In The Walking Dead, the survivors seem to anticipate the snow. Sure enough, it comes with a vengeance. The snowfall starts and stops at least three times, that we’re shown. And it sticks to the ground for a good long while. At the start of the second tpb, after the first big snowfall, the time is given as Christmas. In my lifetime, I believe we’ve had just one ‘white Christmas,’ and that was just a brief flurry that didn’t stick. Snow is a huge element in the story, and it doesn’t reflect the real Atlanta at all.

In other words, the weather in the series is seriously freaky compared to the real-world Atlanta, and yet all the characters act as if it’s the norm. And to make matters worse, they don’t seem to respond to the weather rationally. If their aim is to avoid the cold weather, then the thing to do is to travel south. Atlanta may get minimal snow, but south Georgia gets none and its winters are more mild. Then again, Kirkman never says where the survivors are travelling, other than that it’s “away from Atlanta.”

I suppose I should be thankful that Kirkman chose my home state as his setting for such an otherwise great book. I just wish that the Georgia of The Walking Dead better resembled the Georgia I know.

Monday, May 23, 2005

How real is "24"?

What would happen if terrorists actually gained access to the nuclear football? Are America's nuclear power plants really subject to remote attack? And would a judge actually stop a suspected terrorist's interrogation hours after Air Force One was shot down?

Salon answers all these questions and more. There are no spoilers for tonight's finale, but it's an interesting insight into how realistic this season's conceits have been.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Jury is In on 'Desperate Housewives'

OK, so it's not a comic book. If you'd like a comic book connection, here 'tis: three of the show's leads have played four-color 'desperate housewives' in the past. Teri Hatcher was, of course, Lois Lane on Lois & Clark, but new addition Alfre Woodard guest-starred as Virgil Hawkins' late mother on Static Shock, and Nicolette Sheridan took over the role of Toyman's robotic love, Darci, in the Static Shock crossover episode "Toys in the Hood."

Last week, Carlos Solis was arrested and charged with a hate crime for beating up a gay man who he mistakenly believed to be his wife's paramour. In tonight's season finale, we see Mrs. Solis testifying at a proceeding that the judge states is a grand jury hearing. Given that she is speaking to a group of ten people in the jury box, that sounds reasonable. Then while the judge is telling counsel that he doesn't think there's enough evidence of a hate crime, her actual lover strolls into the courtroom, whispers the truth of his affair to her defendant husband, and proceeds to leave. Mr. Solis then tries to jump through the courtroom observers to retaliate, which the court mistakes as another attempt on his previous victim, who is sitting in the back of the room.

So what's the problem here? Judges aren't present at grand jury hearings. Neither are defendants, or defense counsel, or victims (unless they are testifying to the grand jury at the time). And members of the public certainly aren't allowed. Grand jury proceedings are notoriously secret, and attendance is usually limited to the jurors themselves, the prosecutor, the witness being questioned, and perhaps a stenographer. And it's the grand jury that decides whether or not to formally charge the defendant, not a judge.

In short, everything dramatic that happens in this scene is legally impossible during a grand jury hearing. The only speaking character who could be present at the time is the witness Mrs. Solis. Plus, since she would appear to be a defense witness (as the prosecutor complains) and the defense can't call witnesses during grand jury, she probably shouldn't be there either.

There's a surprisingly easy way to fix this error, and that is to get rid of the jurors. Only about half of the states use grand juries to issue indictments, and the rest rely on preliminary hearings. And preliminary hearings largely resemble trials. Both sides are present and may call witnesses, the proceeding is open to the public, and the judge is the one who decides whether or not to indict the defendant. Had the judge said "This is just a preliminary hearing," and had the jury box been empty, there wouldn't have been a problem at all. (No problem for the viewer, that is; since the burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is merely probable cause, the hate crime charges should probably live on and the assault charges definitely should. And that's certainly a problem for Carlos.)

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Manhunter: Closing Arguments in the Trial of the Shadow Thief

Well, the final issue of the trial of the Shadow Thief is out, and frankly, not much happened. Actually, that's a lie. Some really explosive stuff happened, just not in the courtroom. More like, to to the courtroom. In retrospect, the trial itself more or less ended back in #8.

To recap, here are my previous Manhunter reviews. Out of the 5-issue "Trial by Fire," issue #6 showed some pretrial dealings, and #9 and 10 dealt almost entirely with an attack on the courthouse. Only #7 and 8 actually depicted courtroom trial action, during which time Kate called Hawkman, Superman, and Ronnie Raymond's parents as witnesses for the prosecution.

Lucky for you and me, the storyline only lasted five issues, unlike the interminable, 24-issue Trial of the Flash (the trial itself turns 20 this year). Even I don't want to pick on Kate Spencer every month for two years.

Looking back on the finished arc, here's a question for Manhunter readers: how did the Shadow Thief allegedly murder Firestorm? Now don't go telling me what you read in Identity Crisis or in some online interview or recap; that's cheating. Where in the five issues of the Shadow Thief's trial was the Shadow Thief's crime ever described beyond "He killed Firestorm"? Anyone? Bueller?

Personally, I think that may be the arc's most glaring storytelling flaw (as opposed to its plethora of legal flaws). Trials, by their very nature, are supposed to share the details of the crimes alleged. Here we have five issues, and nary a detail about the murder that the arc is about. No location, no description, no witnesses, no evidence. Nada. There managed to be two whole issues devoted to the questioning of trial witnesses, and not a single one of them gave even a hint of a detail about Firestorm's murder.

And that, of course, is also the arc's biggest legal flaw: Kate didn't prove squat. She managed to call and question four witnesses (none of whom should've been allowed on the stand anyway), without eliciting a word of evidence relevant to the defendant's crime. There was no evidence or testimony that said Shadow Thief stabbed Firestorm, or even that Sands was present when Ronnie died. There was no murder weapon either mentioned or shown. There was no body, and no testimony to explain why there wasn't a body. Not only was there no evidence presented linking Sands to the crime, there was no evidence presented at trial that there even was a crime.

Kate did such a universally crummy job of proving her case that if she had rested after questioning the Raymonds, the defense would have asked the judge for a directed verdict in Sands' favor and they would've won. Kate's trial plan involved at least two days of nothing but irrelevant, not to mention objectionable, testimony. Renowned federal prosecutor my fanny.

As readers of Identity Crisis certainly remember, there were three witnesses to Firestorm's murder: Captain Marvel, Vixen, and Shining Knight. (Readers of Manhunter don't necessarily know this, since none of the three were ever shown or even mentioned.) One can only hope that Kate had subpoenaed them off-panel, and planned to call them to the stand eventually.

In fact, a great many of the story's flaws could've been remedied if only those three had been a part. Issue #6 could've shown a marshal attempting to track down and subpoena any or all of them (something that couldn't be done as easily as simply beaming up to the Watchtower). Issue #7 could have begun with Shining Knight testifying about how Sands stole his sword, with Captain Marvel testifying later about how Sands stabbed Ronnie. Issue #8 could've wrapped up the three with Vixen, and then had Kate call someone like Ray Palmer as an expert witness to testify about Firestorm's nuclear nature and why he exploded when stabbed. Maybe the defense attorney could've insinuated that Ray's recent personal troubles gave him a personal stake in the trial, and a reason to be biased.

As an added bonus, these changes save much of the cross-examination in #7. Imagine Knight's credibility being challenged with questions about his supposed time-travelling. "So you claim to be a member of King Arthur's court?" He could fly off the handle just like Hawkman, and the judge can still say the courtroom isn't "a medieval battle." And wow about this as a defense question for Captain Marvel: how many times has nuclear-man Captain Atom blown up, only to return safe and sound later on? He did it in Superman/Batman just last year, in an arc that Marvel was part of. Why should Sands be convicted of murder if no one can be certain if Ronnie actually died, and didn't merely pull a stunt like Atom or Major Force? There's good eyewitness testimony that Sands committed aggravated assault and battery, even attempted homicide, but first-degree murder? Not so solid.

I'm pleased to see Marc Andreyko say that he is "doing some extensive research right now into the intricacies of Federal trials," and it raises my hopes for the next trial arc. (Based on Marc's presence and comments on online comic forums, he seems to be one of the most courteous and stand-up guys in the business.) But the big problems in this arc weren't intricacies, and they aren't unique to the federal court system. The closest thing to a federal intricacy was something that Slam Bradley noted about the federal rules of cross-examination (and a rule that I personally think is perfectly OK to bend for storytelling purposes). Even the jurisdictional issues are more the fault of DC editorial or Brad Meltzer than of this book's creators. A prosecutor's responsibility to present evidence of a murder during a murder trial isn't really an intricacy.

I think that about wraps it up for the trial of the Shadow Thief. If you have any questions about anything in the arc I didn't touch on, then shoot. And be sure to come back in a week or two when I rip on Kate yet again as I tackle...the trial of Copperhead.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

CAF #14: Oil's Well That Ends Well

Last week, Captain America & The Falcon drew to a close with #14. Last issue, the Anti-Cap killed the royal family of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Baud Olan. While Cap is visiting the Wakandan consulate in New York, the Wakandan attendant, Omoro, tells him:

"The entire planet is now watching how America responds to this world crisis. 63% of America's fuel comes from Baud Olan..."

Now while it's fair to say that the Marvel Universe may have different allocations of resources than our world (last I checked, we were lacking in the vibranium and adamantium departments), consider the real numbers, cribbed from the Department of Energy, for comparison.

The United States gets 40% of its energy from oil, 24% from natural gas, and 23% from coal. With regard to the last, the U.S. supplies about 98% of our coal needs from domestic sources. As for the middle, we produce about 80% of our natural gas needs, and another 16% comes from our friendly neighbor to the north, Canada.

Frankly, the notion of the U.S. importing 63% of our total fuel from overseas is so ridiculous that we'll just assume that when Omoro said "fuel" he meant "oil." It's not like Middle Eastern nations export natural gas or coal anyway, so this is certainly an assumption in his favor.

So looking only at oil, the U.S. deals in about 19.6 million barrels a day. 7.8 million of those barrels are produced domestically, with 11.8 million barrels being imported each day. 40% of our oil is domestic, and all our foreign suppliers, combined, add up to only 60% of our oil supply.

And who do we import from? Canada and Mexico each export 1.6 million barrels a day, followed by Saudi Arabia at 1.5 million, Venezuela at 1.3 million, and Nigeria at 1.1 million. This leaves 4.7 million barrels, or 24% of our oil supply, coming from all other countries. Even if every drop of that came from Baud Olan, that's awfully shy of 63%.

Thus, if Omoro is to be believed, this little country that no one in the Marvel Universe has ever mentioned before supplies as much U.S. oil in the MU as the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia (the four biggest suppliers of American-consumed oil) together do in our world. Could the Marvelverse's oil reserves really be that extreme? I think Omoro would be well-served to check his facts before his next political discussion.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Guest Post: Y: The Last Man #33

And now, another guest post from Mr. Gareth Wilson:

Y: The Last Man #33
Brian K. Vaughan Writer
Goran Sudžuka Penciller

Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man diverges from our universe on July 17, 2002, when every sperm, fetus, and fully developed mammal with a Y chromosome dies, simultaneously and gruesomely. This includes everything from wild giraffes in Africa to airline pilots in sealed cockpits to (presumably) frozen sperm samples in locked freezers, all within seconds of each other. Wildly implausible as this premise is, it's not actually a target for fact-checking, any more than Bobby Drake turning into ice is. Y is about a wildly implausible mass death and the single survivor of it, just like X- Men was, from the very beginning, about people who can do bizarre things like turning into ice.

Having started with wild implausibility, Vaughan seems determined to ground his post- male world in the reality of our world. The numbers of female soldiers, pilots, mechanics, ship captains and so on in Y come from real-world statistics. The gender structure of Bush's cabinet in 2002 is the same, with female Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, although the names are changed. Even the top-secret and presumably fictional spy agency one of the characters belongs to, the Culper Ring, is based on a real spy network of the Revolutionary War. And these real-world details are where the fact-checking comes in.

In issue #33, the sole male survivor of the mass death is travelling on a ship from California to Japan for reasons that need not distract us, accompanied by a Culper Ring bodyguard and a scientist. During the voyage a member of the crew is murdered and the murderer is caught transmitting a radio message suitable for contacting submarines. Let the ship's captain describe the rest:

"Australia was one of the only countries on the planet that allowed women to serve alongside men as submariners. Oceans pretty much belong to them now."

This is mostly correct. The only countries with women submariners in 2002 were Australia, Norway, and Sweden. Canada had recently changed regulations to allow women to serve on submarines but none had completed training. Australia's women submariners began training in 1998 to crew the six new Collins class diesel-electric submarines.

The captain goes on to explain that the Royal Australian Navy has been using their control of the oceans to rob civilian ships of food and medical supplies. Whether this is a plausible development goes beyond fact-checking, and the captain may not be a reliable witness. But whether the Australian submarines actually could control the oceans is something we can check. Each submarine currently has a crew of 45, and due to the cramped conditions and restrictions on supplies this must be close to the minimum crew requirements. Vaughan obligingly gives us the number of women on the post-male submarine: 42. Tight, but probably workable, and a nice Douglas Adams reference. We see a boarding party of six but they presumably have other roles on the submarine as well.

But how many female submariners would actually be available, after the mass death? In a 2003 article in the Melbourne Sunday Age Commodore Mike Deeks predicted that women would command an Australian submarine in five years. In passing he mentioned the total number of women serving on Australian submarines: 41, out of a total of 530 personnel. So, if we assume there were no new female submariners between 2002 and 2003, that all of them survived the plane crashes, car crashes, and starvation that must have occurred in the mass death, and that all of them stayed in the submarine service... the submarine's still short one woman. And that's just one submarine. It's strongly implied that there are multiple Collins class submarines in service, maybe even all six. To crew them the Australian navy would have to be taking women from surface vessels and retraining them - a process that takes months in our reality and would take even longer if all the male instructors were dead. I'm assuming no submarines were actually at sea during the mass death - being female in a 90% male sub would be as lethal as being a man in that case.

Even if the submarines could be crewed, there are more problems, as the ship's captain points out:

"Those Swedish-built subs are noisier than hell."

The ships were actually built in Australia to Swedish designs, but that's nitpicking. The noise problem is real, though, and was a considerable scandal although with other problems with the submarines. In 1999 a report recommended the subs be junked, since, to quote the Age article, "...the vessels were too noisy and vulnerable to attack, their engines broke down regularly, their hull and fin made too much disturbance when they moved at speed, the periscope was blurry, the communications system outdated and the propellers likely to crack." Some of the submarines were later upgraded, but after July 2002, and mostly by male engineers - not an option in the Y setting.

So, is the scenario of the post-male Australian Navy raiding ships with submarines impossible? Not at all. We just know that they'll be crewed with poorly trained and inexperienced women, coping with noisy, dangerous, and unreliable vessels. Whatever they're after must be worth it...

Gareth Wilson
New Zealand

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Footnote Comics

It has unfortunately been out of commission for almost two years now, but Stephen Lee's Footnote Comics remains a great resource for checking the facts on various comic series. And not merely in the fashion we do here, but also providing background on references that a comic writer dropped into an issue.

Comics from Alias to Y: The Last Man are covered, covering all sorts of subject material. Personally, I find myself drawn to the legal questions. For instance, Stephen has a great deal to say about Matt Murdock's libel suit against the Daily Globe. And I hadn't noticed the loose end from "Bruce Wayne: Fugitive" until Stephen pointed it out.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Super-Hearing Aid

Everyone knows that Superman is "faster than a speeding bullet." He can run fast. He can fly fast. He can even eat and read fast.

But did you know that Superman can also hear fast?

"That's absurd," you say. "You can't hear fast anymore than you can see fast or smell fast." Well, at least two of the architects of the new DCU order disagree with you.

One is Geoff Johns. Back in November's JSA #67, there is a scene with Power Girl standing before Sue Dibny's grave. In one panel, she lays a rose at the tombstone. In the next panel, she begins to cry, and in the third, there is a hand on her shoulder and an off-panel voice saying "Hi."

The hand and the voice belong to Superman. He says he was in New York and heard her crying, so he came to check on her. PG replies "That's almost six hundred miles away." (I don't know where the cemetery is supposed to be, but to illustrate, that's about the same distance between NYC and Columbia, South Carolina.)

The speed of sound at sea level is about 761 mph. Thus, the sound of Karen's cries should have taken about 47 minutes to reach Superman's ears (and we'll just put aside the question of Clark being able to single out the sobs of an occasional acquaintance from several states away).

But Superman has super-fast hearing, so sound waves move faster toward his ears. He responded to PG's tears within the timeframe of a single panel, though of course, we don't know how much time elapsed between those panels. Presumably not very long at all. Let's be very generous and say two minutes: one minute for the sound of her crying to miraculously reach Clark's ears, and another minute for him to make the trip. Six hundred miles in one minute equals 36,000 mph, or somewhere in the vicinity of Mach 50. He clearly wastes no time when it comes to consoling friends.

But we can't blame Johns for creating super-fast hearing, because that is peanuts compared to what showed up three months earlier, courtesy of Greg Rucka in Adventures of Superman #631. Near the issue's end, Clark hears a sniper's bullet being fired at Lois, who is covering the war in the middle-eastern nation of Umec. He immediately flies to Umec, and catches Lois as she falls to the ground, hit by the sniper's bullet.

I'm hardly the first person to be skeptical of this action.

Where is Umec located? Heck if I know. I love DC's fictional geography, but they tend to be pretty vague on actual borders. So I'll be conservative and use Jerusalem (which is about as far west in the Middle East as you can get) as a marker. And the distance between New York and Jerusalem is about 5700 miles.

Lessee...5700 miles at 761 mph...the sound of that bullet would've taken seven and a half hours to reach a normal person's ears. But not Superman's. He hears that bullet instantly, manages to distinguish it from all the other sounds from places closer than Umec (including, but not limited to, Europe and both Americas), and recognizes *that* bullet as the one bullet in a warzone he must immediately respond to.

The Earth's circumference is about 24,900 miles. According to Rucka, Supes' not only is capable of hearing any sound made over half the Earth, but he also hears it all instantly. Such marvelous ears, those Kryptonians have.

AoS #632 gives the elapsed time between gunshot and Superman's catch of Lois as 3.712 seconds. And just for convenience's sake, we'll even grant Clark insta-hearing for the sake of this calcuation. 5700 miles in 3.712 seconds? Superman was clocking in at just over five and a half million miles per hour.

Your mileage may vary on Superman's flight speed, though I think the latter is really pushing it. (To be fair, though, he's been known to move even faster, though usually not in the atmosphere. The end of the first Superman movie, for instance.) But as for superspeed-hearing, I'd rather see that get the same fate as Superman's once-used (and thankfully forgotten) power of invisibility.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Manhunter #6: The Trial of the Shadow Thief, Part 0

"Trial By Fire" Part 1
Writer: Marc Andreyko
Artist: Jesus Saiz

With the finale of the Shadow Thief's trial shipping next week, it seemed like a good time to jump back and cover the first issue of the arc. Since the trial itself began in #7, this issue is all build-up. Prosecutor Kate Spencer appears on a talk show, Sands meets with the public defender for the first time, and one fellow gets the job of travelling to the JLA Watchtower to deliver subpoenas.

The issue begins with Kate and the defense attorney from the Copperhead trial appearing on a Larry King-esque talk show. In the three pages we see, they talk a little about the trial, and Kate answers a caller's question about the potential for a plea bargain.

Think back to the O.J. trial. Do you recall Marcia Clark ever doing talk shows before the trial? Did Scott Peterson's prosecutors visit CNN? Have you seen Michael Jackson's prosecutors talking with Larry King? No, no, and no. And similarly, Kate has absolutely no business on a national talk show. She's likely to get into trouble with the Bar for doing so.

Why? Because prosecutors are largely barred by ethics rules from having much to say to the press before a trial. This is to prevent prejudice towards the defendant. There's a short list of things that a prosecutor is entitled to share with the press (e.g. the accused's name, the charges being filed, relevant dates, etc.), and there's also certain comments that are specifically prohibited.

For instance, a prosecutor is not supposed to comment on the character or criminal history of the defendant, or to share anything about potential plea negotiations. So when the caller asks Kate about a plea deal, and Kate replies "Sands has many connections in the supervillain community, so I would, theoretically, be interested in hearing what information he would have to offer," she's violating at least two or three ethics rules. And that's just in answering one caller's question.

After this scene, we see Sands meeting with his attorney, public defender Joshua Logan, for the first time. Based on a comment made earlier, it sounds like Sands is facing the death penalty. It's not unheard of for public defenders to handle death penalty cases, and I don't know the federal standards well enough to say what their specific rules are. But I can share something related regarding my home state.

Here in Georgia, a lawyer cannot defend a death penalty case without having participated in one before. There are a lot of details involved, and the courts don't want a defendant's attorney going in blind. So when the public defender is involved, there are often two defense attorneys: a lead attorney who has been part of a death penalty case before, and a second-chair who hasn't. Thus, by the trial's end, the second-chair attorney is qualified to handle a death penalty case himself. Does that impact this story? Probably not, but you can always check to see what your state's practice is.

Later on, Kate's fellow prosecutor is updating her on trial preparation, saying that they've gotten in the files from St. Roch and some security tapes from banks that Sands robbed, but they're still seeking out Firestorm's real identity. He also raises the question of how to subpoena superhero witnesses.

I'll give Kate's office the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the security tapes from the Shadow Thief's bank heists are for the sentencing phase, following a conviction. Because those things don't stand a chance of ever being introduced at trial. They're irrelevant to the murder case, and they're ridiculously prejudicial to the defendant. But when Kate is trying to convince the jury that the already-convicted Sands deserves to die, rather than merely grow old in prison, the tapes might come in.

"The witnesses, y'know...How in the world are we going to find these guys?"

Subpoeaning superheroes is a fun thought (one I've considered before), and it makes for a neat scene later in the issue. But in re-reading this issue, something else about this line caught my eye.

How did they find the superheroes in order to interview them before trial? Y'know, crimes are supposed to be investigated, and the prosecutors are supposed to build their cases around the facts and statements gathered. If they'd interviewed the superheroes once, it shouldn't be a crisis to contact them again. But Kate's reaction (and expression) suggests that she hasn't done that. And who knows what she's building her case around if she hasn't spoken with any of the witnesses.

In any case, Kate quickly remedies the problem by sending a notice server to the JLA Watchtower. He identifies himself as "Michael Johnson...I work for the federal prosecutor's office in Los Angeles." And then he issues subpoenas to Superman, Batman, and Hawkman (one wonders what he's doing in the Watchtower).

Within the U.S., subpoenas are generally delivered by the U.S. Marshals Service. Outside the U.S., other persons do the job. Is the Watchtower U.S. property or not? I dunno. But subpoenas aren't supposed to be delivered by parties to the case, and it sounds like Mr. Johnson is an employee of the prosecutor's office. It's minor, but it's still a no-no.

We've seen Hawkman and Superman take the stand in the issue that followed, and know that their testimony was worthless. I'm left to wonder what Batman was supposed to offer as a witness either. He didn't see the murder take place, and has no direct knowledge of the crime. Chances are, anything he had to say on the stand would be just as objectionable as what Hawkman and Superman said.

To Bats' credit, though, he disappeared before being given the subpoena, and proper notice requires personal delivery. Giving the subpoena to Superman and saying "Can you make sure Batman gets this for me?" probably doesn't count.

Also on the plus side, Mr. Johnson refers to the case as "United States v. Carl Sands," which is correct for a federal murder case.

What's missing in the whole subpoena fiasco? The people who *ought* to be subpoenaed. We still have three people (Captain Marvel, Shining Knight, and Vixen) who actually witnessed Shadow Thief kill Firestorm, but none of those three are seen. Instead, three objectionable witnesses are subpoenaed. Of course, Mr. Johnson could've served them separately, and if that's the case, then problem solved.
But it does leave a storytelling question: why show the irrelevant witnesses being served instead of the important and crucial ones?

And that's it for this flashback review. I'm not anticipating a lot of law in the arc's final issue, but I'll at least be looking back with some new thoughts on the trial as a whole.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Villains United #1

"And Empires in Their Purpose"
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Dale Eaglesham

When we are introduced to the new-and-improved Catman in the pages of the first issue of Villains United, it is after he has been approached by the Society in his new home, the "Medikwe Game Preserve."

Assuming that the spelling was intentional, there is no such place in the real world. However, Gail's inspiration is clearly drawn from the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa, near the Botswana border. It is over 230 square miles and is home to 66 species of large mammals and some 250 species of birds.

And yes, that includes lions.

It's also a very popular safari destination. Google the name and you'll see how many lodges are available. Plus, if you happen to get a hankering to see Catman's new turf for yourself, South African Airways has a great deal to Johannesburg this summer. It's still too rich for my blood these days, but it'd certainly be a change of scenery from the regular Convention season.

At one point in the issue, Deadshot refers to Fiddler's "Strad." This, of course, is a reference to the violins made by Antonio Stradivari (who this Telegraph author calls, despite Deadshot's objections, "the finest of all fiddlemakers"). Considered to be the greatest violins ever made, Stradivarius instruments can be worth millions, depending on their condition.

Strangely, the condition of Fiddler's instrument seems to change during the issue. When he first appears on page 11, his fiddle has the standard f-holes found in virtually all violins (including Strads):

But when the violin is shown later in the issue, including its full-panel close-up, the holes are c-shaped. That's highly unusual for a violin, and I daresay that such a feature is never found on a Stradivarius.

(And just in case you think that's the most nitpicky thing I could find, Fiddler's name is Isaac Bowin, not "Bowen." Heh.)

Finally, the title of the issue. It is drawn from an 1894 poem by Sam Walter Foss, entitled "The Coming American." Today the poem is engraved outside the US Air Force Academy, and was once turned into a song. It begins with these lines:

Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains;
Men with empires in their purpose
And new eras in their brains.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Comment Changes

It was brought to my attention the other day that Blogger's 'Comment' feature did not permit people to comment unless they were Blogger members. And I certainly never intended to shut any voices out. So to remedy that problem, I've switched the site over to Haloscan comments.

And old comments haven't been erased. They can still be seen by accessing the blog archives. And you can still use Blogger comments on old posts (in case you happen to feel compelled to do so).