The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law

Nathaniel Burney is a law blogger who started posting the basics of criminal law with illustrations in order to make the entries more interesting to read. Now, much of his blog content has been collected as The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law.

He aims for casual and accessible, and he succeeds. This is not a comic — I’d describe it more as a notebook with a few doodles — but it’s a fun read, mostly because Burney is not afraid to have an opinion or a sense of humor. He’s great at picking case studies and examples that are easy to grasp by the everyday person. I particularly liked his motorcycle gang who, when they aren’t kidnapping people, debate the philosophy of Schrodinger’s cat and changing legal theories.

I learned a lot about criminal law, including —

  • definitions of crime and punishment, and the reasons for them
  • purposes of punishment and why deterrence rarely works
  • the scales of intent, culpability and responsibility
  • accomplices and conspiracies
  • what an excuse defense, like temporary insanity, is
  • the myths surrounding entrapment
  • justifications, including duress and self-defense, and their limitations

Artistically, Burney’s style is all over the place. Most of the time, it’s a step up from stick figures, but at times, he’s clearly homaging or referencing something. Given the nature of the format, that’s not a problem. The book can be read without looking at the pictures, and the reader will still understand the material, but the images make the concepts more memorable.

My favorite chapter was the one on overcriminalization, which discusses “strict liability” crimes, or those where intent doesn’t matter. These are the kinds of legal rules where people get in trouble whether or not they know the law even exists. You can’t predict what might get you put in prison, in part because no one even knows how many federal crimes there are. There are also problems with legislation written over-broadly. Burney doesn’t take things this far, but others have discussed the problems that arise when anyone could be a criminal without meaning to do anything wrong. It overall leads to an atmosphere where you don’t respect the law or try to do the right thing because how do you know what it is any more?

This is a terrific introduction to a subject that, as Burney points out, it’s become our responsibility to know about. I’m looking forward to seeing the planned sequel, about Criminal Procedure. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

One Response to “The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law”

  1. Nicola Says:

    Oh, I just went to his website. I’d love to read this! My two favourite themes combined: crime & graphic novels! Unfortunately it’s not for sale in Canada :-(




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