‘Nostalgia is always suspect’ (Atia and Davies 2010: 181).
The trope of a hero who looks for a ‘normal’ life and then finds it unrewarding is common enough in the superhero and similar genres. What is less common is not only allowing that hero to retain that life but also following them through it. Such is the case of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law (Cartoon Network, 2000-2007, 2018) in which the superhero Birdman trades in a life of crime-fighting for a life in litigation. The fact that the courtroom proves not terribly different from his earlier fields of battle should not be that surprising; however, writing of superheroes and the law, Bainbridge notes that superheroes
are…another vehicle for thinking discursively about law because of what they can say about society and its perceptions of the effectiveness of law, in the context of their manifesting a pre-modern, sacralised, view of embodied justice as opposed to modern constructs of law (Bainbridge, 2007: 455).
While I absolutely agree with his statement, I disagree with his subsequent note about exceptions to the dearth of law in superhero works:
Harvey Birdman…a satirical cartoon spin on lawyers featuring a revisioning of the original Hanna Barbera character Birdman (who had the secret identity of Rex Randall), again excluded because he is a cartoon as opposed to comic-book superhero (Bainbridge, 2007: 459, n14).
That precis of the series is apt (Elkins’ 2014 precis is similar) but excluding Harvey from a study of superheroes and law does the character and series a disservice as it illustrates one of the key aspects of law purely by the roles it allocates to the different characters. To begin, however, it is important to briefly discuss the original Birdman and the Galaxy Trio (NBC, 1967-1969) cartoon series. This was, much like many cartoon series, shown on Saturday mornings and geared towards children. It featured fairly limited world-building and limited characterisation, focusing instead on action and on the elimination of whatever supervillain threat was present by the superhero Birdman, working for Inter-Nation Security, under Falcon Seven (whence Harvey’s boss at his law firm Phil Ken Sebben gets his name, Stephen Colbert). Inter-Nation Security is a vaguely governmental, possibly supranational, organisation. In short, Birdman, like most superheroes of that time period and in that particular ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ genre, functions to support the idea of ‘law and order’ as associated with vaguely governmental structures and does not, as a rule, subvert or question authority.
Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, on the other hand, is explicitly targeted at adults who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons as well as the various other, more comedic Hanna-Barbera animated series. These characters now appear as Harvey’s clients, facing more adult legal issues (identity theft, unlawful firing from work, drug use, etc) paralleling the entry into adulthood of those who originally watched these cartoons as children. As such, nostalgia is a feature of the diegesis which the production team engage as part of its satire. This is clear when the series addresses the circumstances by which the character moved from superhero to lawyer. Harvey Birdman quit being a superhero after a busy day in order to take ‘a regular job like normal people have,’ (‘Turner Classic Birdman’) which in this case is as a defence attorney. The end of the episode shows that, despite the job change, Harvey is still at Phil’s beck and call, expressing his dissatisfaction at the outcome of his attempt at a ‘regular’ (or ‘adult’) job with a depressed sigh.
While he is not necessarily good at being a lawyer, in the diegetic universe superheroes are equated with ‘good,’ or defenders of those who are being threatened by individuals or by institutions. Harvey often defends those who are poor or seemingly of lesser sociocultural power, something which becomes even more relevant when realising that not only are the prosecutors supervillains from Birdman’s rogues gallery but so is the usual judge, Mentok the Mind Taker (John Michael Higgins). Given how often Harvey’s clients are fighting institutions, often with regard to personal freedom or progressive social norms (e.g., ‘Return of Birdgirl’ where Harvey and Birdgirl go to the ‘Justices League’ to fight for Dr Benton Quest and his partner Race Bannon to marry), this firmly aligns the (diegetic) state with supervillainy. Harvey also often loses his cases against such powers; his few wins tend to come when Harvey is explicitly acting against the reductive Manichean dynamic of ‘hero: good versus villain: evil’ typical of early animation. As Vernon (2016: 120) notes, ‘…nostalgia can be used subversively, that is, as a prompt to read outside of the narrative that nostalgia itself creates.’ To illustrate this, I shall focus upon two particular episodes from the second series: ‘Guitar Control’ and ‘Harvey’s Civvy.’
‘Guitar Control’ is a somewhat straightforward satire of arguments for and against gun control, with guitars being diegetically considered more deadly weapons than guns (also omnipresent in the diegetic world). Unlike previous episodes, Harvey is defending Quick Draw McGraw (Maurice LaMarche, imitating NRA-proponent Charlton Heston), a horse who is also a pseudo-cowboy sheriff. In his original cartoons (syndicated, 1958-present), Quick Draw is a comedic character who is rather inept as a sheriff, often inadvertently shooting himself. He also uses a pseudo-Zorro guise in which he hits criminals over the head with a guitar, which spoofs the Spanish guitar music commonly associated with spaghetti Westerns (Donnelly, 2005). In this iteration, however, Quick Draw is arrested for carrying a concealed guitar, which, as Harvey points out in his closing statement, Quick Draw carries because he feels his police-issued revolver is insufficient. The key point, however, is not that this represents one of episodes which explicitly satirises contemporary political debates, but that Harvey’s defence of Quick Draw is being paid for by ‘the guitar lobby’ who are also financially backing Harvey’s boss, Phil Ken Sebben (Stephen Colbert) in his run for president. Harvey, unusually, wins the case due to the guitar lobby bribing Judge Mightor (Gary Cole) and the jury as well. This episode uses the nostalgia of the original cartoons– themselves, arguably, a satire of spaghetti Westerns– to satirise the power structures which Harvey is always-already caught within, whether as a superhero working for Inter-Nation Security in the public sector or as a lawyer working yet again under Phil in the private sector. It is a particularly clear example of illustrating the nuance and moral grey areas in which lawyers operate, something which would, on the face of it, be anathema to the simplistic ‘good versus evil’ positioning taken by early cartoon superheroes. That Quick Draw is so inept with his weapons in the original also helps to subvert the NRA specifically, which the use of the Heston imitation and the ‘guitar lobby’ also explicitly do.
It is ‘Harvey’s Civvy,’ however, that illustrates how the series subverts its own genre history through the use of nostalgia in such a way as to question the narrative of earlier, more simplistic cartoons. The episode begins with a revoiced version of one of the original Birdman cartoons in which Birdman blasts villain Murro the Marauder (Paul Adelstein) to defeat him. Birdman flies away victorious, at which point the episode shifts to new footage, showing Murro in a blast crater, unable to feel his legs. After the opening titles, Harvey receives a summons as Murro is filing a civil suit against him for physical and emotional suffering. Harvey does not remember the incident, even though we, the audience, see it at the beginning of the episode, mimicking the romanticising impact of nostalgia on memory (Atia and Davies, 2010). Yet receiving the summons and the realisation that he, the (ex-)superhero, may have caused harm, precipitates one of the handful of crises of conscience he has over the course of the series. ‘Maybe I did ruin his life, you ever think about that?’ Harvey asks his eagle associate, Avenger (who replies ‘Caw.’). ‘…couldn’t there be hundreds of people I injured through the years?’ This question leads to a montage strung together by the idea of a class action suit against Harvey encompassing the various enemies he had fought and harmed over his years as a superhero. While the case ultimately ends (spoiler, sorry) in a mistrial thanks to Murro’s lawyer not responding to a discovery request in the allotted time, it is Harvey’s reaction that is important. When the verdict is revealed, Harvey looks at the various villains populating the court and says ‘So I didn’t hurt [them]?’ Judge Mentok, having finished berating the prosecution, looks up and says no. ‘You hurt ‘em, Birdie. You hurt ‘em real bad. But you won! And that’s all that matters!’ ‘I won!’ Harvey shouts joyously and the scene ends. This case explicitly subverts the nostalgia of the original Birdman series and those in its genre with a simplistic moral code as well as subverting the expectation that the ‘hero’ and ‘supervillain’ would disagree. While Harvey does feel bad that he may have harmed people – granting supervillains the status of people, rather than monsters or subhumans – Mentok’s reminder that winning is the only important thing also questions the typical superhero formula of the hero always winning. In this case, Harvey ‘wins’ but is not innocent of causing harm. The villains (including Judge Mentok) are given depth and the list of injuries and distress caused by the hero upon the villain is shown in a montage as well as told.
The choice to make Birdman’s post-superhero career being an attorney who specialises in mostly civil litigation is an apt one. As Elkins (2014) notes, the politics of Adult Swim in general are more complicated with regard to social progressiveness than Cartoon Network might wish to seem. But Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law engages with, interrogates and often subverts sociocultural discourses relating to the ‘pre-modern, sacralised, view of embodied justice’ Bainbridge (2007: 455) describes through the use of subversive nostalgia. Though Harvey is not very good at his job, watching his struggles as he navigates the corridors of power and moral grey in which his new job places him allows us, if not him, to recognise those discourses and to recognise that they can and must be questioned. That may not be ‘case closed,’ but it certainly gives us something to deliberate. Nothing further.
Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is suddenly an independent scholar. She has worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan, Armenia, Ethiopia and for a brief time in Cambodia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 ‘…Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law…and other Adult Swim programs remix cultural texts and forms in an often-irreverent manner. Harvey Birdman… repurpose[s] Hanna-Barbera characters from the 1960s and 1970s into new stories and contexts…’ (Elkins 2014: 604).
 In the original cartoon he is called ‘Mentor’ rather than Mentok, but the other aspects of the character are the same.
 ‘Civvy’ here refers to a civil case rather than a criminal one.
 These include satire relating to the erosion of civil liberties in general and the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in particular.
 Phil would ultimately become president and Harvey assigned to find a way to impeach or otherwise stop him in the 2018 sequel Harvey Birdman: Attorney General.
Atia N and Davies J (2010) Nostalgia and the shapes of history. Memory Studies 3(3): 181–186.
Bainbridge J (2007) “This is the Authority. This planet is under our protection” – An exegesis of superheroes’ interrogations of law. Law, Culture and the Humanities 3: 455–476.
Donnelly K J (2005) The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television. London: BFI
Elkins E (2014) Cultural identity and subcultural forums: The post-network politics of Adult Swim. Television & New Media 15(7): 595–610.
Vernon M (2016) Subversive nostalgia, or Captain America at the museum. The Journal of Popular Culture 49(1): 116-135.
Żaglewski T (2020) The Impossibles revived: Hanna-Barbera’s superhero universe in TV and comics. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 1-17.