Our friend, colleague, co-author and brilliant artist and scholar Keith Aoki died yesterday in his house in Sacramento. He was 55 years old.Keith, who in addition to being an artist was a distinguished professor at UC Davis law school, leaves behind his wife Mona and two nine year old daughters. Also about a million friends. We are all devastated. A fund is being set up for the benefit of his kids. Those who wish to pledge to it should send an e-mail to me at boyleATlaw.duke.edu
Keith, Jennifer Jenkins and I created Bound By Law together. A comic about the apparently unsexy topic of copyright law and fair use, it has sold thousands of copies and has been downloaded — for free — by more than 500,000 people worldwide. Most law professors are lucky if their work is read by a few hundred. Keith’s artistry meant he could reach hundreds of thousands, and could teach them about law and creativity in the process.
It is hard in a few words and pictures to convey the sheer scope of Keith’s work. Have you ever heard about so-called bio-piracy — the taking of plant genetic resources from the developing world that are then tweaked, and layered with new intellectual property rights? Keith wrote the book on it. Literally. Or did you ever wonder if aesthetics — particularly changing ideas of architecture and urban planning — had a political effect on housing patterns and segregation in American cities? Think it would be kind of cool if someone wrote a history of that? Someone did. It is called Race, Space and Place. And it is by Keith. Oh, and hey, it would be great if someone documented the rise of “regionalism” in US immigration politics — like the Arizonan immigration legislation. You might want to read “Welcome to Amerizona: Immigrants Out!” Guess who wrote that. While you are at it, you could also read about critical race theory, or the distributive effects of intellectual property, or open source plant development. How about a critical analysis of the politics of farm labor? Try “Pastures of Peonage?: Agricultural Concentration and Labor Migration: The Case of North America in the Early 21st Century” Asian American electoral participation in 2008? Keith’s got that covered too.
The thing is, I haven’t even scratched the surface. Keith’s work is so much broader. And it was passionate work. Keith cared about injustice, about exclusion — something he understood on a visceral level. Unlike some people who are great at the rhetoric of equality, but terrible at the practice, Keith’s personal behavior was a complete mirror of his political views. He was such a gentle, decent man. He was so humble that he treated everyone as if they were not only his equal, but practically his senior. As I write this, I am getting e-mail after e-mail from junior scholars who explain that they just have to write to me, to contribute to this fund, because they met this really incredible guy once, or a couple of times, and they — somewhat in awe of attention from this very distinguished senior person — instead found themselves being treated with incredible kindness and respect, offered help, given advice and assistance. In the world of academia, that kind of conduct is sadly rare. As one person wrote “On numerous occasions, Keith was very kind to me for no apparent reason, i.e., I hardly knew him and there was no apparent self-interest. Though our acquaintance was brief, I would like to do something.” I have had 20 e-mails like that this morning alone.
Keith wasn’t just an incredible scholar. He was also a musician. A good one. See the young guy at the bottom of the picture? That’s him in Chameleons — a really interesting 80’s art rock band. Keith Aoki, violin and guitar. Later in life Keith would play bass in the Garden Weasels — which he with typical self-deprecation — described as “ok for a band made up of law professors.”
I knew Keith as an academic and respected him — he was a major presence in intellectual property law alone, let alone all of the other areas in which he wrote. I helped him become an academic, offered him advice on his early work, and watched with delight as he opened his wings and soared — all the while insisting to all around him, apparently seriously, that he knew he was really an impostor in the world of academia, a fraud, an interloping artist who would be discovered any moment and given the old heave-ho. He really never knew how much he was respected as a scholar and an intellectual. But if I have a particular insight into him and his work, it is his artistry — something that many of his colleagues know little about. [Edit — in the comments, John Perry Barlow inevitably says it much better than me. To be a scholar of a subject — a great one — but also to be able to draw comic books on the same theme? “There was no one even remotely like him. It was as if Feynman had produced comix about quantum physics.”]
For some people, I am sure, Keith’s comic books seemed like a diversion from his true intellectual activities. I have to admit, though I loved comic books as a kid, I once probably shared that feeling. Nothing could have been further from the truth. First of all, there was the sheer depth of Keith’s artistic references. See the way the silver surfer emerges from a wave? Notice the stylized foam? (click the image to see it larger) That is a perfect rendition of Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa” one of Japan’s most famous paintings from the early 19th century, slyly inserted into a panel about a documentary on surfers. Other references were more familiar — and just as brilliant in their evocation of the emotion, or the intellectual point Keith was trying to convey.
Jennifer, our coauthor, described it thus
“Sheer, playful, delightful talent – what Keith could do with a pencil or pen, the ways he transformed ideas into those stunning images, each with a unique Aoki imprint, every one was a new gift that you would need time to savor and get to know and Marvel at. In his Animated mind that Aoki library of influences, adored, stacked, sifted, understood, as only he did- “well, what I was thinking was, Jamie and Jennifer, this would be like Jamie Hernandez…., Robert Crumb,….. Jack Kirby”; it went way beyond that, this movie, that book, the whole corpus of the art history canon, or the obscure gem in that dusty corner, this perfect reference no one without his Escher scaffolding and 4D Rosetta Stone could have summoned.” And oh, there were so, so many references. You need to read the whole thing to realize.
The thing is we were a team. Working on our new comic on musical borrowing, we’d have these astounding Skype calls in which we’d design the pages, there would follow 30 indescribable minutes of complex musical history, copyright law, culture jamming, and Keith would draw them. Ever imagine having a brilliant genie to whom you could say, “Hey, give me a version of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People that comments on the downloading war. I’d like a lawyer and a downloader locked in battle, tuning forks instead of muskets, USB keys instead of pistols. Oh, and make it REALLY beautiful…”
Well if you can imagine that, you can imagine working with Keith, who produced this… colored by our brilliant colleague Balfour Smith. Keith “I’m a monochrome guy.” More humility. And Keith produced such stunning images. There were the superb — almost eerily perfect — evocations of famous rock stars. The hilarious visual puns. Why shouldn‘t Larry Lessig be the Statue of Liberty, leading a lost tribe of remixers to a new land? And imagine what it felt like when Jennifer and I proposed that image to him.. and the text “Give me your Wired, remixing masses, yearning to be free” and got this in return. When Larry stepped down as chair of Creative Commons, I gave him a poster of that drawing. I didn’t think to ask Keith to sign it because — hey, it was Keith. I thought we’d have unlimited time to celebrate his genius. Time makes idiots of us all.
I don’t know how we will finish the music comic now. Keith told us he wanted to finish it as his memorial — during a surreal Skype call in which he told us of his diagnosis as an apology for not having finished the most recent round of drawings. Of course, being Keith, he was convinced he could still manage to finish the comic despite his illness. He said he might have a year. He swore us to secrecy, of course, not wanting “to be a burden.” Two weeks later he was dead. We will try to finish it — how can we not? But how to replace the irreplaceable? I had not previously understood the power of the mundane metaphor “heartbroken.” Our hearts feel… broken.
Keith was fond of sly references. In his latest article — a comic forthcoming in the Ohio Northern Law Review — Keith’s character, the same one pictured at the top of this blog post, wears a T shirt with an ever changing slogan. The final three panels are these.
Look closely at the T shirt. It says “You Can’t Avoid the Void.” And we can’t — any of us.
This is what one of the people contributing to the fund for his daughters wrote. “But mostly I remember how you and Jennifer would light up when describing your work with him–and what a cool, and daring, and brilliant idea I thought it was for you to join forces with the one-and-only-comic-book-artist-slash-copyright-scholar. I suppose that’s saying something when someone’s light shines so brightly even as reflected on other people’s faces.” That was Keith. No, we can’t avoid the void. But some of us shine so very, very brightly that the shadows are dispelled — at least for a while.