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MONSTERS IN LAW

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Inside an eerie office building at the fictional 13 Court St. in Downtown Brooklyn two of its most prestigious lawyers are celebrating their silver anniversary. But these mal-practice lawyers are unlike any of the other legal eagles hastily shuffling in and out of the courthouses daily; and their clients are unlike any clients ever seen on Brooklyn’s notoriously litigious street.

Welcome to the offices of Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre in the comic book series "Supernatural Law."

It was 25 years ago that comic book artist Batton Lash created Wolff and Byrd in a strip for The Brooklyn Papers. At the time, Lash spent afternoons delivering The Brooklyn Papers along Court Street between Atlantic Avenue and Montague Street. He entered a building, rode the elevator to the top floor and worked his delivery route down. The buildings were gothic and strangely silent. Behind each frosted glass door, lawyers labored.

"As I slid two papers under each door, I was thinking, ’What if Dr. Frankenstein is being sued for malpractice? Where can he go?’" Lash explained to GO Brooklyn in a phone interview from his home in San Diego, Calif.

"If there was a practice, it’d be in Brooklyn, off to the side of Manhattan," said Lash. "People kind of overlook Brooklyn, so this would be the perfect spot."

Wolff and Byrd, specializing in supernatural law, began servicing werewolves, demons and monsters in September 1979. Unlike regular lawyers, they hold client meetings and courtroom procedures throughout the night. Some clients enter from the roof, while others shock exiting daytime employees at the building’s front entrance.

"It’s about two attorneys who represent the supernatural and the supernaturally afflicted," said Lash. "Who’s scarier than Dracula? His attorneys."

Lash’s list of characters is endless, and curiously entertaining. There is a demon from Hell who finally finds time to read the Bible, prompting him to become born again, only to be banned from all churches. There is the monster carrying Satan’s baby, unable to have an abortion, a parody of Roe vs. Wade and "Rosemary’s Baby." There is the struggle between a shy werewolf son and his aggressive werewolf father. Religion and relationships - ordinary issues for extraordinary characters.

Lash, 50, who was born and raised in Marine Park, says comics intrigued him ever since he was a child. Growing up, he poured over the exploits of characters ranging from Superman to Archie to Little Lulu to those in underground comics. He even enjoyed editorial cartoons as a child.

"There’s just something about drawings and characters that allows for over-the-top statements," said Lash.

After graduating James Madison High School, in Midwood, Lash went on to study cartooning at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan. Because the comic industry is such a difficult field to break into, Lash said he spent some time in the writing, film and construction industries before returning to the world of comics.

"It’s gloriously low-tech," said Lash. "All you need is a pencil and paper and your imagination. Comics are an inexpensive way to get wild ideas out there."

Since his return, his career has soared. In 1994, Lash turned his Wolff and Byrd strip into a comic book series, which he and his wife, Jackie Estrada, co-publish at Exhibit A Press. (Lash and Estrada founded the publishing company 10 years ago.) The comic book’s 40th issue hit stands last month, and was a tribute to Brooklyn and Court Street.

The comic book and its characters are a spoof on many things including human flaws, lawyers and law jargon.

As far as Lash is concerned, however, the law aspect is only the backdrop of the Wolff and Byrd series. What most interests the artist is characterization. He uses his characters and their situations to expose society’s weaknesses.

"He uses his comic book as a vehicle for social satire," said Mitch Berger, a lawyer and Lash’s friend and legal adviser. "In that respect, I think it’s brilliant."

Lash even pokes fun at his own personality in the series.

"Wolff and Byrd are the yin and yang of me," he said.

The no-nonsense, independent Wolff, is Lash’s idea of the perfect woman, whereas Byrd is more of a softy and a pushover.

"I draw on those two sides of my personality as I write," he added.

Besides writing the Wolff and Byrd strip for more than 20 years, Lash also writes for "The Simpson’s" creator Matt Groenig’s publishing company, Bongo Comics. He wrote the comic "Radioactive Man" for Bongo, a spin-off of Bart Simpson’s favorite cartoon character in the show, adapting it to "The Simpson’s" style of writing and graphic art. In 1998, Lash produced an eponymous spin-off of Wolff and Byrd’s spunky legal secretary, Mavis, which he publishes once a year.

"Mavis’s personality is based largely on my younger sister," said Lash. "Mavis is the self-proclaimed world’s greatest secretary, a phenomenon of which I learned while working at The Brooklyn Papers."

In 2002, Lash’s "Radioactive Man" won an Eisner award for Best Humor Title. Lash said writer and artist Will Eisner, a legend in the comic industry noted for creating "The Spirit," is his role model.

This Saturday, Lash - and Wolff and Byrd - are up for three Harvey awards to be presented at the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art’s 17th annual awards gala in Manhattan: Best Continuing Series, Special Award for Humor and Best Single Issue (for issue 38). The Harvey awards are named for Harvey Kurtzman, one of Lash’s professors at SVA, who was one of the original creators of "Mad" magazine."

Lash, however, has never studied law, so he counts on Berger to explain lawyer lingo in simpler terms. Since his characters have to talk and think like lawyers, Lash values his friend Berger’s input.

"I’ll make sure that the proper legal actions are taking place," said Berger. "The advice from someone with a legal education and experience gives his plots plausibility."

Look for Wolff and Byrd to take a step back in time to the days of law school and Supernatural 101 at Kings County Law School (based on Brooklyn Law School) in the upcoming issue.

In the meantime, Lash continues creating. He has lists of ideas from years past to which he constantly adds new ones. Each issue takes about eight weeks to complete; the comic book is published about six times per year. Although the ideas and art are Lash’s creations, he has two assistants who help him with background materials and inking.

Estrada, Lash’s wife of 10 years, is also essential in the production of each piece of his work.

"Jackie is very organized, so she keeps me on schedule," said Lash. "She’s an editor, so she cleans up my twisted syntax. She’s also a great sounding board, with a terrific sense of humor."

In his unique, quirky world, Lash continues to produce witty and multifaceted sketches. He hopes to attract female readers because of the depth of his female characters such as "Supernatural Law" lawyer Alanna Wolff and her secretary Mavis. And of course, he also looks forward to the upcoming comic awards.

"Right now though," Lash said, "I’m just trying to make the world safer for comic books."

 

Comic book author Batton Lash will have a booth at The Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art’s Third Annual MoCCA Art Festival June 26-27, from 10 am to 6 pm, at the Puck Building (at 295 Lafayette St. at Houston Street in lower Manhattan). Tickets are $7/day or $12/weekend.

The 17th Annual Harvey Awards will be held Saturday, June 26, at 8 pm. Tickets are $60. Casual business attire is suggested. For more information, call (212) 254-3511.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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