A review a day: <i>Tales of Supernatural Law</I> trade paperbacks

Two for the "price" of one! It's a bonanza!

Back in the day, when I was still writing "Into the Back Issue Box" (it's on hiatus, man, just like Mage!), I came across Wolff & Byrd: Counselors of the Macabre #22, which was a fun comic.

I meant to find some of the trades, but I never got around to it. But I figured that I'd find them eventually, and Batton Lash, the creator, had a big booth at the con this year, so I picked up a few trades. This series (which has been retitled Tales of Supernatural Law) may not be for you, but I enjoy the hell out of it! The first trade, Tales from the Vault (which is $7.95), is a collection of odds 'n' ends from the 30+ years Lash has been doing the comic, while Tales of Supernatural Law ($16.95) is the first trade of the ongoing print series (Lash now does it as a webcomic). You can find much more information about these books at Lash's web site, Exhibit A Press.

The conceit of the series is that Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd represent all sorts of supernatural beings in their legal battles. That's it. If you like that conceit, you'll probably like the stories. Tales from the Vault features the comics from all sorts of incarnations. The first section reprints strips from 1993-94, when the comic ran in The National Law Journal. Therefore, the timing works as a strip in a magazine, with each page featuring a brief recap and getting us quickly through a short portion of the story. Then there are a few longer strips that ran in Polyhedron Newszine in 1990-91. Following that are two stories from comic books, one a back-up published in Jack Kirby's Satan's Six #1 (published by Topps), a tale that was inked by Steve Ditko (it's done in the style of the old Marvel Strange Tales and such, so Ditko's involvement adds a nice historic touch - and it's the first scan above, if you want to check it out). Finally, we get some of the webcomics, which debuted in 2005. It's a nice grab-bag of formats.

Lash shows off both his sense of humor with regard to current events (an entire storyline is built around satirizing the Lorena Bobbitt case) and comics history. If you're looking for continuing storylines, you'd do best to skip this, as it's much more of a short gag reel.

However, the first volume of the comic series does contain continuing storylines, but Lash makes sure each issue stands pretty much on its own. The longest continuing subplot is Wolff and Byrd's defense of Sodd, the Thing That was It!, a fun Swamp Thing parody. In fact, the case of Sodd doesn't get resolved in this trade (apparently it does in volume 2). Lash brings in other subplots, as well - Byrd helps an old friend on a case and realizes he has feelings for her, but can't do anything about it because she's married and pregnant; a young lawyer has a crush on Wolff and maneuvers her into being a guest speaker at a lawyer convention in San Diego (and which doesn't look as much like Comic-Con as you might expect); Byrd's old employer, Chase Hawkins, flits about the edges of the comic until the convention, when he too decides Wolff is quite the hottie. Lash does a good job not allowing these subplots to overwhelm the main stories, because he wants to make sure that a reader can pick up any issue cold and get what's going on. So while there's not a lot of recapping, Lash does make sure that we understand what Tobias - the young lawyer with the crush on Wolff - is doing whenever he shows up. He does a nice job with it.

The stories involve weird things, of course, and Lash has a lot of fun with the legal profession and how lawyers would deal with such outlandish things. Wolff and Byrd don't care about the weirdness around them, they just care about legal precedent and getting their clients a fair shake.

They don't allow vampires or curses or werehouses (yes, a werehouse) distract them from making sure justice is served. Mavis, their secretary, is as unflappable as they are, ignoring the monsters that shamble in and out of their office except to make sure they have an appointment. By making the monsters concerned with mundane matters, Lash helps heighten the humor - if monsters existed, why wouldn't they have to deal with copyright infringment, like Dracula does, or lawsuits from angry bosses, like the owners of the werehouse do? Sodd's case is a classic example of this - when he turns from a man into a mass of moss, he's arrested for reckless endangerment and inciting a riot, but Wolff and Byrd try to argue that he had just been transformed and was simply confused. The case becomes more complicated as it goes on, because Sodd becomes a celebrity and starts appearing on talk shows - he likes the publicity, but he also points out that he needs to pay legal fees. These real-world concerns aren't themselves funny, but because Lash is using dark and disturbing creatures instead of regular folk, it becomes humorous. Of course zombies would want to unionize! Why wouldn't they?

Lash also does a good job simply with the dialogue. He uses words that reflect back upon the story, and he does it so that, while it's corny, the fact that you can use these words in normal conversation means it's less corny than you think and, in fact, is quite clever. For example: When Wolff and Byrd represent a professor who is stuck levitating ten or so feet off the ground (he's suing the museum he worked for because they fired him without cause, he claims, even though he's levitating because he was reading some ancient incantations that he shouldn't have been), Wolff says the judge at one point: "I request a recess so I can speak to my client -- he went over my head on this." Another client, a man with four arms, is accused of armed robbery. He gives Mavis a back rub, and she says it was the best massage she ever had, "hands down." Little jokes like that are corny, of course, but Lash integrates them well into the flow of the narrative, so it's not as silly as you might expect. They're not presented as quips, they're presented as part of the regular dialogue, so it's more humorous than if Lash was just trying to tell jokes.

Lash has a solid cartoony line that keeps things light, but it's interesting how easily he can switch his style to fit a different tone. When Dawn Devine, fashion model extraordinaire, wants to get out of her contract with the Greatbody Agency, she calls Wolff and Byrd.

The first pages of the story is largely prose with a few illustrations, but the initial splash page is extremely glamorous, unlike everything else in the book. When Lash parodies the Crypt-Keeper in issue #4, he darkens his linework quite a bit and creates a more horrific look (it's still a funny story, but the art is definitely darker). Jackie Estrada, Lash's wife (and letterer of the comic), gets in on the act with lettering that looks like an old EC comic. Lash's style might not be for everyone, but he packs each issue with plenty of visual details, and it's enjoyable to read.

The good thing about these comics is that you don't feel like you need to make a huge commitment. Each issue is largely self-contained, and so you don't feel like Lash is luring you into reading more. You can judge them solely on the strength of one issue or even one story. Even the early stories in Tales from the Vault are from a time when Lash had been working with the characters for over a decade, so it's not like we even see any growing pains with regard to their characterization. These are just fun stories with a cool concept, and I encourage you to at least check out the web comic (which you can find here) to see if you'd like what Lash is doing.

Tomorrow: A bad guy takes center stage!

Vampirella #2

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