You know, the pierced nipple on this cover of this comic really sells it!
Make sure to check out the ground rules if you don't know what's going on!
Wolff & Byrd: Counselors of the Macabre #22 by Batton Lash (writer/artist), Derek Ozawa (art assist), and Melissa Uran (art assist). Published by Exhibit A Press, February 1999.
People often wonder why I torture myself with this experiment, as I've read plenty of really horrid comics, and what's worse, I've spent time writing about them instead of, you know, spending time with my children (when they're not watching the Wiggles), biking around the neighborhood so I'm not grotesquely overweight, fixing up the house, or something really important, like cleaning the wax out of my ears. Well, some of the bad comics are so bad that they're kind of fun, but every so often, you come across a comic like this, which is utterly charming, works beautifully as a single issue, cracks me up, gets in a mild shot at Alan Moore, and is something I've never heard of before. Seriously - this is issue #22, so it lasted quite a while, but it was completely off my radar. But I'm glad I got to read an issue, and it makes me want to get more! And there's a web site where you can check the book out, too!
So what's the deal with this comic? Well, it's right there in the title and on the cover: "Beware the creatures of the night - they have lawyers!" Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd are lawyers specializing in supernatural law, and in this issue, they get a doozy - a demon who has been possessed by a human! We begin with Wolff meeting a potential client, who claims he was possessed when he stole a bunch of electronic equipment. She doesn't take the case, but while she's at the police station, she hears about a demon that has taken over a church. She calls her partner, and they head to the church in the anticipation that the demon might need legal counsel. The cops are debating what to do about the hostages the demon has taken, when they hear hymns being sung. The SWAT team reports back that the demon is actually singing with the choir, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
The police take the demon into custody, where he tells Wolff and Byrd that his name is Wasistlos, but before he can launch into a long speech about eating their entrails, he coughs and becomes quite pacific, telling them he has asthma. He says his name is Barry, and he lives in Coxsackie, New Jersey (stunningly, there's actually a town called Coxsackie - how'd you like to live there? - but it's in New York, not too far south of Albany), and he recently died saving a puppy from drowning. As his soul headed upward, he felt himself being pulled back down, and he ended up in the demon. Barry's innate goodness (he died saving a puppy from drowning, for crying out loud!) is keeping Wasistlos from taking control ... for now! Wolff and Byrd get him released because the police can't charge him with anything, but as he leaves the station, he gets served!
Apparently, the lawyer for Jerome Thornton, the guy in the beginning who claimed he was possessed, decided that Jerome was possessed - by Wasistlos. After Wolff told Thornton she wouldn't take his case, Zachariah Winkel stepped in and decided to blame the demon, hence the subpoena. Wolff can't say that Thornton is just trying to get out of the charge, because while she spoke to him, she was bound by lawyer-client confidentiality, so Byrd decides to track down whoever called up Wasistlos to sort out what's going on. As they talk, Barry sits outside the office chatting with Mavis the secretary. He sees a children's book and Wasistlos recognizes him as the guy who called him up from the pit. Wolff and Byrd are on it!
The action moves to court, and Wolff explains that Wasistlos couldn't have possessed Thornton, because he is possessed himself by Barry and is not on Earth of his own free will. Her witness (as demons are notorious liars, so who can believe Wasistlos if he says he didn't possess Thornton) is the children's author - a dude with a long beard and a very bizarre English accent named Alistair Mohr. He says that he was dabbling in the occult to discover if his inspiration came from Heaven or Hell. He conjured up the demon, which then stepped out of the circle and said hello. Mohr then fainted. Barry suddenly remembers that Mohr's robe brushed the pentagram, allowing him to leave, while Wasistlos remembers that Mohr mispronounced the spell and accidentally channeled Barry into him. As Mohr summoned the demon the same night Thornton was arrested, and Wolff has several witnesses who will testify that Barry was helping them at the same time Thornton was committing his crime, there's no way the demon could have possessed them. Case dismissed!
Except Winkel claims that the demon possessed the judge, and he's planning on filing an injunction preventing Mohr from sending the demon back to Hell (which is more to allow Barry to go to Heaven, but still). Wasistlos freaks out and is about to crush Winkel's windpipe, but Wolff talks him down by saying that if he drags them all down to Hell with him, she'll just tell all the other demons about all the good deeds he's done on Earth. Even if Barry was in charge, that would ruin his rep, so Wasistlos allows Barry to retake control, and Mohr performs the ceremony sending the two back where they're supposed to be. The final panel shows Wasistlos, about to torture the damned souls, explaining that it will go a lot easier if they have a song in their heart. Barry's goodness even rubbed off on Wasistlos!
This is a fairly impressive comic book. It tells a funny story with very little action, but Lash keeps things moving along, packing each page with information. In 21 pages, we get: Wolff's interview of Thornton, the "confrontation" at the church, Wolff and Byrd getting Barry released, a subpoena, Winkel convincing Thornton he's not to blame, Barry discovering the identity of Mohr, the "trial," the aftermath, the final page showing the fate of Barry, Winkel, and Wasistlos, PLUS two pages devoted to what I can only imagine are ongoing plot lines, with Byrd on a date that isn't going well and Wolff's sister sending an e-mail to their father. Lash does a fine job putting all this stuff in the book, but it never feels like there's too much to process, and it never feels rushed - we get a sense of each character, even someone like Winkel, who's an obvious parody. It's a funny book, but it's generally gentle humor - even the pokes at Alan Moore are light-hearted, and Winkel is a figure of ridicule, sure, but it's not mean-spirited.
Lash has a nice, cartoony line, but he also does a fine job making sure the book looks as "realistic" as possible - it helps when you're dealing with the fantastical to try to ground the book, and Byrd, for instance, looks like a real lawyer (Wolff's hair style is a bit crazy, but she looks like a lawyer too). Barry is kind of a goofy demon, but he fits with the tone of the book without being too cuddly. When Wasistlos takes control, we believe that he could do some damage - Lash does a nice job transitioning between the times when Barry is in control and when Wasistlos is in charge. Lash had been doing this for a while by 1999, so it's not surprising he's good at it.
For a first-time comic book reader, this has everything you could want. It tells a coherent, complete story, and the main characters are interesting enough that you want to see more of them. Plus, the hook of supernatural law has a ton of possibilities, and it doesn't feel like it would get stale, so you could easily pick up another issue and not worry about the joke getting old. Apparently Lash delves into the subplots a bit more in other issues, but I can't imagine it would be too difficult to figure things out. This is exactly the kind of comic that can lead to a regular hobby. It's a hoot.
I really may have to order a trade or two. It would be cool to read more of these stories.