Sunday, January 13, 2019

Even Werewolves Need Lawyers

I was eating dinner with my family, who had flown into town for a brief visit, when I received the news. First a phone call, which I ignored and sent to voicemail; then, a Facebook message that caught my eye. Here we go again. The Grim Reaper had returned once more brandishing his scythe. My friend Batton Lash had died hours earlier and I lost my appetite on hearing the news.

Bat was a congenial, talented, and witty man. He was both an illustrator and a writer who combined those talents to created his Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre comic strip about two lawyers that represented an array of supernatural clients. The strip first appeared in The Brooklyn Paper (1979-96) and The National Law Journal (1983-97) and later was self-published as an eponymous comic book (later re-titled Supernatural Law). As a lawyer, comic book reader, and aficionado of all things supernatural, I soon became a fan of Bat’s strip. I invited him and his equally talented wife Jackie Estrada – one of the San Diego Comic-Con organizers and the con’s Eisner Awards organizer – to fly across the country to be guests at a store signing at my comic book store back in the 1990s. They eagerly accepted the invitation and Bat sent me this drawing:

Bat was a dapper man with a pleasant, engaging personality. He signed autographs and drew sketches for fans all day.

Bat even drew this special print for that appearance, which he autographed for his fans: 

That evening, I took Batton and Jackie out to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and Bat shared anecdotes about growing up in Brooklyn and studying drawing in Manhattan until the wait staff begged to be allowed to go home. As the years passed, we would chat on the phone, exchange messages online, and occasionally meet at the San Diego Con, held in Bat’s backyard but quite a cross-country schlep for me. On one such occasion, a friend had talked me into taking a blank sketchbook to the convention to have the various artists in attendance fill with sketches. That afternoon, I left it with Bat so he could add a simple penciled sketch. He was so busy with his fans visiting his exhibition booth that he never had a chance to do the sketch. He asked if he could take the book home and mail it to me. I hesitated; it already had a few dozen sketches including some from some major artists, but I knew Bat felt I might be disappointed and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I said sure. I left California not knowing if I’d ever see the book again, imagining it might be lost in transit. A few weeks later, I received it back in the mail but it lieu of a penciled sketch was an apologetic note and this full color water painting of Wolff and Byrd and an array of their co-stars. I think it was the finest piece Batton ever did.

I believe Bat gave me a shout out in an issue of Wolff and Byrd; when MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell brutally and unjustly attacked both Bat and Jackie on his The Last Word commentary TV show over his collaboration with writer James D. Hudnall on an online comic strip critical of President Barack Obama, Obama Nation, I was among the first to speak out, publicly and privately, in their defense. Although our politics differed widely, I would always stand ready to defend my friends from unfair attacks.

In addition to his own comic book, Batton Lash also wrote issues of The Simpsons Super Spectacular and Radioactive Man, as well as the Archie Meets the Punisher comic books. I did my best to support Bat’s work in independent comic publishing, as I did with many small press creators when I was in the retail trade, and I know he was appreciative. I even once asked if he would let me write a Wolff and Byrd story: he wasn’t that appreciative, LOL.

Bat was always well-spoken, impeccably well-mannered, witty, articulate, congenial, down-to-earth, and simply put, a kind man. He was always so full of life and enthusiasm, making it all the more difficult to grasp he is no longer among us. I was, and remain, shocked and devastated by the news. The fact he was also immensely talented as a writer and an illustrator is merely icing on the cake. When I started publishing my own supernatural fantasy series (albeit prose, sans artwork), in the back of my mind I viewed Bat as a sort of mentor figure -- one who had blazed the way in self-publishing and in whose over-sized footsteps I was following. He was truly an inspiration and he shall be missed by me, and I'm certain by many, many others. Unfortunately, Bat never received the full recognition he deserved. Batton Lash died on January 12, 2019 from brain cancer. He was 65.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Janus Effect

One of the factors that makes writing difficult is the uncanny ability of the English language to be filled with words that mean completely contradictory things. If I DRAW the curtains, am I opening or closing them? I can CLEAVE two pieces together or separate them with a meat cleaver. When you DUST, you could be adding particles, as in dusting crops; or removing them, as in dusting furniture. One might be an UNQUALIFIED success, which is very good; or UNQUALIFIED, meaning lacking any qualifications, which is not good at all.

You can SECURE something from someone, which means taking it; or SECURE something to prevent anyone from taking it. A FIX can be a predicament or the solution to one. OFF can mean deactivated, as in turning OFF the light; or activated, as in the alarm went OFF. When you SEED a lawn you’re adding to it, but when you SEED fruit, you’re taking something out of it.

Any chef will tell you to GARNISH means to add something, but a lawyer will say GARNISH means the court will be taking away your wages. If the court ENJOINS you, it may be directing you to do something or forbidding you from doing it. It could also SANCTION you, which means allow you to do something, or punish you for having done it. STAY can mean to continue or to postpone.

OVERSIGHT can refer to a watchful eye; or an inadvertent error. ROCK can be used to show firmness (“solid as a rock”), or conversely, swaying motion (“the waves rocked the ship”). SCREEN can mean conceal or display. SPARE can mean meager or extra. OVERLOOK can mean to inspect, or to miss something during an inspection.

If you TRIM a cake, you’re adding decorations; but TRIM a tree and you’re removing part of it. If you WEATHERED a storm, you came through safely and are looking good; but a building that was WEATHERED is worn away. One who is LEFT might be remaining or departed. RESIGN can mean to quit or sign up again. CLIP can mean to attach or separate. CULL may mean to select or reject. If something holds FAST, then it’s not going anywhere; but if one is FAST, he is moving quickly. If a project is a GO, then things move forward; but when your old car starts to GO, it will come to a halt.

And you thought being a writer was easy. These types of words are called contronyms because they’re so darn contrary. They’re also called auto-antonyms since one word means the opposite of itself, and more colloquially, Janus words – Janus, you may recall, was the two-faced Roman God of beginnings and transitions, simultaneously looking in opposite directions. The beginning of the year, January, is named for Janus, which makes today’s New Year’s day blog post all the more fitting. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Hair - the Age of Aquarius

I was at the barber shop the other day and I ran into a guy who...  what's that? OK, you're right. I admit it: I haven't been to a barber shop since I turned 14 and had my last 50-cent haircut. The Vitalis, greased back wet look was on the way out and the blown-dry "dry look" was in vogue, so with the start of junior high, I convinced my mother to do what all the cool kids at school were doing and have my hair not cut by Sam the barber but instead coiffed by a men's hair stylist.

The storefront bay was dimly lit and filled with the scent of burning incense. Jimi Hendrix's guitar reverberated through the eight-track system's carefully arranged speakers. Blacklights eerily illuminated posters on the walls and lava lamps adorned the reception desk and several coffee tables. Copies of Rolling Stone magazineZap Comix, and the Daily Planet (an underground newspaper the local hippies hawked on street corners for a quarter) were scattered across the tables, along with a few roach clips. I didn't think my mother knew what a roach clip was, but I nonchalantly covered them with the newspaper anyway. Why take a chance of getting barred from such a cool place?

My hairstylist introduced himself as Mister Lucky, or Lucky for short. I never knew his real name. Not that it mattered. He was a persona, not a person. That's how he wanted it: a virtuoso coiffeur, larger than life. He had ego, he had flair, and he had panache.  More importantly, he had talent when it came to cutting hair, so I traded in the Opie Taylor look for the David Cassidy style. It cost $10 and even Mister Lucky’s tip was twice the cost of a barber shop haircut, but when I look back on those days and recall my tie-dyed shirtbell-bottom slacks, and Peter Max sneakers, I can thank Mister Lucky that at least he made my hair look cool.

I found another gray hair today. I keep pulling them out, but they’re like hydras: for every one I yank, two more sprout elsewhere. Mister Lucky would know what to do. I guess I’ll just have to accept aging gracefully. The years go by so quickly as you get older. And now, another has passed. Happy New Year.