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.

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