For over 25 years comic creator Batton Lash has been telling the stories of Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre. The series-- which features lawyers who defend those creatures of the night-- began in 1979 as a newspaper strip. In May of 1994, the first "Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre" comic book hit the stands, later to change it's title to "Supernatural Law." The book is still published today through Lash's Exhibit A Press, but this month "Supernautral Law" will tackle its biggest case yet, the Internet.
Readers can now track the cases of Wolff & Byrd online in original stories posted to supernaturallaw.com. Lash launched the Web site earlier this month and will publish new chapters twice a week. While in recent years we've seen comic creators like Phil Foglio ("Girl Genius") and Carla Speed McNeil ("Finder") discontinue publication of their self-published monthly comics and opt to distribute them online instead, Lash will still continue to pen black-and-white comic books in addition to his new online venture.
"The main purpose of the 'Supernatural Law' online strip is to expose 'Supernatural Law' to a wider audience," Lash told CBR News. "The www.supernaturallaw.com website is separate from our publishing website, but there are links to it on every page of the online story. So if readers are interested, they can just click on the link and find out more about the print version, the books and back issues available, and so on.
"The online version is in full color, and the stories will be a bit more 'topical' than you might ordinarily find in my ongoing comic book series," Lash continued. "For instance, the first story, 'My Husband Killed Me, and Now He Must Pay . . . Damages!' is a takeoff on the Scott Peterson case."
The ability to react to real world events quicker with the online strip means Lash will have plenty of story material to work off of and pretty much anything in the news will be fair game. "People familiar with my work know I don't go in for the 'cheap shot.' I do like to use real life events as a springboard, whether it's to send up the absurdity of a trial or to satirize a celebrity litigation. The approach depends on the situation. I have to take it on a-- appropriately enough!-- case-by-case basis."
Current plans are to offer new chapters of "Supernatural Law" online twice a week, every Monday and Thursday, absolutely free. The amount of content Lash will be adding each time will differ from week to week, as dictated by the demands of the story. "Sometimes there will be two 'pages'; sometimes three; maybe four. It's uncharted territory-- a new medium for comics, so it's very exciting."
Preparing his comics for online publication finds Lash taking on a number of new tasks not necessary with the print version. "I'm pencilling and inking on artboards, just like I do with the regular print comics," said Lash. "My wife Jackie then scans the line art into Photoshop, where I do the coloring. Jackie imports the colored strips into Adobe InDesign to do the lettering and balloons. The InDesign files are saved as PDF files, which are then converted to jpegs for uploading to the website. We are taking advantage of the services offered by webcomicsnation.com, a host created by Joey Manley specifically for cartoonists doing webcomics. Since we are not web savvy, it's great to be able to use the templates that are provided. Since we own our domain name, at some point we may move everything to a more flexible setup with more bells and whistles, but for now this method meets our needs superbly!"
Talk to most any self-publisher out there and they'll tell you making money off monthly comics is a tough endeavor, to be certain. In fact, many barely break even with their monthly publications, but ultimately see far better returns from sales on paperback collections. Lash says that "Supernatural Law" has experienced similar trends. "The regular 'Supernatural Law' title hit a sales plateau around six or seven years ago and the book just can't get beyond it. The individual issues break even, at best. Of course, the long-term sales and profit comes from the trade paperbacks. The books are sold not only through comics stores but are distributed to regular bookstores, are available on Amazon, and of course are available directly from our company, Exhibit A."
Some might wonder if the decision to take the series online is due to Diamond Comics Distributors recent changes requiring all comics distributed through them meet a new, higher minimum order than before. While that may spell doom for some series, Lash said that "Supernatural Law" does generate enough orders to meet Diamond's demands. "I'm fortunate that the stores who do order the book do so with enthusiasm and are 100% supportive," explained Lash. "I enjoy doing the 'floppy' format and would rather not dispense with it. We have a lively letters column, and we run lots of pinups from other pros and from fans, which makes for a nice, inviting package. Having said that, the business of comics publishing is changing rapidly, and what might have worked in 1986 may not necessarily apply in 2006."
Lash has been working on bringing his book online for a couple of months now and hearing of Foglio and McNeil's decisions to move their books online gave Lash additional reason to follow their lead. "Hearing Carla and Phil's strategy makes me believe I'm on the right track," said Lash. "In fact, I think this will be the direction of self-publishers and indy cartoonists in the months to come, as Diamond's new benchmark makes it difficult for newcomers to establish themselves in the direct market."
For the past 10 years or so the answer to the question "How do I break into comics?" has usually been met with the response, "Write the comic, find yourself an artist and self-publish." That same advice is still given today, but with the world of self-publishing facing ever greater challenges and the online world such an easy, low-cost alternative, are the days of self-publishing numbered? "I don't think so," said Lash. "For the history of the direct market, it's always been a 'bad' time to self-publish. But good material prevails. However, it is getting more difficult for a new cartoonist to make a splash in the direct market and find an audience. The environment that would allow a fledging title by a newcomer to find an audience is pretty hostile. The 'good' stores, which carry a wide variety of material and support independent comics, are unfortunately in the minority. The majority of comic book stores are content to stock only Marvel, DC, and maybe Dark Horse and Image. No slight to the superhero-oriented stores; that's just the way it's been and always will be with those stores. Even ongoing indy titles with a proven track record have learned that the stores that have never carried 'Supernatural Law,' 'Finder,' or 'Girl Genius,' will never, ever carry those titles. There are stores that have never carried 'Bone' or 'Strangers in Paradise,' the best-selling self-published titles over the past decade.
"I think self-publishers still have an audience out there looking to read their books; the challenge is always to get access to that audience. The Internet is looking more like the way to reach them."
And now that Lash is tackling the online world of comics, how would he answer the question, "How do I break into comics?" "It depends on what you mean by 'break into comics.' If you're looking to get work-for-hire from the big comics companies, I doubt that online comics would be the best route. But if you're a cartoonist who is compelled to create comics and who wants your work seen by a large, potential audience, online comics just might be your best bet. The name of the game is to let your potential audience know who you are and what you do. The web may indeed be the best method to get established in order to sell a print comic."