A couple of decades ago, I was at a comic book convention, but I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so I went around carefully eyeing every booth for “MUST HAVE” materials, knowing I was only going to get a couple of books. At one booth (I can’t remember whose booth it was anymore), I spotted a comic I’d never heard of, which had this dark figure on the cover wearing a trench coat and what almost looked like Alice Cooper face-paint. It was spendy, about $10, but I was intrigued, so I grabbed it. It ended up being James O’Barr’s The Crow #2, put out by Caliber Press, and the book was great… (I also spotted a humor title called The Tick at that convention, but I think that’s a topic for a different post.) A year or two after this convention, they made a movie out of the comic, and the price for the book that I’d bought jumped up real high, (my copy was a first printing,) so I made an executive decision and decided to sell the book to a local comic shop. I got enough in trade to buy The Crow graphic novel (basically the original Caliber run collected by Kitchen Sink Press) and a whole bag of books from the 50 cent bins. (Trading GOLD for trash. That’s the way it works with me…)
James O’Barr – The Crow (1994)
I’m sure a lot of people have seen one of the films based on The Crow, or maybe the television show, or read one of the novels or maybe even read some of the comics, but THIS story is where it all got moving—I think. Personally, I’ve only seen the first film, the one with Brandon Lee as the main character, Eric, and I really enjoy it—but for my money, I’ll take the original comic series, which is more nuanced and creepy.
For those who have never read the book (or seen the first film), here’s a short synopsis: a young couple, deeply in love and preparing to get married, is set upon by a group of merciless thugs who violate the girl and murder both. Through some supernatural agency, Eric returns a year later as an avenging spirit to hunt down the men who committed the crime and make them pay. The book is violent and dark, and told through a combination of flashbacks, dream sequences, and noir violence, and the art style is an appealing mixture of scratchy, indie action and beautifully framed, painterly Art. (Capital “A.”) The story, though stylistically rendered, is pretty straight-forward: ghost guy with weapons kills the Hell out of the bad guys. However simple the premise, it’s the DETAILS that make this book work.
As a young adult with a penchant for the gothic, The Crow hit a nerve. The protagonist looked a bit like Robert Smith from The Cure, (sometimes), and O’Barr even quotes lyrics by The Cure and Joy Division in the book. In addition, O’Barr’s dream-scape imagery created a chilling and haunted world full of supernatural goings-on (as well as a certain amount of justice, which might seem unlikely considering the darkness of the comic. In the end, however, the bad guys get what’s coming to them.) There are other little touches, like the spectral crow who accompanies Eric and gives him advice, like a haunted Jiminy Cricket, and the way Eric’s gun goes “Boom! Boom!” when he shoots it, which is a more cataclysmic sound than just “Bang! Bang!” It’s a subtle touch, but the cumulative effect of each one of O’Barr’s little touches is a book that is deep and chilling.
The book is dark, brutal, offensive, disgusting, and disturbing, but has a strange beauty to it, and a solid sense of gallows humor. O’Barr’s art style is sometimes rough, sometimes sublime, and should be enjoyable for anyone who likes horror or has an 80’s goth aesthetic. His action sequences, in particular, are excellent, incorporating motion lines, noir atmosphere, and cinematic angles. It should be obvious from what I’ve mentioned so far that this is not a kid’s book, but just to be crystal clear, this comic contains offensive language, extremely violent imagery, a scene of graphic sexual assault, drug use, and wicked horror visuals throughout. There is also some blasphemous content and a dangerously depressed tone that might be diagnosable as indicative of severe mental illness. But it’s also pretty clear that, with this book, O’Barr is working through some serious mental anguish (and a few lines in the introduction by John Bergin suggest that this is the case.) It’s a dark book, but enjoyable on a few levels, at least for someone like me who loves horror, but has a soft spot for seeing the bad guys getting what’s coming to them. Even though the book is over 20 years old now, it still holds up—and there still isn’t much in this world that can compare to its raw horror and existential despair. If you think you’re strong enough, give it a read.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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