As ‘The Crow’ Flies

The Crow Death Rattle

How James O’Barr created one of comics’ most iconic antiheroes, The Crow.

Imagine being in love, the kind of all-consuming love that permeates you. Imagine the freedom that comes with letting someone completely know you and the stunning revelation that they love you for all the things that make you who you are.

Now imagine that love violently stolen in an instant. Everything is lost. What would you do? Would you spiral into despair? Turn to drugs and self-abuse, release hate toward everyone you meet? Or would you do something different? Something…beautiful?

His name is James, and her name was Bethany. In 1978 she was struck by a vehicle and killed. According to an archive from a James O’Barr / The Crow fan site, “Beth was alone on a Detroit sidewalk when a drunk driver in a van drove into her and dragged her across several front yards.” That event made an imprint on James O’Barr that will reverberate not only in his life but in the lives of those who pick up a copy of his 1989 comic book, The Crow, or watch the 1994 film by the same title or, if everything goes well, the reboot of the film in the near future. There have been five films about The Crow over the years, and rumors of a new film have been circulating for a long time. The project, now helmed by Director Corin Hardy (Hallow), has gone through quite a few possible actors for the role of Eric Draven, the central figure whose journey is inspired by his creator’s.

“I know pain at the molecular level. It pulls at my atoms and sings to me in an alphabet of fear.”

–Eric Draven, The Crow

After O’Barr’s world was shattered, he moved into the world of military service, enlisted in the Marines and found himself stationed in Germany, where he began to illustrate combat manuals. In the daytime he would diligently draw for his country, but in the evening he made a habit of getting into violent confrontations. The same fan site notes that “during leave he would throw himself headlong into brawl after brawl. In hindsight the behavior was obviously self-destructive and, in reflection, it is a wonder that he’s still alive.”

O’Barr managed to achieve an early discharge from his military service and, upon returning home, decided to seek out the individual responsible for the death of the woman he loved and exact his revenge. Instead, he learned that the driver had already died, reportedly of natural causes.

James O’Barr’s birthday is celebrated January 1, but he himself is unsure whether it’s his actual birth date. He was born in a trailer and a week or so later was finally taken to a hospital. On arrival, his father was intoxicated and neither he nor O’Barr’s mother could remember the actual date of his birth. From that time until he was about seven years old, O’Barr rode the merry-go-round of foster care.

According to O’Barr, he began to draw at a very early age. Uninterested in the illustrations in his coloring books, he created his own. He kept to himself, not wanting to attract the negative attention of his foster families. Despite the solace he found in drawing, it kept him socially isolated. Through illustration, however, he discovered a way to honestly communicate his thoughts and feelings.

With no formal art training, O’Barr learned to create visceral imagery drenched with emotion. The characters who populate his stories seem to have real flesh and blood, evoking deep responses from the audience.

The Crow by CaliberCaliber Presents, vol. 1 No. 1, January 1989. “The Crow” ©1989 by Jim O’Barr.

On the road through artistic expression, O’Barr moved away from the typical comic book versions of characters and turned to Renaissance sculpture, life models and still-life photographs. Instead of the exaggerated anatomy common to heroes and villains, O’Barr turned to the forms and shapes of Michelangelo’s art, and this realism shows in every stroke of his illustrations, never more so than in The Crow.

O’Barr, unlike many working artists, doesn’t receive a script and then translate it into images on paper. Instead, he has spent his whole artistic life being the creator and illustrator and only gets involved in projects if they have a personal draw. Every line in every image comes from a deep emotion, be it love, hate, anger or sorrow. Every image has a life force that entrances the audience.

For O’Barr, drawing is therapy. The Crow, both the graphic novel and the film, express the raw bite of love and loss, like a cold razor dragged across a nerve, and the sanity-destroying rage that can follow. It thrusts pain into the light and forces the audience to look at it for what it is: a teacher. In his first appearance in Caliber Press’s first issue, The Crow is stabbed on the street but barely registers the ache, saying, “I know pain at the molecular level. It pulls at my atoms and sings to me in an alphabet of fear.”

The Crow Comic IllustrationCaliber Presents, vol. 1 No. 1, January 1989. “The Crow” ©1989 by Jim O’Barr.
The Crow ArtArt from “The Crow” #0. Script and art by J. O’Barr

The Crow illustrates justice to those who need courage to scream in the face of fear. In the minds of the audience, the idea of the antihero is solidified as someone who is justified in his actions but can create just as much fear as, if not more than, the villains in the story do.

The Crow embodies love that has become rage, despair that has become madness. With stark-white skin, a shock of black hair, and the telltale black slashes across his eyes and mouth that create a never-changing grin, The Crow was a new type of hero who exemplifies unrelenting vengeance and tactile brutality, the type of hero Batman would be if he gave in completely to his darkness. That is not to say The Crow is simply a mindless killer bent on revenge. Far from it. Eric Draven is still very much inside the new creation he has become. We see glimpses of him as he remembers the good things he shared with his lost love. Although the story is a dark, unflinching look at the torrential downpour of tragedy, it also illustrates what justice and redemption can accomplish. In the words of The Crow in the 1994 film, “It can’t rain all the time.” End


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