Arts & Culture News

Hurst Resident and Creator of The Crow, James O'Barr, on the Comic That Made Him Famous

The Crow doesn't seem like a comic that Hollywood would be keen on turning into a big-budget motion picture. The title character also known as Eric Draven doesn't have much in common with Superman, Captain America or Ant-Man, who wear multi-colored costumes and fight to protect the innocent. 

Eric is angry, inconsolable and filled with hate. He kills without remorse. He knows he's a monster; he's not particularly concerned with morality. His attitude and lack of a colorful costume make him an unlikely candidate for a line of poseable action figures for kids. And yet somehow this successful underground comic book series got the green light for a movie back in 1994, long before movie executives knew that you could just throw a hunk like Ryan Reynolds in a suit and tickets would sell.

Even artist and writer James O'Barr, the Detroit, Michigan native turned Dallas-Fort Worth resident who created The Crow, didn't think American movie-going audiences were ready for such a dark and deeply personal story before it became a cult smash hit in 1994. Barr will be part of this weekend's Dallas Comic Show at the Richardson Civic Center,

"Part of me was like, 'It's a film and not the same thing as my book,' and I was totally unprepared for the success of the movie," O'Barr says. "I saw it and I liked it. I thought it was good but I didn't think mainstream America was ready for it." 

The film and O'Barr's books resonated with fans because they explore without compromise the dark, confusing feelings that we all inevitably experience at some point. The Crow may be immortal but he's still human. 

"Everything I do is for the most part deeply personal, and it's a way to work through issues in my life on paper," O'Barr says. "Honestly, I'm not that different from anybody else. People find a resonance in my work. There's always recurring themes of love and loss and pain just from the life I've led, and I want to explore those themes and story formats." 

O'Barr says he started exploring his emotions as a young boy growing up in a Detroit orphanage. 

"I was the only white child so no one else would play with me and I learned to entertain myself," O'Barr says. "I picked up some crayons when I was 2 and I haven't put them down since. Comics came later. I loved old monster movies and that's pretty much what I started drawing, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, all the Universal monsters and the things I would see on the 4:30 a.m. movie. I would draw them and later on, I learned I liked to tell a story as well, so comics is the perfect medium for me." 

O'Barr's inspiration for his most successful creation The Crow, a series about a man who is resurrected from the dead and seeks vengeance from the Detroit street gangs who killed him and his girlfriend, was a very dark and difficult moment in his life. A drunk driver killed his fiancĂ© Beverly when O'Barr was 18 years old. 

"My life was changed instantly forever because I had, unhealthy or not, wrapped my whole existence around this person," O'Barr says. "Suddenly, there was nothing in my future but nothingness and I was angry and furious, angry with God, and so I carried that around for a few years until it became almost poisonous and I needed to do something. So I just sat down and began drawing something where I could get justice and peace on paper that I couldn't get in real life." 

O'Barr gave his creation a dark, punk look influenced by bands he liked, such as Iggy Pop & the Stooges and Joy Division, and set him loose in a dismal world so at least one of them could get closure from the pain they felt. 

"All the characters are parts of me, even the bad guys," O'Barr says. "I think that's where the best writing comes from, a need to understand the characters and their motivations. A lot of it was based on real people and real places and real things I witnessed. It's very autobiographical. Every place, every street mentioned in the book is a real place or was at the time, even though Detroit really doesn't exist anymore." 

It took O'Barr six years to finish his comic creation because "it was very painful to work on" but he eventually sold it to Calibur Comics and published the first issue in 1989. The Crow became one of the biggest hits of the growing indie comic movement. 

"It became what I call the Neutral Milk Hotel of comics," O'Barr says with a laugh. "Two people got it and understood it and then gradually those two people lent it to two other people who they knew would understand it as well. It became this big underground cult book and eventually someone in Hollywood picked it up and was intrigued by it because it was very cinematic. It had no huge special effects and was obviously very cheap to film and didn't require millions and millions of dollars and CGI effects. So in 1992, they optioned it for a movie and by 1993, they were filming it." 

O'Barr was invited to participate in the film's production and met with its star Brandon Lee, whom he says he got to know very well. 

"The first time I met him on the set, he was sitting across the room from me and did not come over and say hi and I didn't quite understand it," O'Barr says. "Eventually, he came over and says, 'This is like when Roy Batty meets Tyrell. It's like meeting your maker.' I liked him instantly that he quoted Blade Runner."

Lee, the son of kung-fu film star Bruce Lee, starred in a string of low-budget action films before he was cast as the title character in The Crow.  He opened up to O'Barr and clearly felt a connection to his character that shows in his memorable and sadly final theatrical performance. 

"He talked about the loss of his father and how he used that as the root motivation for his character," O'Barr says. "Brandon told me it was the very first time in his entire life when he was on a project and he didn't feel like he was Bruce Lee's son. This was his film and I think that's why he put so much effort into it." 

Brandon Lee never got to see the final film. The 28-year-old actor died while filming The Crow in North Carolina in an accident with a prop gun used to simulate gunfire. O'Barr agreed to go on Lee's promotion tour following the release of the film "because he was my friend and I was proud of the work and wanted people to see it and not for ghoulish reasons." 

"It was still very painful because it hadn't been that long afterwards, but it was also cathartic because all over Europe, I talked to reporters and most had already talked to Brandon while he was there promoting his other film Rapid Fire. So we got to share stories about Brandon and what a sweet, sweet guy he was." 

Hollywood has tried to revisit The Crow with a series of subpar sequels that started in the theater but eventually made their way straight to video or DVD, as well as a forgettable syndicated dramatic series. 

"I was against any kind of sequel," O'Barr says. "I thought it would cheapen what I thought was Brandon's legacy. In reality, all it did was make him look that much better." 

O'Barr decided to stay out of films following The Crow and focus on his comic book work including new editions to The Crow and other projects such as an unreleased cyberpunk story called Gothik that became a challenge to complete because "technology exponentially doubles every six months and I would have something in page 9 and by the time it was on page 15, it was already obsolete." O'Barr says an Australian director has expressed interest in turning it into a film. 
He's currently working on a new Gothic take on the classic spaghetti western called Sundown in Hell and a historical epic about the legendary Fox Company of the U.S. Marines Corps, a platoon of 234 soldiers who secured a key hill during the Korean War against an onslaught of 100,000 Chinese soldiers for more than four grueling days. O'Barr calls it "one of the most heroic, gut-wrenching things I've ever read." 

"I'm a compulsive reader and I'll switch between fiction and history, and I picked The Last Stand of Fox Company [by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin] because there have been millions of films about WWII and Vietnam, and now the Middle East war, but there's nothing when it comes to Korea," O'Barr says. "There were more Medals of Honor given out for Korea than any other war, so I became really interested in Korea. The only thing America knows about Korea is the M*A*S*H TV show."

The Crow is also being bandied about for a movie reboot with Relativity Media, but it's run into some problems. Back in March, the studio heads removed director Corin Hardy from the project and the Edward R. Pressman Film Corporation, the producer of the original film, filed for bankruptcy to block Relativity from obtaining the rights to the franchise, according to The Hollywood Reporter. 

"Relativity is a relatively new studio and they've made every possible mistake you can make, The Angry Birds Movie being a perfect example," O'Barr says with a laugh.

O'Barr says the film's creative team and the studio can't seem to come to terms on what the style and feel of the new film should be. 

"They're like, 'We need to get the Twilight crowd' and I'm like, 'No, you need to get The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo crowd," O'Barr says. "That's kind of what it's like dealing with Hollywood. It's the only city in the world that lives up to every single one of its stereotypes." 

O'Barr finds it frustrating because he says he feels this is the perfect time for The Crow to make its cinematic comeback. 

"There's this underlying anger with the American public," he says. "It's almost a perfect time for this type of film to come back. There's kind of a cynicism in the air that I haven't seen since the early '70s. There's this 'Everything is fucked up and the world is going to hell' kind of attitude. I don't think you could watch a film from the early '70s that has a happy ending." 

Another Crow reboot that's done properly and doesn't bend to the whims of the brooding teenage vampire crowd could not only offer movie and comic book fans an alternative to the never-ending battle between the DC and Marvel Comics marketing machines. It could also help audiences tap into some very real feelings of fear, pain and uncertainty that still resonate with comic book readers who are just discovering O'Barr's work. 

"Without exception since the film came out, every single convention I go to and through fan mail, people thank me," O'Barr says. "There's not a show that goes by where at least two or three people aren't crying at my booth thanking me for writing it because it's very comforting to know that you're not the only person who feels that way or has gone through these things. Those things are universal and that's why it's been in print for 25 years." 

The Dallas Comic Show will be held on Saturday, Aug. 6, and Sunday, Aug. 7, at the Richardson Civic Center (411 W. Arapaho Road). Tickets are $10 to $45 at
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.