James O'Barr on The Crow's 20th Anniversary, His New Project and Dallas
Located beneath the concrete silhouette of downtown, a lone figure rides a painted horse through a vibrant field of fresh and weathered graves. His glowing, amber eyes stand vigil against a threatening horizon overtaking the great American plains.
Spanning the courtyard of the Double-Wide, the mural stands as a tribute to the artist from whom it came. The mural demands the attention of the bar's patrons who struggle to light their cigarettes in the face of the dark horseman.
Off to the side, another lone figure sits quiet in reflection with a homemade Wile E. Coyote T-shirt and a pack of Pall Mall Reds. Unbeknownst to those drinking at the bar, he is the man responsible not only for the jolt they received in the courtyard, but also for penning one of the most influential works of the early 1990s.
In anticipation of his upcoming graphic novel Sundown, (which inspired the Double-Wide mural) and in celebration of July marking the 20th anniversary of The Crow's publication (more on that after the jump), the Mixmaster caught up with artist and Texas transplant, James O'Barr.
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What brought you to Dallas? After 35 years in Detroit being shot, stabbed and run over, it became apparent to me that I would either end up with a toe-tag or wearing an orange jump suit in a place where they use cigarettes as commerce.
I had some friends down here and they talked me into staying for a while. I was really shocked by what I found in Dallas. There is a lot of culture here -- all the oil money definitely did not go to waste [laughs]. There are a lot of museums, a great art and music scene and even a big gay community, which is the last thing that I would expect to be here in Texas.
Dallas in a lot of ways is really like the anti-Detroit. I tell my friends back home in Michigan that every time a building falls down in Detroit, it pops up in Dallas.
What have you been up to since leaving Detroit? I took some time off to learn how to paint, because I never had any real art training before. The idea of going to school for art seemed ridiculous to me because if you have a passion for something, you are going to pursue it regardless. So I ended up taking eight or nine years off, had a family, had a daughter and taught myself color theory and oil painting -- all the areas I thought I was lacking.
Once I got to DFW, it felt it was time to refocus and get back to what I love, which is comics.
Do you have any new projects coming out? I have a new book called Sundown, which has been my pet project for a while. Originally I set out to do a 300-page graphic novel, but a company out of Dallas called Motionworks approached me about doing something else with it.
The book is a Western and I had done some of the pages as these widescreen, amorphic panels, which turned out to be perfectly suited for the iPad. It's not a typical comic where you have square or rectangular panels; every shot has these wide panels like an old CinemaScope picture.
Sundown is like a Spaghetti Western retelling of The Wizard of Oz. There are four characters going on a journey who wind up wanting four different things in the end, but it is more about the journey than the people who they meet -- or better yet, the people they kill since, after all, it's a Western.
Did your trek to Texas have an influence on Sundown? I have been working on it since I was back in Detroit, but the move to Texas has had a huge influence on it. Especially with things like the sunset, scenery and the desert, which were all things that I had never seen before.
In Detroit, the sunset is really green or gray so I had never seen a sunset that was 500 miles wide with pinks, lavenders and powder blues in it. Had I seen some of the sunsets I see here in a movie back home, I would have thought they were CGI. So yeah it has been a big influence on the color schemes and has added another depth to the realism to it.
For the book I did a lot of reading and research on the history of the area from the early 1870s. Initially the book started out in the East Coast, but I thought I might as well start off in Texas since I had all this information. There is a really rich history here and it has definitely influenced the progression of the book. I think it adds some validation because I am not just making this stuff up. It's a fantasy story that is sold in the most realistic fashion.
What was it like to work outside the traditional medium of comics with Sundown? I really like the fact that motion comics are a new medium that really hasn't been defined yet because there is that potential for abuse. The rules really haven't been defined yet, so you aren't confined by them. Most of the ones that I have seen, which aren't a lot, have been kind of lame. It can be closer to a film instead of having these static images with a limited range of movement.
I really think Sundown is the first one that has been specifically designed for the iPad. It has sound effects and a whole musical score so it is really closer to a film. Plus it is fully painted so there isn't any line artwork. As much of a headache it has been with the animation, I'm really happy with it. All artists are their own worst critics so for me to say that is a really bold statement.
Since all of your artwork is done by hand, did you find yourself using new techniques and software with Sundown? While I realize they are all just tools, I am really hesitant to become reliant upon computers. I still don't use a computer for any of the artwork; it is all hand-painted and illustrated. I think what I do is so organic and the idea of using Photoshop or any of those things is sort of a repellent. The fact is there are no happy mistakes on the computer.
I go to comic book conventions and there are kids sitting there with laptops at their booth instead of comics. Personally, I like to know if the electricity goes out I can still work. There isn't a magic button that is going to draw something for you. You need to know your craft. If you don't know basic anatomy and basic storytelling skills, it's all going to fall apart.
Do you find your audience open and accepting of your work outside of The Crow? Absolutely. I am blessed. Fans of The Crow have been the most loyal fans in the world. I have done 2000 pages of comics, but I am obviously only famous for a certain 300. I am totally fine with that because that is my diary, my book and is really my child. It's been really good to me. I have been able to travel the world and it has given me a comfortable living. I am not rich by any means, but it allows me to do what I really love.
Are there any plans to commemorate The Crow's 20th anniversary?
I just did the 20th anniversary author's edition of The Crow. There were a lot of scenes and sequences that I wanted in there, but I wasn't capable of doing it at the time.
Some of the sequences were still too soon after my fiancée's death and I felt that they exploited our relationship for entertainment purposes. However, with the 20th anniversary, I felt it was now or never and wanted to add those sequences that were always meant to be there.
I did all of the new artwork in the same style as the old, so it's really a seamless match. I didn't do the George Lucas thing and go back and shine things up. It doesn't change the structure of the story, but it adds more layers and depth to it.
It has been said that you wrote The Crow to deal with the death of your fiancée. Did you reach the catharsis that you were hoping for? No, because it was too soon afterward. I really wanted justice because a drunk driver had killed my fiancée. Granted this was the '70s when it was much more lenient, but I was furious because my life had been changed in an instant, and I felt that this guy only got a mild spanking.
I wanted justice in real life, but it just wasn't going to come, so I thought I would put it on paper. But instead, it just made me angrier and more fucked up. It was like picking at a scab instead of letting it heal over, I just kept reopening that wound.
What was it like to go back and revisit The Crow 20 years later? I had mixed feelings about it. I was really happy to explore the romantic flashback sequences again because I have learned, especially from the fans, that The Crow isn't a revenge story, it's really a love letter. So this was really my chance to celebrate this one specific point in my life. It was good to do that, but was also hard to add more violence to it.
Most of the flashback scenes in the new edition are of Eric and Shelly's life before, but in much more depth. I always wanted to explore the scene on the train where Eric sees the horse, as it represented his guilt for not being able to help Shelly. I always wanted the horse to be at the end too, but back then I couldn't quite figure out how or why to do it, but twenty years later I fully understand it now.
At the time I didn't understand what I was feeling either -- survivor's guilt -- except they didn't have a name for it back then. So this time, I made a closing segment with the horse, but it's not just wrapped up in barbed wire, it's on fire. It's an intense sequence, but it is a nice wrap-up as it explains that Eric's journey wasn't only about revenge; it was about acceptance. Either you forgive yourself for something, or you let it haunt you for the rest of your life.
With The Crow being so personal, did it trouble you to see it become so commercialized with a number of sequels, a TV show and now a remake of the first movie? I have kind of divorced myself from all of that. I was heavily involved with the first film, and Brandon was my friend. I kind of feel like I made my movie, and I really have nothing else to say with that character or that scenario. It was never designed to be a Star Trek or James Bond franchise, which is what they keep trying to turn it into. Initially, I thought that they would cheapen the first film by making these bad sequels but in reality all they did was make it look that much better.
Remaking The Crow, a film that is only 15 years old, is kind of ridiculous at this point. I don't think anyone sets out to make a bad film, but the first Crow was a $10 million movie. I don't think it matters how much money you throw at it or what stars you put in it -- no one is going to top what Brandon and Alex Proyas did in the first film.
Frankly, I can't think of any actor that is going to have Brandon's physicality and his charisma. I just can't think of anyone that can pull that off. I actually think of Brandon when I think of The Crow now. That's how closely associated it is now with me. He nailed that part, but he really had to sell me on it too. When I first met him, I thought that while he looked perfect and could do all the physical stuff, he was just too nice of a guy. I had a hard time believing that he could be threatening and scary. So he took that as a challenge to prove me wrong.
I still remember thinking, "Wow, this is Bruce Lee's son!" But Brandon never played on that at all. This was the first movie he made where he felt like he wasn't in his father's shadow. I spent two years traveling around the world promoting The Crow to get people to see it for the right reason because he was proud of the film.
Brandon Lee as The Crow
So when people always ask me what I think about what Hollywood has done with my book, I like to reference a Raymond Chandler quote that they haven't done a fucking thing to my book, it's still sitting right there on the shelf like it always was! Read the source material -- films are a whole different genre, and invariably a book is going to be better because it has more depth. It's not going to be constrained by a budget or any limitations on the set, it speaks directly to the reader.
I have my book and my film, so I am content with that.
In the past 20 years, I think The Crow has really become somewhat of a rite of passage. I have watched the first fans grow up with me, and all of a sudden there is a whole new group of 16 year-old Goth girls who, I'm like, where did you even hear about this book from? This has happened with three different generations now, so it's like when you turn 16 you have to read The Crow and own the first three Cure albums.
I am glad that even though the book is set in the early '80s, the message is still valid: As long as someone is loved, they will never die.
The Crow: Special Edition is released today, July 26th. To stay current on all things James O'Barr visit jamesobarr.typepad.com/my_weblog/.
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