FRONT Magazine

“PEOPLE FOCUS ON THE VIOLENCE, BUT IT’S A LOVE STORY” – AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES O’BARR, CREATOR OF THE CROW

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A few months ago, in issue 182 (available in print and digital from our store), we did a feature on comics featuring thoughts and advice from everyone from Warren Ellis to Mark Hoppus. One guy who we wanted in that feature was James O’Barr, creator of The Crow, but at the time he was super busy. He’s just got back to us with his thoughts, so we figured we’d share them. O’Barr’s current series is The Crow: Curare, issue #2 of which comes out this Thursday from IDW Publishing.

When did you decide you wanted to work in the field of comics?
I never got into the business of comics through a childhood desire or anything like that, The Crow for me was a cathartic release that saved my life. I grew up across numerous foster care homes and, most of the time, was left to fend for myself. When you’re living in a house with little money, no electricity and only a smattering of parental attention, playing with a toy was a far-flung luxury I never really had. I wasn’t a very social child, and instead learned how to keep myself occupied without calling attention to myself. I would usually carry around crayons so I could draw whatever I wanted, whenever I felt like it. Drawing became a lifelong escape and remains a heartfelt passion to this day.
After the accident, [Note: O'Barr's fiancee was killed by a drunk driver in 1978] my life had been forever altered in a single moment. I didn’t find the justice I wanted in real life, so I didn’t want to feel anything anymore, my perfect world had been completely shattered. At the time I didn’t understand that I was experiencing some kind of survivor’s guilt. Nothing made sense. To deal with things, I felt that I needed to purge, to get all of my negative feelings out, all these forceful emotions that had swamped me for so many years. In doing so, The Crow came about. It wasn’t predestined, or neatly designed to be a comic book that was sold in stores. It just became a way of dealing with the hand I’d been dealt, so I could handle what was haunting me.

Who would you say your work has been influenced by?
From a musical standpoint, Joy Division and The Cure had a tremendous influence on how I saw the world. I’ve said before that Eric in The Crow was a mixture of Ian Curtis from Joy Division, Peter Murphy from Bauhaus and Robert Smith from The Cure, while Fun Boy was drawn to look like a mixture of Jim Carroll and Iggy Pop. I fell in love with the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud in my younger years, and I’m proud that all of these elements that influenced the way I see things were peppered throughout The Crow. Fans have thanked me for turning them on to this kind of work, stuff that they probably wouldn’t have experienced before. I like that The Crow opened doors for them.
I love rewatching old films from the 1940s and I adore the clothes and style of the time: I sometimes think that I was born in the wrong decade. The Raymond Chandler crime noir thing captivates me. I’m a fan of Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum is a huge hero of mine. I’m fascinated with Sergio Leone’s work and those great old spaghetti westerns. I feel inherently drawn to that immensely violent period in our history in some mesmeric sort of way. I’ve even been working on a project over the last few years called Sundown, which I’ve described as a CinemaScope gothic western retelling of The Wizard of Oz.

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The Crow is obviously a deeply personal work. Do you think comics as a medium lend themselves particularly well to individual expression?
Absolutely, I see The Crow a little like a diary retelling certain parts of my younger life. I started the book in 1981 when I was stationed in Berlin, and it took about eight years for the first issue to be published by Gary Reed at Caliber. The final issue was published by Tundra in the early nineties, and the whole process took a lot out of me. I’m a perfectionist, and the medium helped me to articulate my thoughts, as well as helping me get through all the personal issues I had to deal with. It was a self-help form of personal expression that seemed more productive than traveling down the self-destructive route.
In the initial stages, I sketched The Crow out in storyboard form, which explains the camera angles in certain shots and things like that. The problem is that the making of a movie is probably the only artistic medium where you require substantial financial backing before you start, so utilizing the comic format was an easy alternative. That way, I had complete control over everything. I thought there may be an audience for the book but I never thought it would be so freely adopted into mainstream culture over the years. I like to think that I was a little ahead of the curve, before the goth scene became this mainstream thing soon after. People ask me at comic shows if there’s anything I’d change about the first movie, forgetting that the movie and book are actually rather different. I like to think that I have the book and the film, and I’m more than content with the existence of both.

What comics do you currently read?
Frankly, I’m not much of a reader of modern comics. I tend to find myself dipping back to the old school stuff of the past: Kirby, Frazetta, Wrightson, Colan, Toth, Eisner, Steranko. I read a lot of classical art books for reference and pleasure because I’m always trying to improve and develop my own style. I’m a real sucker for the Italian Renaissance and Wyeth’s work. I work self-imposed 16-hour days, drawing and painting. I tend to only sleep for about four hours a day.

Hollywood watches the comics world very closely. Do you think comics can offer some things movies and TV can’t?
I had a lot of heavy input into the first Crow movie and I’m glad that they listened to my suggestions. I wanted it made right the first time and Alex Proyas did a great job. Ultimately, I feel like I helped make the movie I wanted to see. All the other (bad) sequels only helped make the original look better. The Crow was never designed to be the next James Bond franchise, which is what they kept trying to do, create some kind of production line like the Saw series. For years, they tried replacing Brandon [Lee, who was killed during the making of the first movie], but it wasn’t worth it.
I’ve said in the past that no-one is going to top what Brandon and Alex did, and Javier’s new movie [beginning production in 2014] isn’t a remake of Brandon’s film, it’s going to be a close adaptation of the original source material, of my book. It’s not taking anything away from Brandon, it’s giving life to my book in an entirely different way. I want fans of The Crow to remember that what we’re doing is in no way discourteous, or some kind of sleight towards Brandon. I was really involved with the first Crow film, and Brandon was a good friend of mine, so disrespectful behaviour is not something I’ve ever wanted to engage in. We’re working on a new adaptation of the book itself, not remaking the movie that he starred in.
I separated myself from the Hollywood scene along time ago. The first Crow movie cost around $10 million, so throwing as much money as possible at the screen won’t affect its quality. Even though he’s a superb actor, putting Johnny Depp in it wouldn’t feel right, and the fans know that. Brandon brought an undeniable magnetism to the role. When I think of The Crow, I automatically think of Brandon in my head now. It’s a towering achievement on his part and probably the only film he made where he wasn’t stuck in his father’s shadow. He excelled as Eric, that’s how powerful I see his performance. He nailed that part in so many different ways.
It’s funny, when I first met him, I thought he had a great look and he could obviously do all the physical stuff, but he was just too nice. In Rapid Fire, he’s always apologizing after he hits someone, like he doesn’t want to inflict pain. I had a hard time believing he could be intimidating, and threaten the thugs like in the book. Luckily, he went on to prove me wrong.

The Crow came out of a personal tragedy, but resonated with a lot of people, and continues to do so nearly 25 years on. What is it that you think readers respond to so deeply?
Love and romance. I find that a lot of people focus too much on the violence and, although I can’t deny how ruthless Eric can be, it’s a love story built on a foundation of pure romance. As Sarah echoes at the end of the first movie, I really do believe that real love is forever. I think that people respond to the passion, to the concept of someone doing whatever they can so that they can be with who they love, no matter the price. Eric carries out the unspeakable, yes, but it’s in the quest of love. It’s the ultimate love letter, but without limitations on the more brutal aspects. I know that the story of The Crow is set in the early eighties, but the basic message is still applicable today. Remember someone forever, and they will never die.
Over the past quarter of a decade, I’ve met fans from all walks of life. Crow fans come in all shapes and sizes, spread over gender, nationality, race and religion. There are the fans of the movie, or fans of Brandon specifically, or those who prefer the original comic. Through The Crow, I have been fortunate enough to have traveled the world, and am continually taken aback to find new generations of younger and younger fans. For example, I recently visited Chile and also did a short signing tour in Italy – traveling my work around the world shows me the strength it possesses because I can see how people I’ve never met have been affected by my output. It still surprises me to this day. Like love itself, the book seems to find an audience willing to take it to their hearts.

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