Go to Homepage   James O'Barr's Dark Flight

Photo: James O'Barr
James O'Barr (all photos by Doris Valliant)

When tragedy strikes a Frenchman, he joins the Foreign Legion. When graphic novelist James O'Barr lost a close friend to a drunk driver, he joined the Marines -- and traveled a little further down the road leading to The Crow.

According to O'Barr, the rage and frustration that filled him after his friend's death nearly destroyed him. Military life provided structure and kept him too busy to think.

It also gave him the opportunity to use his self-taught drawing skills. The Marines loaned O'Barr to the Army to illustrate hand-to-hand combat manuals. Turning the stereotypes of soldiers and Marines on their heads, O'Barr the Marine learned which bones to break in a fight by working on Army projects.

Video: The CrowBut O'Barr's grief demanded an outlet. While stationed in Berlin in the 1980s, O'Barr began work on The Crow, his famous story of love, death and retribution. The story seemed to take on a life of its own, giving substance to O'Barr's belief that a love could be strong enough to transcend death and right life's injustice.

But following his stint in the Marines, O'Barr found little work as an illustrator. For seven years no publisher accepted The Crow, so O'Barr supported himself with a variety of jobs, including auto detailing for a Detroit body shop. Finally, Caliber Press, a small comic book publisher, accepted The Crow.

The first issue appeared in February 1989. After creating three more issues of The Crow and illustrating other Caliber Press covers, O'Barr left the publisher, and Tundra Publishing continued the series. In 1992, The Crow's first two books of a three-volume graphic novel series appeared. These graphic novels reprinted the four Caliber comics.

Hollywood adapted the graphic novel for the big screen not long afterwards. The movie, starring the late Brandon Lee as Eric (the Crow), became a No.1 box-office hit in its first week of release. An immediate cult favorite, the movie's popularity spawned two sequels and a television series.

However, O'Barr always saw The Crow as a self-contained story. The manner of the lead character's resurrection precluded Eric from continuing indefinitely like a standard comic book hero. Eric exists to exact vengeance. Every time he achieves a part of his vengeance he loses a corresponding part of his reason for being.

Photo: James O'Barr
James O'Barr

This created a problem for the Hollywood producers who wanted to develop The Crow into a Batman-style franchise. Moderating a DragonCon2000 panel called "The Crow: Gothic Themes in Horror," O'Barr expressed his frustration with the "55 to 60-year-old guys with Maalox caked around their lips" who thought they knew how to make The Crow.

O'Barr feared the producers' whims would lead to the kind of movie-making that created the George Clooney Batman, which O'Barr believes sunk "the Batman franchise single-handedly."

Initially it appeared that O'Barr's worst fears would be realized. The second Hollywood production, The Crow: City of Angels, almost destroyed the cult status of the original film. After the disastrous second Crow movie, O'Barr said, "I thought I was dead for a couple of years."

Video: The Crow - Stairway to HeavenO'Barr couldn't sell his new material. He tried self-publishing e-books, but they "were not taking off like they should." According to O'Barr, "reading is magic" that "you just can't get with a vacuum tube."

But "Salvation" of the Crow concept came from an unlikely source. The television series, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, recaptured much of the doomed romance of the first movie and consistently placed among the top 10 syndicated shows in its viewing areas. Unfortunately, a change in production company ownership caused the show to be dumped. Nevertheless, Ed Pressman, producer of The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, wants to return the series to television if he can get the rights back.

Book: J. O'Barr and Ed Kramer: The Crow, Shattered Lives & Broken dreamsRecently, Del Rey Books published an original anthology, The Crow: Shattered Lives and Broken Dreams, edited by O'Barr and DragonCon chairman Ed Kramer. Many at DragonCon2000 rated the midnight screenings of the soon-to-be released Crow III: Salvation, and the personal appearances of O'Barr and Salvation star Eric Mabius among the highlights of DragonCon2000.

Salvation, which will receive another test viewing at in Spokane, Wash., September 15, returns the novel's themes of love, death and retribution to center stage. From the reaction of DragonCon audiences, fans will respond to it as they did to the original movie.

Photo: James O'Barr
James O'Barr

Nevertheless, the graphic novel remains O'Barr's favorite format. He is developing a new Crow series that boasts "a strong female character in it this time." O'Barr admits he couldn't include something legitimately feminine until he "finally knew enough about women that I could say something about it."

Besides the female addition, the new Crow series reveals a "darker slant" with more religious motifs involving retribution and forgiveness. His characters "weren't as pure," as in the past, and they are "more human."

Ironically, given his analogies between the Crow movies and the Batman franchise, O'Barr also worked on a Batman/Crow crossover for the past six years. O'Barr noted that it's "taken six years to feel like I have something to say." O'Barr's Batman operates in 1940's Los Angeles. Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, chain-smokes, uses drugs, and needs to work out "a few" personal problems. "My slant on Batman is extreme," O'Barr said.

Hollywood didn't like O'Barr's vision of the comic book hero, and O'Barr couldn't comply with their concept. In O'Barr's opinion, Hollywood "completely castrated the character" of the Batman found in the comic books. However, O'Barr continues to work on the concept.

He adds, "I hope Batman pans out. I really have something to say about that." Other than the Batman/Crow crossover, O'Barr says, "I can't see any other crossover."

Anne and Doris Valliant

Click here to learn more about James O'Barr and the Crow.

Click here to read the Crescent Blues feature on DragonCon 2000.