The Crow is a comic all about anguish and vengeance. For all its gothic tendencies and violent despair, the film version released in 1994 doesn’t come close to portraying the true darkness of what James O’Barr created. In response to his girlfriend being killed by a drunk driver, O’Barr set out to put his feelings on paper. The result was a landmark underground comic that made O’Barr a cult icon. The Crow has just been re-released in a Special Edition format, giving new readers a chance to finally take in O’Barr’s masterpiece, and old readers a chance to rediscover it. If you’ve spent your life thinking of The Crow only as Brandon Lee’s final film (which is brilliant and wonderful and loads of other things, don’t get me wrong), it’s time to experience the violent, black and white frenzy of the comic.
The plot of The Crow film is simple enough, but the plot of the comic is even simpler. A young couple, Eric and Shelley, are accosted by a gang of thugs. Eric is shot in the head, and is paralyzed as he watches the thugs rape and kill Shelley. One year later, Eric is resurrected by a Crow spirit and given a chance to take revenge. He then hunts down the killers one by one. His quest is punctuated by periods of memory and extreme pain, as he waits for his next killing in the abandoned house that he and Shelley shared. He even goes so far as to mutilate himself.
O’Barr has said in interviews that he could only work on The Crow a few images at a time, because it was too painful for him to work on it for extended sessions. It sounds strange, but you can see it in the art. Few black and white comics have this kind of energy, this kind of primal, growling power. If The Crow were printed in color it would be almost too intense to read. In black and white, it could just as well have been painted in blood. And in a way, it was.
The Crow‘s pages alternate between the black, inky frenzy of the story taking place in the present, and the pencilled, almost watercolored dream world where Eric both remembers Shelley and receives his visits from the Crow spirit. These dream sequences, dominated by the figure of Shelley as a soft-edged, smiling goddess figure, are made more powerful by the kinetic punch of the action sequences. The book has a very distinct 1980s look and feel, but it doesn’t take away from the brutality.
There’s less hope in O’Barr’s comic than there is in Alex Proyas’ film, but it’s there if you’re willing to look for it. For many readers, The Crow is just a badass story of a man taking revenge. There’s that, but there’s also something deeper. It’s the tale of a man in mourning told by a man in an even deeper kind of mourning, the kind that prompts a power piece of art like this comic to emerge. Few popular works in this medium have ever been so personal, or so engaging.