Thee Comic Column #143: James O’Barr’s The Crow

like a concave screamEvery year I end up revisiting one of the most archetypal comic book experiences I have thus far had in my life. And every year it absolutely destroys me. Tears, existential crisis, waking loved ones in the middle of the night just to hug them… the whole lot. What could have this effect on me? What example of our favorite medium could a reasonably intelligent, nearly 40-year old man consider a cornerstone of his emotional, mental and spiritual existence?

Why James O’Barr’s The Crow, of course.

Full disclosure: I first read The Crow as the compendious trade paperback that collects the previously installment-published series in 1993 or 1994. It was my Senior year of high school and a younger friend – same one that subsequently turned me onto Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and music such as Joy Division and the darker side of The Cure – lent me his copy. There was already news of the ‘major motion picture’ on the way but at that time movies were not a huge draw for me. I read The Crow in one night and remained in a black-void spiral of despair for days afterward. I would look at my girlfriend at the time and think about how fragile life was, how fleeting and insane it could be, and I would listen to Robert Smith wail “Over and over we die, one after the other” and Ian Curtis bemoan the loss of control and I would cry and read back over James O’Barr’s love letter to loss and I would just not be able to get enough. This is the exact moment in comics that prepared me to move on to the more ‘adult’ books that I tout so often – Preacher, Stray Bullets, Hellblazer; in the intervening years I have arrived at the opinion that I had to read The Crow and go through this goth-depressed teenager phase (before the word goth was even a signifier for a high school lifestyle might I add) in order to see comics for what they could be besides awesome Chris Claremont like superhero stories of intense and expertly woven continuity – not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Crow is probably single handedly responsible for my having the mental apparatus to understand and identify with those subsequent ‘adult’ books. And I still get a ‘goth-high’ every time I read it, now just over twenty years later. And I have retained all of this respect and adoration despite how, later that year of my initially finding the book, I had the unfortunate experience of purchasing a theatre ticket to and actually forcing myself to watch the entirety of the absolute dog-vomit abortion that is the ‘major motion picture’.

In case you couldn’t tell, I hate the movie The Crow. HATE.

That said the comic has never suffered in my eyes, and my appreciation for it only grows. Sure I don’t have quite as strong of a The Crow by James O'Barrreaction any more, but it’s still the same reaction. And might I add that several years after first reading the book, when I found the band Trust Obey’s soundtrack to the comic, appropriately entitled Fear and Bullets – a sample of which is posted below –  it added an even deeper appreciation.

So this close to Halloween that’s how I spent my night last night – catching a buzz, putting Fear and Bullets on the headphones and digging into the darkness and misery of James O’Barr’s original The Crow. And it was delicious and traumatizing and beautiful, and still after 20+ years I can’t recommend this book enough. There’s none of the superhero aesthetic that mires the movie and renders it essentially a sad attempt at establishing another dark comic character at the movies so soon after Tim Burton’s Batman, and there’s no easy resolution to be gained from experiencing it. The Crow reads like life: sad, tragic, happy, joyous, terrible, frightening, a bit overly poetic at times – but charmingly so – and disjointed. It is, for my money, one of the greatest stories ever told in the medium of comics and while I am fathomlessly sorry that Mr. O’Barr had to suffer what he suffered to arrive at its creation, I and many other fans around the world will always be grateful and take the example that one can take loss and heartache, grief and frustration, and carve it into a life-affirming statement that helps to shine a little light in the darkness of existence, granting a small swathe of solace to others as we rocket blindly into this sea of chaos we get to indulge in and suffer through for, cosmically speaking, but the blink of an eye.


Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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