Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we have James O’Barr’s masterpiece, which you probably shouldn’t read while drinking or, you know, shooting heroin. This post was originally published sometime in late 2005/early 2006. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
The Crow by James O’Barr (writer/artist).
Originally published by Caliber Press, then Tundra, then Kitchen Sink Press, 5 issues (issues #1-4 came out from Caliber, then volumes I-III – collecting issues #1-4 and adding the final chapter – came out from Tundra, and the trade was published by Kitchen Sink), cover dated February, March, and April 1989 (issues #1-4; #4 – the original of which I don’t own – didn’t have a month, just a 1989 publication date); January, March, and May 1992 (volumes I-III).
SPOILERS below, although you probably already know the story.
When you sit down to read The Crow (in the trade paperback format, one hopes, because it is filled with extra goodness and it’s probably the only format you can find it in these days), you’re not really sure what to expect. You may have seen the movie based on the comic book, so you sort of know the story, but the movie is so significantly different that it really can’t prepare you. What you first realize when reading James O’Barr’s masterpiece is how utterly pretentious it is – the first page reprints a poem by Rimbaud, for crying out loud! Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Pretension” has gotten a lot of bad press, but to me, it is a neutral word, meaning simply that the work strives to be, perhaps, more than it is on the surface. [Edit: I realize that I am almost alone in thinking this, but I don’t care. I guess it is a pejorative word, but I’m not sure what the positive version of “pretentious” is. Any suggestions?] The Crow has many pretensions to grandeur, and the reason it succeeds so well is because O’Barr is able to pull most of them off. Some fall flat, sure, but more often than not, O’Barr is able to elevate the subject matter so that we forget exactly what this story is about. Because, let’s be honest, this is a revenge fantasy writ large. Nothing more, nothing less. It shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t resonate so strongly. Yet, for various reasons, it does.
The Crow challenges us on many levels beyond its basic structure. There have been revenge fantasies in literature before, and there will be again, but O’Barr’s poetic precision with language and metaphor help raise this work up. The Crow merrily goes about his gruesome work, and his speech is arch and poetic: “When sorrows come, they come not [as] single spies, but in battalions. I’ve allies in Heaven, Jack, I’ve comrades in Hell … Say hello for me.” What makes this work is that the Crow is a mythic and poetic figure – we don’t expect him to speak like a normal person. He has experienced death and resurrection, and therefore has a somewhat skewed outlook on life. O’Barr infuses him with a gravitas that we might scoff at if this were a “realistic” portrayal of the world … but it’s not, so Eric’s verbosity as he kills his way through the Detroit underworld is forgiven.
There is a tragedy at the heart of the book, but it’s not the one you might think. Shelly’s rape and death is not a tragedy, because Shelly remains a cypher, almost a MacGuffin, in fact. We never get a sense of who she is, and therefore her horrible fate, while awful and maddening, does not touch us on a deeply emotional level. Eric’s own fate on the road – a bullet in the brain and then forced to watch as his fiancée is brutalized by his killers – is also not the tragedy. The tragedy is Eric’s ultimate failure as the Crow. He achieves nothing, and we want him to, because we feel his hatred as much as he does. But what, really does he achieve? He kills the five men responsible for Shelly’s rape and both of their murders, plus he cuts a very wide swath through Detroit’s gangs, but does he achieve anything? The men he kills are unrepentant. He doesn’t offer them repentance, but they would reject it anyway. When he confronts them with their crime, they don’t care. Fun Boy, perhaps the most eloquent street punk in comic book history, tells Eric, “I wish I could say I was sorry but I ain’t. I’m a monster … burnin’ from the inside … I never let nothing define or limit me.” Eric tells him explicitly that he, as the Crow, cannot give him absolution. As he allows Fun Boy to kill himself by overdosing on morphine, he tells him that he was dead from day one. These are people who are completely without remorse. Killing them achieves little, because they don’t see the error of their ways and there will be replacements for them in the criminal hierarchy anyway. Eric fails to save Shelly, he fails to cleanse the city of crime, and it is implied that he fails to redeem Sherri’s mother or even Sherri herself. Sherri is the only figure in the book who has any true hope, but we don’t learn her fate and we can’t believe that she escapes the cesspool in which she lives. Eric puts her life in the hands of Officer Albrecht, but we still do not believe that she will rise above the sewer of Detroit. So Eric is a failure. Why does this bother us so much?
It bothers us because we can’t identify with the Crow. O’Barr is not asking us to identify with him. He is a mythic figure, one without any humanity left. Crows, of course, are quite prominent in various world mythologies, and O’Barr is certainly cognizant of that. They are carrion-gods, feasting on the souls of the dead, as Eric certainly becomes. They can also be harbingers of the hero’s death, as the crow in the book surely is; and they act as the messengers of Odin, bringing him information from the world, as again the crow in the story does (some say Odin’s messengers were ravens, but we’ll let it slide). Eric is no longer part of this world, so we can no longer understand him. We understand his motivations for revenge, but he has moved past us, so that we can sympathize with him, but we cannot empathize with him. This is a crucial distinction, because the audience of this book has much more in common with Eric’s victims than with the bringer of vengeance himself.
When I say that, I don’t mean that we are all gang-raping, murdering thugs. I do mean that we as readers are much more connected with Eric’s victims, because we know what it is to be a victim. You can argue that Fun Boy, T-Bird, Tom Tom, Top Dollar, and Tin Tin are not victims, but punks who get what they deserve, but in the moment of death, they are victims, and we know them more than we can ever know the two main victims in the book – Shelly and Eric. One thing the movie did better than the book was give the ancillary characters – Rochelle Davis as Sarah (Sherri), Ernie Hudson as Albrecht, Michael Wincott as Top Dollar, and even Anna Levine as Darla – more humanity than O’Barr gives them. In the book, Sherri’s mother doesn’t even have a name, and although we want to believe the Crow scares her into being a better mother (with the excellent line, “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of children,” which I was very happy to hear transferred to the movie), we don’t know if it’s true. The comic doesn’t give the “good guys” much ink; Sherri is the most developed character, and even she isn’t given much depth. It’s the bad guys who we learn the most about, and therefore come to empathize with. We don’t like them and we are happy when the Crow kills them, but we feel their predicament much more than we feel even Shelly’s. Shelly’s fate we feel almost clinically, but when T-Bird is trying desperately to wipe the blood off his windshield with the wipers, even though the blood is on the inside of the car, we feel his terror almost palpably.
This is why reading The Crow is such a disturbing experience – we feel suitable glee when Eric hunts down these punks and kills them in as gruesome a way as he can (my personal favorite is when he chops Tom Tom’s legs off at the knees, just because Tom Tom seems so bewildered by his fate), but at the same time, Eric is so obviously insane that we can’t help but wonder if he is at any point going to snap and really do some damage to innocent people. Of course he doesn’t, because he’s a hero, but we can relate much more to the evil men in The Crow than we can to the hero. This doesn’t invalidate the book, but it does make it much more disturbing to read.
Another subtle theme that O’Barr works into the book that makes it more disturbing is the misogyny – if it is indeed that. Shelly is nothing but a plot point; the impetus of the plot, true, but not a fully realized character. We see her only in flashback, and much of that is filtered through Eric’s perception, in which she had become an angelic creature. Only rarely, and then briefly, do we see her humanity – when she and Eric are painting the house; when they are celebrating Christmas; when she lures Eric into the bathtub; even when they are accosted on the lonely rural road. For the most part, however, she remains ethereal, a Madonna figure for Eric, the resurrected Christ, to worship. The crow, a much more earthy and earthly symbol, continually tells Eric not to revisit his memories. We know he will, though. He keeps going back to the pain, because after his death, his pain is the only thing keeping him alive. However, Shelly remains a symbol, not a human being, and she exists solely to be raped and killed. The other women in the book – Sherri and her mother – play small roles, although Sherri can be seen as the ultimate hope for the Crow and for the city’s redemption, even if, as I argued above, it can be read differently. Men are front and center in The Crow, and although that’s not enough to make a book an example of misogyny, I want to consider Eric’s character briefly in this context.
Eric, of course, paints his face. The greasepaint forms a clown’s face, an ironic comment on the Crow’s grim mission. Prior to his death, Eric is portrayed in a rather feminine way – he and Shelly are almost androgynous twins. Eric is the sensitive artist, unable to save his girl when the punks show up and brutally slaughter them. After his resurrection, he bulks up to exact vengeance. The face-painting can be seen several different ways. Is Eric recalling his life as an artist, and his art is now gruesome murder? That’s certainly the best textual reading of it. O’Barr more than once shows the masks of the theater hanging on the wall in Eric and Shelly’s house. However, we can also see it as irony – now that Eric is masculine enough to seek revenge on his tormentors, he can openly deride them by mocking their sudden ineffectualness. When Eric tries to be a hero, in the event that leads to his and Shelly’s death, he is a failure. Shelly even knows that he is not a hero. He tells her to roll up the windows and lock the door and that everything is going to be okay. She says, “But Eric …” and he repeats himself. In those two words we get all her thoughts – she knows it’s not going to be okay, because her boyfriend is going to be unable to stand up to the rough masculinity of the punks. Only after bulking up and becoming “more manly” can Eric proceed on his mission. I’m certainly not suggesting that O’Barr crosses the line and this becomes a comic that scorns women and treats them like some of the more mainstream comics we’ve seen recently, because then it wouldn’t be worthy of our consideration. I’m just saying that this blurring of gender in Eric makes him even more a symbol than before, and also makes The Crow an even more uncomfortable read than it already was.
The Christological aspects of the book I will ignore, because they are somewhat overwrought and unsubtle. O’Barr obviously wants us to compare Eric with the risen Christ, but it breaks down when we consider why Eric came back and why Jesus came back (if, indeed, he did). I much prefer to look at Eric as an older deity, from before the age of compassion, when justice from heaven was swift and merciless. The Christ analogy goes nowhere because Eric died for no one’s sins and is not redeeming anyone (save perhaps Sherri) with his return. It is far too easy to make a hero a Christ figure, and although it doesn’t make the book any less outstanding, it certainly doesn’t add anything to it.
The Crow is not necessarily a pleasant book to read. It’s not meant to be. This is a comic that challenges you beyond the basic plot, a book that wants you to ask yourself how far you would go to defend or avenge the one you love. The love story between Eric and Shelly is more window dressing than heartfelt, but although O’Barr devotes far more time to the vengeance aspect of the book, we still get the sense that these two loved each other dearly, despite the somewhat clichéd way their love is presented. Eric’s devotion to Shelly extends beyond the grave, and we can read it as a simple revenge fantasy – the book could, conceivably, exist completely in Eric’s mind as he lies by the side of the road dying, and T-Bird and his crew could still be alive and unpunished – or we can read it as something more. I would argue that it is something more, because as a revenge fantasy, as I’ve argued, it’s somewhat unsatisfying. This is a book that goes further than it should, and in doing so, it takes us places more mundane comic books do not. And that is, ultimately, what art is all about.
The trade paperback of The Crow may be out of print; I’m not sure. The single issues are probably ridiculously hard to find. If you’re interested in owning it, I would go to the Kitchen Sink web site and ask. It really is worth your time.
The archives hold more interesting comics! You know you want to see them!
[Edit: I’m certainly aware of the backstory behind this story – O’Barr’s fiancée was killed by a drunk driver, and this story is part of what he thought would be a cathartic purging which, apparently, didn’t work. I’m not unsympathetic to using art as therapy, but as I’ve mentioned before, when I’m looking at a work of art, I try to consider it in a vacuum, because O’Barr’s therapeutic benefits or lack thereof have little to do with whether this comic works or not. If a creator is dealing with trauma by creating art, that’s fine, but O’Barr, I imagine, has made a good amount of money out of The Crow, including charging me to buy it, so I approach it as a work of art and not as “therapy.” Whether or not it worked or didn’t work for O’Barr is, ultimately, irrelevant. I feel horrible for his loss, but that’s not the point of The Crow and we shouldn’t bring that to the table when we read it. But that’s just my opinion.]
[Dang, I really ignored the amazing art in this post, didn’t I? Occasionally I’ll focus on certain aspects of the story to the detriment of others, but these days, I really try not to disregard the artwork, especially when it’s as amazing as it is in The Crow. I should write more, but I guess I’ll let the art I’ve posted speak for itself. It’s stunning, though, and deserves a lot of consideration. Not only are O’Barr’s details amazing, but the care he puts into separating the line work of the “present” with the brush work of the “past” is well done, as is the way he integrates the hand lettering into the final product. Some day I have to rewrite some of these posts to include more about the art, but such is life. Anyway, there’s a gorgeous hardcover collection of The Crow that I’ve linked to below, with more pages and an introduction by O’Barr, and it’s very much worth your time. And hey, you should re-watch the movie, too – it’s terrific.]