The redoubtable Titan Books have just published a beautiful new, glossy, bound paperback special edition of James O’Barr’s renowned graphic novel “The Crow”. A deeply personal project, entirely written, pencilled and inked by Texan artist and writer O’Barr who first began the project in 1981, this proto-goth, pitch dark, grief-stricken tale of revenge and urban despair was originally published in instalments by Caliber Press starting back in 1988, and later adapted for the big screen by John Shirley and David J. Schow in the 1994 movie version starring Brandon Lee: the actor who – in a bizarre twist of fate that seems to fit with the despairing tone of the source material all too well – was killed on-set in a shooting accident that occurred near the end of filming. This new, expanded edition of the graphic novel is the result of the creator’s decision to revisit that original work, adding back scenes which were originally cut or went missing, either for technical reasons involving page count or because O’Barr didn’t feel he had the artistic skill to sufficiently pull them off at the time. Some never made it to the final edit simply because the deeply personal nature of the themes of guilt and loss which propel the story made them feel still too emotionally raw to be included back then.
The story is brutally simple, naked and direct, though told with a highly poetic sensibility using an intense, visually baroque symbolic style that at the same time frequently quotes the likes of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, as well as Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The poetic influences behind “The Crow” are united by this overall, relentlessly despairing Edgar Allen Poe-like taste for the morbid and the Gothic, while O’Barr’s early-eighties musical tastes come out in the depiction of his protagonist – a murder victim supernaturally re-animated and fuelled by morbid guilt and grief, rage and despair, to seek out and destroy the low-life hoodlums who murdered his fiancé – as a fright-wigged avenging dark angel, who in death takes the guise of a deranged version of The Cure’s Robert Smith, with his Love Cats-era panda eye mascara and smudged lipstick, attached to the taut body of Iggy Pop. The artwork sketches a dark, morally bankrupt vision of a crumbling ‘80s Detroit in a series of fussy, cramped, cluttered images depicting a broken landscape of decay and grimy, inky squalor; this bleak urban vision seems entirely populated by loveless sewer rat hoodlums, dribbling, pockmarked heroin addicts and gargoyle-like pimps, scurrying through an endless, hellish night. The narrative is a linear potpourri of violent revenge scenes that show the un-killable spirit of The Crow facing down a seemingly endless parade of these street scum, whom he proceeds to blast to smithereens as he relentlessly closes in on the core group of gang members responsible for the roadside incident that deprived him of his life and his love.
O’Barr’s artwork, here, is remorselessly grotesque and mannered – with shimmering lines drenched in inky swirls and broiling shadows. Their stark, direct pictorial concatenation of killing is punctuated by dreamy, soft focus, pencil-lined illustrations of the protagonist’s memories and dreams which take us back to a time when The Crow was simply Eric Draven: a normal guy who is head over heels in love with his girlfriend Shelly (depicted in these grief-stricken flashbacks as a perfect, spiky haired, porcelain-pure angel), until, that is, Eric is murdered right in front of her -- his dying eyes freezing on her rape and eventual murder by a car full of violent thugs, who even steal the cheap engagement ring he’s only recently given her.
But the bitterness, the grief, the guilt and, above all, an all-consuming desire for revenge, become embodied in the form of the dark vigilante we see animated by memories of a simple, joyful relationship between Eric’s former self and Shelley … of life before all happiness ended apart from the ghost that remains in those fading dreams. As he is guided by a spirit crow towards the point where he must forgive himself for not being able to save Shelley, the graphic novel becomes a relentlessly bleak journey through Eric’s curdling black soul and remains a powerful, impressionistic and visually striking piece of comic book art which now includes a new forward and introduction by the author which is able to make more clear the specific events in the personal tragedy which led O’Barr down this distorted artistic nightmare road, where ‘life is lousy with pain but also simmers with beauty.’ The entire book, including its reprints of the work of various symbolist poets and the lyrics of doomed rock stars, its garish endnote colour portraits and frosted black and white posters, is a thing of bleak, twisted, weeping angel beauty cataloguing the emotional inertia of grief and the ravaged struggle to escape its gravity. This new edition is the definitive one, finally closing a chapter on the author’s long dark night of the soul with thirty pages of extra scenes including a brand new coda that deals directly with the guilt of the protagonist, returning to the symbolic image of a white horse caught in barbed wire. It’s arguable whether the new material brings anything overwhelmingly new to the original, but it certainly adds yet more ruined dark charm and atmosphere to the experience and Titan’s new print is a weighty, lovingly produced thing of dark wonder – with glossy pages galore.