Interview with James O’Barr, creator of The Crow
My more faithful readers might have noticed that I may be a bit of a fan of The Crow, be it the movie, or the multitude of comics spun off from the original graphic novel. So it’s with great pleasure that this Devil’s Night, I have a treat for all of you my dear readers – during Wizard World Richmond last month, I had the pleasure of finally meeting the man behind the Crow himself, James O’Barr. Not only that, but I had the chance to interview him, and today, I share that interview with you.
Along with footage from a panel he gave – which will be posted both here and on my YouTube when I finally can find my way around Adobe Premiere, so stay tuned – we talked about this year being the anniversary of both The Crow graphic novel and the Brandon Lee film, the various recent Crow comics published by IDW, along with a few upcoming titles, and of course, the very controversial remake of The Crow, which O’Barr recently did a 180 on – and I am among the first to ask him why.
All in all though, I can say I got some insight into a long-time idol of mine, and I hope you will be able to say the same. So without further adieu, let me introduce James O’Barr!
Korsgaard: First, let me say what an honor and a pleasure it is to speak you.
James O’Barr: Not a problem.
Korsgaard: It’s been 25 years since the release of the original Crow graphic novel. Did you ever picture The Crow resonating the way it has when you first wrote it?
O’Barr: I thought it had a specific moment in time, and that it would disappear, like films and music and comics tend to. No one’s more surprised than I am that it’s still in print 25 years later, it seems to have been handed down from generation to generation.
Korsgaard: It’s the best-selling independent comic of all time, if I’m not mistaken.
O’Barr: It is, over a million copies sold, I’m pretty proud of that.
Korsgaard: That’s not even counting the spin offs or sequels either.
Korsgaard: I know when you first started working on it, you were motivated by personal tragedy – do you think part of the lasting appeal of The Crow is that it resonates with so many people going through tragedies of their own?
O’Barr: I certainly think that’s a part of it. When I was 18, my fiancé was killed by a drunk driver, and I was hurt, frustrated, angry. I wanted justice, I wanted peace, and by putting pen to paper I hoped maybe I’d get it out of my system – it didn’t but that’s another story. It actually took me a decade before I ever got it published with Caliber Comics, but I was doing it for myself. Over the years though, a lot of my fans tell me how it helped them cope or how they read it when they were in a dark place, and it means a lot to me. The Crow was born of my pain and tragedies, if it can help people through theirs, I’m glad to have done so. The heart of The Crow has always been the same: Pain and grief, no matter how bad, are temporary. Love is forever.
Korsgaard: The other thing that probably helps The Crow is just how unique it is, even today, but especially for the time period. Here was this weird, black-and-white comic filled with references to rock-and-roll and classical poetry, with almost manga-style artwork – clearly it stood out, and its stood the test of time because of it.
O’Barr: Honestly, a lot of it just had to do with things I enjoyed at the time, that I still enjoy, Joy Division, Edgar Allen Poe, even the fact The Crow itself is in many ways a more violent Gothic romance. To see that it connected with people the way it did, to see references to The Crow on TV shows like The Office or Robot Chicken, much less to see it talked about as an era-defining classic, it’s still unreal to me that The Crow‘s almost become a right-of-passage .
Korsgaard: The comic’s not the only thing either – the other big anniversary this year is that it’s also the 20th anniversary of the release of the original film, which has itself become this sort of landmark cult classic.
O’Barr: It’s really incredible looking back at just what a small, personal film it was. There’s less than six seconds of CGI in the entire movie, it cost just $10 million to make, which is simply incredible given how the movie looks visually. Just lots of little touches – director Alex Proyas did absolutely brilliant work with miniatures in the movie, he used radio controlled cars or helicopters in certain scenes. It may have been made on a shoestring, but everyone involved gave 100%.
Korsgaard: What was it like working with Brandon Lee?
O’Barr: Incredible, at the time I remember thinking “Wow, this is Bruce Lee’s son!” but he was so much more than that. The level of physicality and charisma he brought to the role was amazing to witness, it’s still amazing to watch today. Not a lot of people realize just how hard he worked – he did all of his own fight choreography and nearly all of his own stunts, the only thing he didn’t do was falling off buildings because they wouldn’t let him. That’s without even talking about his performance – he brought the right mix of humor, pain and menace to the role.
More than anything else, becoming friends with him, dealing with the aftermath of his death, and seeing the film that I really ever achieved closure over what happened to me. That movie is his legacy, and I’m proud that people still think of him when they think about The Crow. I’m one of them.
Korsgaard: Which brings us to the elephant in the room – the upcoming remake. It’s deeply controversial with the fans, and for the longest time, you were one of its biggest critics.
O’Barr: That I was. No one was more against a remake than I was. While I own the rights to the comics and the characters, the studios owned the film rights, so all those god-awful sequels they made, I got paid for them, but I never wanted anything to do with them. It was the same way initially with the production on this remake – I’m sure you know a lot of the early rumors from a few years back, it looked like a fiasco. Fans were angry, rightfully so in my opinion, and so was I.
Korsgaard: When asked about it, I believe you said something to the effect of ‘You could get Ridley Scott to direct and spend $200 million dollars it wouldn’t top what Brandon Lee and Alex Proyas did‘ I believe. So what about Javier Guiterrez and Luke Evens changed your mind?
O’Barr: He flew over from Spain – paid for his own flight – to talk to me. He got off the airplane, I took him to my car, and I was going to lecture him for an hour and then put him right back on the plane. I did give him the whole lecture too, no one wants this, no one wants to see a remake, that the original is sacred ground because it was Brandon Lee’s last film, that you’re committing career suicide by trying to remake that film.
I told him all of this, he listened to every word, and then he told me ‘I don’t want to remake that film, that film is perfect as it is. I want to do your book, literally page-for-page adaptation.’ That’s what changed by mind, that it’s not a remake of the original film, or cashing in on the cult status of Brandon Lee, it’s that Guiterrez wants to go back to the source material, which if you’ve read the book and seen the film, while the movie has the right feel and the right flavor of the book, probably only 40% of the book made it into the movie.
That got me intrigued – the idea of adapting it from page 1 and going from there, including a lot of the darker or stranger elements of the comic dropped from the original film.
Korsgaard: So this is where you began to transition from being a critic of the remake to a consultant on it?
O’Barr: It planted the seed certainly. Then they hired this actor from England, named Luke Evans, who flew here to ask for my blessing before he’d sign onto the role. We talked for a bit, and he mentions all these films he’s been in, and I’ve seen a lot of them, he becomes whatever the role needs, he becomes the character. I’ve seen him in the make-up too, and he looks great.
So after this, Javier, Luke and I went to the studio and said we won’t do this unless all three of us do it together. I said if you want me involved, this is what I need, I want control of the soundtrack, like with the first one, I want a voice on all the casting, and I want to be able to give my two cents on the script and the characters, and they agreed to everything. I think the studio understands that if they want a Crow ‘franchise’, they have to get it right. We’re hoping to begin production later this month, and start shooting in the spring.
Korsgaard: So they’re giving you a great deal of creative control over the film?
O’Barr: Very much so. Like with the soundtrack for example, which was so crucial to the first film, we’re including some music I’d wanted to originally, but just couldn’t get the rights to, some actual Joy Division songs, some vintage Cure songs – I’m still pretty active in the music industry, and there is a lot of neo-goth bands out there, that have that same sound, and I’ve talked to some of them about contributing, and they’re very excited about it.
Korsgaard: So am I by the sound of that soundtrack. There are still no doubt a lot of nervous Crow fans who think Eric Draven died with Brandon Lee, and no one else should play the role many feel is Lee’s legacy. What would you tell them?
O’Barr: That no one understands that fear more than me. Brandon Lee was a friend, and I’d never do anything to hurt his legacy.
I’d also remind them that Eric Draven was a creation of the movie – if you read the comic, Eric and Shelley never have their last names revealed. Hopefully, this is one area the new movie being more faithful to the comic will come into play, and Eric won’t be going by Eric Draven in the new film. Luke Evens may play Eric, but Brandon Lee will forever be Eric Draven.
Lastly, we’re not remaking the movie, we’re readapting the book. My metaphor is that there is a Bela Lugosi Dracula and there’s a Francis Ford Coppola Dracula, they use the same material, but you still got two entirely different films. This one’s going to be closer to Taxi Driver or a John Woo film, and I think there’s room for both of them – part of the appeal of the Crow comics after all is that they can tell very different stories after all.
Korsgaard: Very true – I can’t speak for the rest of the fans, but as far as I’m concerned, you’ve certainly changed my outlook on the film.
On a related note, there has been a lot of new Crow comics, all going in very different directions. There’s been The Crow: Skinning The Wolves, a Holocaust drama, The Crow: Curare, a noir detective thriller —
O’Barr: What did you think of that one out of curiosity?
Korsgaard: Loved them both! You’ve been doing some pretty wild stuff with them.
O’Barr: That’s my intent! Last year, IDW got the license to do new Crow comics, asked me to oversee them, all the miniseries’, which means I get to pick the writers and artists I wanted to work with, as well do a few of my own.
Korsgaard: The big one I wanted to talk to you about though is the upcoming Crow title The Engines of Despair. That one’s based on what was your original idea for the movie sequel, correct?
O’Barr: Correct, I’d wanted to take it in a different direction after it was clear Hollywood was moving ahead on a sequel, so I did a treatment. It features a woman who was killed on her wedding day and comes back for revenge. Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, they said “Nobody will go for a female Crow, there’s no market for it.” and shelved it. They made The Crow: City of Angels instead, and we all know how that turned out. (laughs)
Korsgaard: So now you’re getting your chance to tell the story. It will be the first Crow title you’ll be doing both the art and story for yourself since the original as well from what I’ve heard.
O’Barr: That’s correct.
Korsgaard: When can we expect to see it hit the stands?
O’Barr: Nothing concrete yet, I don’t want to give a date until it’s complete, but keep your eyes peeled – this is probably the best work I’ve ever done.
Korsgaard: Aside from Engines of Despair, are there any other upcoming Crow titles?
O’Barr: There’s one they’re working on now, I don’t think it has a working title yet, but it’s set in the 1980s glam rock scene, and stars a girl who looks suspiciously like Joan Jett, and it looks like it will be a lot of fun.
I always like doing period things, where you don’t have to deal with cell phones and computers, things like that, which lets you take the stories to a more basic level. Plus, it’s the era I lived in and the era I know best.
Korsgaard: Let’s talk about some of your side projects. You have a war comic you’ve been working on for a while.
O’Barr: It’s a true war story from the Korean War, about a group of Marines – I was in the Marines, and I’d heard about this group called “the real 300”, Fox Company, 235 of them held a mountaintop in Korea for five days against thousands of well-armed Chinese troops in subzero temperatures. Unlike the Spartans, against all odds, they held the mountain, and 82 of them lived to tell the tale.
Korsgaard: Sounds like an incredible story.
O’Barr: It’s all based on a true story too, every character in the comic is based on a real soldier. It’s one of the most heroic things I ever read, just the torturous conditions they fought under, against literally 20-to-1 odds, if I hadn’t read about it, I’d have thought it was unbelievable.
The comic’s going to be a little different as well. Fox Company had three gun crews on this mountain, one in each direction. I’m going to write it, and I’m doing the art for one of the gun crews, and then two other artists will do the two other gun crews, and we’re going to switch back and forth between these different art styles, giving each gun crew their own personality. I don’t know if anything like that’s been done before.
Korsgaard: Sounds like it’s been a real passion project.
O’Barr: Absolutely. There’s been thousands of films and hundreds and hundreds of comics about World War II, and about Vietnam, but Korea is really “the Forgotten War”, and in reality, there were just as many Medals of Honor handed out to Marines in Korea then there were in World War II or Vietnam, the conditions they faced were horrendous, the odds were overwhelming, it was a thankless job, and I want to do what I can to tell some of their stories.
Korsgaard: Anything else you’re working on?
O’Barr: I have a pet project, called Sundown, it’s a gothic spaghetti-western that I’ve been working on for about five years in my spare time. It’s following four characters, each on a journey across post-Civil War America, each have different motives, goals and back stories, and Sundown is like any good story, about their journeys, not their destination. I’d describe it as the Wizard of Oz if it had been directed by Sergio Leone.
Korsgaard: Interesting – sounds like it will be a fun read.
O’Barr: It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of work as well, the entire thing is hand painted in anamorphic widescreen panels, with four panels per page. They’re all wide panels, it’s not like a typical comic where there will be three square panels, and then one rectangular panel, the entire thing is told in 235:1 aspect ratio, just so it looks like an old spaghetti western. It’s dark and violent, very romantic, and I’ve done a lot of research on the Old West, because I wanted everything to be very accurate to the period. It doesn’t have much of a fantasy element, but there will be a surreal feel to the title. There’s even a company in Spain that has optioned the movie rights, and they work with a lot of the same sets where they shot a lot of the old spaghetti-westerns, and I’m excited to see what comes of that.
Korsgaard: I’ll be excited to see what comes of it for myself! Between all of these projects, you probably have one of the most devoted fanbases in comics. Did you ever think all those years ago when you first penned The Crow, you’d be where you are today?
O’Barr: Absolutely I do, I am blessed to have the most loyal fans in the world, and they’ve stuck with me for 25 years. I thought after the movie came out, that I would enjoy my decline, play scratchy records, and just kind of fade back into the woodwork, but my fans have never abandoned me.
They’ve supported me, they’ve support all of my projects I work on, comics, book covers, album covers, they’ve stayed with me, and that’s why I feel that I have an obligation to them not to sell out, not to go work for Marvel or DC, or offer token support for just any Hollywood project based off my work, but to stay true to myself and stay true to them.
Korsgaard: Well it means the world to us. Thank you for your time James.
That, my dear readers, was James O’Barr, who I am pleased to say, is absolutely humble and gracious in person. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for future Crow titles from him, check out any of the past titles he’s worked on, the original movie, or indeed, the upcoming reboot – I’m not ashamed to admit he changed my mind on the matter. He also attends conventions regularly, so pop in and say Korsgaard sent you given the chance!
I would also like to mention that I had the pleasure of attending (and taping) a panel hosted by James O’Barr where he mentioned many of the same things we talked about here – you actually notice him turn to me in the video when he talks about the remake – followed by a screening of The Crow hosted by him, which was an absolute thrill. Once I finish editing the video – again, I’m still learning my way around Adobe Premiere – it will both me uploaded to my YouTube, and posted above here, so be sure to check back!