First published in 1989 by Caliber (all scans in this article are from the 1992 Tundra reprint), The Crow was written and drawn by James O’Barr over a period of seven years, and it shows. You can see his art style mature quickly over the course of the story (I must apologize for the quality of the scans–the books I have are squarebound, and I did not want to destroy them in order to scan them flat).
The story opens with Eric Draven, wearing a long black coat with his face painted like a mime, confronting a homicidal gang member named Tin-Tin. And unlike a lot of independent black-and-white comics, you can tell from the very beginning that James O’Barr has some real skills. The anatomy’s a little crude, but the layout is good and the brushwork is confident and dynamic.
We learn that Eric may or may not be dead, but he is definitely out for revenge. And Tin-Tin is just the beginning.
His next victim is a fellow named Top Dollar, who seems to be the gang’s local boss, as the rendering becomes cleaner, with a definite Berni Wrightson/Frank Brunner vibe.
I think it’s the lines modeling the shadows on the eyeballs that really say Brunner to me.
Between each major kill, Eric goes back to his abandoned house to reflect on his lost love with Shelly, like this flashback scene in which the art has morphed to a cleaner style more reminiscent of Charles Vess than Brunner or Wrightson.
As things go on, the interludes become more abstract: visions of lost love, often rendered in lovely washes, accompanied by angsty song lyrics or romantic poetry, after which he goes out on another murder spree, with the occasional pause to psych himself up with a bit of costuming or modern dance.
And yeah, I’m making fun, because that’s what I do, but there’s a reason that The Crow did as well as it did. It perfectly captures that combination of aching romanticism and impotent rage that so many teenagers, perhaps all, go through to one extent or another. That desire to have that perfect love forever with that one special person, while telling the rest of the world that doesn’t understand to go fuck themselves. The story isn’t very well written–it would fall to the movie adaptation to take the random pieces of the comic and reconstruct them into a more-or-less coherent storyline (be here tomorrow to see)–but it is made of powerful stuff.
And the art continues to develop and mature and experiment. O’Barr experiments with a lot of different graphic approaches–washes, delicate brushwork, heavy brushwork, chiaoscuro, pen crosshatching, zip-a-tone, even the relatively rare doubletone in the later sequences which gives a really unusual look.
As this sequence shows, by the end, it’s pretty clear that Eric is other than completely human, as he shrugs off a series of surely-fatal wounds in the final confrontations. But the comic actually plays coy with that for much of the story.
In the earlier encounters, Eric receives more peripheral wounds, and he claims to have survived the earlier gang encounter (just barely) rather than to have died and come back. And we see him shooting up with morphine before a couple of big fights, so it becomes unclear whether he is a supernatural force, or just a deluded guy who is playing upon the superstitious fear of his victims and seems unstoppable because he’s all juiced up.
In the end, The Crow, while certainly flawed, was one of the best comics Caliber ever published, and a perfect illustration of why so many of us were jazzed by the rise of the independents in the 80’s. Because suddenly, you could see works by independent artists that were so much more than the relatively limited world afforded by the newsstand distributors and the Comics Code censors and the big comics companies more concerned with protecting market share and trademarks than producing exciting new visions.
You had to wade through a lot of amateurish, derivative dreck, but sometimes, you hit upon a James O’Barr or a Matt Wagner or a Wendy Pini, someone with real talent which was growing and blossoming before your eyes, and that made it all worthwhile.
Tomorrow in Super Movies, The Crow goes Hollywood. Next week in Out of the Vault, another Monstrous Hero.