James O’Barr is the creator of the world renowned bestselling graphic novel and title character, “The Crow” – a dark metaphorical comic book that led to the famous movie adaptation starring the late Brandon Lee (in his final role) in 1994, as well as a few sequels, a TV series, and several other comic spin-offs. He wrote the book as a coping mechanism for the loss of his girlfriend at the hands of a drunk driver. It was originally published by Caliber Comics in 1989.
Q and A
We open the interview with a few technical difficulties over the phone, James mumbles something about Japanese technology.
Erik Slader: …Ok, I think we got it! Thanks for bearing with us.
James O’Barr: It’s no problem, it just cut into your fifteen minutes. (laughs)
ES: Well I guess we better jump right in then!
JO: No, let’s ease our way into it. Ask me about my childhood or my favorite color. What’s my horoscope?
ES: (laughs) Well in that case, what’s the weirdest question a fans ever asked you at a con?
JO: Well actually you could probably fill a book. But what’s even weirder is… I get a lot of strange gifts from fans.
ES: OH, I would imagine!
JO: You know, I am grateful and all, because most other comic book artists don’t get hugs and presents. I have a strangely intimate relationship with my fans, but they bring me gifts that are sometimes… suspect. This one time, I got a jewelry box full of teeth. HUMAN TEETH! And it pretty much looked like a whole set…
ES: Wow, that’s um… impressive really. Was it all from the same person?
JO: I didn’t really ask, not sure I wanted to know.
So let’s talk about what’s happening in the world of THE CROW. – How involved are you in the current production, script, or decision making on it?
JO: I’m actually heavily involved in the new one. Working with the director, it’s very much a team effort. So far between him and I. He has a crew that he likes to work with, the director of photography, things like that. I trust his judgement. And so far, everything I’ve seen with him and that crew, has been very impressive. All the casting, the music, etc – pretty much every aspect of it we’re working together on.
ES: That’s awesome! I have to ask though, is it a remake of the original or another chapter?
JO: No, it’s all going back to the original book. It’s VERY different from the Brandon Lee film. The movie just feels like the book and it looks like the book, but it’s really not the book. It has a lot more depth and layers to it and there’s A LOT of visual metaphors in it that I always thought were very important, but obviously with the limited budget they had on the first film, there was really only so much they could do. So this is a chance to take it right back to the original and do literally like a page for page adaption, you know with the trains and horses, the empty chairs and open windows, all the doors opening into other doors. The things that represent something. It all sets up a mood and an atmosphere.
ES: How much involvement did you have in the first film (and it’s sequels) and were you pleased with the final product of all of those?
JO: I was involved on the first film, but I had nothing to do with those piece of shit sequels. I really just divorced myself from those, because it really was never meant to be a franchise and they tried to turn it into this James Bond series. I can understand doing more Crow films if they just used the themes: love and loss, reckoning, retribution and justice. Those are universal themes that can be set in any time or place. BUT trying to keep repeating that first film was just a horrible mistake.
Did you have much interaction with Brandon Lee? Did you meet him before the film?
JO: I did actually. He was like a little brother to me, up until the end… I still miss him…
ES: What’s your opinion on the casting of Jack Huston as Eric Draven for the new film?
JO: I think it’s absolutely brilliant. He fits the role and that was totally the director’s idea. He wasn’t even on my list of actors to approach, partially because I thought he’s never going to do a moderate budget. I just figured he was out of the league and price range of what we were doing. Jack Huston comes from Hollywood royalty, even though he was brought up in Britain. Angelica Huston is his mother, John Huston is his great grandfather. Danny Huston’s his brother.
ES: I can’t wait to see him in the makeup.
JO: If you’ve ever seen him in ‘Boardwalk Empire’, he has a mask on and even so he was my favorite character on that show. Even with half his face, he was still the most charismatic. There’s a sequence in season 3’s season finale where I could see why he’s a blatantly obvious choice for the role. He’s perfect for Eric. He’s very feline and internalized. He doesn’t overact. It’s very subtle in both his face and his body language. Then I saw pictures of him, without the mask and I said, “Holy shit, he’s a pretty man!” He’s whole got this Johnny Depp thing going on.
ES: Yeah, I think that’s important to the character, especially the way you draw him.
JO: Yeah, well when you’re working in comics you have to draw iconic characters. Plus, if you’re going to be drawing someone for 300+ pages, you want him to be attractive. (laughs)
So yeah, I think Jack is absolutely perfect. Probably even better than Luke Evans. And I have the upmost respect for Luke Evans, he’s a great guy, nothing bad to say about him, but there was a problem from the get go: he was 38 years old, there was difficulty casting the Shelly character, because in the book, they’re in their early 20’s. So do you go with a 19 year old actress with the 38 year old actor, or does that come off as creepy?
With the previous director and the actor, things just fell apart because of financing, but they’ve actually come back together even better. All the financing is in place. Everything’s ready to go. The director’s out scouting locations now. It’s all very much a go.
ES: That’s awesome to hear that preproduction’s in full swing.
JO: Yeah it never actually got that far before. I went to LA and had a meeting with Relativity and it’s a new studio, not the same one that owned “The Crow” before. I was in this meeting with about 15 studio executives and the only thing they said was, “What do you need to make this happen?” And that’s THE FIRST time that’s EVER happened to me in Hollywood.
ES: That’s really unusual!
JO: Yeah, it is. One of my favorite jokes is: how many producers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: Does it have to be a lightbulb? So yeah, everything’s going exceptionally well with this new film and I couldn’t be happier with the way things are turning out.
ES: That’s great news. I can’t wait!
Let’s shift gears to the comics… Growing up were there any comics you read? Any particular writers or artists that inspired you?
JO: I didn’t really read a lot of comic books as a kid, I grew up exceptionally poor. Comics were a luxury, even when they were 12 cents. We really couldn’t afford them. I had a few I actually stole from the barbershop and when I got older I still just didn’t feel any affinity for super heroes at all. So the comics I did pick up were monster comics, Creepy and Erie, you know all the horror magazines.
Never really could relate to the super heroes, so I went for darker material and it’s pretty much still that way. I will follow a certain artist, no matter what he does, but if you’re 50 years old and you’re still reading X-Men, you’re emotionally stunted somewhere, because those are written for 15 year olds, typically. So if that’s still saying something to you, maybe you need to get out a little bit more.
ES: I’ve read that you studied Renaissance sculpture, did that have any influence on your work?
JO: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve never had a day of art school in my entire life and seeing as comic books weren’t available at the library, I ended up studying Michelangelo, and just all the French and Italian sculptors from that golden era. That’s pretty much how I learned my anatomy.
Even to this day, when I try and draw a super hero sketch at a convention, it ends up looking like a Greek statue. I can’t seem to do those exaggerated superhero proportions, it just… doesn’t look right.
ES: Yeah, I love that about your work. It’s very realistic.
What would you consider the most rewarding aspect of being a creator?
JO: Well I’m one of the few people, from that era, that still owns their character, I still own the book and the copyright. Back then, between Marvel, DC, and Darkhorse, everyone was essentially work for hire. And I’m one of the few that refused to sell it to anyone. The book’s been in print for 25 years and I still get good royalties off of it. The most rewarding thing is that I don’t have to answer to anyone.
I just do my thing and when it’s done I can take it to the publisher and say ‘here it is’. There’s no negotiation on my part. The Crow’s still the bestselling independent graphic novel of all time. Something like a million and a half copies sold, it’s got a track record, so there’s no reason to second guess what I’m going to turn in. I think by now, I’ve earned all my stripes.
ES: I’d say so.
What do you struggle with, as a creator? As a writer, or an artist?
JO: Well, quite literally, on the page, I never had any art direction, so I still struggle with perspective and things like that, usually I just fudge it. If it feels right, it’s good enough for me. I’m no architect. Multipoint perspective is just a headache for me, so I’ll just fake it. Most of that is just backgrounds though. If it was a story about a building, I would sit down and learn to be able to do it with the proper perspective, but most of that is just set dressing.
ES: I would read that book about the building by the way.
ES: Was “The Crow” your first work (if not, what was)?
JO: I did a lot of short things before that. I sold my first story to ‘Heavy Metal’ when I was like 16, I think, but it was the first thing of any length that I’d done. [The Crow] was very personal, so I didn’t necessarily know that there would be an audience for it. I didn’t know how they would find it. My readers aren’t the ones that typically go to comic book stores, so I was skeptical about having it published. I didn’t think it would go anywhere and would have a really difficult time finding the right people. I really have Tower Records to thank. They carried it when comic book stores wouldn’t.
ES: Man, I miss them.
JO: Thanks to them, it found the right audience. People who were very music influenced and liked the kind of dark, gothic setting, even though it wasn’t called ‘goth’ back then, it was ‘post-punk’ or industrial. Tower Records was instrumental in breaking through to the mainstream. It’s really sad that they’re gone.
ES: How long did it take to complete the entire book?
JO: Well, in total, it took about Nine Years, because it was very personal and painful to work on it. I could only do a few pages at a time and I would have to stop. I would go back to it a few months later and work on other things in between.
ES: What were some roadblocks you had getting a publisher and how did you overcome them?
JO: Well, it was kind of a happy accident. There was a guy in Detroit, who owned like five comic book stores, guy named Gary Reed. He saw all these amazing Detroit artists coming into his store on new comic book day, and really none of them were doing anything. Guy Davis, Vince Locke, and a whole host of talent in Detroit at that time.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book had just come out and sold like a million copies, so he decided he was going to start a publishing company out of the back of one of his comic stores, Caliber Press. I’d like to give him more credit, but he just didn’t get it. He did not understand ‘The Crow’ at all. He was not one of my readers. But at that time, they printed comics on this thing called the web press. To get a good deal, you had to print four books at a time, and he needed a fourth book, so he just threw it in there, not thinking he would really sell anything.
I think he printed like 5,000 copies the first time. Which was a very low print run for books back then. Now that’s a hit, but back in the late 80’s, anything that wasn’t selling 30,000 copies was considered a failure. Oddly, it was the only book they made money for. So it gradually got attention and I moved over to Kevin Eastman’s company for a while and then Kevin gave it to Denis Kitchen. And now it’s being published by Simon and Schuster, one of the biggest publishers of (real) books in the world. Now it’s in book stores, libraries and not just in comic stores.
ES: Yeah, I actually just recently picked up the special edition of your original Crow graphic novel.
JO: I’m really happy they gave me the opportunity to put that together. With the original, there were a lot of pages that had to be taken out, for various reasons, and it was an opportunity to put all those back in and then work in a closing statement, with another chapter. It doesn’t really change the structure or the outcome of the story, I think it just adds a few more layers, a little more depth. So it’s finally the way I wanted it. I’m really proud of that book.
ES: One thing that really caught my attention was there is a lot of intriguing philosophies at play throughout the story. It seems, to me, that it’s very symbolically evocative of Norse mythology, was that intentional?
JO: At the time, I was reading all sorts of philosophy and poetry, everything from Nietzsche to Voltaire. All that stuff had a big influence on me. Most of it was very nihilistic and that zen ‘no one gets out of here alive’ philosophy. It definitely had a big influence on me.
ES: There’s this stark dichotomy between a love story and a brutal tale of revenge, was that incidental?
JO: It’s basically an autobiography with the volume turned up to ten. After losing my fiancé, I had a lot of anger and rage with nowhere to vent, so I decided to do it on paper. Part of the book is a celebration of our three year relationship, and the rest of it is one long scream of rage about how terrible things happen to beautiful people, for no good reason.
ES: Certainly an emotional piece, it really shows. I actually really loved the scenes between Shelly and Eric. It’s really very touching.
JO: Thanks. Those scenes were actually the most difficult to draw, because a lot of those scenes are word for word conversations that happened between us, and there’s a very fine line between celebrating something and exploiting it. I really didn’t want to seem like I was exploiting our relationship, especially for entertainment purposes.
ES: Considering the tragedy that led to its creation, are there any residual difficulties that come along with seeing that property continue to have a life of its own? Or has the fact that the story has touched so many others helped as a coping mechanism?
JO: Actually, the only difficulty I have now is… initially I thought, all my fans will grow old with me, and I’ll enjoy my decline, playing scratchy records and just move on, but it gets handed down from generation to generation, so it’s like every four years I get a whole new group of 16 year old goth girls coming to see me.
ES: Haha, that’s gotta be awkward.
JO: It’s like, ‘how do you even know about this’? I guess it’s like a right of passage. When you’re 16, you need to read The Crow and own two Cure albums.
ES: I really want to thank you for your time, it’s been such an honor and look forward to seeing you at Collective Con.
JO: You’re very welcome. I don’t get down to Florida too often, it should be fun down there.