SHADOWS ON THE WALL
Interview with James O'Barr
by Dike Blair
The Crow, a graphic-novel which was recently adapted to the screen, is the creation of James O'Barr. O'Barr began work on The Crow comic book series in the early 80's, but was unable to find a publisher until 1988. In 1992, the books were collected into a single volume. The story chronicles the revenge of a young man named Eric. One year after he and his fiancée are brutally murdered by a vicious Detroit street gang, he rises from the grave. He can't be killed--he's already dead. While spouting romantic verse (from Rimbaud to Joy Division) and sporting a rock star's body (Iggy Pop's torso and Peter Murphy's face), Eric creatively kills the gang members (Shelby the Giant, T-Bird, Top Dollar, Fun Boy, and Two Tone) responsible for his misery. O'Barr's stark black and white drawings and poetic dialogue create a mood which is at once morbid and humorous. The combination of a "no one else has ever felt pain like this" sentiment with rock 'n roll lyrics and comic images creates a perfectly American, dark celebration of adolescence.
In 1993, producers Jeff Most and Ed Pressman bought the rights to the book and began their search for someone to act the part of Eric. They found Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee's son). He so effectively portrayed Eric that he almost seemed to be O'Barr's model. Close to completion of the film, Lee was accidentally killed on the set when a blank gun discharged debris which had accumulated in the gun. After much deliberation, it was decided to finish the movie. This created an interesting challenge for director Alex Proyas and to Dream Quest, the special effects company. Proyas and Dream Quest were able to digitally enhance, alter, and collage footage of Lee to create the scenes necessary for the completion of the narrative.
O'Barr is busy traveling to promote the book, the film, and to attend the opening of an exhibition of his works at the Bess Cutler gallery in NYC (where we conducted this hurried interview). At 34, his youthful face holds deep set eyes which belie a painful youth, an intense inner world, and jet lag. His mild manners, his generosity with his words and ideas, and his art, reflect his triumph over hardship.
Dike Blair: It took you about a decade to get The Crow realized. Was that frustrating?
James O'Barr: The Crow was something personal. I did it for myself--I didn't really care if it got published or not.
Dike Blair: The press release suggests a personal tragedy inspired The Crow. Do you talk about that?
James O'Barr: Basically, when I was 18, my fiancé was killed by a drunk driver. I was really hurt, frustrated, and angry. I thought that by putting some of this anger and hate down on paper that I could purge it from my system. But, in fact, all I was doing was intensifying it--I was focusing on all this negativity. As I worked on it, things just got worse and worse, darker and darker. So, it really didn't have the desired effect--I was probably more fucked up afterwards than before I started. It was only after becoming friends with Brandon, experiencing his death, and seeing the film--perhaps 17 times now--that I finally reached what is currently called "closure" while visiting his grave in Seattle.
Dike Blair: How did Brandon's death affect you.
James O'Barr: Yes. When Brandon died I had a very, very hard time. The feelings of guilt and responsibility were enormous. The similarities of his death and Eric's death in the book are so close that it almost lends itself to a supernatural interpretation. Brandon was killed filming the scene in which Eric is killed. In the film and book, this occurs on the eve of Eric's wedding. Brandon was going to get married after the film was finished, and the film was three days from completion. People were saying that it was destined to be--that it was fate.
Dike Blair: Let me say that I don't buy that.
James O'Barr: Neither do I. I think that it was just a million-to-one thing that could never happen again.
Dike Blair: Do you envy film making or does the economy of your medium make more sense?
James O'Barr: I never realized how much work went into films--the hours and hours of preparation. I sort of thought you just get all the actors together and turn the camera on. I used to think I would like to direct films but after watching everything that Alex Proyas did, I think it would be a long time before I ever got there. I would be talking to him, for say 15 minutes, and a dozen people would come up and ask him something, and his decision would end up on the screen. He had to know exactly what he wanted. After a month on the set I was more than content to go back to my drawing board. I can take out a reference book and draw a city on paper--I don't have to build a whole city. My actors can't give a bad performance.
Dike Blair: Let's talk about violence.
James O'Barr: My book has a lot more implied violence that what is actually shown. When people tell me it was too violent for them, I tell them to look through it again. Where they thought someone gets shot in the head all there is is a shadow on the wall. I could never come close to recreating the violence that's in the real world.
Dike Blair: Before Eric kills Funboy he says "the divine is no less paradoxical than the vicious." Allowing Funboy to OD on morphine seems a kinder execution than he deserved.
James O'Barr: Funboy is the one character in the book--they change that role to T Bird in the film--who recognizes his own evil. He recognizes what he is. He brings about his own redemption by admitting his sins to himself.
Dike Blair: Do you use notions of sin and redemption as an excuse for the depiction of violence?
James O'Barr: Eric is just as violent as the people he is killing. I think it was Bataille who said that "where love is concerned there are no boundaries between good and evil." Everything that Eric does is justified, but he is no better than the people he is killing, and he understands that.
Dike Blair: What are you working on now?
James O'Barr: The new book I'm doing is called Gothik. I showed the drawings to Ed Pressman and Jeff Most, who did The Crow, and they pretty much bought it on the spot. So, I'm working on the screenplay at the same time I'm doing the book. It looks like this might be a pretty big budget film--they're talking to Ridley Scott who I'd love to see do it. It deals with Detroit street gangs about 20 years in the future. I wanted to keep the poetry and lyricism that's in The Crow; so, I'm mixing poetry with a street language that is part Chinese, part Russian, and part American. My main character is a drug addict who nods outs and has mystical dreams in which he visits a cathedral where he has deep philosophical discussions with three gargoyles. He has to coax the gargoyles on by feeding them cats. It's pretty bizarre and pretty funny at the same time.
The Crow 1994, James O'Barr. Published by Kitchen Sink Press, Inc., 320 Riverside Drive, Northampton, MA 01060