BOOK REVIEW: “The Crow” by James O’Barr

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

The Crow by James O’Barr is a stark black-and-white graphic novel you can’t talk about without mentioning the author’s motives behind writing it. Although the story may be fictional, the soul of the book is painfully real and any proper discussion of the novel has to marry the reality with the fantasy.

James O’Barr grew up like many of us. He was an awkward outcast. Solitary. A loner. Isolated.

When he was in high school, a miracle happened. He met a girl. Not just any girl, but a beautiful, amazing girl who fell in love with him. Beverly Ann.

Beverly was his angel. A radiant princess who was out of his league. The kind of girl he wouldn’t expect to notice he was alive and she picked him. She fell in love with him. At last, the universe had given him hope. Light. At last, the darkness was dispelled.

But of course, as those who are born into shadow know only too well, the universe can be cruel. Brutal. Merciless. Sometimes the light is only made brighter so the shadows can become darker. We are merely the fool jesters of a mad god king.

In 1978, James O’Barr’s fiancée was murdered by a drunk driver.

Those of you who have never experienced the pain of such a loss can’t imagine the silence of hate. Losing the only thing that matters to you doesn’t fill you with sadness. It fills you with a fury no word has been invented to describe. An anger that can extinguish the sun.

The Crow was James O’Barr’s catharsis. This book was his way of surviving and coping with a hurt that no one could ever hope to cope with. He has said himself, in many interviews, that creating the comic was no help. In fact, drawing each page seemed to be dragging him deeper into the darkness he was trying to escape.

He has encapsulated rage and sorrow and gingerly inserted them into the pages like a timebomb. There they sit. Entombed in coffin quiet. Awaiting you to ignite the charge.

The Crow tells the story of Eric Draven and his fiancée Shelly Webster. Both of them are senselessly murdered in a horrible act of random violence. For those of you who saw the 1994 movie with Brandon Lee in the eponymous role, that was an important plot point which was needlessly altered. In the movie, the couple is killed for defying eviction orders masterminded by a gang leader. Although the motive was not justified, there was a motive. In the book, there’s no motive at all. Fate. Destiny. The wrong place at the wrong time. Such a key point makes the book that much more tragic.

The beauty of the Crow is that it applies to the lives of everyone. One day, one horrible, unforgettable day, we all experience the anguish of those we love being stolen from us.

The way we lose them doesn’t matter. Illness. Accidents. Murders. Suicides. In the end, the only thing that matters is the fact that they are gone. That your life turns empty for the loss. That a light was extinguished too soon.

When you live that moment yourself, when that terrible day arrives, a book like The Crow will become the requiem of all the heartache you can’t put into words.

Every line. Every image. The abyss in every drop of ink will become your voice when you no longer have the strength to speak.

There are books in this world that are not about plots or stories. Instead, they stand as testaments and masterpieces to articulate feelings you can’t possibly express. The Crow is a master work of raw and unrefined emotion, giving a tangible form to the unmitigated rage of mourning.

My own life has a lot of strange connections to the Crow. In 1993, I was a stand-in for Jeff Imada on the film Double Dragon. Jeff had been the stunt coordinator of The Crow motion picture starring Brandon Lee as Eric Draven. Marc Dacascos, also a cast member of Double Dragon, went on to play Eric Draven in The Crow television series.

While writing my first novel, Michelle, the first girl to ever claim she loved me, committed suicide. Less than a year later, I discovered The Crow. Shelly. Michelle. Eric Draven and Eric Muss-Barnes. We were not so different from each other. Sometimes, on bad days, it could be difficult to remember which one of us was real and which one of us was fiction. Which one of us didn’t exist? Exist is a nebulous term, is it not?

20 years later and sometimes it’s still hard to tell.

This isn’t a book review like you were expecting but The Crow isn’t merely a book. The Crow is quite literally the personification of bereavement. Lamentation given a tangible form.

The Crow will be a story you can relate to like no other. Someday. If you haven’t lived through the torture of losing someone you love, it will happen. Next year. Next decade. Twenty years from now. But sooner or later, that day shall arrive for you, as it arrives for all of us.

On that day, Eric Draven will become your dark angel too. Your pain will be the razors he carves into his skin. Your heartbreak will reflect back into your eyes through the black wings of The Crow.

On that fateful, fateful day…

The Crow won’t be a book.

The Crow won’t be a story.

The Crow will be your salvation.

And sometimes, just sometimes, The Crow can bring your soul back, to put the wrong things right.