In 1989, Caliber Presents #1 hit stands in a small print run. Little did James O’Barr know that it would launch his career as an illustrator and that it’s character, The Crow, would be continued entertainment in comics and movies more than 20 years later. With much more experience under his belt, O’Barr chats with me about the craft of making comics and the Crow.
Adam Messinger: What were your ambitions when you started working on the Crow?
James O’Barr: Initially, I just did it for myself. It was kind of therapy for me to get all that anger I had inside of me out on paper so I wouldn’t be so destructive in my real life.
Adam: After the movie launched, did you have any idea that it would take off like it did as a franchise?
James: No. Not at all. Actually, none of the studios were interested in it when it was finished. Pretty much everyone passed on it until finally Miramax picked it up on some kind of special deal where they got 60% of the money, I think. For a while there it looked like it wouldn’t even get released. I had no idea that it would have such a mass appeal. I thought it was a well-made film but I didn’t know if people would actually, ya know… [accept it]. Goth hadn’t made it into the mainstream, yet. I knew there was an audience out there but I didn’t know it would be that large.
Adam: You’ve had a mini-series in print for at least every 3 or 4 years. Did you think that franchising would take off in comics, too?
James: Those were series done by other people playing with The Crow concept. I only did one book. One graphic novel. That was pretty much all I had to say with it. It was a finished story. There was no room, or reasons, for sequels to have this character to come back.
Adam: If that’s all you had to say, then why let other people into your universe?
James: I thought it was interesting to see what other people would do with it. They couldn’t use my characters, the Eric and Shelly story. That was the golden rule. It seemed harmless. It didn’t affect my book at all.
Adam: Outside of the Crow, are there any other stories you feel you need to tell as an artist and a writer.
James: I’ve been working continuously. I didn’t publish anything for about 10 years. I have a big back log of stuff. I think the next year , year and a half, all that stuff will finally be released. I have a couple of volumes of prose stories, short stories, that I’ll do some illustrations for. I have a couple new comics I’ve been working on periodically that are about ready. I’ve stayed busy. Even when I wasn’t in the public’s eye, I was working.
Adam: There was a period of time when you were looking at doing Batman. With the new regime over at DC, is there any chance of revisiting that?
James: No. I’ve been trying to do Batman with them for 15 years. One editor will say yes, then they’ll have a complete editorial change. The new editor will come in and say “No! You can’t do that!”. It went back and forth, and back and forth for 15 years. I’d written a whole script, and done around 30 sample pages. Two, or maybe three, years ago we got to the signing the contract stage. Then DC had the brilliant idea, because they wanted to revamp Batman, that they should kill Bruce Wayne instead of revamp Batman. That was the final nail in the coffin. I said “I can’t invest anymore time or energy into this project.” Honestly, Batman was one of the few characters that I would be willing to contribute to that I didn’t own. I’ve never really done any work for hire stuff. If I don’t own it, I’m just not interested in it. It takes too much energy for me to invest in something like that since I do everything myself. I write it, pencil it, ink it, and letter it. If I can’t have some kind of personal investment in it, then I’m just not interested. Comics, especially established comic characters, are so set in this ridged structure to where they cannot change. To me that’s the whole point of the story. It’s about the journey from point A to point B, and there needs to be some kind of change or else the journey is fruitless. I’ve got no interest in working for Marvel or DC.
Adam: Is there any comics you are reading right now that have impacted your current work?
James: I don’t really read a lot of comics anymore. I’ll follow certain artists, but I don’t follow storylines. It seems to me that if you’re 50 years old and you’re still reading comics for something other than nostalgic reasons, there is something wrong. They’re geared towards 16 to maybe 25 year olds. They don’t really have anything to offer me anymore. There are certain artists that I will follow because I like their work. I like how they tell a story. I’ve not read a comic in ages that’s had any relevance to my life at all. I’m not into escapism, really. I’ll read a book or watch a film if I want to escape for a couple hours.
Adam: Does that pose a challenge to you, as an artist, to create comics that relate to guys your age and that demographic?
James: I don’t really think of any kind of demographic. I do these for myself. I don’t think I’m all that different from the general public. I think if it appeals to me, it’s going to appeal to other people. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about an audience when I was working on something. It was a personal challenge for me to tell the story. I think with anything, if it’s well done and well illustrated then it’ll find an audience. No, I’m not specifically writing things geared towards 50 year olds. It’s just the kind of genres and things that I’m attracted to. Anything I do is going to be dark and violent and romantic, just because that’s me. I don’t know any other way to do it. It’s what I do best. You wouldn’t ask Jimmy Hendrix to play the piano. I still think I’ve got a lot of valid things to say. I’ve definitely grown as an artist and a writer in the last 20 years. I think I’m probably doing the best work of my life right now. If I can think of it now, I can draw it. It’s not a struggle anymore. I’ve really studied the craft. I think I’ve got a pretty good understanding of it now.
Adam: Has there been anything that you’ve written that you’ve wanted other people to draw?
James: No, not necessarily. I mean, I have written things for other people to draw, but I’ve got a very singular, specific vision. When I’ve written stuff for other people, I’ve done pretty tight layouts for them to work from. Most of the time, it’s just easier for me to do it than to explain it to somebody else. There have been a few examples where I’ve written a three page short story, someone illustrated it for a magazine or something, and they did great things with it that I wouldn’t have thought of. In comics that would be like me stepping away from being the director and becoming the producer. I’ve just got no interest it that. I just don’t play well with others.
Adam: In your comics, there is a lot of musical reference to New Order, the Cure, and other bands. Have any of those guys got in contact with you?
James: Almost all those bands are friends of mine. That’s how all the bands got on the soundtrack. I’d meet them when they came through Detroit. I wrote for a local newspaper. Every city has a free, weekly, local newspaper and I wrote for one in Detroit. I would review their records, interview when they came to town, and then give them comics to read on the tour bus. I was in bands and I know how boring it is on the road. 12 hours in a van driving through Wisconsin, I know how boring that is. I’d give them my books to read while on tour and they all became fans of it. It’s amazing that everyone I asked to contribute a song to the [Crow] soundtrack came through. I think I asked 30 different bands to do things and every one of them came through with a song. That definitely made me feel good to where it validated what I was doing.
A big thanks to James O’Barr for taking time to talk and for the images! Thank you for reading, and come back for next week’s Pro Logs as I chat with X-Men and Witchblade artist, Mike Choi! – Adam