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From the Beginning, 'The Crow' Had a Grim Side : Movies: James O'Barr's comic book might have adapted smoothly to the big screen, but it was spurred by personal tragedy.

May 30, 1994|ROBERT LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When James O'Barr started writing an arty black-and-white comic book called "The Crow" to help him deal with a personal tragedy, he never thought it would attract a wide audience--let alone be turned into a movie that looks like an early summer favorite.

And though mentions of comic books might bring to mind images of flamboyant super-heroics, O'Barr's story about a rock guitarist who rises from the dead to seek revenge on his and his fiancee's murderers gives the film a grim, gothic look.

The tale seems to have moved easily to celluloid because at times the comic book almost reads like a movie storyboard, with O'Barr using close-ups to show characters' emotions and background "shots" to highlight eerie tenement scenery.

"I used a very cinematic approach to begin with," says O'Barr, 34, on the phone from Detroit, where he lives with his wife, Mary. "I like Ridley Scott's stuff (and) the Coen brothers' films (because of their visual imagery). I wasn't looking at one film in particular."

Over the phone, O'Barr sounds like the sort of person who would write a dark, often melancholy, comic like "The Crow." In a low, barely audible voice, he chooses his words carefully and talks about how he was inspired by alternative rock bands such as Joy Division and the Cure as well as filmmakers and such comic book artists as Will Eisner.

O'Barr says he wrote the comic to help him deal with his girlfriend being killed by a drunk driver shortly before they both would have graduated from high school. He joined the Marines after he graduated, and he began work on "The Crow" while stationed in Berlin illustrating combat training manuals.

"It was just a way of getting (the grief) down on paper," says O'Barr, who had mostly been drawing barbarian comics for magazines like Heavy Metal. "I had never done anything that personal before."

O'Barr finished the first part of the comic in 1981, after he had left the Marines and returned to Detroit, the city where he had grown up in institutional homes and various foster-care arrangements. "I shopped it around (to publishers), but nobody was interested," he says, adding that he thought the story had little commercial appeal.

Unsure if he would ever sell it, O'Barr continued to write and draw "The Crow" while working at an auto body shop during the day. In late 1988, Caliber Press, a small Detroit-based comics company, started publishing the story, but temporary financial troubles forced it to table the project after putting out four issues. Tundra Publishing, a bigger company, then picked it up, reprinting the Caliber issues in two book-style graphic novels and putting out a third that completed the story in 1992.

While the comic was still being published by Caliber, science fiction novelist and screenwriter John Shirley approached O'Barr about turning it into a screenplay. O'Barr, who had been approached by others as well, thought Shirley would do the best job with his creation, and Shirley brought in producer Jeff Most, who optioned the film rights.

"Visually, (the imagery) is very much in keeping with the comic," says Shirley, who wrote several versions of the script and ended up sharing screenwriting credit with horror writer David J. Schow. Though characters and plot twists were added to the film to make it more action-oriented, the movie shares the comic's dark aesthetic, and one of the set designers visited O'Barr in Detroit to look at some of the neighborhoods he had drawn.

This reverence for his creation seems to have pleased O'Barr, who says he enjoyed the film and is especially gratified with the portrayal of main character Eric Draven by Brandon Lee, who died in an accident on the movie's set.

O'Barr sees "The Crow" as a completed story that had a definite ending, and he has moved on to other projects. He also co-writes lyrics and sometimes plays guitar in an industrial rock band, Trust/Obey, which is signed to Trent Reznor's (of Nine Inch Nails) Nothing label, and he's working on a new comics project, "Gothik," which has already been optioned by producer Most. "Gothik," which will be published by Dark Horse Comics starting early next year, is set in a "Blade Runner-type" future, according to O'Barr, who says the series will deal with "child abuse, substance abuse (and) the dark underside of Detroit."

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