Just a few minutes after 4 p.m. a thin man in an orange shirt and baseball cap wandered into a room of roughly 50 fans. Panning from one side of the room to the other on his way to the panel stage, he asked "Are you all here to see me?
The man was James O'Barr, the 49-year-old creator of "The Crow," a black and white comic book series originally published in 1989, followed by a film starring the late Brandon Lee in 1994. Despite numerous sequels and a television series adapted from the film, the franchise has been surrounded by as much tragedy as success, with the comic book originally created by O'Barr to deal with the loss of his fiancé who was killed by a drunk driver, and Brandon Lee dying in a bizarre shooting accident while filming "The Crow."
The panel, moderated by Wizard's Stephen Wettstein, focused on O'Barr's career in comics and the life experiences that shaped his work, which include several years in the military and many decades working on cars.
To begin, O'Barr was asked about his upcoming comic book projects. "I've been working on this gothic western. It's called ‘Sundown in Hell.’ Yes, I still have a fetish for Joan Jett 30 years later. And there's this series called 'The Ride.' It follows the life of this '67 Camaro," said O'Barr, noting his affection for the vehicle after owning several and working on cars for three decades.
O'Barr mentioned that "Sundown In Hell" will be a 300-page fully-painted project, while "The Ride" will run between 90-100 pages. The projects have been announced for some time, and O'Barr acknowledged have taken him awhile. "It takes me a little longer [to finish a comic], but to me it's worth it to have complete control and not have to compromise on anything."
Next, O'Barr was asked about his favorite contemporary comic books. The creator singled out Brian Azzarello's titles as well as Garth Ennis' work on "The Punisher," a character he says he hated enough to make Ennis' run a "guilty pleasure." O'Barr also joked that he liked Frank Miller's work despite what he did to "The Spirit.”
O'Barr's private lifestyle has produced many rumors over the years, prompting one fan to ask him what the strangest rumor he's ever heard about himself was. "That I'm a prick," said O'Barr to a laughing room. "Actually, I'm really shy. I'm not reclusive. Who wrote that? This is my fifteenth show this year, so I'm not reclusive."
O'Barr acknowledged that he didn't always operate in the promotional context that many comic creators do at conventions, since he feels guilty about charging his fans a lot of money for something he wants to share, which can make him seem introverted. "I'm actually a swell guy and I'm pretty well-adjusted now. It took me a long time to get happy," said O'Barr.
The next fan asked O'Barr about the money he made from "The Crow" movie and why he decided to donate the majority of it to charity. O'Barr said that while he did buy his mom a car and himself a Sony home surround sound system, he gave the rest to charity, although he doesn't like to take credit for it. "I was really good friends with Brandon so it just felt like blood money to me. So I didn't want to profit at his expense. And I kept that secret for as long as I could. It's not charity if you get credit for it," said O'Barr.
The next fan asked O'Barr if he ever considered how successful "The Crow" would turn out when he was creating it. O'Barr said that he thought it was crazy when Caliber said they were going to print 5,000 copies of the first issue, and while the series didn’t take off right away due to its obscure music references and non-linear storytelling, “The Crow” went on to sell more than 876,000 copies, which O'Barr said made it the best-selling independent graphic novel of all time.
As for O'Barr's sequential storytelling inspirations, the creator credited Will Eisner for showcasing storytelling techniques that he would use later in his own work. He acknowledged that while his initial impression of "The Spirit" wasn't as positive, O’Barr learned to look past the comics' time period, ethnic stereotypes and other shortcomings to see the work for what it really way – eventually even befriending Eisner, which he considered a huge honor.
"I did get to be friends with Will after [‘The Crow’] film came out and one of the very first panels of the crow there's a building that says 'Eisner Glass' on it," said O'Barr, who later had the sign reproduced for inclusion in the film, which he took a photo next to and sent to Eisner. Eisner was flattered, which O'barr said was a personal payoff.
The next question came from a fan interested in The Crow's signature makeup, which many attributed to Alice Cooper or Kiss' style. O'Barr dismissed those assumptions, citing a theater in London he had seen while in the military that painted with images of theater marionette masks as the true inspiration for The Crow's appearance. "I thought it'd be interesting to have this painful face with a smile forcibly drawn on," said O'Barr.
With music being a recognizable aspect of O'Barr's work, the next fan asked about references to The Cure within the pages of "The Crow." O'Barr discussed his discovery of many of the bands that would come to embody the early goth trend in rock music, seeing and hearing bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, Joy Division and others while serving in the military in Berlin between 1979 and 1980, before they became contemporary.
O'Barr transitioned into explaining how his military career came about. After the death of his fiancé, he knew he had to leave his hometown of Detroit and wanted to have someone telling him what to do and work him hard to keep his mind off of his feelings. "I wanted to get as far away from Detroit as possible. So I went to Berlin. And it didn't take awhile before I had realized I had made a terrible mistake," said O'Barr.
The mistake came when the military found out that O'Barr could draw and enlisted his aid in illustrating extremely graphic military manuals instructing soldiers on what to do with corpses, how to fight hand-to-hand and other intense subjects, which he found incredibly draining. "Think god Amsterdam was so close. Not everything is legal, but everything is permitted so long as you're not hurting anyone," said O'Barr.
O'Barr explained that while he'd love to have "The Crow" reprinted in a new hardcover that contains unpublished material and painted commissions he's done of the character, the publisher had logistical reasons to wait. However, it could still happen soon since the series turns 20 this year.
Given many of the dark themes expressed by Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight," one fan wanted to see if O'Barr had seen a little of his own creation in the character. "I thought [Ledger] stole the whole movie. Every time the camera wasn't on him I wanted it to go back," said O'Barr. "I think everyone knows it was an homage to The Crow. Not that I felt stolen from or anything like that. I thought he did a phenomenal job. I'm flattered, I'm flattered."
The next fan inquired about O’Barr’s favorite novels. He listed “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” as two of his favorite books but focused on Cormac McCarthy as one of his favorite authors, specifically "Blood Meridian," a book he described as really disturbing.
One fan wanted to know what O'Barr thought of the live-action "The Crow" television series. O'Barr said that he didn’t have anything to do with the series or any of the films' sequels and that he actively discouraged those trying to make sequels. He was proud of the first film’s success and working with a relatively small budget to produce a commercial hit. His fear was that sequels would take something away from Lee, but now he said he tries to watch the sequels and can't get through the first ten minutes of them, even though he thinks the second actor to portray The Crow, Vincent Perez, was a really sweet guy.
To help explain his relative frustration with Hollywood, O'Barr recounted a story from one of his first interactions with a movie studio. Apparently, he sat down in a meeting where the goal was a Crow musical starring Michael Jackson. The misunderstanding between executives seeking profit and an artists' vision didn't do anything to assuage O'Barr's self-proclaimed limited ability to work with others.
"That book was one last love letter to my fiancé, whose engagement ring I still wear 30 years later. It had a definite ending. It was never meant to be a franchise. I couldn't see it as that. I did offer to write them a 'Crow 2' thing just because I wanted to take it into a different direction. The story ending up being a script about a woman who is killed at her own wedding and returns to take revenge – it was called ‘The Bride,’ much like another very famous series of films that came a decade later.”
O'Barr noted that great minds think alike, but criticized Hollywood for screwing up a lot of great source material, including Alan Moore's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
With O'Barr's experiences in mind, a fan asked if the first film was what the creator wanted it to be. O'Barr noted that the development took a long time and caused many creative headaches, but credited director Alex Proyas and Brandon Lee for getting the movie as close as it was to his vision. Some specific issues that differed from the comic book were a more supernatural and literal crow character that had a connection with the film's protagonist that allowed them to share pain. O'Barr said he didn't think "The Crow" should have such an Achilles' heel.
"There were certain things I would have done differently and I would have changed, but overall, I was pretty happy," said O'Barr of the first "Crow" film.
O'Barr also noted the unreleased footage from the first cut of the film, which contained about 11 minutes of scenes starring Brandon Lee. "I hope one day it gets released. [Lee] choreographed all those fight scenes himself. He worked really hard on that film and he was really proud of it," said O'Barr.
Next, a fan asked O'Barr if he had pursued Hollywood, or if Hollywood had pursued his work. He recounted his initial interaction with skepticism, especially after discussing the property with the studio. "It was like they had no idea what [‘The Crow’] was and they were thinking 'action movie.' And I thought 'this will never get made,'" said O'Barr, who pointed out that it seemed like free money to option the film since he never thought it would come to fruition.
The final question of the panel addressed the poetry within the latest editions of "The Crow" trade paperback. A fan wanted to know which of the poems was O'Barr's favorite and why. Without hesitating O'Barr named Arthur Rimbaud's “Ordinary Nocturne,” crediting its brutally honest tone.
O'Barr also noted that Iggy Pop was originally supposed to play the villain Fun Boy in the first Crow film. A scheduling conflict kept him from participating in the film, but O'Barr was happy that the two eventually became friends. "It's great when you finally meet your heroes and they don't turn out to be idiots, which does happen quite a bit," said O'Barr. Pop went on to appear in the sequel, “The Crow: City of Angels.”
As the panel closed, O'Barr thanked the fans that had gathered to discuss "The Crow," letting them know he'd be at his table in Artist Alley if they wanted to talk. "Guess I'll see you guys back there, or around. I'm gonna go smoke first," said O'Barr.