Story Title: “Inertia”, “Pain”, “Fear”, “Irony”, and “Despair”
Published: January 1989; February 1989 to May 1989
Writer/Artist: James O’Barr (as “J. O’Barr”)
The Crow began life as a comic book published by Caliber Comics in 1989, with the title character’s first appearance being a short prequel tale, “Inertia”, which was published in Caliber Presents #1 (January 1989). The comic book was the creation of writer and artist James O’Barr as a way of coping with the pain and loss he felt after losing his fiancée to a drunk driver. Although it took O’Barr nearly ten years to find a publisher, The Crow became an underground success thanks to its bleak tone, striking black and white artistic style, and emotional narrative. Wildly regarded as one of the most unique and poignant tales in the industry, the comic book achieved even greater mainstream success with the release of a suitably bleak 1994 feature film adaptation. Although The Crow (Proyas, 1994) was a cult hit, its sequels were disappointingly lacklustre; nevertheless, the original comic remains a highly regarded masterpiece and was succeeded by a number of spin-offs and subsequent stories.
I first became aware of The Crow in very much the same way as I’m sure a lot of people did: by watching the first movie, which immediately captivated me and made me curious enough to seek out the original comic book. The story begins in the grimy, dangerous streets of Detroit, where gangs and crime and vice run rampant; the first thing we see is small-time thug Jones Transfer, a muscle-bound skinhead desperate for a fix of cocaine and having just swiped a Toshiba cassette player. His exhilaration turns to horror, and then anger, when a large, shadowy figure draped in a long black trench coat and with a face painted into the image of irony (a perpetually smiling clown-like face that is decidedly at odds with his generally more stoic and column appearance). Completely unfazed by Jones’s switchblade, even after it’s stabbed into his shoulder, the clown-faced mystery man demands to know the whereabouts of another local thug, T-Bird, and his cronies (Tom Tom, Top Dollar, Fun Boy, and Tin Tin). Jones is terrified to see the ghostly figure remove the switchblade, lap blood from the blade, and reveal that he tortured Jones’s friend and associate, Shelby the Giant, by clipping off his fingers one by one until he gave up everything he knew. Convinced, and desperate to save his own miserable life, Jones reveals that where each of the ghost-man’s targets can be found throughout the city, and is left alive to tell the thugs that he (as in, the painted-up vigilante) is coming for them.
When the story proper begins, both the art and the presentation has shifted somewhat; text boxes allow us into the mind of the ghost-faced vigilante, now identified as “The Crow”, who stalks through the murky city streets and broods in an abandoned house outside of the city, constantly reliving the memory of a girl being attacked, though he cannot remember the exact specifics. All he can think about are the names of those responsible, and we transition over to find one of them Tin Tin, testing out a gun on a hapless pedestrian. He guns down the seller, and the little punk who arranged the sale, caring only about sending a message to Top Dollar’s would-be competition and little for the innocent woman’s cat, Gabriel, who would be left homeless as a result of his actions. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long for Tin Tin to pay for his reprehensible nature as the Crow immediately confronts him down a dark alley; showing no fear and completely no-selling an errant shot to the head, the Crow downs Tin Tim with a bullet to the wrist and, after bombarding Tin Tin with nonsensical religious statements, triggers his victims memory by detailing his part in attacked a man and a girl on a cold October night. Although Tin Tin begs for his life, pinning the blame entirely on T-Bird and the drugs they were on, the Crow, wracked with fragmented memories of happier times, shows no mercy and blows the asshole’s head clean off.
The Crow ties a shotgun shell into his hair to indicate that the first of his victims has fallen, and Tin Tin’s death causes some concern amongst his shit-kicking associates; Top Dollar, the self-styled head honcho of the neighbourhood, is unconcerned, however. He doesn’t give two shits what the street punks think about it, or that Tin Tin got killed, and vehemently asserts that he owns the dope, the neighbourhood, and that “[his] word is the law!” Top Dollar is quickly convinced to give a shit, however, when the Crow gate-crashes the meeting and guns down everyone there. Some of the punks are sporting bulletproof vests, but the Crow is as unfazed by this as he is by their wild bullets, which strike him and draw blood but do not drop him, and simply executes them with a shot to the head while preaching a sermon on their evil ways. In the end, only Top Dollar is left; he attempts to barter for his life with money and drugs, but the Crow ignores him and simply stoically tells his story of a man, a woman, and a 1971 Plymouth on a rainy night. the second Top Dollar admits to remembering what the Crow is talking about amidst his angered ranting, the Crow executes him with two shots to the head. That’s right, in the original comic book, the Crow went pretty much directly to the top of the pecking order and then worked his way down, rather than working his way up the chain of command in the gang responsible for his suffering, showing him to be slightly more efficient and direct than his filmic counterpart.
Those that were concerned about Gabriel’s welfare can rejoice as the Crow takes the fluffy white cat in brings her (Gabriel is initially thought to be a boy but is later revealed to be a girl, and pregnant to boot) back to their old home, where he presents the cat as a gift to his lost love. This triggers a cute flashback to when the fresh-faced, unscarred and far less tortured Crow (then known as Eric) proposed to his beautiful girlfriend Shelly, during a playful bout of painting their home. Later, as Christmas closes in, Gabriel triggers another memory of when Eric surprised Shelly with the news that he had secured the house for them, leading to the Crow lamenting that the cat “[makes him] smile too much”. The Crow then arms himself with a samurai sword and heads out to confront Tom Tom, beheading his punk-ass friend Skank before taunting the gun-toting thug with the iconic gag about Jesus Christ being “put up for the night” at a hotel. Shrouded in darkness, Tom Tom has no chance to land a shot quickly has his legs literally taken out from under him with one swipe of the Crow’s sword. Bleeding out, and suffering from shock, Tom Tom seems mildly repentant for his part in Eric and Shelly’s murder and tells the Crow where he can find Shelly’s engagement ring. This leads the Crow to Gideon Resale, a pawn shop in a seedier part of town, where he calmly confronts the grouchy owner, stabbing him through the hand and forcing him to hand over a box full of rings. After locating Shelly’s ring and taking it for himself, the Crow executes Gideon, loads himself up with armaments from his shop, and sets it ablaze using a makeshift kerosene bomb. Young police officer Albrect attempts to interrupt the Crow, but is suitably intimidated by the vigilante’s stoic demeanour and conviction, bringing the Crow to the attention of the police for the first time. Based on Albrect’s description of the Crow, Sergeant Hook figures out that he’s Eric returned from the grave pretty much right away since, as we later find out, he visited Eric in hospital after he was attacked and offered his condolences. Hook was shocked when Eric utters his dying words: “The crow said don’t look!!” and is later less than impressed to find that the Crow has left him the pregnant, flea-ridden Gabriel to look after.
On his way to confront Fun Boy, Crow comes across a young girl, Sherri, whose mother is one of the punk’s concubines. Feeling a connection with the girl’s innocence, the Crow gifts her with Shelly’s engagement ring, much to the girl’s emotional appreciation, and promises to return her mother to her. Later, before bringing his vengeance to an end, the Crow bids a heartfelt farewell to Sherri and promises her that things in her life will one day get better, or at the very least she will find serenity in the afterlife. Barging in on Fun Boy and Sherri’s mother in bed, the Crow demands that she leave and compels her to do better by her daughter with the memorable “Mother is the name for God” line, before getting into it with Fun Boy. Unlike his film counterpart, who was a wacked out junkie, the comic book Fun Boy is far more defiant and integral to the plot; he talks snark to the Crow and agrees to gather the rest of the gang together in a bar for a big gun fight. After intimidating the hugs with his loquaciousness, the Crow dispatches them in a blood-soaked battle that sees him burying an axe in one guy’s neck and gunning them all down with two pistols without missing a single shot, all while shrugging off any bullets that happen to hit or graze him until only Fun Boy is left. Unlike his associates, he doesn’t beg or plead or even repent for his actions; instead, he owns his reprehensible actions and even admits to perpetrating even worse acts against his fellow man. Tired of all the killing and vengeance, the Crow demands that Fun Boy go and get T-Bird so that they can finish this where it all started, at the side of a road outside of town where Eric and Shelly were tortured and killed. In return for Fun Boy’s assistance, the Crow promises him a quick, clean death, but makes no such promises for T-Bird, the man who pulled the trigger on himself and his lover.
After following the Crow’s vicious and bloody path of vengeance throughout the story and being treated to brief flashbacks and memories of Eric and Shelly’s lives together, the final chapter shows us exactly what happened to the two on that fateful night. After proposing to Shelly, Eric takes her on a night out to celebrate but, on their way home, their car suddenly breaks down. As Eric is attempting to fix it, T-Bird and his cronies, completely off their heads on cocaine, alcohol, and other drugs, randomly happen to drive past them and, spotting Shelly, decide to circle back and harass them. Eric has Shelly lock herself in the car and attempts to reason with the gang and, for his efforts, is violently shot in the bac of the head by T-Bird. The bullet blows part of his skull off (giving him the scar over his nose and the one glazed over eye we’ve seen him sport throughout the book as the Crow) but doesn’t actually kill him. Even when T-Bird follows this up with a second, direct shot that briefly sets Eric’s hair on fire, Eric still doesn’t die; instead, he’s left helpless and paralysed on the cold, wet road and forced to watch as Shelly is beaten and raped by the gang before being killed by T-Bird. As Eric lies there, mortally wounded and barely clinging to life, he is berated by a vision of the crow, who begs him not to look and urges him to give up the mortal coil so that he can have his revenge.
After burning his house down and leaving Albrect a note to look after Sherri, the Crow heads to the final showdown at a dilapidated house in the city after Fun Boy was unable to convince T-Bird and the others of the Crow’s threat. Still, the Crow remains true to his word and allows the junkie to kill himself with a lethal dose of morphine, before pumping a dose of the drug directly into his heart, killing a number of T-Bird’s cronies (with the exception of Two-Tone, whom he allows to live), and finally confronting T-Bird himself by stowing away in the back seat of his car. The Crow endures a bombardment of bullets from T-Bird’s gang before brutalising them with his superior strength and turning their weapons against each other, butchering them all in violent fashion and even walking away from a bullet shot through his neck at point-blank range. Terrified by the Crow’s manic violence, T-Bird races away in his blood-soaked and ends up crashing at the exact location where he killed Eric and Shelly; suffering from two broken legs, T-Bird remains defiant to the end and the comic cuts away as the Crow approaches his helpless foe with nothing more than a hammer in hand. The story ends with the Crow resting at a cemetery, having succeeded in avenging himself and his lover, and allowing himself to be spirited back to the afterlife by memories of himself and Shelly as the crow lies overhead.
Each chapter of the story is preceded by a quotation or a short poem that sets up the theme of the chapter, and the entire book, be it “Pain” or “Night”. Flashbacks to Eric’s journey to the afterlife, or his far happier life, are rendered in a far different visual style; these are beautiful, soft paintings rather than harsh pen strokes of black and white and, from the very first interlude, set the tragic tone for the entire story. “Shattered in the Head” appears to show Eric in a dream-like memory of riding a train but is, in actuality, a representation of his journey to the afterlife; he sees a beautiful white horse get tangled up in barbed wire, suffering in agony as it bleeds to death, which is an obvious parallel to how Shelly died. Just like in that instance, Eric was helpless to do anything to help and powerless to do anything but look on in horror, something which the Crow admonishes him for as the skeletal train conductor as for his ticket (an obvious representation of the Grim Reaper or, more specifically, Charon, with the train being an interpretation of the ferry he uses to take souls to the realm of the dead). Another interlude shows the Crow performing Kata-like dances while brooding over pictures of his former life and being tormented by memories of Shelly’s dead; we also see that the Crow regularly engages in self-harm, cutting and scarring his arms and wrapping them up in black tape in an attempt to either commit suicide and return to his love or feel something, anything, other than his eternal emotional torment.
Unlike in the film, only Eric can see the crow; it advises him here and there throughout his mission but noticeably disappears between panels, indicating that it’s much more of a supernatural entity. It also has far less play then in the film; there, it was a mysterious guide and commonly seen at Eric’s side but, here, it appears sporadically and directly communicates with him, chastising him for constantly tormenting himself with memories of his past and distracting himself from his vengeance. In one of the interludes, the Crow chastises Eric for losing himself to the throes of passion with Shelly in what appears to be the closest representation of his paradise, before the conductor (now dressed as a Skull Cowboy) violently shoots Shelly in the head and forces him out of his heaven. In another, the crow scolds Eric for juicing up on Fun Boy’s drugs and reliving sexual memories of him and Sherry; while the crow is overly blunt and direct, it’s clear that it cares about Eric, his feelings, and his need for revenge and just wants to keep Eric on track rather than constantly dwelling on the past. After Eric is shot and left for dead, the crow immediately appears before him and its first advice is to turn away from the horrors being performed by his killers; it tries to comfort him by telling him that it wasn’t his fault and then chastises him for clinging to life, eager to give Eric the power to avenge himself on his killers.
The Crow’s mission is fuelled by rage and a lingering sense for brutal justice; there’s very little “heroic” about the Crow in that he’s acting solely to appease his need for vengeance rather than for the benefit of others. However, he remains a tortured and vulnerable character; he has no desire to hurt Albrect or those who aren’t on his list and shows a great deal of love for Sherri. At the heart of his motivation is, of course, Shelly; he curses a God who would allow someone as beautiful and innocent as Shelly to be molested and murdered in such a violent fashion, and who would allow him to suffer so badly by association, and regards the scum he guns down and brutalises as being little more than vermin deserving of punishment. Eloquent and largely impassive, the Crow is prone to bouts of intense rage and emotion when avenging himself; thanks to being undead, he has nothing to fear and willingly walks into gunfire and knives without hesitation. Although the comic doesn’t actually go into detail in explaining exactly what Eric has become, how he was resurrected, or the extent of his powers, it’s largely inconsequential to the story; all you need to know is that he is retribution personified on what he sees as a Holy mission to purge the city of undesirable sinners. The Crow remains a powerful, intense, and brutal tale of revenge and love; it’s far from a traditional comic book story and is more akin to a Gothic mediation on loss and chaotic emotion, and is bolstered by some great use of shadows and pen work. The black-and-white art style makes the story as beautiful as it is violent and it remains a passionate, tragic story to this day; it’s made even more enjoyable for fans of the movie as the film directly lifted entire scenes and dialogue from the original comics and perfectly captured, and expanded upon, the atmosphere of this dark, gritty story that I would definitely recommend everyone check out.
Have you ever read The Crow? What did you think to the story, artwork, and the narrative structure? How did you feel about Eric and Shelly’s plight, their love story, and their deaths as the motivation for the Crow’s mission? What did you think to the Crow; did his loquacious nature annoy you or did you find him intimidating and compelling, and do you think he was overpowered? Were you a fan of the interludes, poetry, and symbolism employed throughout the comic? Which of The Crow’s follow-ups was your favourite and how were you introduced to the franchise? How are you celebrating Devil’s Night tonight? Whatever you think about The Crow, leave a comment on my social media or sign up to reply down below.