After a certain amount of time has passed, it’s rarely a good idea for a writer or filmmaker to return to their signature creation. Just look at THE WICKER TREE, director Robin Hardy’s dismal sequel to his seminal ‘70s chiller THE WICKER MAN; SON OF ROSEMARY, novelist Ira Levin’s wretched follow-up to his classic ROSEMARY’S BABY; PROMETHEUS, Ridley Scott’s convoluted and nonsensical return to the ALIEN universe. The list goes on. There are exceptions, of course (DOCTOR SLEEP, Stephen King’s sequel to THE SHINING, has recently received rave reviews), but they’re few and far between. I’m happy to say that writer/artist extraordinaire James O’Barr is one of those rare exceptions. O’Barr is most famous for THE CROW, his lyrical and haunting meditation on life, death and violent revenge, published to global acclaim in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Working mostly underground since then, O’Barr has resurfaced as part of publisher IDW’s new range of CROW comics, aiming to expand the franchise. The first miniseries, DEATH & REBIRTH, from writer John Shirley and Kevin Colden, was a horrible misfire (read our scathing review here). The second, SKINNING THE WOLVES, which saw O’Barr take over as writer, was a revelation. Powerful, brutal and heartbreaking, we called it a ‘modern classic-in-the-making’ (click here for the review). O’Barr is back, this time teamed with French artist Antoine Dodé, with CURARE, the latest IDW miniseries and another master class in grown-up storytelling from one of the best and most underrated writers currently working in comics.
This is a rarity for a LaptopZombie review – I have so many positive things to say I don’t know where to start. Like its predecessor, SKINNING THE WOLVES, CURARE is a masterpiece (and that’s not a term I use lightly). O’Barr extracts the essential qualities of his CROW mythos – murder, the quest for justice, madness, pain – and takes them in an entirely new direction. In this case, an extended homage to that most storied to institutions, the TV cop show. His lead character, retired Detective Francis Salk, is such a dead ringer for TV’s Andy Sipowicz (played over twelve memorable seasons of NYPD BLUE by veteran character actor Dennis Franz) that it can’t be anything other than an homage. Groundbreaking though it may have been in its time, NYPD BLUE looks positively tame by today’s standards; the same can’t be said of CURARE. O’Barr mixes and matches his cop shows, creating a hybrid that’s greater than the sum of its parts, utilising Sipowicz’s depth of characterisation, the procedural-based twists and turns of AMC’s THE KILLING, and the extreme, adults-only content of HBO’s THE WIRE. The end result is a riveting crime drama, led by a deeply flawed, deeply sympathetic former detective, who is haunted by a harrowing mystery. In less adept hands the addition of the supernatural element might have seemed hokey or misplaced, but here it’s a perfect compliment.
As ever, O’Barr’s writing is lyrical, evocative and harsh. As an examination of the lead character, and the crime he’s attempting to solve, it’s unflinching. He doesn’t shy away from the most disturbing details of the murder (which involves a brutalised young girl), or the most unpleasant corners of Salk’s soul. O’Barr’s world is one of agony and injustice, where terrible things happen to innocent people, and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it. But his world balances; for every killer there’s a Crow. In this case it’s the ghost of the murdered girl, who retains her innocence and joie de vie without ever coming across as cloying or clichéd. Only at the very end does she reveal what a monster she, too, has become. In this age of decompressed storytelling (I’m looking at you, Brian Michael Bendis), O’Barr’s story is incredibly dense, covering a huge amount of ground, and frequently running to twelve panels per page. That it never feels cramped or cluttered is testament both to O’Barr’s skills as a storyteller and the formidable talents of his collaborator, Antoine Dodé.
At first glance Dodé’s cartoonish, distinctly European style may seem an odd choice for what amounts to an American crime/horror hybrid. If I had any reservations, they were dispelled after the first few pages. Dodé bucks the trend in American comics for photo-realistic art, approaching the story from an almost impressionistic angle. His art may be loose, even caricatured, but it’s wonderfully expressive – it’s clear from the silent scenes that the artist is a natural-born storyteller. What’s more, he’s able to infuse an already poignant tale with a pathos all his own (the scene where the teddy bear waits in vain for its owner’s return is heartbreaking), without resorting to saccharine sentiment. It’s a demanding and layered narrative, one which requires a lot more work than the average comic book, but he makes it look easy. His page layouts are superb, conveying reams of information in a clear and insightful manner, and his palate is striking, with different colours used to illuminate the story’s many different moods.
By definition, comic books are a throwaway medium. They rarely transcend their juvenile trappings and almost never achieve genuine profundity. Yet again, O’Barr is the exception. Markedly different to the original, his two recent Crow miniseries have been nothing short of exceptional. Harrowing, visceral and oddly uplifting, they’re comics storytelling at its finest, and prove that sometimes, just sometimes, the return of its creator is the best thing that can happen to a franchise.