If you’re of a certain age and a certain sensibility, chances are THE CROW – both the comic and the subsequent film adaptation – will hold a special place in your heart. Born of tragedy (writer/artist James O’Barr created the series as a means of dealing with the death of his girlfriend at the hands of a drunk driver), THE CROW comic book was originally published to universal acclaim by Calibre Comics (home of the first incarnation of DEADWORLD) in 1989. The series soon outgrew its small press, indie roots, and found a wider audience and an expanded format with Kitchen Sink Press. Encompassing a variety of different styles, from basic, scratchy pen and ink to lush fully painted artwork, and incorporating verse and contemporary song lyrics (Joy Division feature heavily), the series is a rich, lyrical exploration of loss and revenge, both tender and excessively violent, uplifting and melancholy. It’s as close to visual poetry as comics get, and is as beautiful as it is visceral. Unsurprisingly, given its gothic counterculture aesthetic and painfully lingering examination of the romance of grief and death, it quickly became a cult classic. Its macabre reputation was only enhanced by Alex Proyas’ 1994 live action adaptation, which, much like Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT a few years ago, became intimately associated with the death of its star. Brandon Lee, son of Bruce, only twenty eight, died from injuries sustained during filming, adding to the macabre mystique surrounding O’Barr’s creation. Along with various covers and short stories in the nineties, and GOTHIK, a bizarre and short-lived post-apocalyptic thriller, relatively little has been heard from the writer/artist since, although he’s been working on a long-awaited epic graphic novel, SUNDOWN, for many years. THE CROW film franchise has been more visible, spawning three sequels and a short-lived TV show (all of them abysmal). Similarly, the comic book iteration of THE CROW has made sporadic reappearances, none of them particularly memorable. According to IDW Publishing that’s about to change. Over the last decade IDW have gained a well-deserved reputation for snapping up popular but under-exploited properties and turning them into high-profile ongoing comic book series (TRUE BLOOD, DOCTOR WHO, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES). One of their most recent acquisitions is THE CROW, and the first series (subtitled DEATH & REBIRTH), a five-parter written by novelist and CROW screenwriter John Shirley, and illustrated by American artist Kevin Colden, recently concluded.
Jamie Osterberg, an American student studying in Tokyo, is in love with Yumi, a young woman who works for the Biotrope Corporation, a company which specialises in cybernetic biology. When the elderly CEOs of the Corporation decide to use their radical new technology to transplant their minds into youthful bodies, Yumi is chosen as one of their victims. The procedure is a success, and ‘Yumi’ cuts all ties with her former life. When Jamie investigates he is killed by the Corporation, but is soon reborn as the vengeful supernatural entity known as the Crow...
The first thing to say about DEATH & REBIRTH is that it has precious little to do with O’Barr’s original. The concept is the same – a murdered man comes back from the dead to avenge the crimes perpetrated against him and his lover – but in every other way it’s a totally different beast. Different doesn’t always mean worse, of course, but in this instance that’s very much the case. Shirley is a prolific and celebrated author, with over thirty novels to his name; I’ve never read any, but I can only assume he’s better suited to prose than comics. His story manages to be both dull and convoluted, a meandering tale of revenge that pads out its slender premise with a series of unnecessary and confusing digressions. His dialogue is simply awful, full of awkward sentence structures, tortured syntax and baffling non sequiturs, and he introduced outlandish sci-fi and fantasy elements (a mind-transfer machine, a witch trapped in a basket) without bothering to explain where they came from or how they fit into the wider narrative context. They’re painfully obvious MacGuffins, indicative of DEATH & REBIRTH’s shoddy scripting. The Crow himself isn’t a patch on O’Barr’s Eric Draven – he’s given to the odd faux-poetical musing, but essentially he’s just another indestructible superhero out to vanquish the bad guys. There’s no sense of the despair and hopelessness, the emotional black hole, at the centre of Draven’s character and around which all the other elements orbit. What we’re left with is a straightforward revenge story mildly spiced up by the overplayed supernatural elements (do we really need to see the Crow journey to hell to rescue his lost love – in O’Barr’s version life itself is hell).
Scratchy, atmospheric and idiosyncratic, Colden’s artwork isn’t a bad fit for the material, but the job is something of a poison chalice. O’Barr’s original is a labour of love (and hate), created over more than a decade. It’s a protracted act of catharsis, an expression of agony and madness – a commercial comic book designed to cash in on nostalgia and brand recognition is never going to compare. Taken on its own merits, Colden’s work is energetic and interesting, and he does a decent job of creating an alternate incarnation of an iconic character, but (fairly or otherwise) it’s never going to live up to the original.
DEATH & REBIRTH has been a long time coming. Sadly, it isn’t worth the wait. Solid visuals are let down by a tedious storyline, consistently terrible dialogue, and a rushed ending. Reduced to the status of a by-the-numbers super-powered revenge story, there’s not even a hint of the poetry, artistry and passion that made O’Barr’s original such an enduring classic.