That’s more like it! A few weeks ago we tore strips out of DEATH AND REBIRTH, the first miniseries based on writer/artist James O’Barr’s phenomenally popular CROW franchise, written by novelist and CROW screenwriter John Shirley and published by IDW Publishing. With a tedious, meandering story and some truly awful dialogue, the miniseries is a travesty, and an affront to O’Barr’s lyrical, emotional masterwork. Thankfully, IDW seem to have learned from their mistakes, and for the next story in the sequence, SKINNING THE WOLVES, enlisted the help of the franchise’s creator. The precise extent of O’Barr’s involvement is difficult to determine, but he shares co-credit for the story with writer/artist Jim Terry, and credit for the art breakdowns, which are completed by Terry. In an ideal world O’Barr would have been responsible for the whole thing, but as it stands SKINNING THE WOLVES is a quantum leap in quality from DEATH AND REBIRTH. It’s a very different beast to O’Barr’s original (as it should be), but retains its hauntingly bleak atmosphere and poetical/philosophical approach to matters of life and violent death. It touches on some deeply profound subjects, and manages to tackle one of the most barbaric and controversial periods of human history with sensitivity, passion and empathy.
SKINNING THE WOLVES plays out over the course of a single snowy winter’s night. The exact time and location are left deliberately ambiguous, but it takes place in an unnamed Nazi concentration camp, overseen by a fiendish (although far from caricatured) Commandant. A ghoulish figure, one of his eyes missing from an apparent gunshot wound, arrives with the latest consignment of inmates, and proceeds to butcher a succession of guards and dogs until he’s brought down by a hail of bullets. His body is consigned to be burned, but before that can happen he spontaneously resurrects, instigating a campaign of wholesale death and destruction that will see the camp wiped from the map. This new Crow is never named (although the manner of his demise, and that of his loved ones, is described), which is fitting, as he’s more than just a victim avenging a single tragedy. He’s the spirit of his age, and speaks for the millions of victims of one of the bloodiest and most shameful of human atrocities. As such, the action is excessively violent, the vengeance he wreaks sadistically satisfying – although the writers are careful to maintain a measure of balance, acknowledging that not all the guards are bloodthirsty psychopaths, and not all of them agree with the actions of the Third Reich (not that it saves them).
SKINNING THE WOLVES doesn’t attempt to emulate the original CROW, although it does share many of its narrative idiosyncrasies. O’Barr’s trademarked poetical dialogue is in evidence, and there are the familiar existential musings and musical allusions (although this time, in keeping with its setting, it’s Wagner’s Ring Cycle). As much as O’Barr’s is the guiding hand, Jim Terry’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked. I have to admit to being ignorant of the talented writer/artist’s previous output, but on the strength of SKINNING THE WOLVES I’ll be seeking it out. His artwork is excellent, with a highly expressive, almost cartoony style that by all rights should be at odds with the brutal and controversial subject matter, but actually compliments it. The frosty, nihilistic atmosphere is palpable, and his storytelling is flawless, both in the smooth and clear progression of the action, and the frequent cutaway panels that serve to reinforce the story’s themes and amplify the chilling ambiance.
The story itself is slight (although the same can be said of the original), told over the course of only three issues. Even so, it manages to engage with some truly weighty themes – and, what’s more, to do them justice (no mean feat for a story set in a concentration camp). O’Barr and Terry carefully cultivate the impression that what we’re witnessing is just a fraction of the whole, a mere skirmish in a global conflict, although one with profound significance. And in this case, it’s not just the tale that counts but the way it’s told. Beautiful and terrible, ugly and completely irresistible, SKINNING THE WOLVES is a remarkable achievement. Normally this kind of sequel, delivered by the original creator decades after the original, is a resounding failure (think of Robin Hardy’s sequel to THE WICKER MAN, Ira Levin’s sequel to ROSEMARY’S BABY, George Lucas’ sequels to STAR WARS, etc), but not here. SKINNING THE WOLVES plots its own course, retaining just enough of the gravitas and theatricality, the showmanship and lyrical eloquence, to make it recognisably a Crow comic, but in a very different context to the original, and to a very different end. If there’s any more compelling motivation in genre fiction than revenge I’ve yet to encounter it, and here it’s indulged to its fullest. Brutal, heartbreaking, and impossible to look away from, SKINNING THE WOLVES is not only a worthy successor to an established classic, but a modern classic-in-the-making in its own right.