Written by Neil Greenaway
James O'Barr is known the world over as the creator of The Crow. Everyone knows that his 1989 comic series led to a successful movie in 1994, and both versions of the story have become mainstays of the goth/emo scene. (O'Barr jokes himself that the goth "starter pack" comes with a pair of Doc Martens, a Cure album, and a copy of The Crow tpb.) The aesthetic created through James' books and art has influenced the clothing and make-up worn by decades of disaffected teens - but his impact on the world at large has been far greater than that. Through his popularity while maintaining a strictly independent publishing routine, O'Barr inspired scores of young artists to try their own hand at graphic storytelling - and with these new creators came an understanding that there was a place for tragedy and loss in their work. Not every story has to be grandly inspirational or super heroic.
I had the chance to sit down and speak with James in April when he came to Colorado for the 2018 Denver Independent Comic & Art Expo (or DINK!). We spoke about his comics, his time with Spin Magazine, and his ideal Batman story. What I found was a man who holds his satirical edge, speaks with humor & wit, and is still unapologetically doing things his own way.
Neil Greenaway: Today I am speaking with James O’Barr in cooperation with the DINK 2018 convention.
James O’Barr: What does that stand for?
NG: Not D-I-N-K (laughs). It’s the Denver Independent Comic and Art Expo.
JO: You know that’s a racial slur against Vietnamese, right?
NG: You know I have had 2 people in my life point out that it wasn’t a conventional name; you just now and when I interviewed Kevin Sorbo (in a DINK t-shirt) he said, “that’s a word I like to call people.”
JO: Yeah that’s what the soldiers liked to call the Vietnamese during the war.
NG: I did not know that.
JO: I think it has to do with- there is a saying "dinky dow" (Dien-Cai-Dao ).
NG: I have heard that.
JO: So, they would call them dinks. So, there’s a small history lesson. It’s not nearly as bad as the ill-named SAC-Con, the Sacramento Convention.
NG: It depends on what they are celebrating there. I worked in the fetish world for a while and can tell you, there could be a Sack-Con.
NG: We’ll avoid that one. So just to give us a quick layout, what are you doing these days in the comic book world? What have you got in the works?
JO: I have 3 books I am working on, that I have been working on for a couple of years now. I switch off between them depending on what mood I am in. One of them is very research heavy. I am doing a book on the Korean War, and you know that’s all fact based so there is a lot of in-depth research not just on the people but the weapons and the uniforms. Then I have a western that I have been working on and I thought, "Oh great I get to draw horses". But then it’s like, oh you get to draw saddles and era specific weapons. So there is a lot research in that one too. Then the third one is a new Crow book I’ve been working on with a woman this time. As well as writing stuff for other people.
NG: Would those 3 books be your writing and your art?
JO: Yeah. Actually, Jim Terry is going to work with me on the Korea book. The idea being that it’s a story about a company of Marines called Fox Company. I was in the Marines and they make you learn the whole history of the Marines in your training. So, we were told about the real 300. A time when 300 soldiers actually held off an army. Actually, it was 289 Marines that held a mountain pass over the Chosin Reservoir in 40 degrees below zero weather against 20,000 Chinese. They had to hold it for 5 days, because there were more Marines on the other side of the mountain but there was only one way out. So, if they were to lose that position those Marines would have been trapped and probably killed. And it’s an amazing story, but unlike the Spartans, 82 of the Marines lived. I mean they were all shot to pieces but it was so cold that when they were shot their wounds froze over. It’s one of the most amazing and heroic stories I have ever read about. And Korea is the forgotten war. There are no movies on it, only a few books, no documentaries to speak of.
NG: My wife and I have spoken often of the times that M*A*S*H, while it is supposed to take place in Korea, was really more about what was happening with the Vietnam war.
JO: Yeah it has nothing to do with Korea. Korea was the first Jet war. It was the first war with the M*A*S*H units, portable hospitals. And the first integrated war where blacks were allowed to fight alongside the whites. It was a very interesting time, but it was just largely forgotten. Those kids and young men were as brave as any of the men who fought in WWII. So, I thought this was an opportunity to tell one of their stories.
NG: Just to pick you brain on that briefly, I know that there was an enormous amount of heroism awarded to the men who came back from WWII and quite a bit or derision from the guys that came back from Vietnam. Do you think that Korea just got caught in the swing of that emotional shift?
JO: I think a large part of it was that it was never declared a war. It was declared a police action through the UN, and it was troops from all over the world that were part of the UN that came to fight too. But largely it fell on the Marines’ shoulders to do the grunt work, the dirty work. So, it was never declared a war and it didn’t last long. I mean, there were a lot of casualties and I think more Medals of Honor were given out in Korea than WWII. But it lasted 3 years and it was caught up in this – it seemed to the American public to be more about the UN than an actual war. Still to this day it hasn’t been declared a war, it’s a police action.
NG: So that’s where that is. Can we talk about the movie? I know when The Crow came out it was a seminal film. Each of the sequels seemed to lose something along the way.
JO: Progressively they lost more and more.
NG: Were you involved with the sequels at all? I know that you were quite vocally unhappy with them.
JO: Yeah, I had nothing to do with any of the sequels - and was against them being made even. I mean the first film had a definitive ending. There was no reason to make another film other than greed. But that’s Hollywood. Anytime something’s successful, they want more of the same. But I don’t think the people involved understood what made the first one work, or the book for that matter. That it’s a love story at heart and the violence is just ancillary. So, they just made some really misguided choices on everything.
NG: Do you think that Alex Proyas was just the right man at the right time? Because that first movie struck lightening. It seemed so perfect.
JO: Stylistically he was perfect for it. And there is something to be said... it came out at just the right time too. When America was ready to accept - it wasn’t even called ‘goth’ back then - the alternative youth kind of movement. It was a post punk, post Reagan era so there was a little bit of – like after WWII, that’s when all the film noirs happened. There was this very depressed movement in the US and it’s kind of ill defined. It wasn’t just one thing. It just came out at the right time and it’s very much of that period.
NG: Are you involved at all with the new one coming out?
JO: I am. I’m working with the director and Jason Momoa on everything and this one is not a remake of the Brandon Lee one. It’s going back to the book and it’s going to be as faithful and adaptation of the book as we can do. Obviously, it is going to be expanded some because if you just shot the book it would be an 80-minute film so we have to expand some of the characters back stories and stuff like that. But overall, it’s just going to be a really faithful adaptation of the book. Closer to Taxi Driver than the kind of John Woo violence that was in the Brandon Lee movie, that hyper stylized violence. So, I’m pretty excited about it. It starts filming in the fall. Sony’s been – it’s with Sony now, Sony Pictures – and they have been very supportive of everything.
NG: Do they understand where things went poorly the first time?
JO: I think it’s licensed jointly through Ed Pressman who made the other Crow films and Sony and I think Ed Pressman understands that the reason the other films failed is that they didn’t have my involvement. That was the one key element that for some reason they thought they could do without. Like they thought that they had the formula down for what makes a good alternative goth-dark-romance film, and it was all 60-year-old men so of course they were clueless. A bunch of gray haired old men with Maalox caked around their lips trying to decide what kids are going to like next summer and their finger not on pulse of America let’s say. So yeah Ed Pressman approached me and was very generous with everything, like what would it take to get me involved in this. It’s very favorable. Essentially, they are doing the same thing this time that they did on the first film, like here’s the money just go make your movie. So, I’m pretty excited about it.
NG: Perhaps you answered this, did I hear Jason Momoa is attached?
JO: Yeah Jason is the lead. He’s wanted it forever, like 2 or 3 years now.
(*Note - It was announced in May that both Jason Momoa & director Corin Hardy had left the project)
NG: I had heard some criticism that he might me too big but then I saw the makeup tests that were posted, and man - he looked great.
JO: He just finished doing all his Aquaman stuff and he is going to try to lose like 50 lbs.
NG: So, he is going to come down a little for this role?
JO: Yeah, he is going to slim down a little for it. And actually, I spoke to him just a couple weeks ago, I was supposed to meet him at a convention in Cleveland but he had got called back to do Aquaman reshoots and he has already lost like 25 lbs. and Warner Brothers was not happy because nothing fit anymore, and there was talk of CGI-ing his muscles back in…
NG: Did we learn nothing from the mustache?
JO: It’s Warner Brothers. If they want to piss away their money, let them.
NG: It seems to be what makes them happy. Now going back to comics just a little, I know that you have always had an affinity for Batman and - my God, you have certainly made your name in the industry - so how has that never happened? How is it that we don’t have James O’Barr’s Batman?
JO: It was supposed to happen back in the 90’s. After I did The Crow I went to DC and I met with Denny O’Neil who oversaw all the Batman books and I showed him some samples and gave him my story pitch and he said, ‘I love it, when can you start on it?’ And I told him I had this film coming out this fall, and I have agreed to do promotional stuff on it but when that’s done I can start on it in earnest. I mean I would be working on it the whole time, but after that’s done I can devote myself fully to it. So, we agreed to that. I did 30 pages of artwork. I wrote a whole script out. In the meantime, Denny O’Neil stepped down from his position as the Batman series editor and there was a new editor there. I sent my stuff in and he’s like ‘No, no, no. You can’t do this with Batman.’ You know it’s all the stuff they have done subsequently, but they were like "You know the Tim Burton movie came out and we are making Batman family friendly again", which was kind of the antithesis of what I was doing. I was making it crazy and scary and frightening and violent.
NG: I have seen the pictures of your punk rock Batman, would that have been the Batman in your story?
JO: Yeah. And the idea was that it was going to be the original Batman in the 1940’s, and the thing that DC likes to forget about is that in the first 3 issues Batman used guns. He was essentially The Shadow in a different costume. He had two .45’s. So, I wrote this whole James Ellroy kind of scenario. And he handmakes his costume out of leather and wire and nails and stitches, carpet thread. So, it’s a really terrifying look. All his teeth have been knocked out from fighting so he puts in these monster dentures when he’s the Batman. I really wanted to do it. I put a lot of time and effort into it and suddenly it wasn’t what they wanted anymore. So, I abandoned it. It just sat around on the shelf for years. Then they approached me again not that long ago, maybe 10 years ago, about it because I guess somebody had found some sample pages I had done. Some copies of sample pages were in the files, and they were super interested in me doing this book now because it was different times as well. So, this time I didn’t just go in and do all this work for free. I got my agent to contact them and draw up a contract so that I wasn’t just throwing my time and energy and artwork into a blackhole, like the first time. So, we got about 4 paragraphs away from getting the thing signed when the editors at DC decided you know what, instead of taking batman in a new adult direction I think we will just kill Bruce Wayne. I was ok. That’s it, I am done with this. I will not invest anymore time or effort into this thing because it just felt like a no-win scenario. And all the things they objected to in my story have been done since. In fact, when Paul Pope was doing his Batman: Year 100, he had seen some of my pages and I’m like use whatever you want, Paul. They won’t let me do it, maybe they will let you get away with it. He ended up using stylistically some of the stuff I had come up with and that’s fine, Paul was a good friend back then. I haven’t seen him ages but he was a good friend back then. But now I see the Batman with a thousand faces thing and I’m like they took exception to what I was doing? It’s like they are letting Clive Barker write this shit and I couldn’t do James Ellroy?
NG: Do you ever see yourself working for the big 2 or are you past that in your time?
JO: My issue is that I’m not going to work on anything I don’t own. Financially it just isn’t worth it to me. I’m too old to dig ditches for other people. I’ve been approached by Marvel and DC and Dark Horse to work on some of their projects, but if I’m going write it and draw it - I pencil it, ink it, letter it, I do everything by hand - and if I’m going to invest that much time and effort into it, it has to be personal and unfortunately in comics the character has to be the same on the first and last page. It has to be the same character from issue to issue. So, I don’t know that there is a lot I could bring to those characters.
NG: I have heard a lot of thoughts on stagnation taking place there because people can’t create new characters without relinquishing all ownership - so why bother?
JO: Yeah. I’ve done well with my working methods and I just don’t see anything out there that I could contribute to that would be fulfilling to me and worth the time I would have to invest in it. The Batman thing was kind of the last straw on that.
NG: Well that’s too bad. I think that would have been an awesome story. To shift gears again just a little, we spoke briefly a while ago about you getting to meet several famous bands in your time. How do those relationships come up? I know you have at least had meetings with Joy Division or members of it.
JO: New Order, yeah.
NG: And you were friends with Iggy Pop if I recall. How do those opportunities open for you?
JO: I was very fortunate, and actually it was about the time I was working on The Crow as well - that I started doing record reviews for Spin Magazine, which I don’t even know if that exists anymore. They were like the hot new music magazine. They were like what Rolling Stone used to be. I had a great editor over there, Dave Eggers who went on to bigger and better things, Pulitzer Prize winner. Michael Chabon worked there as well. But you know it didn’t really pay. It was like $30 to review a record. But you know the bonus was I would get boxes full of records for free. One of the perks of that was that if I wrote a review of a record, I would get to go interview the band when they played in Detroit. Most of these were not well-known bands, very underground or alternative bands at the time. So, they would play in a small club at the time called Saint Andrews which has a capacity of maybe 500 people. So yeah, I would go to the show and of course everything I wrote a review of I was a fan of, because I had no interest in trashing someone’s career just because the music on the record wasn’t recorded for me. And in fact, here’s an example. I got My Chemical Romance their first record deal because I guess my name got around that I was the guy to send shit to. They sent me a bunch of demo cassettes and I listened to it and it wasn’t for me. It didn’t speak to me. There wasn’t anything in it for me, but I knew there was probably an audience out there for it - so I passed it along to the people at an independent label called Eyeball Records and that was their first record contract and Gerard [Way] remembers that. He asked me to do a cover for one of his comics recently as like a thank you. I didn’t know what a nightmare it was going to be working for DC but-
NG: Oh, on his new Young Animal line then.
JO: Yeah, they have switched. They moved and are now Warner Brothers Entertainment. It’s not Warner Brothers Publishing anymore and so everything is done by computers and you must be in their system. No checks are sent out, let’s say. It has to be wired to an account and so it was just like a ton of paperwork that has to be done and then someone has to enter it all into the system. It literally took me six months to get paid for a cover. I got paid for it the day it came out.
NG: Well that’s timely I guess.
JO: Yeah and I have artist friends that DC has called and asked them "Oh are you interested in working on this?" And the artist said sure, but then DC is says "Oh never mind you aren’t in the system". I can’t go through that. Hopefully they will get that streamlined in the future and make that a little easier.
NG: Yeah. I had heard not too long ago that before he got started with My Chemical Romance, Gerard was writing comics for Hart Fisher at Boneyard Press.
JO: Yeah Hart was quite the fisherman. He tried to drag everyone into his little cesspool, including me. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
NG: You do seem like a name that would crop up on Boneyard.
JO: Yeah. Hart was just there to outrage people and there was no point to it other than for the sake of outrage. I found pretty much everything they did easily dismissed. And worse it was poorly done. It’s like the kid who farts in class because it’s forbidden. So yeah, Gerard probably did write there.
NG: The context of my hearing that was Hart was pissed that Gerard wasn’t giving him his credit as the first publisher.
JO: I’m surprised Hart is still alive. He lured me to his house - me, Mark Bodé, and someone else - and he was literally living in an abandoned house with holes punched in the walls. And he’s watching this weird fecal porn stuff on VHS and it’s like... I wanted a shower the second I stepped out of there. But yeah, I didn’t even know he was still around.
NG: Yeah, he does a TV channel on Roku called American Horrors that runs horror movies 24/7 I believe.
JO: Well I guess he felt that his mission in life was to shock and outrage. Because there was never any substance to anything he did. So, there’s my critique of Boneyard Press. Anyhow like I was saying I got to interview all these bands like Nine Inch Nails, New Order, all these bands would play this little club and I got to hang out with them afterwards and I would give them copies of The Crow for them to read on their tour bus. I was in bands before and I know how boring it is driving from city to city to city. And so, they were all fans. I was really fortunate because none of them were famous yet.
NG: Did I hear that you had designed the logo for a Skinny Puppy album?
JO: I did! I never got paid or credit for it but it was just for one album - Cleanse Fold and Manipulate. They used my font but they were friends, so it was fine. They didn’t have a lot of money at the time and I always did favors for people that I liked or bands that I liked. Especially bands from around the Chicago scene. I was from Detroit and there was a really good music scene happening in Chicago in the 90’s. I would take the train down there every weekend and see all kinds of great - now legendary - bands that of course no one cared about at the time. So, it was a good time. I look back on it with a lot of fondness. And Dave Eggers was a great editor to work for at Spin. He would say, ‘I want you to review this album but I want you to tell me what it feels like, I don’t want you to mention the album once.’ And that’s a big challenge you know? To get across the emotional state this album can put you in without actually mentioning a single track on the record. So, they were good writing exercises.
NG: The next question that I have for you is, I know that in the past you’ve spoken about being mentored by Vaughn Bodé (you just mentioned his son Mark) and I know that you knew Jeff Jones. How did you get to be in that group? I ask because that group seems kind of freewheeling and hippie as opposed to your own style.
JO: Now they are like The Beatles. Everyone looks at them as like these young gods but back then I was 15/16 years old and in reality they were struggling artists just like everyone else. I got to be friends with Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, and... I would like to say I was friends with Jeff Jones but there was something unknowable about him. I mean you could spend hours with him but you couldn’t dissect what he was thinking or his thought process. The only one I didn’t get along with was Barry Windsor-Smith but he was going through his own issues at the time. But yeah, Vaughn took a personal interest in me. And even though our styles are polar opposite, I learned a lot from him about staging, foreground elements, pacing and he told me about a lot of other artists to look at that were before my time. I owe Vaughn a lot. But I think thematically what I do is closer to what Jeff Jones does. There is this striving for beauty even in ugly circumstance. There can be something beautiful. Actually, I think I was like 13 the first time I met Bernie Wrightson, and it was great that for the last 15 years he was a dear friend and he considered me a peer. I could walk in the room and he would say, ‘Hi James!’ And I was just still like holy shit, Bernie Wrightson remembers me. But the thing is all of people who work in comics and musicians, we are all just regular people. We have this totally false image from what we see on TV, especially with Hollywood. I mean we all have to eat and shit and change the litter box and take the garbage out. We are all just people. For the most part any given artist that is confident in his work is happy to share, because there is nothing magic about it. They can teach you a few tricks and what tools to use and things like that but it’s not magic it’s just having a person to show you how to do it or explain how to do it.
NG: I think a lot of that goes into discipline speaking of Bernie. I probably heard him explain his cross hatching technique a million times, I’ve never seen anybody else do it. But if you want to hear the man say the words, he will say them.
JO: Yeah. Actually, I don’t think Bernie even understood how he did that afterwards. I just looked on that stuff in awe because there’s no mistakes. I saw some of the Frankenstein originals and I was like, "Where’s the white out? Where’s the place where he made a mistake? Where the ink dripped or the quill skipped?" So that was a monumental achievement. And I really admire his dedication to that project. I think it took him a span of 7 years to do all the art on that project, and he wasn’t getting paid for it. He did it in his spare time. So yeah, I envy his passion for that book. I wish I could find a book that I was that passionate about. There are books that I am passionate about but I don’t think I could add illustrations that could bring it to another level like he did. Maybe that’s just me being humble though.
NG: You know I see often online that you will post a piece and then critique it yourself before anyone has had a chance to tell you how beautiful it is. And I have to say that it’s heartening, because I know so many small-time creators - artists who are just starting who have not earned any amount of recognition yet - who will do the same thing. They put up a perfectly feasible piece of art and say, "It’s horrible because the elbow is pointed in the wrong direction or the head is an inch form the top of the page".
JO: Without a doubt we are our own worst critics. Every single drawing is a failure to some degree. That’s how we learn, that’s how we get better. And just by noticing what you are unhappy with or what you could have done better, now you know what to do the next time. There’s never been anything – you can get close, you can get 60% or 70% but you are never going to be 100% happy with anything if you are true to yourself, if you are being honest with yourself. Because you are limited by your abilities at the time. Or maybe my grandeur and imagination are bigger than my skills. But you know, I practice all the time. I get up at 8am and by 9am I am at the drawing board whether I feel like it or not because that is my job. And inevitably I start having fun. Even if it is a total failure and a mess and it goes in the trash, I have fun with it and I try to learn something from it.
NG: I think that is a fine note for us to stop on. Thank you very much for your time sir.
JO: You are very welcome!