Review: ‘The Crow’ (graphic novel) by James O’Barr

Blurb from 

A tale about the nature of evil and the power of love. It centres on a dark angel who literally rises from the dead to avenge a gang of thugs who brutally killed him and his fiancee on the eve of their wedding. This is the graphic novel that inspired the hit movie ‘The Crow’.


Most people know ‘The Crow‘ from the cult 90s movie where its star, Brandon Lee- who played the character of Eric Draven- tragically and accidentally died during filming. The film, rather like the novel itself, has a dark, hardboiled and noirish 90s vibe. Flapping black leather coats and clothes, (seemingly all belonging to Eric,) leaden white face paint (also Eric’s,) rain soaked gritty streets and the ever- present crow/spirit guide who perches on sagging, urban buildings that look soulless and empty.  Make no mistake- this is not cutesy, good-versus-evil, CGI and special effects stuff. It’s brutal, bloody and strange, but it’s a heck of a lot of style. The film also has a grungy soundtrack laden with angst and the sound of cawing crows, and edgy, quasi-philosophical dialogue such as ‘Mother is the name of God on every child’s lips’- and rather indulgent scenes within Gothic graveyards. Be warned however- it’s toe-curlingly violent.

The graphic novel, too, is also a cult favourite, even though it was actually published in the 80s, when the film was just a twinkle in a movie producer’s eye. Like the movie, it is predominantly drawn in dark shades, mostly black and white. Images of Shelly, Eric’s precious lost love, include one where she looks longingly at the viewer, clutching a black rose. Eric himself is a stark figure with a shock of black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, and yet in the graphic novel he is more realistic than in the film- he doesn’t have the surname ‘Draven’, for instance- that was presumably added to make him sound more ‘Gothic,’ and I for one prefer it- and a pretty normal job. The ‘villains’ who brutally and senselessly  kill Shelly aren’t the film’s twisted brother and sister duo from criminal aristocracy (think Jaime and Cersei on drugs) but a gang of dead beat junkies with warped minds and nowhere to run when Eric brings down all seven circles of Hell down upon them. The novel too, is more elaborate, more elegiac and more expansive in terms of theme. This is not just a dark vigilante flick, this is a sensitive and at times macabre portrayal of grief in all its many layers.

Eric’s grief over Shelly is so keen you could cut it with a knife, and with that comes his anger, his desire for revenge. The sense of loss, and the crippling sense of what might have been, is all too palpable. Eric is living in a Sin City- esque monochromatic dystopia where Shelly is the only light, the only hope, the only opportunity for escape. With her death, Eric becomes the thing he most wanted to avoid, and in the end there is nowhere to run to except his own death. Revenge is more bitter than sweet. This novel is certainly not a laugh a minute, but it is  damn memorable- so much so that it was a cultural reference for my own novel, The Blood Witching, where strong-but-damaged vampire Nerissa Naughton has a poster for The Crow on her wall. The Crow is actually her favourite film, and she dresses in a deliberately 90s way, seemingly in homage to it. I even used lyrics from the soundtrack song ‘Burn’ by the Cure as a quote within the novel- especially it is a song meaningful for both Nerissa and her ex-lover, Angelica.

For me, despite numerous excellent spin-offs- my favourite being The Crow: Flesh and Blood, with the first female incarnation of the Crow figure- the original Crow graphic novel remains the best: a soul-searing and unflinching look at grief, love and what it means to be alive, and to live.

Overall rating: 8 out of 10


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