Speaking to the broad appeal of an avenging spirit able to “put the wrong things right,” James O’Barr’s gothic 1989 series “The Crow” became an indie success for Caliber Comics, and the film adaptation starring Brandon Lee was a rite of passage for teenagers in the mid-1990s. The story of Eric Draven, a man who returns from the dead after he and his girlfriend are murdered, has spawned a number of sequels spanning comics, novels, and films, each featuring a new spirit resurrected and guided by a supernatural crow.
In July, “The Crow” returns to comics after more than a decade away in the first of an ongoing series of miniseries from IDW Publishing. Novelist John Shirley, who co-wrote the screenplay for “The Crow,” teams with artist Kevin Colden for a tale of a new Crow spirit in Tokyo; IDW has also announced that O’Barr will return for an arc later in the year.
CBR News caught up with Shirley for a chat about his upcoming work on “The Crow,” which represents his debut in full-length comics.
Shirley described his arc of “The Crow” as “an homage to James O’Barr” and said he’s “trying to keep it in a form that will honor the spirit of his original creation, while making it fresh and alive, too.” He was reluctant to delve much into the story of “The Crow’s” first arc, or how a young exchange student named Jamie Osterberg takes up the titular avenging role. “But I can tell you that biotech experiments need experimental subjects, and his girlfriend is stolen from him — she isn’t killed in the conventional sense, something more dreadful happens,” the writer told CBR. “When he is too pushy in investigating, thugs are hired who take him out — or so they think.”
The new series takes place in and around Tokyo, Japan, a setting rife with possibilities and with a rich history that makes it ideal for many different sorts of stories. “I researched Japanese Buddhist myths, because the Japanese Buddhist variant of Hell will be included in the story, a Hell congruent with traditional stories. And the Crow will visit that Hell,” Shirley said. “So for a guy like me, who works in surreal imagery pretty often, who writes about the supernatural and the fantastic in his novels, that’s a rich vein of ore. I also briefly bring in the aftermath of the Japanese Tsunami that the country is still coping with — and will be dealing with for years to come.”
In addition to the Buddhist Hell, other Japanese mythologies will be at play in “The Crow,” Shirley told CBR. “Yes, the hungry ghosts of Japanese tales will appear, and the distinctive Japanese demons,” the writer said. “Also, the Japanese have a traditional nature spirit who materializes as a crow, and I’m combining that spirit with the hero of the original ‘The Crow.’ It fits perfectly. Shinto omens are brought in, too. The Crow is gifted with power — the right to return from the land of the dead and set things right, to bring about a reckoning — but indeed it’s always a mixed blessing, and he is in a strange twilight world of his own, too, very lonely…”
While Shirley is well established as a screenwriter and novelist, “The Crow” is his first full-length comic book project. He is, however, more than acquainted with the medium, and not just from adapting James O’Barr’s graphic novel to film. “I grew up reading comics and always wanted to write a graphic tale. I love dark comic heroes, and ‘The Crow’ might be the ultimate dark hero,” he said. “I like working with the artist, being very specific about the way I like to see the story played out and staged, and it’s really exciting for me to see him making it all come ‘true’ in graphic form. So this way I get to see my ideas materialized in a way that you don’t with a novel. I’m going to the San Diego Comic Con this year, I was there last year, and it’s pretty damned exciting to be part of that culture, it’s so vivid and energetic.”
As with many writers from other media who make the jump to comics, there was a learning curve, but Shirley said it was not a difficult one to scale. “The format of the script has similarities to a movie script but it’s very different in some ways, too. I had to get used to that. I had to get used to the mix of the fluid and the static that is comics,” Shirley said. “If I write a television script, the action doesn’t have to be quite so worked out, by me at any rate, the director works out a lot of it — but with a script I really have to see it in detail so the artist can make it happen, so I don’t muddle up the visuals. Still, it’s very cinematic to me. Comics do lend themselves to movies, when they’re done right — and finally they’re being done right — and I do bring my experience writing scripts to it.”
Shirley sees some distinct advantage to the comics form over that of film, at least from a writer’s perspective. “It’s actually better because there’s only one artist, and while I get input from editors, like Jeff Conner, who’s given me some excellent input, it’s not as overwhelmingly a ‘committee’ process as writing a movie or television script is,” he said. “So in a way I get to be the co-director of this ‘movie,’ along with Kevin, and that way I can make my vision materialize more genuinely. With movies, unless you’re an auteur with creative control like Woody Allen, there are always a lot of filters between the writer and the screen, obstacles to get by, each obstacle wanting to change something. In this case I can work pretty directly with the artist and we can really make it come alive. Of course the story had to be approved but they’re giving me a good deal of freedom.”
IDW’s first “The Crow” miniseries debuts in July by John Shirley and Kevin Colden with covers by Kyle Hotz and Ashley Wood.