|I saw you burn, I watched you burn!|
There's a t-shirt hanging up in my wardrobe right now, one that I haven't worn in a very long time. Two of my friends put their money together to buy it for me for my sixteenth birthday and though it hasn't left its hanger for years, I can't bring myself to give it away or tuck it away somewhere in a box. It's stretched, faded, and the face of Brandon Lee is dotted with cigarette burns.
I've never been a comic book aficionado, I've always liked comic books, but I've never collected them. I wouldn't call myself a "comic book geek" in any way, anything I know about them comes from a close friend who has more comics and relics than I have hairs on my head. Anything I know about the world of the graphic novel, I learned from him. Though I never delved too deeply into that world and probably couldn't tell you Doctor Strange from Doctor Light, I've always had a connection with The Crow.
When I first picked up James O' Barr's The Crow, I was 13 years old and had only been exposed to the Spidermans and Batmans of the comic book world. Valiant heroes with rules and thick moral fiber, the kind of dudes that went out, did their job, went back home and awaited their next call. As much as I still love to hear their stories, I think they're mechanical in a way. They know right from wrong, they beat down the villains and protect the weak, they're the archetypal heroes that we've all come to know and love. When I finished reading The Crow, I realized that Eric Draven wasn't one of those heroes, he wasn't even a hero at all. Eric Draven was just angry, that's why I've always liked that story. The character is raw, human even in inhumanity, and the story is as personal for the writer as it is for the characters he created. Eric Draven isn't a hero, he's the righteous bad guy. Eye for an eye.
Just as I haven't worn my t-shirt in a long time, either have I read the book or any of its subsequent offshoots. The character was always very sexualized, but that didn't occur to me until years after I'd read it. That sexualization turned me off the character for the longest time. What I believed to be the personification of vengeance was actually just some sexy Goth bad boy. A Halloween costume and a fashion statement. Everyone, including myself, had forgotten that there was anything behind the make-up. I haven't been enthusiastic about The Crow in years, but then I read Skinning the Wolves. Now it all makes sense again.
Skinning the Wolves takes place in a Nazi concentration camp administrated by a cruel and sadistic commandant with a penchant for classical music and chess. In order to keep himself amused in the camp, he invites captives, fellow soldiers and "intellectuals" into his quarters to play a game of chess with a twist. If his opponent loses the game, that opponent's brains become a part of the interior. His twisted game has claimed many lives during the campaign and he soaks up the fear of both the camp's captives as well as his own soldiers. His own fear, however, becomes very evident when one of his former playmates returns from the incinerator for a rematch.
This book is almost a complete departure from O' Barr's classic tale and it's easy to tell why that is. The first book was written by James O' Barr and for James O' Barr. It's no secret that the first Crow was written as therapy for O' Barr's own personal tragedies, and this endowed the book with intense emotional energy that vibrated with every page. With Skinning the Wolves, we have a far more stripped down and raw character, almost devoid of human attachment. The character remains nameless throughout the comic, that's because the character isn't James, the character is the entire Jewish population. Even deeper so, he's the victim of suppression and violence.
This book is definitely risky in that it deals with a part of history that many would deem too sensitive to be brushed with fiction, but O' Barr seems to have stepped around certain aspects that may be perceived as overly taboo and instead focuses on the real story; a man's vengeance from beyond the grave.
Though written by O' Barr, this book also belongs largely to artist Jim Terry and were I more familiar with his work, I'd have mentioned him much earlier on in the article. My vocabulary for art is very, very limited, so maybe that's why I've tip-toed around him. What I can say is this; though the differences between O' Barr's art and Terry's are immense, Terry produces a visually stupendous rendering of a character that we all thought we already knew. "This is what The Crow looks like", nope, The Crow has a new face now.
Not only a new face, but a new person. The sexy rock star Crow that has been both celebrated and parodied has been reborn and stripped down to the soul. This avenging ghoul doesn't recite poetry, doesn't weep in solitude and you won't find him in every corner of Vampirefreaks.com. This character is what The Crow really is, before the terrible movie sequels, action figures and wall poster fandom. He's very, very angry and he's very, very dead.