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When I was a student years ago, I was rather fond of the early Cerebus the Aardvark comics, (swords and sorcery with an cute aardvark hero – yes I know!). After that I didn’t read any comics or graphic novels until 2007 when our Bookgroup read one of the classics of the genre, Watchmen – written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which combined speculative science fiction with crime-busting superheroes and added a dose of mysticism. I enjoyed it, but couldn’t help wondering if it would have worked just as well as a normal novel; but maybe this was because I didn’t like the drawing of the female characters. When I was offered a copy of another classic graphic novel recently, I felt it would be a good time to read more of this format.

The Crow: Special Edition by James O’Barr

The Crow was first published in 1981, and added to in the following years, but has now been republished complete in a deluxe paperback with some additional artwork and a new introduction by the author. I only had a very vague awareness of the 1994 film starring Brandon Lee (right), who tragically died from an accidental gunshot on set making the film a cult classic – this new edition of the novel is dedicated to him.

The story of the Crow took me completely by surprise. There is a lot of violence, complete with cartoon sound effects, the swoosh of an axe, the boom of a gun, the klik klak tlink of shell casings falling on the floor. Many of the pages are peopled with totally unsavoury types, gang members, small time hoodlums and junkies – all of them are ugly with exaggerated features. This action all takes place at night too, so the backgrounds are all dark and the shadows are long.

The story starts with the Crow, a tall, dark and raincoated punk with spiked up hair, a scarred face and rather distinctive make-up, going out looking for TBird, Funboy, and the rest of the gang. He finds Jones and gives him a message for the others, ‘Tell them I’m coming, Mr Jones.’ There are many more similar scenes as the Crow systematically searches out this gang and deals with them.

But interspersed between these violent chapters is the real heart of the book, and it’s the complete opposite – a romance. Eric and Shelly are young, engaged and completely, head over heels, in love. They’re so in love, they can’t keep their hands off each other – but not just in the bedroom, they kiss and canoodle, hold hands, and are generally soppy about each other all of the time.

Then one day, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time in a broken down car. Along come Tbird and the gang and they end up gruesomely dead.  Eric will come back from the dead as the Crow, to avenge their murders.

This book is intense, and then some. It wasn’t surprising to read that the author created it as an act of personal catharsis after his girlfriend was mown down by a drunk driver. The book is totally seared through with his pain.

The Eric and Shelly sections are drawn in pencil with subtle shading giving a soft focus on the love story, which totally contrasts with the sharp black lines of the inked avenging angel Crow scenes. Every frame was hand-drawn, and the author obviously had some good days and some bad ones, for Eric/The Crow and Shelly do change slightly in appearance, but that doesn’t matter to the story at all. Love struck Eric’s mullet haircut was endlessly fascinating though – I shouldn’t really make fun of such a serious work that was created during a grieving process, but sometimes I needed to lighten up a little reading this book.

Another surprising thing to me was that, due to the necessity of speech and thought bubbles not totally filling up the page, the dialogue has to be economic in words, which gives a prose poem feel to it – as a play script written in free verse even . Indeed, between chapters, O’Barr often gives us poems too – his own, those of his beloved French poets (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine amongst others), and song lyrics from bands like Joy Division. The we add in oodles of symbolism: the Crow itself – the dream catcher of the ancients, plus the white horse, death, angels on tombstones, and the Crow’s habit of posing with arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross.

The whole was intense, gripping and an emotionally draining read. I have no particular desire now to see the film having ‘read’ the book – I feel I’ve ‘seen’ it already. I enjoyed the intensity of the immersive experience that this graphic novel gave me, indeed it temporarily took me out of my cosy comfort zone into O’Barr’s world of pain and despair. If you can stand the strong emotions, I recommend this book highly. (8.5/10)

Is my flirtation with graphic novels done? I don’t think so – I’ll happily read more, but not necessarily ones with such a dark theme. I have Posy Simmond’s so English satire Gemma Bovary in the pile somewhere which would be a total contrast.

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My copy was kindly sent by Simon & Schuster – Gallery Books – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Crow: Special Edition by James O’Barr, published 2011, 272 pages.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Cerebus (Cerebus, Book 1) by Dave Sim
Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds

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