You may have heard of the dark, gothic movie that the late Brandon Lee tragically lost his life making. You may have even heard of the rumored curse surrounding its production & every attempt since. I was a fan for years before discovering it was adapted from a book of the same title. Once receiving a copy, I was forever changed & needed to know more. Where did it come from? Who is this artist/writer that could move me so with a single story? Today, I would like to share the story behind the story with you. The following is the sorrowful, true life tale that inspired a masterpiece.
Long before the film, the book & all the cult classic accolades, there was a little boy who was born to a drunken mother in the trailer that she lived in. About a week or so later, she would take him to a hospital where she was too inebriated to recall his exact date of birth. “Somewhere between Christmas & the New Year” was her best guest. So, the staff decided January 1, 1960 would be the date his birthday would be celebrated. Shortly after, the newborn James O’Barr was pronounced a ward of the state, transferring out to an orphanage. Then, rotated through countless foster families for the early years of his life.
Knowing he wouldn’t be in a home for long, James would keep to himself. Doing all he could to not draw attention or ire from his “weekend family.” He imagined that the fosters assumed he was learning disabled as he wouldn’t even speak during his stay. He was seven years old before finally getting adopted by his blue collar, forever parents. Though they spent much of the remainder of his childhood working, the couple still provided a stability the young O’Barr grew up to appreciate.
Over the years, his lack of social skills & supervision allowed him to immerse himself in his love for art. Being fascinated by the work of Renaissance sculptor, Michelangelo, he would draw inspiration and create the foundation of what would become his own style. Though he failed at art in school, it was more out of disobedience than lack of talent as he would refuse to do assigned elementary exercises & spent his time on honing his skills instead. From pencils to inks to watercolors & all manner of mixed media, James O’Barr became affluent in many facets of his creative passion.
At age 16, he met the love of his life & for almost three years enjoyed the most happiness he ever knew. Sadly, while they were engaged & saving up to be married, his love was killed by a drunk driver. This sent O’Barr down a self-destructive path that led to him joining the U.S. Marines in 1978. He hoped that while out on deployment, he would meet his own demise. To his disappointment, they learned of his artistic abilities & assigned him to create training manuals for the corps while stationed in Berlin. During his downtime, he would vent his mourning & frustration on paper. These attempts at coping would eventually culminate into a dark tale of lost love & vengeance.
The haunting black & white etchings are harsh & coarse through the present day telling of a resurrected Eric, exacting revenge against the men who killed him along with his fiancé, Shelley, one year to the day prior. Mixed in along the way are softer strokes & blends of flashbacks to the life the lovers shared together, usually coming to an abrupt end with a nightmarish reminder of the now. As the chapters progressed, there were additions of prose pages made up of poetry & borrowed lyrics from popular punk/gothic rock bands like Joy Division & The Cure.
As Eric finds each perpetrator, the memories become more frequent & vivid, building up to the final moments of the doomed couple. The actual event of their demise was inspired by a newspaper article that James read about an actual occurrence that his story exaggerates for dramatic effect. I felt as if I experienced his pain as I read those pages & needed to find that same vengeance as if it would be my own! A flood of emotions hit me in a wave of my own personal history and experience as well as the literary journey I had been on until that point. Worlds collided and I truly believed that I was a part of the story now. By the story’s conclusion, many of my unresolved issues with death, loss & love were also brought to a close. I have read and re-read that story and its many reprints and special editions ever since.
Upon returning home from deployment, James would shop his work around to publishers who promptly turned him down. No one seemed to believe that the story would be accepted by a mainstream audience. It wouldn’t be until 1989 when a new independent company, Caliber Comics, would publish it & immediately saw success. Before the complete story was even published, the rights were already being optioned by Hollywood in 1991. James would learn very quickly that dealing with producers & movie executives was the bane of a creator’s existence.
As studios would muddle over adapting The Crow to film, there was a point where they were very serious about turning it into a musical, headlined by Michael Jackson (not kidding). Thankfully, the project was saved by a headstrong director, Alex Proyas, with additional weight from the legendary Brandon Lee as the star. Their efforts brought as much of the original feel & essence back to the project as the studios would allow. From reading the script as well as the source material, Brandon became a true fan of the work & did all in his power to preserve the integrity of it’s telling. There are even some of the movie’s most classic quotes that he ad-libbed perfectly to capture the driving theme of a particular scene. One of my favorites is “Believe me, nothing is trivial.”
During production, a host of unfortunate events would lead to setbacks, disasters & injuries. The pinnacle being the death of Brandon Lee himself due to a misfired gun prop during filming. The wounded star was rushed to the hospital where he would soon be pronounced dead, casting a shadow of grief & guilt over the entire project that had yet to be concluded. After consulting both his fiance, Eliza Hutton and his surviving family, efforts were resumed & the completed work became the highest grossing production from Miramax Films up to that point.
Since then, a slew of sequels in both print and film have been released and none have even come close to the same success. Much of the cult following believe that so much hurt and loss surrounding it’s origins have effectively cursed the story. Others even go as far as to link the fabled curse of Bruce Lee weaving its way into his son’s legacy. The latest casualty of the so-called curse is the creative team up of Director Corin Hardy & leading man Jason Momoa who both publicly announced priming for initial filming. Shortly after the social media announcements, another project was dead in the water.
I believe there really are “once in a lifetime” occurrences that we can only consider ourselves lucky to bear witness. Try as we may to add to or become a bigger part of it than we were meant to be, the efforts will always be futile. The best way I feel we can honor the memories of things past & gone is to retell the tale of how it has affected our lives and let it show in the new that we add to the world instead of digging up the dead. I would personally love an adaptation closer to the source material. But, do admit that it wouldn’t be for the faint of heart. If you thought the movie was dark, don’t read the book before bed.
This Halloween season, I do encourage you to seek out this body of work and see it for yourself. If you can, find the author’s special edition of the book and the 20th anniversary collector's edition of the movie. Each full of extras that I have actually referenced throughout this very article. Two worth mentioning are a depicted scene directly out of the life of young James and “the girl who would be Shelley” in the book and what is argued to be the last recorded interview of the late, great, Brandon Lee in the movie’s special features. May they help you lay to rest some of the things that haunt you as they have me. A special Mahalo to James O’Barr, my all-time favorite comic book creator.
And as always, Mahalo to you for reading!
For the history of horror in comics, check out Brendan Jones' article "Booga Booga Nights".