Contributed by Amanda Kahl
Early on in my comic-reading days I had little exposure to anything other than the handful of superhero titles at my local drugstore. I wanted to read more comics, but had very limited access. Sometime in middle school, however, I took my Christmas money to the mall bookstore determined that I was going to buy myself a new comic. Something serious. Something grown up and important. That day I ended up with James O’Barr’s graphic novel “The Crow.”
I had scoped the book out before on previous mall excursions – drawn to the dark, brooding atmosphere of the art. A couple of friends had seen the movie adaptation and encouraged my interest, saying it was a good story. When I finally bought my copy I devoured it. The story was intense and emotional, the artwork was expertly executed and detailed. I could not have been happier with my acquisition. As the years went by, however, I reread it less and less frequently. I stopped bringing it up when people talked about favorite comics in favor of things that were more current or more highly acclaimed (whatever that actually means.) But really, when I look back on it, “The Crow” influenced me more than any other comic.
The most obvious influence of “The Crow” to anyone glancing at both it and my own work is aesthetic. I had already been a fan of dark and intricate artwork (having been an Edward Gorey fangirl since I was 7) but O’Barr’s beautiful book showed me that a Gothy style could be used in comics as well. This was something that had never occurred to me as I read the candy-colored popular comics of the day. I didn’t realize until I was much older and much more well-studied how much influence O’Barr was drawing from established masters (everyone from Michelangelo to Will Eisner.) All that mattered to me at the time was that it was gorgeous and that if “The Crow” had done comic art that way, then I could too.
Since “The Crow” was the first non-superhero/Archie/talking funny animals comic I ever read, it was my introduction to the possibility that comics could explore any genre. Since the story was centered on revenge for a rape and murder and takes place mostly in the criminal underworld it was full of scenes of violence, torture, sex, drug use, explicit language, and plenty of other things that would have made my mother throw the book out (had she but known!) At the time, I really only noticed this content as being “adult” and not fundamentally changing my understanding of what comics were capable of being (which is what was actually happening.) The story was also a personal one. The stakes are extremely limited and really just center on a handful of players rather than the more typical “saving the world” setup of many superhero stories. Most importantly, the story is profoundly emotional.
Outside of my own art career, one of the biggest impacts “The Crow” had was to show me the importance of art as therapy. The intensity of emotion that is conveyed in that book is not something that can be faked; it comes from somewhere real. The edition that I bought featured a forward explaining that James O’Barr came up with the story because he had lost someone and was working through the grief. At the time I just thought it was a sad back story, but in the years to come I would relate to it very deeply. “The Crow” taught me that sometimes the only thing you can do to make sense of your own pain and struggle is to use it to create something meaningful, and hope that you reach someone else. Hope that you let them know they are not alone.
Looking back at this comic book that influenced me so strongly, I am kind of embarrassed that I wandered away from it for so long. If someone, especially a young person who has many intense and emotionally charged years ahead of them, is just getting into comics and venturing away from the mainstream for the first time I would have to tell them, “Okay, so you’re going to think it looks dated, you might think the dialog is cheesy at first, but you really, really need to read ‘The Crow’.”