Like many people, I had a comic book collection when I was young. Like many, I grew out of it. The idea of people in colourful tights, speaking in slogans, using their imaginary powers to combat imaginary beings eventually lost its appeal as I aged and has never returned. Nevertheless, the age-old tradition of telling stories with pictures never failed to provoke my interest, and having an open mind I have tested the waters from time to time to see what is out there. Barring one exception, I have yet to find anything to give me hope.
However, it is this exception that is the focus of this post.
I read James O'Barr's The Crow shortly after graduating high school and I have returned to it several times. I was suddenly faced with a work that clearly had adult themes, dealt with a dark and horrific subject matter, yet at the same time had a cathartic element. Without getting into a detailed plot summary, the work deals with a man and woman who are on the receiving end of a brutal crime and both are murdered. The man comes back from the dead to exact revenge. In this there is nothing atypical in the subject treated. It is the base idea for innumerable revenge stories and films.
The Crow distances itself from the mass in a few ways though. First, unlike most stories or films where the audience has a constant hope that the protagonist will achieve their goal despite all odds, but continuously runs the risk of failure, there is never a shred of doubt in this work that he will succeed. None whatsoever. Superman has his kryptonite. The protagonist of The Crow is completely invulnerable. Knowing the inevitable outcome, how did O'Barr generate a compelling story? He did this by investing in the emotional life of his subject. His loss is felt on every page, a constant reminder of the source of his anger and frustration over the life he'll never get back.
Second, O'Barr uses his visuals as an essential ingredient of the story, not to augment or supplement it. There are numerous pages where no dialogue, inner or outer, is included. The pictures alone propel the plot. These black and white drawings tell as much as the exposition of other sections.
Third, it is a very literary work. Inserted throughout are poems from O'Barr, as well as selections from several other poets. I credit this work with my introduction to Rimbaud, which is reason alone to give it significance. Also, imagine my surprise when years later I was reading Georges Bataille's The Accursed Share for the first time to encounter a passage that I recognized. After a long while of probing my memory I was able to trace it back to a section of dialogue from The Crow, paraphrased but very close to the original.
With The Crow giving me hope I have sporadically entered the graphic novel realm. I read The Watchmen after seeing it included as the lone graphic novel on Time magazines top 100 book list. I admit to having seen nothing special in it once I finished. I read the Contract with God trilogy by Will Eisner, considered one of the fathers of the adult graphic novel. While yes, it is intended for mature readers, I saw little that couldn't have been conveyed just as effectively by text alone.
Telling stories through pictures, to reference Bataille again in The Cradle of Humanity, was one of the first concrete demonstrations of human consciousness and artistic expression. I continue to feel that this modern version has untapped promise. Though imperfect, The Crow currently sits alone on my shelf as an example of its possibilities.