It’s a pretty sedate first issue for Idea + Design Workshop’s The Crow. Boy and girl are madly in love, girl meets with a fate far worse than death, boy winds up dead, but then he’s guided back to the world of the living to right the injustice of his death. But I can’t, and neither can you, read any issue of any Crow, and not be drawn back into perhaps the most beautiful line in all of comics.
“The past casts a long shadow”, Alan Davis wrote for Batman in the issue of Detective Comics that saw a Robin return for the first time after the death of former Robin, Jason Todd. That past and that shadow for James O’Barr’s the Crow has always been the death of Brandon Lee, on the set of the first Crow movie. It’s a poignant death, and one that echoes the death of Lee’s own father, Bruce, the legendary martial artist and filmmaker.
How do you read any issue of any Crow, without recalling the fateful, on-set death of Brandon Lee? This is really where the creative team of writer John Shirley and artist Kevin Colden really excel—in finding a Crow that is hauntingly relevant to our current age.
For one, the setting is really interesting. Jamie and Haruko are madly in love. Jamie’s a study-abroad student in Tokyo. He also trains at Haruko’s father’s dojo. Haruko is an “office flower”, a receptionist at the powerful BioTrope medical research corporation. It’s the off-the-books activities and experiments at BioTrope that will eventually end in the fate-worse-than-death for Haruko, and Jamie’s death and resurrection as the Crow.
One of the critical modes of the Crow, both creator James O’Barr’s original graphic novel (and subsequent books), and the 1997 film itself, was how fluently the creative project expanded the scope of grunge. In its usual, hyper-commercialized form, we associate grunge with bands like Nirvana or Soundgarden or Alice in Chains. We think of grunge as certain kinds of electro-chords tuned up to the discordant. But what of grunge itself, on its own terms? Grunge as an idea, as an artistic movement the equally valid, but perhaps more nascent form of movements like Art Deco or Dada or Cubism.
If we think of the idea of grunge as the exhaustion of consumptive capitalism, we can easily recognize the genre in various other media. X-Files-creator Chris Carter’s followup show, Millennium, is definitely grunge. Not only is it set in Seattle, the spiritual mecca of the movement, but it features protagonist Frank Black piecing his life together after an on-the-job nervous breakdown while working as an FBI psych-profiler.
In the same way we can also reclaim as grunge Frank McCourt’s novel Angela’s Ashes, which sees Angela reverse immigration and move herself and her children from New York back to Ireland. Perhaps even Jonathan Franzen’s landmark novel The Corrections could be said to not completely escape from the idea of grunge.
What James O’Barr’s original Crow did beautifully, was expand the idea of grunge and connect it with gothic romance. O’Barr’s creation offered us the idea that grunge wasn’t simply not eating at MacDonald’s but it was an idea that was always fighting to surface in the popular imagination—perhaps even as early as the time of Edgar Allan Poe.
And by implication, that the idea grunge had already been their at the birth of modernism. The struggle in the Crow for me personally, was always trying to find my way from the Shadow of the Past (the fateful death of Brandon Lee), back to one of the earliest connections I made while watching the movie. The connection was with Wallace Stevens’ 1923 poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Particularly the fifth way of Looking: “I do not know which I prefer,/ The beauty of inflections/ Or the beauty of innuendoes,/ The blackbird whistling/ Or just after”.
At first I believed this connection to be arbitrary, grounded in nothing more than the echo of the Crow in Stevens’ Blackbird. But years of returning to this passage slowly changed my mind. The tension between inflection and innuendo is at the core of the Crow as a creative project. The Crow has never been a traditional ghost story. It’s never been about a haunting. But at its core has always been a single question—in an age with life itself is desacralized, when life is treated as trivial, when life has become nihilistic, can the power of love move death to intervene? And that’s the true inner grunge, wrapped in the outer gothic of the Crow.
Nearly decades later now, John Shirley and Kevin Colden’s vision of the Crow return me to the profound genesis of James O’Barr’s creation. The biotech/life-extension program of a corporation that really needs to be Occupied is the perfect bridge between grunge and cyberpunk. The insight needed to make a connection between these two genres is simply genius. It’s importance cannot be overstated.
And in making that connection, John Shirley makes available the lasting idea of grunge.