Love, Death, and Revenge: The Legacy of ‘The Crow’ Lives On

By Michael Crosby

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Art by Vance Kelly.

When I’m lonely,

I lie awake at night,

And I wish you were here…

I miss you.

With those four haunting, poetic lines, The Crow truly takes its heart, shape, and form.

Originally conceived and executed by a fledgling artist named James O’Barr, The Crow began as a direct response to its creator’s rage and torment. Abandoned as a child, O’Barr grew up in the system and in foster care. He seriously doubted that his own life left any real meaning. He was drawing, but in a sense, he was doomed right from the beginning. It is extremely difficult to grow up in blue-collar surroundings and try to be taken seriously as an artist. Now imagine what burned-out Detroit must feel like. So O’Barr set his book there and mapped it out, panel by panel, with both a grisly and ghastly splash of pure black and white — a form that perfectly encapsulated the material.

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‘The Crow’ original comics, issues #1-#4. Credit: Caliber Comics

From the very first page, you knew nothing about this book was going to be pretty. This book was going to push you deep into places you’d rather not go. The Crow is not, and should never be, an easy experience. In many ways, it’s the art of confrontation manifest. It grabs you by the neck, looks into your eyes, and refuses to let you go. No one is innocent in this world. Almost no one.

Shelly is the closest thing to purity we can find (apart from Sarah) who has unfortunately already been deeply traumatized at a young age, a common theme throughout both O’Barr’s original book (1989) and the Alex Proyas film adaptation (1994). O’Barr leaves the character largely opaque and drawn in broad strokes; in the film, her character is far more fleshed out and integral to the story. A win for the film team, which, by this time, had acquired the services of author and screenwriter David J. Schow.

O’Barr, dealing with serious childhood trauma, fell in love with a local girl, and it changed his entire life; his outlook, his mood, his disposition, all began to change. He was, for the first time he could ever remember, happy. A drunk driver came along and, in a horrific senseless act of selfishness and ignorance, murdered that dream by running her over.

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Left: Artist James O’Barr | Right: From the comic book, Eric and Shelly entangled in love, death, and revenge. Credit: Caliber Comics

I’m not going to say that I know anything about that kind of pain. I can only say that many of us feel so badly, die inside so terribly, that if we can’t know, we can at least be deeply touched, feel empathy, feel pain. Love, death, and revenge, the themes of The Crow, are universal in their power and unique in their grasp. They strike our very core, yet somehow appeal to a broader audience. So many of us have been hurt, and so many can identify. The Crow is unique, in and of its world; it creates a landscape for you to get to learn even as it tells its grim tale. It drags you inside in spite of yourself.

O’Barr cements himself as a master storyteller with this piece. There is nothing left behind. The man puts it all on the table, every nerve twitching and dripping with love, hate, remorse, pity. If to truly create means that you must give everything of yourself to the creation, then O’Barr didn’t just hit a home run here — he knocked it out of the fucking universe. There’s a black hole somewhere right now where The Crow is just landing, and everyone there is all the better for it.

Can you tell me,

There’s something more to believe in…

Or is this all there is?

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Original theatrical poster for the film adaptation.

The team that assembled to bring The Crow from an almost back-alley comic book to a feature film, turned out, with hindsight, to be one of the most influential and important teams in film history. The team was a combination of director Alex Proyas, a young Australian best known for his music video work; Dariusz Wolski, Proyas’ previous collaborator and a genuine genius whose lighting elevates the film to operatic levels; young writers like David Schow and John Shirley; the FX crew; the score by Graeme Revell; the soundtrack compiled by Jeff Most; everyone and everything, particularly the actors. This film is an actor’s paradise: Ernie Hudson, Rochelle Davis, Michael Wincott, Tony Todd, Bai Ling, Sofia Shinas, David Patrick Kelly, Laurence Mason, John Polito, Anna Levine, and poor Michael Massee, who through no fault of his own, fired the fatal shot into the star — Brandon Lee.

Brandon Lee, as unsexy as it sounds, was not killed in some elaborate plot that involved the death of his father Bruce by the Chinese mafia, nor was his death attributable to some kind of “curse.” Here’s the truth: Brandon Lee was killed through simple ignorance and greed. That’s all it ever was.

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Top Left: Brandon Lee | Top Right: Brandon Lee in character. Credit: Dimension Films | Bottom: Director Alex Proyas and star Brandon Lee on set.

The Crow was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina, on what remained of Dino de Laurentiis’s previous studio lot. North Carolina was then and still is a right-to-work state, which means that unions didn’t have much power, unlike strongholds such as Los Angeles or New York. In North Carolina, instead of being forced to pay top dollar union wages, you could hire literally anyone. Aa a result, several crew members on the set were basically neophytes. Unfortunately, this extended to the prop department. A prop gun wasn’t cleaned properly; a bit of shrapnel remained in the chamber. An amazing blizzard of circumstances led to that bit of metal being shot into Brandon Lee’s abdomen, where it lodged in his spine. The internal bleeding alone was enough to kill him. He died after surgery the next morning, and all of a sudden, The Crow wasn’t a movie anymore. It was a collection of devastated souls striving to bring Brandon’s work to life, to give him the epitaph he deserved.

Make no mistake about it, Brandon Lee is what gives the film version of The Crow its unrelenting, harrowing power. It’s undeniable. Watching this film is doubly tragic, not only because of the subject matter but because of the haunting, lyrical performance of Lee. Watching The Crow is like watching the evolution of a favorite child, watching it die, and watching its fragile, beautiful, tenebrous legacy live on. There aren’t words. There aren’t tears. There aren’t prayers.

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Eric (Brandon Lee) reunites with his beloved Shelly in the graveyard. Credit: Dimension Films

Sometimes you accomplish something that matters, all the way to the core. And for all of us who were cast out, who weren’t accepted, who lived and loved and laughed and dreamed, who CINEMA wasn’t speaking to, who society had cast off: The Crow spoke to us. It resonated. It still does to this very day.

It won’t rain all the time,

The sky won’t fall forever,

And though the night seems long,

Your tears won’t fall,

Your tears won’t fall,

Your tears won’t fall,


About the Author

Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020. We miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.

Follow Manor Vellum on Twitter @ManorVellum and Instagram @manorvellum.

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A membrane of texts about the human condition within the horror genre. A MANOR feature.

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