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Creator of 'The Crow' wrestles with a bright talent born of dark despair

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It would be nice to say James O'Barr has been able to quiet his ghosts. The man who created the gothic-styled comic book "The Crow" has had his share, after all, and they have tormented him long enough.

But even though the Detroit artist-writer says he has reached a "sense of closure" since the death of his one-time fiancee, which prompted him to begin the dark comic book more than a decade ago, and the accidental shooting death of Brandon Lee during the filming of "The Crow" in 1993, it's hard to believe him.

In fact, it appears Mr. O'Barr doesn't quite believe himself.

"There's still some residual guilt here and there," admits Mr. O'Barr, 34. "But those are things that I'm working on."

Despite the fact he rarely smiles -- even when cracking the occasional joke -- Mr. O'Barr is hardly the prototypical angry young artist. He is soft-spoken, reflective and straightforward, whether talking about the friendship he shared with Lee, his musical influences or his taste in comic books.

"All I ever try to be in my work is honest," says Mr. O'Barr, who will appear at Cutting Edge Comics in Baltimore today. "I never try to fake or feign anything, and I never try to manipulate the audience.

"I would never try to fool myself into manipulating a scene just because I knew someone else would enjoy it that way," he continues. "It's where a lot of other comic artists go wrong. They think about the audience rather than what they're putting on paper -- what's in their head.

"But I'm facing the things that most people turn away from, that people spend 15 years in therapy to discover. I'm putting them down in black and white."

The black-and-white pages that tell the story of the Crow, a young man named Eric who returns for vengeance a year after he and his fiancee are murdered, are some of the most gripping in comic book history. The book is violent, angry and harsh, both to its characters and the reader.

But above all else, "The Crow" is a love story. It is a tale of a man who is not allowed to die, not allowed to be reunited with the love of his life, until he becomes like his killers and murders each of them.

"I had always referred to it as a gothic romance -- an urban gothic romance," Mr. O'Barr says. "In essence, Eric is no better than the people he is killing. But the love that he has for this woman somehow justifies it."

Mr. O'Barr knows of what he speaks. It was the death of his fiancee when he was 18 that sent him into a downward spiral that included assorted forms of self-punishment, including a stint in the Marines.

But in 1981, while in the Corps illustrating combat manuals, Mr. O'Barr began "The Crow" as a more productive way to deal with his pain.

"I tried all the typical angst-ridden outlets, like substance abuse and going to clubs or parties every night and just basically trying to keep yourself numb for as long a period of time as possible," he says. "Eventually I was smart enough to realize that that was a dead end, and so I thought perhaps putting something down on paper I could exorcise some of that anger."

Mr. O'Barr was no stranger to comic book art -- he painted several covers as a teen-ager, including one for the adult-oriented "Heavy Metal." But "The Crow" was his first attempt at a complete comic.

The first four issues were published in 1989 by Caliber Press before financial woes forced the company to shut down. In early 1992, those stories were reprinted by Tundra Publishing as the first two books of a three-volume series. Mr. O'Barr then wrote the the third and final chapter, titled "Death," which appeared that May. Later that year, all the issues were compiled for the first time in a graphic novel that also included some new material.

Instead of being free of the anger that drove him to write the book, Mr. O'Barr said he felt even worse once the story was complete.

"I had found that as I was doing the book I was just focusing on pure negativity," he says. "I was probably in a lot worse shape when I finished it than when I had started."

Brandon Lee's death a year later didn't make it any easier. Lee, the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee (who had died during the filming of "Game of Death" 20 years earlier), was killed with a gun that was supposed to be loaded with blanks. Ironically, the accidental shooting came while Brandon Lee was acting out the scene in which Eric is murdered when he was fatally wounded.

Mr. O'Barr was so broken up by Lee's death he was unable to return to North Carolina to work on rewrites when Lee's mother and fiancee decided that production should continue.

"He told me it [the film] was the first time he didn't feel like he was in his father's shadow," Mr. O'Barr said of Brandon Lee. "He really thought this was going to be a breakthrough for him."

As it turned out, the movie, which was released on video recently, would have been Lee's star-making vehicle. In a way, it was: "The Crow" will be the film for which he will be remembered.

"Whether fate or anything else has to do with it," Mr. O'Barr dourly notes, "he is forever tied to this character."

Mr. O'Barr frequently is confronted by readers who, for whatever reason, have latched onto "The Crow" as a symbol for the pain in their own lives. Many are compelled to share their sorrows with the man who spoke to them, reached them, through his book. Mr. O'Barr has heard all the stories, but says he never quite knows what to say.

"Sometimes I feel like the world's misery dumpster," he says. "I hear every sad story in the world, like I have some kind of an answer or antidote. And I don't! I'm asking the same questions as everyone else.

"I really don't know what to say to these people, other than 'Just hang in there and keep fighting -- someone cares about you, somewhere.' "

JAMES O'BARR

What: An appearance by the creator of "The Crow"

L Where: Cutting Edge Comics, 6100 Old Harford Road, Baltimore

When: Today, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Cost: Free

Call: (410) 426-1618

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