Often you’ll see Twitter games going around asking questions like “Name 5 Movies That Define You” or “Top 5 Style Inspo Movies” or whatever. In most cases, I have pretty definitive answers for that. I’ll say BATMAN ’89 got me into comics, THE OUTSIDERS inspired my personal style or any number of John Carpenter movies made me like blah blah blah. Every time I think about a list of movies, movies that shaped my life and tastes, THE CROW is almost always on that list.
More so than any other piece of media, the movie and the book broke something in me, in the best way possible.
I remember very distinctly the first time I saw a trailer for it on TV. It being 1994 and I was an objectively cool 10-year-old, this was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to see. When the chorus of “Big Empty” hit right as Eric Draven got caught in the lights of the police helicopter, it was, without question, the coolest thing I’d ever seen. The quick cut to him gracefully swan diving off the building in his leather pants grabbed me in a way that few other things ever have. I had zero context about what this was, who this story was about or why it was appealing to me, I just knew it was rad as fuck. It was in such stark contrast to other things being thrown at me as a 10-year-old. This was the anti-Power Rangers. It was Batman if he listened to grunge. This was my older brother’s record collection came to life and shot drug dealers.
If my affinity for dark avengers was born seeing BATMAN ’89 at 5, seeing THE CROW at 10 lodged it into my heart.
But I was 10. There wasn’t a whole lot of options for me to go actually SEE this movie. Not because I wasn’t allowed or anything (my parents never gave a shit what I watched, and in fact encouraged that freedom), it’s just the nearest theater was about 10 miles away and I wasn’t gonna make that trip on my bicycle. This being the 90s, the gap between theater release and home video was laughably long. THE CROW came out in May of 1994, and it wouldn’t be out on VHS until September 1995. That, by today’s standards, is fucking insane. But I had no other choice but to wait. And wait. And wait …
Growing up in my house, Friday night had a very specific ritual. My dad would work late and then go directly to his pick up hockey game, so my mom/brother/little sister would go to Blockbuster and make brownies. This was every Friday night, basically until I was in high school, and is still the reason I like to stay in on Fridays. Friday is for chilling, full stop. We’d go to Blockbuster and immediately split up. My mother wouldn’t get anything because she was just waiting for us to go to bed so she could watch 20/20, at the kitchen table, smoking Merit cigarettes, waiting for my dad to come home (that sounds way sadder than it was actually was, we were fine). So my brother would usually go to the Comedy section (he rented Party Girl starring Parker Posey so many times they eventually just let him keep it). My little sister would stay with my mom and I would run full speed to the video game section to rent something for SNES or Genesis. I didn’t really own any video games, but I would rent the shit out of them. Uniracers, Knights of the Round, Skitchin’, etc (I eventually kept their copy of Skitchin’ and I’m not sorry).
(Sorry, off topic, but look how fucking radical this is.)
One fateful night, I walked past the New Release section on my way to get a video game — and there it was. It cannot be understated what a work of art the box cover for the original release of THE CROW. Pitch black, black as death with one single beam of light down the middle, with a figure full of mystery walking within it. Seeing the big, red title in that famous Burton’s Nightmare font stopped my little 11-year-old feet in their tracks. The image of Eric Draven illuminated by that helicopter came flooding back. I grabbed the tape from behind the box, carefully, and handed it to my mom.
I honestly don’t remember the first time I actually watched it. I’d like to say that it was a life-changing, nigh-religious experience that I could describe to you in great detail. But I honestly don’t remember. I don’t remember the hundreds of other times I watched afterward. Eventually, I got a VHS copy of my own so I could watch it whenever I wanted, and watch it I did. Rainy nights, in the middle of the night when there was school the next day, when I had a girl over for a makeout session, THE CROW was basically always on between the ages of 11 to 15. Every time I watched it, it got a little bit better because I was a little bit older. As my tastes matured, they were tempered by something in that movie.
It was there when I started to lean into my goth tendencies. The soundtrack was there as my taste in music evolved. At every turning point, it was there to remind me what I was really into and steer me true.
When I think about turning points, The ages of 10 to about 14 so critical to human development, you have to consider all angles as to why people turn out the way they do. I’m a firm believer that those adolescent years definite what kind of adult you’ll be. At that age, you’re old enough to understand right and wrong, but young enough that you won’t suffer consequences. With this unique freedom, people show their true selves, however cruel, vindictive or horrifying that may be. That, and you have hormones taking over your entire body and you want so desperately to not be a child and you hate everyone and everything, so yeah, not a great age.
For me, THE CROW came into my life exactly when I needed it to.
Back then, I had a lot going on that wasn’t so great. Sure, it was normal middle child suburban angst, but there was some other stuff too. In those years I had a pretty intense bully problem. Not so much like kids making fun of me, there was plenty of that, but kids thoroughly and routinely beating the living shit out me (usually for being Jewish or being the brother of a gay kid). It was some evil, Stephen King novel level abuse, switchblades and all. The details of that are for another post. But taking all that into account — angry at the world for hurting me, hating anything that was even a little bit childish and desperately wanting to be cool to set myself apart, THE CROW was the answer. A revenge fantasy about a dude all in black that likes arty things that can’t be killed, shooting down bad guys that hurt him and his hot girlfriend? And he was in a BAND?! This spoke to me in terms that are hard to explain. Imagine you’re living a teenage nightmare, where you feel powerless and terrified, and then you see Brandon Lee’s impossibly handsome face smiling at you? Some would argue that I was a little too old to have fantasies like that, but for me, it worked. THE CROW made me feel powerful. Just by liking it, it made me feel cooler and more cultured than the other kids who were into 311 and snowboarding or whatever. I could live out my more violent thoughts through this story, letting Eric Draven’s story be my own in some disjointed way. As a kid who wanted to feel love just as much as he wanted to see people who hurt him die, it was perfect.
I had always known that THE CROW was based on a book, a comic book no less. Where I grew up, they didn’t really have comic shops, and my mother wasn’t too keen on taking me to one. She was supportive of things I liked (mostly), but getting access to them was entirely up to me. So I knew this book existed, somewhere, but I had never seen even a single panel of it. Eventually, I caught it out in the wild, at a mall in Trumball, CT in what was probably 1996.
My mother loved going to the mall (and to this day I still have a very deep love of malls), so whenever I’d go with her she’d go to Filene’s or whatever and I’d head straight for FYE, the only arcade in 30 miles. FYE was sort of like a Tower Records, where it was an arcade but they also had movies, CDs and books. Every time I went there, I’d check the book section to see if the book version of THE CROW was there. I checked probably a dozen times over a few years, but it was never there. Eventually, one fateful afternoon, there it was. The original black cover trade edition, with the sketch gallery in the back. Actually seeing it for the first time, my first thought was “that looks nothing like Brandon Lee.” I had no reference when the movie came out, and I had even less for the book. All I knew was that it had the same title, and I just assumed it would be exactly like the movie. As I was soon to find out, it most definitely was not. I bought my first copy of the book with my arcade money. Bless the kind teenager who actually sold 12-year-old me this book. Maybe he was unaware of its content, but I’d say it was still a bit of luck that I got the book and my mother just assumed it was another comic book.
It was not just another comic book.
Much like the movie, I don’t totally remember my first read. Like the movie, I’ve read it, without exaggeration, probably a hundred times. But unlike the movie, the book unlocked things in my brain that I’m not entirely sure would have opened up otherwise. At the time, comics to me were X-Men and Batman. I’d been a comic book fan for pretty much my entire life at that point, but you have to remember the times. The only things I had read were the Liefeld-ian hellscape of the 90s comic boom. So the only comics I had been exposed to were shoulder pad and vacuum cleaner guns X-books, and the edgiest thing I had read was Chuck Dixon’s right-wing propaganda Punisher comics. So, not a great starting point. So with only that foundation to go on, THE CROW hit me with such force it shattered my perception of pretty much everything.
The art was on a level I had never seen before. James O’Barr put so much pain into every pencil stroke, every ink, it almost feels like the pages are covered in barbwire. This was a character that spoke in poetry and lyrics to songs I had never heard before. He wasn’t having a good time. Exacting his revenge was as painful as dying in the first place. It subverted the ideas of pain and depression and made them into a beautiful yet coarse lesson in human fragility, and how anger can be a hand to lead you through the darkness.
It showed me a world of dirt and hatred, where small reprieves of warm memory can sustain you through whatever horror comes next. It showed me that cruelty is a constant, but love can be the thin window pane between you and the monsters outside. In short, my childhood ended after I read the last page, and I don’t think I can ever repay it. The interstitials of song lyrics of bands I’ve never heard of before motivated me to go out and discover them (“What’s The Cure? Who is Joy Division?”). It had poetry breaks that cut so deeply and affected me so much that I tried writing my own, something that I eventually went to school for. It showed me that comics don’t have to be capes and lasers, but can be something much more mature, leading me to write my own crime and horror comics as an adult. It’s clear to me that this book, this one piece of media did more to influence my adult life than anything before or since.
As I’ve gotten older, THE CROW has come with me. I’ll meet other fans and gush over it. A friend wants to get into mature comics and I’ll lend them my copy (my original copy was lost to the ages but I have a beautiful copy of the special edition). I’ll drop whatever I’m doing if it’s showing in a theater here in New York. Although, as I’ve gotten older, I admit I see the cracks. THE CROW is a deeply 90s movie. There was definitely a marketing meeting about making him the grunge superhero the kids wanted. It’s got quite a few 90s action movie tropes that are hard to ignore this far removed from it. There’s a lot of edgelord shit happening in this movie that gets a little uncomfortable as the years go on (although you can absolutely make the argument that this movie invented edgelords). It’s a little cringe-y that this movie, to this day, is a Hot Topic staple, and has made somebody who (unfortunately) isn’t James O’Barr a ton of licensed merchandise money. The sequels are … better left not spoken about, for both the movie and the book, but they’re there. However, in this writer’s opinion, THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS gets a bad rap and deserves another viewing. At any rate, I always try to offer people THE CROW in it’s purest form. In fact, I recently found out that a few good friends have never seen it, so I keep meaning to organize a movie night at my house.
All in all, I think I’m pretty lucky to have a piece of media (really, two pieces of media) mean this much to me. To be able to trace back the exact points in my life that shaped me as an adult is pretty cool, and that it’s something as fucking awesome as THE CROW is an added bonus. I’m forever thankful to James O’Barr, Brandon Lee and Alex Proyas for giving us these wonderful toys to play with. Avengers are cool, John Wick is fun but real love is forever.
Fun facts and musings:
- My prized possession is my full set of first pressing original Calibur Comics issues of THE CROW. One of these days I need to get them signed and graded. Seriously, if my house were burning down, I’d grab those first.
- One time my family took a family vacation to Toronto when I was 13. We, of course, went to a mall and were told we could get anything we wanted. I wanted a pair of black leather pants with a button fly like The Crow. My dad laughed, and then said fuck no.
- I kept a DVD copy of THE CROW in the trunk of my car through all of high school, just in case.
- Jeff Hardy is one of my favorite wrestlers because his finisher very closely resembles Eric Draven’s swan dive. Also, he was super gothy so it tracks.
- When I was younger every time I found a piece of press about THE CROW, I’d cut it out and save it. A couple of years ago I found a shoebox in my mom’s attic with all of it perfectly preserved. It was a neat little time capsule.
- In high school, I had a black light poster of Brandon Lee as The Crow lounging in his chair (you know the shot). I got it at, you guessed it, Hot Topic.
- I read the book about twice a year, but it has to be read in one sitting and it has to be at night. Sorry, those are the rules.