James O'Barr on The Crow's 20th Anniversary, His New Project and Dallas
Located beneath the concrete silhouette of downtown, a lone figure rides a painted horse through a vibrant field of fresh and weathered graves. His glowing, amber eyes stand vigil against a threatening horizon overtaking the great American plains.
Spanning the courtyard of the Double-Wide, the mural stands as a tribute to the artist from whom it came. The mural demands the attention of the bar's patrons who struggle to light their cigarettes in the face of the dark horseman.
Off to the side, another lone figure sits quiet in reflection with a homemade Wile E. Coyote T-shirt and a pack of Pall Mall Reds. Unbeknownst to those drinking at the bar, he is the man responsible not only for the jolt they received in the courtyard, but also for
penning one of the most influential works of the early 1990s.
In anticipation of his upcoming graphic novel Sundown, (which inspired the Double-Wide mural) and in celebration of July marking the 20th anniversary of The Crow's publication (more on that after the jump), the Mixmaster caught up with artist and Texas transplant, James O'Barr.
What brought you to Dallas?
After 35 years in Detroit being shot, stabbed and run over, it became apparent to me that I would either end up with a toe-tag or wearing an orange jump suit in a place where they use cigarettes as commerce.
I had some friends down here and they talked me into staying for a while. I was really shocked by what I found in Dallas. There is a lot of culture here -- all the oil money definitely did not go to waste [laughs]. There are a lot of museums, a great art and music scene and even a big gay community, which is the last thing that I would expect to be here in Texas.
Dallas in a lot of ways is really like the anti-Detroit. I tell my friends back home in Michigan that every time a building falls down in Detroit, it pops up in Dallas.
What have you been up to since leaving Detroit?
I took some time off to learn how to paint, because I never had any real art training before. The idea of going to school for art seemed ridiculous to me because if you have a passion for something, you are going to pursue it regardless. So I ended up taking eight or nine years off, had a family, had a daughter and taught myself color theory and oil painting -- all the areas I thought I was lacking.
Once I got to DFW, it felt it was time to refocus and get back to what I love, which is comics.
Do you have any new projects coming out?
I have a new book called Sundown, which has been my pet project for a while. Originally I set out to do a 300-page graphic novel, but a company out of Dallas called Motionworks approached me about doing something else with it.
The book is a Western and I had done some of the pages as these widescreen, amorphic panels, which turned out to be perfectly suited for the iPad. It's not a typical comic where you have square or rectangular panels; every shot has these wide panels like an old CinemaScope picture.
Sundown is like a Spaghetti Western retelling of The Wizard of Oz. There are four characters going on a journey who wind up wanting four different things in the end, but it is more about the journey than the people who they meet -- or better yet, the people they kill since, after all, it's a Western.
James O'Barr Sundown
Did your trek to Texas have an influence on Sundown?
I have been working on it since I was back in Detroit, but the move to Texas has had a huge influence on it. Especially with things like the sunset, scenery and the desert, which were all things that I had never seen before.
In Detroit, the sunset is really green or gray so I had never seen a sunset that was 500 miles wide with pinks, lavenders and powder blues in it. Had I seen some of the sunsets I see here in a movie back home, I would have thought they were CGI. So yeah it has been a big influence on the color schemes and has added another depth to the realism to it.
For the book I did a lot of reading and research on the history of the area from the early 1870s. Initially the book started out in the East Coast, but I thought I might as well start off in Texas since I had all this information. There is a really rich history here and it has definitely influenced the progression of the book. I think it adds some validation because I am not just making this stuff up. It's a fantasy story that is sold in the most realistic fashion.
What was it like to work outside the traditional medium of comics with Sundown?
I really like the fact that motion comics are a new medium that really hasn't been defined yet because there is that potential for abuse. The rules really haven't been defined yet, so you aren't confined by them. Most of the ones that I have seen, which aren't a lot, have been kind of lame. It can be closer to a film instead of having these static images with a limited range of movement.
I really think Sundown is the first one that has been specifically designed for the iPad. It has sound effects and a whole musical score so it is really closer to a film. Plus it is fully painted so there isn't any line artwork. As much of a headache it has been with the animation, I'm really happy with it. All artists are their own worst critics so for me to say that is a really bold statement.
Since all of your artwork is done by hand, did you find yourself using new techniques and software with Sundown?
While I realize they are all just tools, I am really hesitant to become reliant upon computers. I still don't use a computer for any of the artwork; it is all hand-painted and illustrated. I think what I do is so organic and the idea of using Photoshop or any of those things is sort of a repellent. The fact is there are no happy mistakes on the computer.
I go to comic book conventions and there are kids sitting there with laptops at their booth instead of comics. Personally, I like to know if the electricity goes out I can still work. There isn't a magic button that is going to draw something for you. You need to know your craft. If you don't know basic anatomy and basic storytelling skills, it's all going to fall apart.
Do you find your audience open and accepting of your work outside of The Crow?
Absolutely. I am blessed. Fans of The Crow have been the most loyal fans in the world. I have done 2000 pages of comics, but I am obviously only famous for a certain 300. I am totally fine with that because that is my diary, my book and is really my child. It's been really good to me. I have been able to travel the world and it has given me a comfortable living. I am not rich by any means, but it allows me to do what I really love.
Are there any plans to commemorate The Crow's 20th anniversary?
I just did the 20th anniversary author's edition of The Crow. There were a lot of scenes and sequences that I wanted in there, but I wasn't capable of doing it at the time.
Some of the sequences were still too soon after my fiancée's death and I felt that they exploited our relationship for entertainment purposes. However, with the 20th anniversary, I felt it was now or never and wanted to add those sequences that were always meant to be there.
I did all of the new artwork in the same style as the old, so it's really a seamless match. I didn't do the George Lucas thing and go back and shine things up. It doesn't change the structure of the story, but it adds more layers and depth to it.