Published: January 5, 2011
There's a scene in James O'Barr's The Crow comic book where the main character, Eric Draven, approaches a female junkie who has been neglecting her pre-teen daughter, squeezes her arm until the heroin comes dripping out again, and says, "Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children. Do you understand? Morphine is bad for you. Your daughter is out there on the streets waiting for you."
It's only when considering the fact O'Barr, now 51 years old, was born in a trailer on an undetermined date in 1960 and raised within the Detroit foster care system, being allowed out of "underfunded orphanages" to stay with foster "parents" on weekends who, in O'Barr's words "shouldn't have been allowed to take care of a dog, never mind a child," that one can see just how personal a voyage The Crow was for him to write — and that's only half the story. When he was in his teens, O'Barr's fiancee was killed by a drunk driver. The Crow's story of never-ending love was O'Barr's therapy, his means of dealing with what was taken from him so recklessly, highlighted by a quote which reads, "If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever." The Crow was such a difficult project for O'Barr that it took a full 10 years to write, between the ages of 21 and 31. As a result, it's a beautiful piece of work, certainly more "art" than "comic."
James O'Barr found great success in the late '80s with The Crow, and again, hugely, in the early '90s with the movie adaptation. Overnight, O'Barr went from indie writer and artist with the Detroit-based Caliber Comics to a big name within comic book circles and beyond into pop culture. The Crow, both the comic book and the movie, was a tremendous success financially and artistically (though the less said about the horrible sequels and the worse TV series, the better). Dealing with dark subject matter and very personal issues, readers and viewers related by the millions, and O'Barr insists that the story is rooted in Detroit.
"The city of Detroit is a major part of the story," he says with detectable pride. "There are references to streets, hotels and restaurants in the book. There are also references to Devil's Night, which, I found out later on, only occurs in Detroit. Detroit gave birth to that character. The sense of chaos and danger and cultural decay is very much present in the book."
O'Barr's interpretation of Detroit is very personal, but the Motor City's presence in the comic book world doesn't stop there.
In the mid-'80s, Aquaman kicked Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and most of the other big guns out of the Justice League of America because they were too busy in Metropolis, Gotham City or elsewhere to devote their time fully to the League. In their place, Aquaman recruited lesser-known heroes Vibe, Vixen, Gypsy, Steel, Zatanna and Elongated Man, retained the services of the Martian Manhunter, and based his all-new team in an abandoned warehouse in downtown Detroit.
Unless you're a die-hard comic book fan, you probably didn't know that. You're probably wondering, "is there anything alive in the Detroit River for Aquaman to control?" (That's a good question.) But it's true. An incarnation of the "world's greatest superheroes" worked right here in Detroit and hardly any Detroiters know about it.
This is part of a bigger issue. Read anything about Iggy Pop or Aretha Franklin or most other Motor City musicians, and you'll likely know that they're from this region inside of two paragraphs. Ditto Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Sherilyn Fenn, Kid Rock, Tim Allen, Lily Tomlin, Elmore Leonard and countless other local filmmakers, actors, authors and celebrities. Within the realm of comic books, of course, it's easy to read a writer's words, look at an artist's work and even read about a fictional character, and not know that they came out of Detroit. There's a close-knit local indie comics scene — much like music, mutual struggles bring people together — but while researching this feature, it was almost a shock to learn that some of the big names don't know which of their fellow comic book writers and artists are also fellow Detroiters. That's just wrong.
In February of this year, Geoff Johns was promoted to chief creative officer at DC Comics in Los Angeles. This is relevant because Johns was brought up in the Grosse Pointe area, graduating from Clarkston High School in '91 and from Michigan State University in '95. Johns' rise is no surprise to fans; his work on the rebirth of the Flash and the Green Lantern was widely lauded, and his Blackest Night and Brightest Day books are two of the biggest ongoing stories of the last few years.
Johns earned his stripes before getting the big job, but he's certainly not the only Detroiter to have succeeded with the "big two" of DC and Marvel. Jim Starlin has been writing and drawing comic books since the early '70s, initially with Marvel in '72. Since then, he has gone on to revamp the characters Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock, and created a "cosmic tyrant" called Thanos (who first appeared in Iron Man in '73). Starlin lives in New York now, but he remembers his Motor City beginnings. "My father worked in Chrysler's drafting department and used to bring home tracing paper, No. 2 pencils and masking tape from the office," Starlin says. "With these, I used to trace off drawings from the Superman and Batman comics and put them up on my bedroom walls. Back in the '50s, the Detroit area had very few outlets for aiding and abetting in what I would eventually become."
Arguably, Starlin's best work is also one of the most groundbreaking moments in comic book history. His late '80s Batman story arc, A Death in the Family, gave readers the opportunity to call a 900 number and vote whether Jason Todd, the second Robin, should live or die. Though it was close, Robin ended up dying at the hands of the Joker in one of the Bat-fans' all-time favorite storylines. Starlin is understandably proud. "When I started writing Batman, I lobbied heavily to get rid of Robin — or at least not use him in the stories I wrote," Starlin says with a chuckle. "Fighting crime with a teenager dressed in primary colors while you're sporting a gray-and-black outfit always struck me as child endangerment, if not abuse."
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