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TV Version Is Something to Crow About

(This  Stripped column originally appeared in the September 24-30, 1998 Long Island Voice.Click on the artwork for a larger image.)

by Beth Hannan Rimmels


"Beauty may be skin deep, but damage is to the bone."

— Lusipher while brooding about revenge for Cassy's death in Poison Elves #30 

Sorry for the pun, but there's no better way to say it: I'm eating crow over the new, syndicated series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven.

If you remember, last year I wrote about the then-just announced series and heckled it for sounding like a cross between James O'Barr's The Crow (as filtered through the Brandon Lee film) and Highway to Heaven. I still think the original description sounds rather silly, but the execution of the actual series is pretty good. I'd give it a solid B. With a little tweaking, it could be a B+ or A-. It's a little hard to say more than that since I've only seen one episode and read the summaries for the next eight, but the first episode works much better than I anticipated.

In the show's defense, the first episode has to accomplish a lot in a little bit of time. A two-hour movie premiere would have served the series better but probably been harder to sell to stations. Like the original comic book miniseries and film, the TV show is about lovers Eric Draven and Shelly Webster, who are brutally murdered one Halloween. An old legend says that when a person dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead, but sometimes, just sometimes, when a soul is filled with great sadness due to a horrible wrong, the crow will bring their soul back to make things right. As such, a year later, Eric returns. It's there that the TV show diverges from the other versions.

Dacascos (left), Stuart

Whereas before, Eric avenged their murders — and helped others like Sarah along the way — here Eric's situation is more complicated. It's implied in the opening (and in the blurbs for future episodes) that he and Shelly have never totally reached heaven because Eric was called back for justice, and Shelly is waiting on the other side for him to finish setting things right.

Why Eric and Shelly died has also changed in every version. In the original, it was random violence, which is the version I prefer because it emphasizes the fact that you must savor every moment of life since you don't know how long you will have it. The film changed it to retribution for trying to improve their neighborhood. Here, it's a contract killing whose motives are explored in future episodes. Can you blame the producers? You need some mysteries for the new series.

I give producer Bryce Zabel (Dark Skies) credit for hammering out a workable, ongoing version of the story. At the presentation at August's Comic-Con International in San Diego, Zabel said the idea was pitched to him as turning The Crow into Touched By an Angel, which made his jaw drop. Zabel took a different approach: "Instead of saying, 'I want to change it,' I want to embrace it."

So Zabel kept the primary elements like Sarah and her troubled mother Darla (including the line "'Mother is the name for God in the hearts and mind of all children" — one of the best lines I've ever read) and added some new elements to the mix (Detective Albrecht now thinks that Eric murdered Shelly and faked his own death) that work. Unfortunately, a few other things don't work quite as well. For instance, Eric should not be referring to himself as "the Crow" or suddenly sprouting the black eye make-up out of nowhere.

One big change is that while there's kick-ass action, this Eric doesn't blow the bad guys away so ruthlessly. Instead, though I only know this from the San Diego panel and press releases, Eric's supposed to set things right without stooping to the villains' level. So while there's action and violence, it's not quite as bad as the film or comic book, which is good since in some markets it airs on weekend afternoons (Here on Long Island, it airs at 3 p.m. Sundays on NBC-Channel 4). James O'Barr's name is missing from the series credits other than one "Based on The Crow by James O'Barr," which was questioned a great deal by the fans in San Diego. Zabel explained that he was given the impression that O'Barr did not want to participate in the TV version at all, which O'Barr denied. That clarified, Zabel said he would then discuss future plans for the TV show with O'Barr. At conventions, it's hard to tell if statements like that are bones to quiet the fans or genuine, but Zabel seems to be a smart guy, so I'll hope for the best. The fans were emphatic that it was the spirit in O'Barr's writing that attracted them to the story rather than a thirst for supernatural action, so that could certainly help Zabel's decision.

One fan said, "They've made movies out of E.M. Forrester, Henry James, Jane Austin, but they're dead so you can't ask them what they think. He's [O'Barr] right here. Talk to him."

Karsenti (L), Dacascos

Fans at San Diego did express doubts about anyone filling Brandon Lee's shoes (Lee was accidentally killed during filming of the original movie), but Zabel rightfully pointed out that George Reeves' death didn't stop Christopher Reeve or Dean Cain from portraying Superman, nor should Christopher Reeve's accident stop Nicolas Cage or anyone else from playing the Man of Steel in the future. Mark Dacascos does a very good job of playing Eric. Actually, all of the regular cast — Katie Stuart as Sarah, Marc Gomes as Det. Albrecht, Sabine Karsenti as Shelly and Lynda Boyd as Darla — do a very good job. This is one comic book-derived series that is absolutely dependent on good acting to carry the emotional weight of the premise. The casting here doesn't disappoint.

The production values and filming are top notch, too. It doesn't hurt that much of the crew from The X-Files decided to take positions with the Vancouver-shot TC:STH rather than relocate to Los Angeles for the recently moved Fox series. The longer summer days of Vancouver also complicated things a trifle, though the series found ways to de-emphasize the constant daylight. Zabel predicted though that fans will eventually say that the show is getting darker in tone when in reality seasonal shift will simply just work in their favor later in the season.

All in all, I'd recommend TC:STH to both Crow fans and fans of fantasy dramas. While not yet perfect, this Crow is flying well enough to deserve a few more looks.

In other Crow news, Kitchen Sink Press will debut a new black-and-white anthology series supervised by James O'Barr himself (another color Crow series will debut in early 1999 by Top Dollar/Todd McFarlane Productions without O'Barr's direct participation). Eight issues will be produced a year. Called J. O'Barr's The Crow ($3.95), the first issue (#0) is entitled "A Cycle Of Shattered Lives" and in it O'Barr leads off a series of stories about other people brought back by the Crow with an illustrated short story that sheds new light on Eric and Shelly. The other stories include Joshua, the Crow Indian from O'Barr's from The Crow: Dead Time, scripted by John Wagner with new art by Russ Manning Award winner Alexander Maleev; the first woman crow, environmental avenger Iris, from The Crow: Flesh & Blood brought back by James Vance; philosopher Michael Korby from The Crow: Wild Justice by Jerry Prosser and Charles Adlard; and a dark return to the streets of Chinatown with Christopher Golden and Phil Hester's avenging cop Mark Leung. It also includes a gallery of twelve pages of never-before-seen Crow art by James O'Barr.

O'Barr is also working on another Crow series featuring a woman named Lucretia (Lucy) who O'Barr described in San Diego as looking "like the Bride of Death." He's also participating in a Del Rey hardcover Crow story with Gene Wolfe and Harlan Ellison.

Column 1998 Long Island Voice.