Dark stars

How Detroit more than matches Gotham City and Metropolis, all from the minds of comic genius

Jan 5, 2011 at 12:00 am

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."

Despite his Detroit beginnings, Starlin doesn't believe that his hometown informs the majority of his work to any great degree, aside from the very grim Gotham City backdrop in the Batman books. "Very little," Starlin says, "other than Elmore Leonard's crime writing inspiring me on my Batman run. Most of my work is science fiction, with many a spaceship but few cars."

O'Barr's The Crow
was published by Detroit's Caliber Comics, a company with an international cult following started by writer and artist Gary Reed. "Around '89, I had had comic book stores for about 10 years," Reed recalls. "Arrow Comics was a local publisher who published books called Deadworld and The Realm, and then all the black-and-white companies went under. Arrow had hired these two teenagers to draw Deadworld and The Realm, Vince Locke and Guy Davis, respectively, and they turned over the rights to the comics to them. Vince and Guy asked me to look into new publishers for them and, after a while, I said that I'd do it myself, so I started Caliber. Another customer of mine was Jim O'Barr, who was selling T-shirts at my store. He said that he had an idea. He had about 16 pages of something that ended up being The Crow."

O'Barr, now living in Texas, isn't happy that his original vision has been bastardized so brutally by Hollywood. "The only film I was actively involved in was the first one," he says. "It wasn't built to be a Star Trek franchise. It had a definite ending. The only reason there were other movies and a TV show, ultimately, was for greed. I'm proud of the first film, that it stayed as true as it was. Nothing like that had come out at the time. I thought it was one in a million that it would even get past the script stage, but within two years it was in production. Even now, every time they make one of those piece-of-shit movies, they have to pay me because I own that character."

O'Barr looks at locals like Starlin with a mixture of respect and trepidation. "Jim Starlin was one of the very first professionals that I met at a little comic show at a mall when I was about 13," O'Barr says. "I showed him some of my drawings and he was really encouraging. He's one of the reasons I stayed in it. It was hard to get feedback, so just to be able to meet these professionals and have them encourage me was instrumental in me keeping at it. I see Jim Starlin at shows now, and it's kind of like his generation has passed and all those guys are struggling, and I wonder if that's my future."

Like O'Barr, 61-year-old New Yorker Rich Buckler is a Detroit native who created a character deeply rooted in the Motor City, a Marvel Comics cyborg called Deathlok the Demolisher. Here's the backstory: When Colonel Luther Manning, a Detroiter, got fatally injured fighting for his country, he was reanimated as Deathlok. From that point on, he'd battle all manner of corporate villains, robots, zombies and the computer that controls his head. Not your typical night on Woodward Avenue then. Buckler's beginnings are far less exciting.

"I was 10 years old when I moved to Detroit from upstate Michigan, and I discovered comic books for the first time," Buckler says with a smile. "As I grew older and figured out that there were specific writers and artists who were paid to produce those stories for the comics, I realized that it was something I wanted to do. I worked on the staff of the first few annual Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic conventions [the first U.S. convention of its type, once organized by Detroiter Shel Dorf, who went on to create the San Diego Comic Con, the world's largest comics convention] and then later I became co-chairman of one of them. I was thoroughly immersed in comics and comic fandom. The dream of becoming a professional artist and writer for the comics just grew out of that."

Buckler, who also co-created DC superhero team the All-Star Squadron, is understandably proud of Deathlok. "He was born in Detroit because I was," Buckler says, grinning. "I guess that shows how closely I related to that character. Deathlok seemed to just spring to life on his own. He was both alive and dead, human and monster. The theme of technology robbing him of his humanity was an important part of it. I think that concept was very relevant back then, and probably is even more so today. He was an experimental 'super soldier' created by the military and programmed for violence and destruction. Not exactly a superhero, more of a modern-day rebel who was a victim of a 'Frankenstein technology.'"

Deathlok, the JLA and Eric Draven aren't the only characters to have been born or based in Detroit. John "Green Lantern" Stewart was an architect from Detroit before being picked for bigger things by aliens. Another Green Lantern, Guy Gardner, played football for the University of Michigan. Highwayman, a nemesis of the fiery-skulled Ghost Rider, is a Detroit native, as is Jason Rusch, aka the DC hero Firestorm. X-Factor Investigations, a branch of the X-Men, had a base in Detroit for a while, and the Marvel characters Nuke, Firebrand and Demolition Man all came from here.

Most recently, Marvel's Iron Man has had to face a new foe called — get ready for this — Detroit Steel.

Back in the real world, indie comics are doing fairly well in metro Detroit thanks to such people as Jeremy Bastian, Dave Petersen and Katie Cook, who are attracting the attention of new fans every week with their artful styles and ideas. Petersen writes a story called Mouse Guard. "The premise is about mice being fairly low on the food chain," Petersen says dryly. "They have to build their cities deep and hidden away. For me, Mouse Guard is in part my love letter to Michigan. It has Michigan-based landscapes; there are Michigan references with city names, so I try to do my best. I'm proud of my Michigan heritage."

Brett Pinson, who writes and draws for the local indie publishing house Boomtown Press, which puts out the Boomtown Scabs book, agrees, but he doesn't think that Detroit gets its props, considering what it has given the comic book world. "Detroit has launched a ton of talent in every area of entertainment," Pinson says, with a puff of the chest. "Unfortunately, I don't think it gets the credit it deserves. People think everything comes out of New York or L.A. Actually, when you look at it, a lot of these guys have had ties to Michigan and had to move away."

Michael Marcus is part of a collective called the Hamtramck Idea Men (HIM), which put out the IF-X and Terra 2920 books. He agrees with Pinson, and believes that such big-name natives as Geoff Johns and Jim Starlin should reach out to their hometown. "I'm really happy that they were able to make the leap," Marcus says, before pausing for thought and adding. "I would love to see them help others from the area make the same leap, or at least help them find their way to get started."

Katie Cook, best known for her work on the Fraggle Rock and Star Wars comics and her own online comic strip, Gronk — A Monster's Tale, believes that this is a healthy time for comic books in Detroit. "I think that Detroit has a great underground indie artist movement going on," she says. "People still love Marvel, DC and the mainstream characters, but there's a growing need for great stories and great artwork that don't have anything to do with Spiderman or Superman. There's a Michigan writer and artist called Jeremy Bastian who does a comic called Cursed Pirate Girl that is amazing — one of the most artful books I've ever seen. There are so many people that live in this area that are talented artists and are applying that artwork to indie comics. It's just an exciting time to watch."

It's not surprising that Detroit has proven to be such a rich breeding ground for comic book artists, writers and characters. As perhaps best illustrated by The Crow, the city provides the ideal, Gothamesque backdrop for crime-fighting, and you can't have any crime-fighting without crime. Our music, film and art scenes show how great art rises from struggle. Comic books are really just another medium. Due to the isolating nature of the work, and that big names will inevitably relocate to New York and L.A. in order to get work with DC and Marvel, perhaps a widespread Detroit comic book "scene" is too much to ask. But that the Detroit Triple Fan Fair convention was resurrected this year (as the Detroit Fanfare) and that there are pockets of indie writers and artists putting out quality books on a regular basis means that Detroit still has much to be excited about.

So maybe the Justice League of America will move back here, preferably bringing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman with them this time.

Thanks to Dennis Barger and his staff at Wonderworld Comics (22391 Ecorse Rd., Taylor; 313-292-8697) who helped immensely with research.