RETRO REVIEW: JODOROWSY’S DUNE Celebrates One Man’s Passion to Take Cinematic Audiences to Another Planet

Posted on: Apr 29th, 2014 By:

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (2013); Dir. Frank Pavich; Starring Alejandro Jodorowsky, H.R. Giger, Michel Seydoux;  Now playing at UA Tara Cinemas @ 4:45pm and 7:15pm.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Frank Herbert’s DUNE is a paradox. It’s a novel of fantastic scope, high adventure and spirituality that hangs on a deeply personal space opera plot. In short, DUNE is everything a movie producer wants in a blockbuster film.

On the other hand, the same material that makes Herbert’s novel so appealing renders it a whopper to reel in. The story is dense and inaccessible, the setting weird and unwieldy, and everything that happens is in pursuit of a drug that alters your consciousness and expands your mind. That’s a hard sell in Peoria.

DUNE is like a siren sitting on an enormous safe full of cash, and great filmmakers have sunk to the depths trying to crack it. Perhaps the greatest is David Lynch, a true visionary of the art form, whose turgid, silly 1984 adaptation clearly got away from him. Rumors abound that prior to Lynch, names like Ridley Scott, David Lean and even Jack Nicholson all considered giving it a go. A 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries had its merits but came woefully short. The fact is that the story of DUNE as a movie is written with the misfires.

Before all of these failures, there was Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Chilean-born surrealist behind art house smash EL TOPO (1970) and the breathtaking, bonkers THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973) [NSFW] built a team in the mid-70s—not of technicians, but of “spiritual warriors”—to bring DUNE to the screen for the first time. What he created was a landmark of cinema history, an impact crater that shook the industry and left a mark on pop culture that’s easy to identify even today. Not bad for a movie that wasn’t even made.

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, a new oral history of the film that never was, begins with an interview from DRIVE (2011) director Nicolas Winding Refn in which he claims Jodorowsky once walked him through the screenplay and storyboards step-by-step, making Refn the only person who has actually seen his version of DUNE. The documentary tries to rectify that to an extent, filling the screen with storyboards and animated concept art that gives audiences a glimpse at what could have been a cinematic mind-trip to rival that of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Jodorowsky, you see, had no interest in the pop and whizz of traditional space opera. He believed that with DUNE he had a responsibility to change the world, to alter the minds of those in the audience and to provide the experience of tripping on LSD without the pesky need to actually take the drug.

And then he asked Hollywood studios for millions of dollars.

In the story between Jodorowsky’s inspiration and the inevitable collapse lies a truly inspired documentary, one that breathlessly fawns on the director and his vision, but still allows Jodorowsky (now in his 80s) to work himself into a puckish frenzy describing every wild shot or audacious casting choice or the moments where his artist’s indignation causes friction with his crew. (Evidently Pink Floyd was really into hamburgers, that most banal meal.) Watching Jodorowsky rant is almost a bigger draw than the fragments of his lost film. This is a man who once talked Salvador Dali into playing the crazed emperor of the universe, and his charm still shines through in his advanced age, even if he is prone to halting interviews to play with his cat or indulge in an inappropriate metaphor or two.

The story of his film, as painted by Jodorowsky and the others, is an unlikely “team on a mission” tale as the director assembles his collaborators, from the late Dan O’Bannon (DARK STAR, ALIEN) to comic artist Moebius, HR Giger and the French progressive rock band Magma. Every time the peak of the story is seemingly reached, it just gets bigger. By the time a burning giraffe gets a mention, it’s just another oddity to throw onto the pile.

Of course, Jodorowsky never misses an opportunity to find the metaphysical in the moment, and likewise the documentary becomes about something more than a lost artifact of cinema history, but also about life and loss and the very-human need to create. It’s a credit to Jodorowsky’s vision that shortly after his project fell apart, other science fiction films began to hire his team (O’Bannon, Moebius, and Giger were all hired by Ridley Scott for ALIEN) and gradually his failed effort flowed out and gave life to other projects, films and stories that would alter the course of the movies in a very real way. Although DUNE was never made, its influence is everywhere. The documentary makes a compelling argument that the lost DUNE is a keystone project. It’s death guided the subsequent four decades of genre cinema, but if it had lived. . . well, then maybe it would have changed the world.

Maybe the money guys were right. Maybe the film had no chance of achieving its ambitions, and there may have been little chance of making back its budget even if it did. But, then, one never knows. Jodorowsky still hopes for a DUNE animated film that incorporates his script, and now that you mention it, advances in special effects and a renewed interest in smart science fiction may have created an environment that’s ripe for a DUNE revisitation. An attempt led by Pierre Morel fell apart back in 2011, but maybe the right director can finally crack this nut.

What could go wrong?

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is now playing at UA Tara Cinemas. Get tickets HERE.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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Retro Review: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA Was Made for the Big Screen: Why You Will Be at The Plaza Theatre, It Is Written

Posted on: Jan 1st, 2014 By:

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962); Dir. David Lean; Starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins; FIVE NIGHTS ONLY! Wed. Jan. 1 –  Sun. Jan. 5 at 7:15 pm; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

When Peter O’Toole passed away on December 14, blogs everywhere became choked with memorial blurbs and retrospectives, and not without reason. O’Toole was, no question, one of the greatest and most legendary personalities in the movies. Full stop.

However, one recurring theme I noticed on these sites was the offering of the little-known gem, some less-traveled, cultier role of O’Toole’s sent forth to remind fans that the actor was much, much more than just his most famous roles. And while, yes, films like MY FAVORITE YEAR, THE STUNT MAN and THE RULING CLASS certainly make the case for O’Toole as an actor of tremendous charisma and power—my apologies to fans of KING RALPH—there seemed a conscious effort by writers to ignore the big drunken, happy, English elephant in the room: O’Toole’s work in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Writers either assumed their readers were already familiar with LAWRENCE or that they would turn up their nose at what has, unfortunately, become something of a cinematic vegetable one has to power through at some point in life. Ignoring the suspicious notion that LAWRENCE is still much-watched and enjoyed by today’s younger generations, if only one movie can summarize O’Toole’s greatness, that movie has to be LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, doesn’t it? While each of those films I named above has its strengths and merits, they’re all, by definition, weaker examples of O’Toole’s brilliance because, quite simply, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is one of the greatest films ever made, and O’Toole in it gives maybe the most electric star-making performance in the history of the art form. It’s LAWRENCE. It always had to be LAWRENCE.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) is the kind of movie that sounds like dull dirt on paper (or, in this case, dry sand), ostensibly a biography film of the war hero T.E. Lawrence, an officer who united feuding groups of Arabs against the Ottoman Empire during the first World War. Lawrence was a larger-than-life figure whose exploits defied reality, and so the job of capturing this British hero’s story on film fell to that great British director David Lean. Lean had made his name with intimate family dramas and Charles Dickens adaptations, but three straight films [THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957); LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962); DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)] would link him forever with the screen epic. Lean’s film jettisons the usual biographical bookending and fixates on the key years of Lawrence’s military campaign, his victories, his struggles and the eventual failure of his plan to save Arabia for the Arabs.

Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quayle in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

But the movie is far more than the sum of its plotline. It’s not quite accurate to say that one could watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and ignore the war scenes, but it certainly feels like that’s the case. Lean is less interested in the deeds than he is in the land, and he shoots the desert not as a desolate or alien place, but with awe, majesty, and romance. Coupled with one of the all-time best musical scores from Maurice Jarre, LAWRENCE is an achievement in image, one of the landmark films of cinematography. The movie is never, at any point, anything but staggering to look at.

But then there’s Peter O’Toole, an actor so grandiose as to make the desert seem small. Although Lawrence was shot in a time of method acting and cinematic naturalism, that’s not O’Toole. He’s an actor of extreme mannerism and crisp efficiency, and his clear, sad blue eyes seem to be an incongruous fit for the brutality around him. And yet he’s grander than the desert and the war combined, striding across the landscape in great strokes and changing the fate of a continent with his whims. Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) supposed that the robots of the future might look to Peter O’Toole for inspiration on how to dress and behave, and there’s crystalline truth in that idea—O’Toole’s Lawrence is at once an ideal human, but also another kind of being. He’s mythic, synthetic. His gravity is so large that overshadows the other great actors who surround him. Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains—all are just notes surrounding O’Toole’s Lawrence. Without him, the desert is empty. Without O’Toole, the movie falls apart. Although he had a tremendous career, O’Toole would never again transcend a role in quite the same way.

Peter O'Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

I’ve watched LAWRENCE OF ARABIA many times on DVD, and I’ve had the great fortune to have seen the film three times on the big screen, once in its intended 70mm projection. If there was ever a single, undefeatable argument for the magic of cinema trumping the convenience of a living room couch, it is LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Watching LAWRENCE properly projected, with a booming sound system, is like finally getting a glance at that “window to another world” nonsense the Oscars roll out every year in their self-serving montages. (That O’Toole was snubbed for his work in this film and, indeed, each and every subsequent film he made reminds us that movie awards are, fundamentally, bullshit.) At the time of its production, it was inconceivable that the film would ever be seen on home video or, god forbid, your tiny phone screen. Every choice of lens, frame and composition was made with the assumption that the audience would be confronted with a giant screen and have no choice but to lose themselves in the scale. More than almost any other film, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA suffers outside of its intended environment.

If you’ve seen the film, nothing I’ve just written is a surprise. I’m speaking to the people who haven’t seen it, who have somehow lumped LAWRENCE in with CITIZEN KANE (1941) (another great film unfairly burdened with the label of “great”) as a bit of cinema homework they’d rather put off until the mood is right. But LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is no vegetable, it’s a 12-course meal. And on the big screen, in our contemporary multiplex environment of cinematic sameness and digital paintbrushes, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA reminds us of cinema’s power to transform and ignite the passions of its audience. The film, anchored by this best performance from a much-missed legend, remains a fresh drink of water in what sometimes seems an endless sea of sand.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else. 

 

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Retro Review: Splatter Cinema Takes You Straight to Sci-Fi Hell with EVENT HORIZON Tues. April 9 at The Plaza Theatre

Posted on: Apr 8th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema presents EVENT HORIZON (1997); Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson; Starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan; Tuesday, April 9 @ 9:30 p,m. (come early at 9 p.m. for photo op with a realistic recreation of a scene from the film); Plaza Theatre; Facebook event page here; Trailer here.

By Robert Emmett Murphy
Contributing Writer

I remember when EVENT HORIZON first came out in 1997, and specifically I remember the context of its contemporaries in SF filmmaking. A large handful of undeniable classics notwithstanding, 1990s SF filmmaking was showing clear signs of exhausting itself. There were a bumper crop of major releases with improving budgets, consistently breathtaking in their special effects and all other aspects of design, and more prestigious casts; but many, many of those films proved remarkably disappointing. Concepts that seemed ambitious were dumbed down badly, and then rendered in near incoherent form even after they were simplified. We started to pine for less bloated and more energetic B movies, but those B movies were now competing with big budget films for what was once their exclusive audience share, As a result they often got cowardly, losing their sense of “nothing to lose and everything to prove” and trapping themselves in the rehashing of major releases. The films most rehashed in that era were already a decade or more old, TERMINATOR (1984) and ALIEN (1979).

Because EVENT HORIZON did do many things right, it was ultimately far more frustrating than the very many far worse films around it. Among its virtues, the most important was that it was a SF horror film set entirely on a spaceship, but it wasn’t yet another ALIEN knock-off. In retrospect, it anticipates the recent ALIEN prequel PROMETHEUS (2012) in its tremendous narrative ambition, crippled by far from coherent storytelling, but then bolstered by strong set pieces and even better performances, only to again be undercut by not knowing what to do with the people they have wandering around the uncertain plot.

EVENT HORIZON does reference ALIEN, recapturing aspects of the look and the wonderful claustrophobic feel, and taking advantage of the more famous film’s opening ploy – our heros are traveling deep into the void in response to a distress call, and none are prepared for what they will find.

The year is 2047, and the rescue ship, “Lewis and Clark,” is piloted by an under-developed hero named Captain Miller, who is thankfully played by Laurence Fishburne, an actor whose career is notable for how many times he’s had to breathe life into under-developed characters. For the most part, his crew is similarly under-written, yet in almost every case exceptionally well-played. In fairness to the script, they do have a collective identity based on loyalty, professionalism and camaraderie that they as individuals lack.

Dr. Weir (Sam Neill) in EVENT HORIZON. Paramount Pictures, 1997

Among them is a resented stranger, Dr. William Weir, played quite well by Sam Neill. He’s the most developed of the nine significant members of the dramatis personae. Weir is carefully trying to cover how personally haunted he is. He’s suffering from nightmares of his wife’s suicide, and it was his experimental Faster-Than-Light drive (in this film, they use the hyperspace template for that future technology) is definitely at the root of the crisis, though even he can’t know how or why.

They are there to rescue the crew and research from the ship the “Event Horizon,” which seven years prior literally disappeared from the universe while testing Dr. Weir’s technology. Now, suddenly and mysteriously, it has returned. What the crew of the “Lewis and Clark” find is a gory mess, the “Event Horizon’s” crew were driven mad by their trip out of our universe and back, and slaughtered each other in a remarkable orgy of murder-suicide. Our heroes also discover the derelict ship brought something back from the other universe, an ambiguous but implacably hostile entity that can do bad things to the human mind.

“Event Horizon” is a haunted house in space, and as every school child knows, those who are most haunted entering the door are most vulnerable to the haunting once inside. The crew is right to distrust Dr. Weir, because he’s going to prove to be nothing but trouble.

The film’s most explicit references aren’t to other Science Fiction Horror films, but to Supernatural Horror films, notably THE SHINING (1980) and DON’T LOOK NOW (1973). (One film it was especially careful not to visually reference is SOLARIS (1972) because it doesn’t want to remind the audience that this over-the-top-gore-fest stole all its major plot points from that slow, meditative, art-house film.)

EVENT HORIZON. Paramount Pictures, 1997

Many (most?) of the film’s virtues are in its production which is remarkably rich and coherent through the exquisite special effects, exceptional set design and best of all, its sound editing by veteran sounds effects editor Ross Adams. The film’s suspense is heightened tremendously by the always intrusive ambient noises which never let you forgot the oppressiveness and implicit threat of a wholly artificial environment. That year, TITANIC took that (and every other) Oscar, but in comparison to this largely disregarded film, TITANIC’s sound is just a lot of smartzy bullshit.

This classy production led strength to the large number of marvelous set pieces, such as the opening scene where we are pulled back from the window of a space station and rotated as we pass through its vast structure, and keep on pulling back until the huge habitat is dwarfed by the giant Earth behind it. Another good one is the Lewis and Clark’s approach to the Event Horizon, spectacularly skimming the storm clouds of Neptune’s upper atmosphere.

Best of all was Capt. Miller’s desperate race to rescue his young crew member Justin, played by Jack Noseworthy, who is about to be sucked out of an airlock. What I was most impressed with this scene was its rare fidelity to the science, and the way it used the physical realities for dramatic effect. The imperfect, but unusually good, scientific literacy of the script strengthens the first half of the film tremendously. Unfortunately, by the last third, all concepts of natural laws and forces hves become as cartoonishly incompetent as Disney’s notorious BLACK HOLE (like ALIEN, also released in 1979, and also a clear influence on this film).

The scene that best evokes how very ambitious EVENT HORIZON was is the climax [Ed. note: SPOILER ALERT], where we have the destruction, and at same time, survival, of the title vessel, with two very different escapes, and two very different entrapments, all unfolding at the same moment. Too bad by that point the script had degenerated into complete chaos and incoherence.

EVENT HORIZON. Paramount Pictures, 1997

It seems like someone forgot to ask themselves what the golden thread really was, but who is the guilty party? Definitely director Paul W.S. Anderson, whose career is studded with ably executed, visual striking and surprisingly lavish movie-making, but who is not known for either substantive ideas or characterization. He’s been the writer and/or director on 14 films, six of which were based on video games, and another five were constructed in such a way as to facilitate video game tie-ins.

Also clearly one or both of the writers are at fault. Philip Eisner developed the initial script, but there were extensive, uncredited, rewrites by Andrew Kevin Walker at Anderson’s request.

A post-production decision to cut out 30 minutes of storytelling to make room for more special effects probably didn’t help much either.

Here’s the deal: The humans who pass through the interdimensional portal are psychicly shattered and reduced to homicidal and suicidal insanity. Implicitly, the alien who was accidently dragged through the same portal in the other direction has suffered the same. Had that been made explicit, it could’ve been explored – the monster is as much a victim as the crew, and specifically was the unintended victim of Dr. William Weir. Sympathetic monsters, like the Frankenstein monster, are horror’s most emotionally potent trope. And when the sympathy is discovered through process of rational investigation, the story stands on the firmament of legitimately mature science fiction, as in the classic STAR TREK episode “The Devil In The Dark” (1967).

EVENT HORIZON. Paramount Pictures, 1997

But instead we get a promising premise ship-wrecked by what is inevitably evoked whenever a script is peppered with phrases like “the ultimate evil” and “something infinitely more terrifying than Hell;” and a future spaceship crewed by English-speaking scientists start spontaneously babbling Church Latin and decorate their cabins with cabalistic runes painted in blood.

Probably the best guide to how terribly it all went wrong was what was done to the two best developed characters:

Lt. Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) is one of only three who gets any kind of back-story, and unlike Capt. Miller and Dr. Weir, her history isn’t evoked with excessive melodrama or ham-fisted exposition. Moreover, Quinlan provides, hands-down, the film’s best performance. She also gets killed before contributing anything to the plot. ARE YOU KIDDING ME! That’s not the character you treat as cannon fodder! Joely Richardson, as the wholly forgettable Lt. Strark who somehow manages to survive to the final credits, should’ve been cannon fodder. I suspect age-ism; Quinlan was 43 at the time, compared to Richardson’s 32, making her better prepared to run around in her underwear.

Then there’s Dr. Weir, so ably played by Neill until the script stops making sense. After that, he’s transformed into an utterly ridiculous monster. An important plot point is that Weir, though he is most vulnerable to the influence of the alien, hasn’t been through the interdimensional gate. He’s stalked, like Dr. Frankenstein, by the consequences of his defiance of nature. In the end, he is the alien’s super-human puppet, and a lot of the stuff coming out of his mouth is completely inexplicable if he hasn’t already been over to the other side. The film evokes demonic possession as an excuse, but it’s a poor excuse because there was no honest effort to tie that concept to the already well-established and fascinating environment, or the already clearly established mechanics of interdimentional travel. It just kind of leaps head first into the realm of mid-1980s straight-to-video NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET knockoffs.

A gorier moment in EVENT HORIZON. Paramount Pictures, 1997.

EVENT HORIZON was a financial bomb, recouping less than half its $60 million dollar budget domestically. It temporarily derailed the director’s career, but he made a comeback by studiously avoiding all smartness ever since (he’s the main guy behind the RESIDENT EVIL film franchise). It was also brutalized by the critics, many of whom had a lot of fun making it out to be much worse than it was. I imagine Stephen Hunter rubbing hands and cackling with glee as he wrote this:

“If you want to have that EVENT HORIZON experience without spending the seven bucks, try this instead: Put a bucket on your head. Have a loved one beat on it vigorously with a wrench for 100 minutes. Same difference, and think of the gas you’ll save.”

Now that’s just plain mean.

The late, great Roger Ebert was far more on target (as usual):

“It’s all style, climax and special effects. The rules change with every scene…But then perhaps it doesn’t matter. The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding.”

The retro/cult market eventually redeemed this film. It’s almost perfect for that nitch, because when forewarned, the film’s self-destructiveness is actually pretty amusing. Also, cult cinema has always thrived on the ambitious failures, the shoulda, coulda, woulda’s of Hollywood, and this movie is all of them wrapped up into one.

Robert Emmett Murphy Jr. is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and books and play with his cats.

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The Engines of James O’Barr’s Art: On Returning to The Crow, Heading to Atlanta for Days of the Dead, BLADE RUNNER, Robert Mitchum and His Latest Pin-Up Passion

Posted on: Jan 31st, 2013 By:

The cover to issue #1 of THE CROW: THE ENGINES OF DESPAIR, a six-part comics series which marks James O'Barr's return to his most famous creation. Used with permission.

At the Days of the Dead convention this weekend at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel downtown, horror fans can meet and collect autographs from a rogues’ gallery of actors from a DEVIL’S REJECTS/HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES cast reunions to Butch Patrick, the former child star who played Eddie Munster. Or they can visit the table of artist James O’Barr and pick up an exclusive signed print, preview original artwork from James’ first return to THE CROW in 20 years, and muse about art, favorite movies and the Retro glory days when Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe, full of curves and class, ruled the silver screen.

While quite a few comics creators delve into the darkness, James is one of a handful who cross mediums and regularly attends horror cons as often as comics gatherings. But that’s not the most surprising thing about him. First published by Caliber in the early 90s, then reprinted and completed by Tundra Publishing and recently picked up by IDW, The Crow’s revenge saga was inspired by James’ own tragic loss of a lover. It gained an even more mythic status among fans when Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, died due to an accident on the set of the movie based on the comic. So as the creator of a vigilante antihero with an androgynous mimelike visage and Gothic black hair, James might be expected to be as tough as nails as his own hero Robert Mitchum or as dark and brooding as Trent Reznor.  But anyone who’s met the artist knows that while he’s weathered his share of adversity amplified by years living in crime-ridden Detroit and dwells creatively in the realm of the dark phantastique, James has also come through the other side. He has emerged surprisingly soft-spoken and even with a signature joie de vivre. His most common public demeanor is a smile and a wisecrack, probably more than a little politically incorrect.

ATLRetro spent a couple of hours on the phone with James this week to find out more about what he’ll be doing and displaying at Days of the Dead, as well as what it’s like to be back drawing The Crow after all these years. And yeah, we couldn’t help but ask about his own influences from Will Eisner to Bernie Wrightson, mural painting with Mark Bode, his take on the BLADE RUNNER prequel, what makes Robert Mitchum still so unmatched among men, and find out his current Retro pin-up crush.

ATLRetro: You’re one of the few comics artists who regularly does horror media cons as well. What sets the comic and horror con experience apart for you?

James O’Barr: I am one of the fortunate ones that has a crossover audience since I had a film made of my comics. I don’t consider it a horror film, but it does get grouped in. There’s a lot of surface differences between the different crowds, but in reality they are kind of the same thing – groups of fans all broken up into little subgenres. At a comics show, some guys are just there for the super-heroes and others hate super-heroes. At a horror show, some people are into slasher movies. Other people hate them and love the classic Hammer Films. It’s the same animal but just from a different continent.

Will you be have any new work or prints for sale at Days?

Yeah, every time I do a show, I do a handful of prints, maybe 20 of each that you can only get from me and only at that show. That way the fans have something special that no one else has anywhere else in the US. I have so much material that it’s not difficult for me to pick a new image for each con.

Are you doing any panels or demonstrations at Days, or more body-painting like you did at the dooGallery during DragonCon?

I don’t think I have anything officially scheduled. But the body-painting will be at the show, and I volunteered to paint some more half-naked girls because I had a lot of fun doing that last time. I’ve only done it three times, and it’s a learning process. I’m getting better each time. Body-painting is difficult because it’s like painting with makeup, and it has entirely different textures than paint or ink, plus you’re not dealing with a flat surface. It does make a difference because I when I painted Frankenstein or Dracula on a girl’s back the last time I was there, I had to take into account the arch of her back so it didn’t look like he didn’t have a chin. It’s like Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel where he had to elongate the figures so they would look correct from the floor.

What’s the craziest thing a fan ever did to get your attention at a con?

Just the typical like a woman showing me their tits and people just trying to shock me. I’m not easily shocked. Mostly my fans are very kind and gracious and very polite. I have the greatest fans in world who have stuck with me for 25 years, and because of them, I get to do what I love for a living. So I’m very appreciative.

You’ve said that you wanted to work with Jim Terry (the artist on THE CROW:SKINNING THE WOLVES, the recently released three-issue IDW miniseries set in a Nazi concentration camp) because you liked his “Eisneresque style.” How much of an influence was Will Eisner on your own work and wanting to get into comics?

Will Eisner was a huge influence on me. It was by studying old SPIRIT stories that I learned actual storytelling. Then it suddenly dawned on me that he was taking film techniques and applying them to comics, and no one had ever done that before. So I pretty much took that basic premise, using film techniques in comics for lighting set-ups and camera angles, and I push that as far as I can into comics. As much as movies and comics have in common with each other, they also have so much uncommon or ‘discommon’ between them as well. In comics, you can’t control the timing like you can in a film, but you can slow down the pace of a page by making someone spend more time by putting more images on it. Another huge drawback is lack of sound. You don’t have a soundtrack to accentuate the emotions portrayed in the image. You don’t have the voices of the actors, and you don’t have sound effects, so you have to rely on the reader to supply those in their head. But like I said, it can also be a plus. What’s there is only what you put there, but an actor could spoil a scene or music could spoil a scene or a bad sound effect could spoil a scene. I am one of the few artists who does employ sound effects. If someone fires a gun in my comic, there’s a big boom sound effect. To me, supplying sound effects is an essential part of comics. It’s one of the charms of comics, I think.

If you had to pick five classic comics artist greats to recommend to a new reader, who would they be?

Will Eisner. Harvey Kurtzman. Jordi Bernet is not well-known in the US. He’s from old Milton Caniff (TERRY AND THE PIRATES, STEVE CANYON) school – lot of brushwork and shadows. IDW is reprinting his TORPEDO series about gangsters in the 1930s. There are so many. Bernie Wrightson was a huge influence on me. The way I look at it, Will Eisner showed me how to tell the story, but Berni Wrightson showed me how to light the scene for the most dramatic effect. And probably Dave Sim for teaching me how to include dialogue and sound effects into the artwork to where they are essential, which is why I like Dave Sim.

I still hand-letter all of my comics on the actual artwork. Since we’re talking Retro, I might as well point out I don’t use computers for anything. Everything is ink on papr or paint on paper. Nothing is photoshopped. Even my titles are hand-drawn on artwork – which is a pain because lettering is not my forte. I can do balloons, but with a three-inch font, I inevitably fuck it up. But that’s part of charm of hand-lettering. It’s not a perfect font pulled off a computer. It’s not that I have disregard for PhotoShop and those tools. I see people like Jon Foster who do great artwork with them Looking at his work, I couldn’t tell it wasn’t oil-painted or acrylics, but to me, using a mouse or a keyboard or a tablet would just drain all the fun out of comics. I love draging a brush across a blank page. For me, that’s the joy of creating comics. I sit down with a blank sheet of paper, and everything is my choice. And it has to be the right choice because there is no undo. This may make me a more confident artist than those who use computers. I don’t redo. I know what I want before I sit down.

Mark Bode's and James O'Barr's mural tribute to Frank Frazetta at Clarion Alley in San Francisco.

Do you have any more mural work planned with Mark Bode, and how does working with a spray can on a wall compare to a paintbrush on a canvas?

Every time I see Mark, usually once or twice a year, we plan on doing something. The only difficult thing is San Francisco is finding a place to do it and deciding what we’re going to do. But the four we have done have gotten progressively better. I posted some pictures of the Frank Frazetta one on the Internet, and people thought it was the original, so we’ve gotten really good at it. They all have been tributes to our artistic heroes who have passed away –  Moebius, Jeff Jones and Frazetta. I’m going to be up there later this year, and we’re hoping to do a Jack Kirby one which will be a lot of fun — to do that hyper-stylized Kirby line. The main difficulty is not necessarily working with a spray can but it’s working that large. The shortest was like 20 feet tall, so it involves being up on a ladder and drawing, and it’s hard to tell if something is in proportion without stepping back off ladder and walkg back 20 feet. Mark and I are really good about trading off with one of us painting and the other watching. He taught me everything I know about graffiti art, even though I still do more artistic things rather than scribbles or tags. I have no idea what they say. I would rather do Monet’s waterlilies 20 feet tall than put a line of poetry up there that is so stylized that the lettering is illegible. I like mural work. It’s free, outside and for the public. It’s transient because it will only be there for a certain amount of time. And it’s been great to introduce certain artists, like Jeff Jones, to people who may not have ever heard of them before.

What has the reaction been to the return of THE CROW published by IDW?

Honestly it’s been mixed. The one I’m doing by myself (THE CROW: THE ENGINES OF DESPAIR) hasn’t come out yet, but I think some people were expecting right off the bat that the first book would be mine. The first series looks very rushed, though it had a nice script by John Shirley. THE CROW: SKINNING THE WOLVES book has done phenomenally well. The first two issues sold out, and it’s in its second printing, and I think that’s because I was involved. It sticks rather closely to the kind of thing I do even though Jim Terry was responsible for the artwork.

From the original THE CROW series by James O'Barr.

THE CROW: THE ENGINES OF DESPAIR will be six issues. I’m finishing up the third issue, but I didn’t want them to solicit until the third was done because didn’t want there to be any lags between issues. I wanted them out on a regular basis because it’s continuing story. I have to say I am more than happy with the work I’ve done on it so far. It’s far and above the best thing I’ve ever done. I have definitely learned my craft over the last two decades. With the first CROW book, I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I just sat down and let things flow out of me. There are lots of flaws in that book, but I think the love and passion which I put into that work is what made the public love it and kept it in print for 25 years. But there were things in that book that I avoided because I didn’t have the skills to do them. With his book now, if I can think of it, I can draw it. It’s not a struggle at all. With every page, I set a challenge for me. How can I make it more difficult and learn something from this page. Without exception, 60-something pages into it, I’m delighted with every page.

Will it be in black and white like the original CROW or in color this time? And can you reveal anything about the story? 

At the beginning, IDW kind of strong-armed me a little bit, saying they wanted it in color. I said it’s my project and it’s a CROW book, and I think it should be in black and white – or at least the ones I do should be. For me, it adds a certain otherworldly aspect to it with hard shadows. Honestly I don’t see it in the coloring I see in comics nowadays. If it was going to be in color, it would have to be handpainted by me, but I am hesitant to do that. However, that being said, I just did 20 black and white pages of this shootout and then in the middle, added an intermission in color – that kind of 1930s technicolor where everything is in brighter, warmer and hotter colors that don’t exist in real life. So that gives it a very dreamlike feel to it. Since I learned all the rules in the last 25 yrs, now I can break them.

Plus after 20 pages of people getting killed, it’s a nice little break for the reader as well. Still even though they are pretty and bright, happy colors, just them having been done by me has sort of a haunting creepy quality about it as well. Also I think it’s kind of funny that it’s a CROW book, but I am 60 pages into it and birds haven’t appeared in it once. I’m using rabbits this time. Not talking rabbits, but they are the animal in it. I think it’s so close in feel and atmosphere to the original book, all on a much higher level of competence, that people don’t even notice there’s not a bird in it. The bird will make a few cameo appearances.

It all looks really amazing, and in this one, the best character is the Skull Cowboy, that never actually appeared in the movie. The death character is with the woman the whole time. It kind of takes the place of the bird. The bunny man. He even scares me when I’m drawing him, probably because he reminds me a lot of myself. He’s very – I don’t want to say evil – but there are no ambidexterous morals in this. He’s frightening, but he’s a smart-ass and he’s lovable as well. It gives the bride a nice alter-ego to play off of.

I don’t want to give too much away, though. I’d rather that you come by the table [at Days of the Dead] and see what I’m doing and decide for yourselves. But I guarantee no one will be disappointed.

James O'Barr gets happy at his convention artist table. Photo courtesy of James O'Barr.

Shifting gears back to some of the pop culture you’re known for being passionate about, as a big BLADE RUNNER fan, how do you feel about Ridley Scott’s announcement that he’s going to go back to and do a prequel after all these years?

BLADE RUNNER was Ridley Scott’s vision so if he wants to go back and play in that universe, I am more than happy to sit in the audience. I will pay my $15. I really liked PROMETHEUS. I think I am one of the few people on the planet who did. I thought it did no disservice to the ALIEN film. I read somewhere he’s going to connect the ALIEN universe and the BLADE RUNNER universe or make references to both taking place at the same time. Somebody told me he read the script to PROMETHEUS 2 and that there were references to replicants in there. I’m a little skeptical about him pulling that off but I would love to see it. I have no idea what he is going to do, but I would love to see how the replicants got to Earth. He throws it all into one sentence — they escaped from an off-world colony. It would be great to see how Roy and Pris escaped from the planet where they were slave labor. I don’t know who could play those parts now, but it’s a really rich universe he created there and a lot was skimmed over the surface. I have a lot of faith in Ridley Scott. He’s made about 20 films and less than a handful have been bad. He needs to stay the fuck away from romantic comedies, though. The one he made with Russell Crowe and [Marion Cotillard] – A GOOD YEAR – that was just horrific, painful. He’s at his best when he’s exploring fantasy and science fiction and – some people probably will hate me but – nobody does epic like Ridley Scott. Even something like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN that’s factually based has more stunning imagery than all three LORD OF THE RINGS movies together.

What’s so great about Robert Mitchum?

He was the last real man, I think. He was a brute and a gentleman and a real life badass. Jason Statham would last about 30 seconds with Robert Mitchum. He just has such a presence. He’s very subtle, and he never, ever plays to the camera. Laurence Olivier could not say a line without turning to the camera and making a face. Robert Mitchum wouldn’t care if his back was to the camera. He was so charismatic, and he was willingness to take on any role. That was endearing to me. He’d play the hero or the bad guy, he didn’t care. He was truly frightening in CAPE FEAR (1962). THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) and OUT OF THE PAST (1947) are two films I could just watch any time. I do watch both of them once or twice a year. In fact, I just bought the British release poster for OUT OF THE PAST. It was called BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH in London when it was released. That was the original name of the story.

You’ve often said that you admire the style and shape of the classic actresses and models of days gone by such as Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page. Who’s your favorite right now and why?

Right now going through a mild Bettie Page fascination. I purposely avoided the whole Bettie Page parade 10 years ago because I was a little angered and disgusted that all these people were making money off this girl, my artists friends included. So I avoided anything Bettie Page. Just recently I subscribe to those vintage pinup Facebook pages, and I have gotten into appreciation. I see what it’s all about now – all the curves, and there was a really gentle innocence to her, too, where she always looks like she is having fun. I have definitely seen some pictures where I don’t think she had any idea what she was doing, such as the bondage stuff. That’s my least favorite. I love the images of her on the beach. There’s something about her eyes and her smile that is really endearing, and that silly haircut that people are still imitating today. I kind of group her in with Marilyn Monroe. I look at the pictures, and yes, I see all the right curves, but I don’t get aroused looking at them. It’s more endearing and charming to me than anything else. There’s something about both Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe that makes me want to protect them. It makes me want to take on a fatherly role. I have never seen one so I assume it was impossible to take a bad picture of them. There’s some kind of inner beauty there which really transcends the film.

James O'Barr strikes a Mitchum pose. Photo courtesy of James O'Barr.

Given the success of THE CROW franchise, are a lot of fans surprised that you lead a pretty simple life of drawing/painting, writing, watching old movies and hanging out with cats? 

The reality is that I grew up way below the poverty level, and so I have never been comfortable with luxury. It’s not that I don’t think I deserve it, but I don’t need it. Having expensive things does not make me happy. I’ve had a five-bedroom semi-mansion, and invariably I spent all my time in the basement in the dark drawing. There were rooms I never even went in. I like that I lead a very insular disciplined life, and I only bring things in that bring me joy and happiness—books and movies and music and artwork. I don’t need anything else. My cat’s my best friend. He never lies to me. He doesn’t cheat on me. He tries to lie to me. “You didn’t feed me. You didn’t feed me.” “Yes, I did. I did.” Just like dogs, they have unconditional love. My cat is lying on my feet right now. He wants to be close to me. I love dogs, too, but I prefer cats because they’re less needy. I can go away for a weekend, leave cat food, and he will be fine. I definitely like companionship. Being artist or a writer is very solitary. Just to have a little silent partner next to me is very comforting.

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