In 1981, three years after his fiancée was killed by a drunk driver, James O’Barr started work on The Crow, a supernatural comic book of loss, murder, and justice. The story of Eric Draven, a murdered Detroit musician brought back from the dead to avenge his and his fiancée’s deaths — under the guidance of a mysterious crow — became a phenomenon. Readers saw not a message of violence, but one of love and redemption.
Over 750,000 copies have been sold since the comic’s 1989 publication, which also spawned a hugely popular, iconic movie. When actor Brandon Lee died tragically from injuries sustained during an accident on the set of that movie, the underlying message of tragedy and loss became further pronounced.
It has been said the story of The Crow is cursed — a superstition fueled by attempts to remake the film that have been marred by freak accidents or cancellations — but O’Barr has shown no signs of ill fate in the production of many comic book sequels. For the past 20 years O’Barr has continued to write and authorize other stories under the Crow banner. Various new characters have donned the iconic black and white face paint, based on theatre masks conveying “Pain,” “Irony,” and “Despair.” But none — not even Eric Draven himself — have been as compelling as Iris Shaw.
Iris is the first and only woman to take the Crow mantle to date. A Federal Conservation officer killed by a group of right-wing terrorists, Iris is the third crow of O’Barr’s series. Like her narrative brothers, she returns from the grave to avenge the death of an innocent. But while the other male-centric Crow books deal with a man and his lover or son, Iris is avenging the child she was carrying at the time of her death.
Surprisingly, while other books in the series continue to be discussed, 1996’s The Crow: Flesh & Blood — written by James Vance, drawn by artist Alexander Maleev and with lettering by Dan Burr — is seldom mentioned, and the comic has become surprisingly difficult to source. Iris has been all but forgotten.
In her introduction to Flesh & Blood, horror author and comic book writer Nancy A. Collins notes that throughout mythology and history — from Sekhmet (the Egyptian cat goddess of war), to Nemesis (Titan goddess of retribution), and Celtic myth, where “the war goddess Morrigan appears as crone Badb, goddess of vengeance, whose name literally means crow” — women have dispensed punishment.
“Who in the pop culture industry decided that the distribution of justice and the punishment of evil was solely a masculine province?” she asks. It can be argued that while female assassins, or women with supernatural abilities, fill the pages of comic books and on movie screens, few have risen and crawled from their graves to avenge their own deaths like Iris. This is Iris’ first and final mission; a personal vendetta motivated by the prospect of eternal sleep.
With the first and only female Crow, the narrative of The Crow: Flesh & Blood prominently highlights the differences between the male and female body. Before her death, Iris is referred to as “little lady,” inferior in the eyes of the world. Even clothing highlights the differences between her and her predecessor. Although they have a similar ‘uniform,’ Eric’s enlarged biceps and pronounced upper body signal strength and power. Even when fully-clothed we note his threatening presence.
Iris, however, is sleek in form-fitting black. Some would call her sexy — Collins refers to her figure as “girlish.” Aside from guns, her work boots are the heaviest object she carries. Iris’ slender, less muscular frame is perceived to be less powerful than a man’s body. It does not matter how strong she is, or how forceful she is in combat; this is what the reader, and her assailants, will note.
But Iris’ body is not just involved in how she is perceived, but how her story proceeds. Noticeably, she does not heal as the male Crows do — bullets and knives affect her body differently. In these comics, the dead bleed, and it’s telling how they patch themselves up afterwards. Eric binds his wounds in black tape, a huge part of his image, as though the scars and the harm he has endured even while dead add gravity of his situation. Iris uses a staple gun. Tape is aesthetic, external; Eric binds the tape over his shirt, Iris’ stapled scars are hidden under her clothing.
She does not care how staples will pierce her, because she is too focused on her mission. In a first for the series, Iris has to complete her mission of justice before her body decays from trauma. In her words, “that means I’ve got to bring ‘em all down before ... before I rot.”
It is an interesting metaphor: Even in death she is under the jurisdiction of time.
Iris is not a showy wrecker of destruction, something enhanced in the page layouts. Although similar to the first Crow volume, Maleev uses fewer panels on the pages of Iris’ story, Vance uses less inner monologues and interactions. We don’t have the loud “BOOM BOOM BOOM” so liberally sprinkled in Eric’s story; even Iris’ violence lacks noise and theatrics. Yes, she has an agenda, but she is not driven by sheer mindless violence. She thinks before she strikes, reads her opposition, notes the difference between every kill. As she says in one panel, “this one can feel the loss of a child.”
As Collins notes, “like [the goddess] Nemesis, her retribution is inevitable but not indiscriminate.” She knows who to target; the innocent will be unharmed.
The connections between Iris and mythology are never distanced from the story. While Iris’ ethnicity is not specified, she wears a hamsa on a cord around her neck, a Middle Eastern symbol of good fortune and luck. Her crow makeup is not like the theatrical masks; instead she paints the bird’s outline on her nose and forehead. In a powerful scene, she removes the paint before confronting her final killer, emphasizing the finality of her story. In her living vocation, Iris brought justice to the innocent, preventing threats to people and animals. Now she has fully become a goddess of retribution.
Iris Shaw’s story is unique in the Crow canon: A warrior for justice in life and a goddess of vengeance in death. Yet, even when dispensing justice, Iris is still at the mercy of time. She is deeply intriguing — a myth reborn, she could be any woman at any time.
I can’t help wondering how a female writer would have crafted her, what changes she would have made, how she would have geared Iris’ narrative. Until then, Iris Shaw remains the most compelling version of the Crow because of her mission combined and her biology. When the Crow is a woman she is unlike the others: She is flesh and blood.
Sabina Stent is a freelance arts and culture writer with bylines at AnOther Magazine, FANDOM, The F Word, Real Crime Magazine, Dazed, and others. You can find her on Twitter @SabinaStent.