Bringing The Beatles Yellow Submarine to the Page

Take away music from Pepperland and it turns blue. Take it away from The Beatles Yellow Submarine and it becomes pure pulp.

We can’t all live in a Yellow Submarine, but Bill Morrison’s graphic novel based on the animated rock-music-infused classic film opens the portals for more room without flooding the cabin. The Beatles Yellow Submarine takes the film’s most indelible images and lovingly puts them in as faithful a story form as be expected. And this kind of project comes with a lot of expectations.

Films like Yellow Submarine happen once or maybe twice upon a time. The movie was based on the song of the same name, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, sung by Ringo Starr, with George Harrison forever blowing bubbles in a George Martin production. The film was directed by George Dunning from a screenplay by Lee Minoff, Jack Mendelsohn, Love Story writer Erich Segal, and Al Brodax, who was responsible for the Beatles half-hour cartoons. The artwork was done by Dunning, Peter Max, and Heinz Edelmann. Yellow Submarine captured the flower power era of peace, love and, well, why go on when love is all you need.

The band is all here in the graphic novel: The Lord Mayor of the musical republic of Pepperland, Old Fred, and the national beat-keepers, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band, and of course, the originals, The Beatles. The formerly fab four are mere travelers to Pepperland, called there to restore the music that the anti-music missiles of the Blue Meanies silenced. As they did in swinging London, The Beatles stir the peace loving Pepperlandians to revolution, 33 and a third per minute to be precise, against the oppressive Apple Bonkers, Butterfly Stompers, Clowns, Snapping Turtle Turks, the dreaded Flying Glove, the Chief Blue Meanie and his untrustworthy sidekick, Max.

The book has it all, except the music of course, which is replaced by colorful adventures told in easy to digest pictorial story telling. Music is a superpower on the pages of a comic book. The Beatles Yellow Submarine graphic novel captures the angst of all the lonely people without a closely mic’d violin quartet. We feel the crescendo thrill of musical victory and the stumbling glissando of defeat. The pages traverse the seas of Green, Time, Science, Consumer Goods, Monsters, and Nothing to bring the action to a pulpy life. And it’s done respectfully considering it comes from the current editor of Mad, the magazine that worries about less than even a Nowhere Man like Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D., who actually cares passionately. Such is the case with Bill Morrison, the co-founder of Bongo Comics, which for years published comic books based on the TV series The Simpsons, another institution made strong by lampooning the world in yellow. He isn’t just a former animated film marketer in Mickey Mouse ears. He is a fan of the sound and vision of the film.

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Lever-pulling pop music group The Beatles, who even at the time were “the Beatles” of popular music, also subliminally lampooned their time at the center of the known universe. They chased newer and bluer meanies from recording sessions and concert stages, heralding an inclusive environment for their generational philosophy. But they kept their approving thumbs behind dreadful flying gloves when it came to formally approving works based on their intellectual property. Morrison was smart enough to wait until the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine before releasing his fully authorized graphic novel adaptation. Morrison spoke with Den of Geek about the enduring appeal of Yellow Submarine, and how it still has the power to take the sting out of an orange zest.

Den of Geek: Did you watch Beatles cartoons?

Bill Morrison: Yes, I was in front of the TV watching The Beatles nearly every Saturday morning when it was on.

According to the John Birch Society, and Rolling Stone, a lot of people used Yellow Submarine as an excuse to get high. Is your graphic novel some kind of gateway drug for animation addiction?

Yes, absolutely! I love the notion that people who’ve never seen the Yellow Submarine film might get hooked on the graphic novel and want to take a trip on the animated version.

Does the Yellow Submarine message of love-conquers-all-blues still resonate today or have we become too cynical?

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I think it still resonates. I may be a little too close to it to be a good judge, but I’ve become a fairly cynical person in the past few years, and the message of the film still strikes an emotional chord with me. It really fills me with hope that if we can muster up enough love we might just be able to clobber the Blue Meanies (or Orange Meanies) of our world. We might even find a way to convince them to embrace their inner Bluebird if Happiness can come over to our side.

When you were writing the novel, did you have a favorite seascape?

The Sea of Monsters was my favorite sea to draw. The designs of the characters are so insane and imaginative. They were just a lot of fun. In contrast, Nathan Kane jokingly said his favorite sea to color was the Sea of Holes (all that empty white space).

Which character do you most identify with?

I think I identify most with George. Like him, I’m a spiritual person, and also a wise guy. George was always referred to as “the quiet Beatle,” which he was, but I always saw him as someone who listened. I don’t think he felt the need to constantly comment and joke about things. He’d wait for his moment, but when it came he’d come out with something very clever and funny, or something brilliant.

further reading: The Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way” is a Hidden Masterpiece

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Do you listen to music while writing or drawing, and what were you listening to while doing this?

Yes, I do. Sometimes I put on an old movie or a TV show that doesn’t require me to look up at the screen much, but I also listen to music while I draw, depending on my mood. I listened to a lot of Beatles music while drawing Yellow Submarine which really helped put me into that word. I also listened to a lot of David Bowie.

How did you internalize the comic style of the film when you were translating it so graphically?

I watched the film a lot. I also printed out screen shots, so I always had great visual reference to look at and that helped me to eventually memorize the designs of the characters, the sub, etc. Then I just had fun playing with the panel and page designs, inspired by psychedelic poster design.

How much fun is it to illustrate in the varied styles of some of the most iconic pop art of a generation?

I’ve always enjoyed mimicking different styles and get a kick out of perfectly capturing the look of a well-known character like Homer Simpson or Donald Duck. It sort of feels like I’ve pulled off a good magic trick when I do it well.

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What did you draw from George Dunning, Heinz Edelmann, or writers like Erich Segal?

I attempted to capture the look and feel of the film as closely as possible, that was my mission. I wanted the graphic novel to feel like it could have been laid out by George and drawn by Heinz. But I feel like I drew more from Jack Mendelsohn as a writer than from Erich Segal.

What is the most revolutionary thing about the film itself, and how did you try to capture that in the novel?

I think it has to be the design of the film. In terms of feature-length animated films, everything at the time either had the lush, realistic Disney style, the sparse, modern art UPA style, or the stop-motion Rankin Bass style. Yellow Submarine broke away from those norms and gave us something completely original. Normally, you’d see that sort of innovation begin with short cartoons, and then as it’s accepted, go on to a feature length film. Theater audiences had never seen anything like this psychedelic, art nouveau-inspired style in a full-length animated film.

further reading: In Defense of The Beatles’ “Revolution 9”

I tried to capture this look merely by staying faithful to the brilliant designs that were already established and resisting any urge to put my own style into it.

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Do you feel any kind of responsibility or pride in handling the legacies of such iconic generational signposts that has nothing to with professionalism?

Responsibility, yes. I feel very fortunate to be involved in this project and don’t take it lightly. I’m a Beatles and Yellow Submarine fan myself, and my goal has been to create something that will please my fellow fans and give them something that measures up to the source material that they already love. This is only the third officially sanctioned Beatles book that’s ever been published, so the need to make it really good and worthy of the Beatles name was pretty great. I hope I did the job.

The Beatles Yellow Submarine graphic novel is not only in the mind. It is also available.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.