One of my favorite films of all time, the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, is a charming product of the psychedelic late 1960s that still casts a magically trippy spell 50 years later. Admittedly, when I first discovered the graphic novel in a bookstore, I was doubtful as to whether I’d like it. Yet, upon flipping through its pages I found that I appreciated adapting writer/artist Bill Morrison’s splashy rendering of the timeless tale, one that did not carry over the musical sequences from the movie. In his version, he does not inject lyrical recitations into the dialogue; he adds in a touch of exposition for newcomers to the story, and makes bold use of framing. You can see from the sample layout below that he avoided the standard panel blocky-ness one might associate with a conventional comic book page and displayed resourcefulness in his use of curved borders and inventive layouts. I spoke with Morrison at his New York Comic Con signing about the long gestation and ultimate creation of this colorful comic book adaptation of a beloved, classic film.
You have made creative use of the frame on every page, purposely not like a conventional comic book. Of course, the source material isn’t conventional either.
I realized early on that as a fan of Yellow Submarine myself, I couldn’t really figure out why I would want to read a graphic novel version of an animated film with Beatles music, so I had to bring something to it that the film didn’t have. That’s why I really played up the graphic design. I looked to psychedelic posters from the ’60s and ’70s that I grew up with as inspiration for all the panel and page design.
Without the musical interludes, it is tricky. You do stay faithful to the dialogue with some new exposition for people unfamiliar with the story. By the way, was the Captain’s “Gabba Babba” exclamation a Ramones thing that you tossed in?
Yeah, that was a Ramones reference.
Are there any other Easter eggs like that?
There are a few things, like in the scene with Ringo in Liverpool, there is some graffiti on a wall. I used some Beatles songs that are not Yellow Submarine songs as part of the graffiti. There are probably other things I just don’t even remember. But generally, I tried to keep it very faithful to the film. There might be just a handful of little in-jokes in there.
How long did it take you to actually put this together?
Initially, I started this 20 years ago with another publisher, and then it was shelved. All these years later, Titan Books acquired the license. I’ve worked with Titan for years because I was the creative director of the Simpsons line of comic books [for Bongo Comics], and Titan was our U.K. publisher for them. They acquired the license, and it was just a very good fit for me to do this with them. The initial project began back in 1998 or 1999, and I had done about 25 pages before I had to stop and it was shelved. I had 25 pages under my belt, which I used for this book, but then Titan wanted do a 96-page version. So it was expanded from the original vision, which was 48 pages, and that took about a year. It coincided with my new job at MAD Magazine, so it was a project that I had to really work on a couple of hours at night after I got home from MAD, and then hardcore spending every weekend working on it.
I recall an issue of Bongo’s Futurama in which, I believe, characters including aliens from Omicron Persei 8 ripped through the fabric of space into a double page void that was mostly white. That was unexpected and clever, and it reminds me of many comic artists from the ’60s and ’70s who implemented such experimentation within the panel and the page.
Yellow Submarine was a perfect project to do things like that. There’s the page where you first meet Jeremy [the Nowhere Man], and in the film he’s just in a sea of white. It made perfect sense to do that on the page. I filled up a lot of that page with the Yellow Submarine, and you see Jeremy very tiny in this sea of white. It’s nice to not have to fill every inch of the panel, to actually let it breathe a little more.
How many times have you seen the film now?
It’s hard to say because I’ve seen it probably half a dozen times straight through. But then I’ve seen it a lot in bits and pieces, just looking at scenes for reference, going back and reviewing and copying down dialogue. So multiple times.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve picked up some other references. Like, when the Chief Blue Meanie asks Max where can they go following their defeat, and Max cheerily suggests Argentina — I didn’t get that Nazi joke as a kid. Are there other things that you have noticed the more you have watched the film?
There were actually things that I didn’t understand, so I had to look them up. There was one scene where the Beatles are hiding behind the cardboard cutouts of the Pepperland people, and they’re trying to get up to the little house where the Sergeant Pepper instruments and costumes are. They’re hiding from the Blue Meanies who have some of the dogs hunting for them. Paul says this exclamation, “havey-cavey.” I didn’t know if what I was hearing was right or that’s actually what he said, so I looked it up and it’s a British slang term that I’d never heard.
I think it means ‘unsteady’ or ‘helter-skelter.’ I also remember in the film some of the Beatles joking about showing someone their motor, in reference to the submarine’s busted motor, which is an obvious sexual double entendre.
It’s well-timed that this graphic novel is coming out now. We need that ’60s peace and love vibe again.
Oh yeah, definitely. I was keenly aware while working on this over the last year or so of just how timely it is. The message of this whole thing is all you need is love, love conquers hate, and goodness conquers evil. There are lots of Blue Meanies on the loose in our real world, so the message of this book is hope is not lost. We can really conquer that with love and peace. It sounds kind of idealistic, but I think it’s true, at least in a one-on-one kind of way. The way you behave to somebody else is infectious, and it creates this chain reaction that can change the world. So maybe it’s an impossible task to imagine — how do we make love conquer evil in our world? The way you do it is one-on-one. And if everybody does it, then before you know it, Pepperland is restored.
How is the new MAD Magazine going?
Really great. Number four came out. I’m loving it.
Did your Bongo years help prepare you for the gig as MAD‘s executive editor?
Yeah, a lot of what we did at Bongo was inspired by MAD. We all grew up reading MAD and loving it — that satiric sensibility. The Simpsons was based on being anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian. That’s what MAD did better than anyone.