In my past life, I was a music writer/critic, a calling that was as deeply exciting and fulfilling as it was stressful and utterly confounding. That’s because it’s often hard to write about something so sacred and abstract as music in such “clinical” terms. Or, as a great rock star once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Except, the best artists/writers will happily bust out The Twist over a swanky Koolhaas building. As trying as it may be, translating ideas and intents between mediums (as with sound/albums to words/essays) is how we come to new understandings of ourselves, the art, and its creators. Case in point: Bill Morrison (founder of Bongo Comics) celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ seminal Yellow Submarine film and album (the latter hit shelves in January 1969) with the official comic book. All aboard!
In case you’ve lived under a rock since 1968, Yellow Submarine is about the musically-averse Blue Meanies taking over the idyllic Pepperland. Recruited by the Captain of the Yellow Submarine, the Fab Four (as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) use the power of love and harmony to win back the undersea island and show the Meanies the error of their ways. Not exactly Jean-Luc Godard, but YS is interesting nonetheless.
For one, it debuted mere months before the White Album, which eternally overshadows the project. And while it’s not a bad album, YS is consistently ranked fairly low in the Beatles’ canon (see here, here, and here). In this ex-critic’s humble opinion, there are great songs — “Sea of Time” and “All You Need Is Love” rock in perpetuity — but the goofy concept and silly nature of the songs and movie are outshined by the band’s other perfect endeavors. (Something like A Hard Day’s Night also deftly balances the music and the silliness.)
Still, for his part, Morrison was fully aware of the limitations, keenly understanding that his translation had to provide something new lest it be absorbed into the project’s shared consciousness. One of the most effective ways he does just that is the art. Bright and beautiful, like something ripped from a great peyote trip, Morrison’s art is both familiar and yet foreign. A perfect fit with the surreal, kaleidoscopic style of the album and film. At the same time, Morrison spins in other inspirations and ideas (Saturday morning cartoons, his own work with titles like The Simpsons, and ’60s-inspired minimalism) to provide a uniqueness that’s essential to this book’s standing as a genuine artifact and not just another money grab.
Even something simple — eschewing traditional comic layouts for a collage approach — provides the book with a pacing and general construction that’s both a ’60s throwback and something resembling an actual visual movie, where lines and structure crumble in the face of trippy vibes and oodles of heart. Morrison also gives room to ideas and images the books never did, shining a light on certain concepts, providing a layer of nuance to the aesthetic, and generally hashing out the story in a way that plays up the silliness and the innocence.
Short of playing the album as you read (or embedding a greeting card music chip), sound and art are forever on opposing shores. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a certain musicality to this groovy comic. It’s in the dialogue for sure, whether in phrases or messages pulled from or influenced by the original text — silly puns, saccharine mantras, metaphysical ramblings, all of them written in a way that blasts a certain cherry rhythm directly into your brain. It also doesn’t hurt that you may end up reading with a (very bad, in my case) Ringo or Lennon accent. The music’s elsewhere, too, from the endless sound effects to even how the aforementioned lack of squares/boundaries creates a specific flow like a sweet pop tune. Creating some kind of sonic effect, no matter how abstract, is important to A) honoring the scope of YS as a whole while B) providing some new element to grab readers, maintain the silly vibes, and contextualize the title’s tie-dyed heart.
If there’s one thing that’s indispensable to meaningful music criticism, it’s the value of emotion. How things make you feel generates all sorts of opinions, and unlike other critical or journalistic forms, you need that molten core to cultivate the most meaning or insight. Like many people, I grew up with YS the album, and have always felt like it was made for kids and for those seeking to escape into some grand fantasy dimension. It’s psychedelia drawn with fingerpaint, and while it’s not as objectively good as, say, Revolver, YS is an album that sticks with you like campfire stories or your very first kiss.
The comic, meanwhile, perhaps doesn’t have the same impact. It’s cleaner and more cerebral, a version of The Beatles that feels more commercial – like the idealized 1 compilation. Which is to say, this construct that’s perhaps gone away from the original’s charming aesthetic (drawn by a child on orange soda and LSD) for something more accessible. It’s also driving home grander messages (’60s drug culture, the band’s dynamic, etc.) that were more understated in the film. That’s ultimately a good thing — it makes the book a great addition to the canon. However, it does mean that there’s an adjustment period of sorts moving in the comic.
Similarly, it was hard for me to escape that nagging feeling about what if Morrison had done something else. Whipped up less a direct translation, a book inspired by the mere spirit of The Beatles or the LP. That’s not a condemnation of this book, just some context regarding how it may be perceived. The Beatles are a true cultural lingua franca, and while some may love more YS in their life, it’s going to rub some people the wrong way for tickling the canon.
To his benefit, Morrison has assembled a book that’s fun, thoughtful, unabashedly whimsical, and clearly on the side of goodness and light. And that’s more in line with The Beatles’ general vibe and brand than 1,000 covers of “Hey Jude.”