August 24, 2018

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So We Sailed Up To the Sun-- a review of Bill Morrison's The Beatles Yellow Submarine

Using the Beatles John, Paul, George, and Ringo as its heroes and the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as its holy book, The Beatles Yellow Submarine creates its own mythology. Bill Morrison’s new comic adaptation of the 50-year-old movie is a lot like the post-Sgt. Pepper’s albums by the Fab Four; it’s lovely on a surface level but is puzzling for anyone who’s more of a fan of the pre-1967 Beatles. Sometimes you want the pop sensibility of “Love, love me do/ You know I love you” but what you really need is the unfathomable mystery of “Nothing you can do/ But you can learn how to be you in time.” In the same way, Morrison’s loving recreation of Yellow Submarine reads a lot like the work of any other Beatles fan trying to create an ode to his own idols while creating a comic that’s as mysterious and veiled as the original song that inspired both the movie and the comic.

The story of the movie of Yellow Submarine is even odder than the original song’s lyrics. A group of Blue Meanies attacks the candy-colored Pepperland, trapping the group Sgt. Peppers in some kind of status bubble. Pepperland’s mayor commands an old captain named Young Fred to find another quartet to save his magical land. And I think from there you can guess who Young Fred finds. For as weird as Pepperland appears, the world of the Beatles is no less strange; if anything, it’s darker and even more absurdist than Pepperland. For instance, after finding Ringo, Young Fred and the drummer go off to find the other three parts of this quartet. But Ringo has his own Frankenstein’s monster who, after chugging down some formula out of a test tube, transforms Shazam-like into everyone’s favorite Beatle Johns (unless you’re one of those weirdos who think that Paul is the best or a contrarian to says “George” when asked to name your favorite (at least we can all agree that Ringo isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles, can’t we?).).

This adaptation then follows the Beatles and Young Fred on their journey into the eponymous yellow submarine and through lands filled with all kinds of light-hearted creatures and cryptic danger. It almost feels like the story is there just to be able to give us all kinds of Beatlemania puns and references. This story is heavily steeped in Beatles’ lore as it makes them into superheroes. The Beatles, four lads from Liverpool, become this dimensional fighting force, riding to defend the attacked people and meeting their own Pepperland analogs (Sgt. Pepper’s band) while saving the day. And unlike most heroes, John, Paul, George, and Ringo don’t fight with their fists but with their words and wit. This is a comic where the heroes are lovers and really not fighters even if there are one or two bonks to the Blue Meanies’ heads in these pages. The true forces for good at work use words and music as their weapons.

Morrison has the unenviable task of turning a musical into a comic. It’s impressive how well he uses the language of comics to create the impression of rock and roll. Morrison’s artwork follows the animated model of the movie but, free from the restrictions of a movie screen’s rigged frame, Morrison allows the story to flow out of the characters, building each page around the unique interactions of the Beatles with one another and with their unreal environment. There’s never anything that you could say takes place in the “real” world so Morrison draws trippy and organic pages that make you believe in the reality of The Beatles Yellow Submarine. This is a world of Blue Meanies, magical realities, and dimension-traveling toy-like submarines.

The fun of the book reveals itself through the Beatles themselves. These are the imagined versions of the quartet, probably closer to what we want them to be than to what they were in the 1960s. You can’t help but read this book without hearing their voices in your head. Mythologized and idealized, this band lives in a Peter Max-inspired world where everything is poppish, bright and musical. Their dialogue has a singsong quantity to it. Even their clothes demonstrate each Beatles’ unique character, from George’s stoic brown jacket to John’s poofy shirt, Ringo’s striped jacket or Paul’s impeccably tailored jacket and pants. This is part of how we want to remember the Beatles, as four blokes who joked and got along as they made the world a better place.

A visual delight, The Beatles Yellow Submarine shows us the original transcendental pop stars who prove that all you need is love. Bill Morrison takes a 50-year-old movie and transforms it into a very modern comic book, translating music and motion into panels and dialogue balloons. This comic book shows us the best version of The Beatles and the aspirations of their music, proving that love, friendship, and peace is all that you need. And, as they sang in many songs, love really is all that you need.

We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine

The Beatles Yellow Submarine
Written and Drawn by Bill Morrison
Inked by Morrison, Andrew Pepoy with Tone Rodriguez
Colored by Nathan Kane
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar
Published by Titan Comics