Interview: Bill Morrison Talks About Bringing Yellow Submarine to Comics

Bill Morrison, current editor of Mad Magazine, was the formative creator and editor of Bongo Comics, where the Simpsons, Sponge Bob, and Futurama, among other titles, flourished under his watch. He's done everything from illustration work for Disney to one of my all-time favorite Loki versus the Avengers stories for Marvel, and now, at long last, his adaptation of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine hit your favorite comic book store yesterday.

At San Diego Comic-Con, I had the pleasure of an early-morning interview with Bill, alongside Will from Titan Comics and a gentleman from Apple. (Not the iPad Apple. The Beatles one, natch.) As you'll see, we discussed how the comic came together, how Bill approached the iconic movie (which is one of my all-time favorites--I love it un-ironically), and finally, a quick appreciation for Bongo (before we all learned they're probably closing).

Rob McMonigal: First of all, tell me how this came together. What made this the right time for there to be a Yellow Submarine comic?

Bill Morrison: I think because it’s the 50th anniversary. The film has been re-released in a spectacular new form, it's in theaters, and audiences are seeing it and singing along with the songs and laughing at the jokes and it’s making a pretty big splash. The fact that we have this graphic novel coming out at the same time is pretty fortunate.

In terms of how this came came together, for the 30th anniversary, I was commissioned to do a graphic novel version but I only got 25 pages done and a cover and then it ended up not happening. So over the years since then, I’ve shown the pages to people and I’ve had some articles written about them. Joe Marziano [unsure of the spelling - ed], the licensing agent for Apple Records, had seen the pages and was interested in putting together a deal with a publisher to do a graphic novel version. Joe’s been hanging around San Diego Comic-Con for years. He worked out a deal with Titan who was already doing the Beatles toys and they’re a great publisher. I worked with them for the Simpsons comics for years. They’re the company that has the Simpsons license for the Bongo Comics in the UK and I’ve known all the people there for years.

It worked out great. I got the opportunity to finish the project. I’d thought about finishing it on my own for closure and keeping it a drawer. I got too busy and that never happened. I feel very fortunate that first of all, the project was initiated. As a fan, I just think it’s a perfect story to be translated into a graphic novel. But also I’m kinda amazed that I was able to finish the project, that it didn’t go to another artist, that it went to me.

Rob: Did you re-use the material you had from the first attempt or did you start over from scratch?

Bill: I did use some of the original material. It was what had attracted Titan and Apple in the first place, so there was no reason to re-do it. I did have to supplement some of the early pages, because the original plan was to do a 48 page graphic novel and Titan wanted to do 96 pages, so I drew [additional pages] into that first 25 pages. I added some pages into that material to expand the story.

Rob: In terms of putting the story itself together, how did you approach what to include and what to exclude? How did you decide “this is really important” versus “this can be skimmed over” since you can’t do an entire movie in 96 pages. How did you decide what could stay or go?

Bill: The first thing you look at is what moves the story forward. You don’t want to cut anything that keeps the story going. There were things like when they go through the different seas, one of the seas I didn’t focus on was the Sea of Science--there’s no dialogue, and it’s all visual. It doesn’t move the story ahead, so that was something I could obviously kinda gloss over and move on to the Sea of Holes, where they meet Jeremy, which is very key to the story. I spent more time on that because it’s story-driven material.

Rob: How did you work to integrate the songs into the graphic novel?

Bill: There are a couple of songs that really play into the story and so with those, I used captions and dialog and you see the Beatles playing music during those scenes so you know there's music going on It’s part of the story that there’s defeating the Blue Meanies with music. Other songs are just sort of beautiful breaks in the story, so there’s not really – the story isn’t being moved forward due to the song, so for those it was easier to gloss over those scenes.

Rob: In terms of the movie itself, how many times did you have to re-watch it?

Bill: I probably watched it three or four times initially to get the story in my head. From that point on, it was a lot of re-watching certain scenes over and over again. I didn’t have to sit down and re-watch the movie, but there was a lot of playing the same scene over and over again to get the dialog right and study it, see what was important to keep and what I could get rid of. So there was a lot of not watching the whole thing, but watching pieces.

Rob: So getting the nuances?

Bill: Yeah.

Rob: A lot of readers tend to be creators themselves, so I always like to ask questions like this. Are you still working analog or are you fully digital now? How do you put together a comic these days?

Bill: I’m very traditional, so I still pencil and ink—part of the book was inked by Andrew Pepoy and Tone Rodriguez--

Rob: Those are both Bongo creators, right?
Bill: Yeah, they are both people I worked with at Bongo. I inked traditionally on paper—the first 28 pages and the cover, and they inked the rest traditionally. The colors were done digitally by Nathan Kane, another Bongo cohort, and the lettering was also digital. I would say in terms of how most comics are created today, this was more traditional than most. The pencils and inks were on paper, and the rest of was digital.

Rob: Finally, if I may one ask one Bongo question, how does it feel to look back and see how successful Bongo Comics has been at putting out really funny Simpsons comics decades later?

Bill: I think it’s great, I’m proud of what I was involved with at Bongo and all the people that I left there, I worked with them for years and they’re all funny, brilliant, and talented people. It makes me proud to see that they’ve continued that tradition without me.

Rob: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Bill.

Bill: Thank you!

Clearly, I missed a chance to comment on how Bill likes to work with famous, animated yellow things. Oh well! I hadn't had any coffee yet. Stay tuned on the site for Scott's review of Bill Morrison's adaptation of Yellow Submarine, available now from Titan Comics. I can't speak for Scott, but as a huge Beatles fan, this book is gorgeous in electronic form, and I can't wait to pick up a physical copy for myself soon. Go get your own when you stop by the shop this week!