The wonderful thing at SDCC is sometimes you can have a passing moment with someone whose work you love and respect. And sometimes, you get to sit down with one of these people and have a conversation about something amazing they worked on. This year I was able to do just that with Bill Morrison, current Executive Editor of MAD Magazine and Co-Founder of Bongo Comics, and discuss his brand new adaptation of The Beatles Yellow Submarine for Titan Comics. Also present for the interview was Joe Marziottto, who oversees all of The Beatles licensing and merchandising in North America.
Joshua Stone: Was Yellow Submarine or The Beatles an influence on your art style or your career?
Bill Morrison: The Beatles were always in my house from pretty much the time I can remember because I had two older sisters and a brother. So when The Beatles came to America I was five years old. I can remember them on The Ed Sullivan Show. I remember my older brother and sister just going nuts. They were always playing Beatles records. My first record I ever owned was sort of a Beatles album. It was Alvin and The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles’ Hits. So that was my Beatles you know. Then I got older, decided I wanted to be an illustrator or a comic artist of some sort, The Beatles were always a subject. I was always doing drawings of them, in addition to other things. They were definitely a part of my formative years, I did an interview with Prog magazine and I didn’t really get the connection, why I am I doing an interview with Prog?. They asked me at one point, the interview was mostly just about my interest in prog music, and I was thinking when are they going to get to The Beatles. And so they said, “Do you think The Beatles were a prog band?” And I said, “Well I don’t think prog really existed before The Beatles or while The Beatles were together, but I think they made the world safe for prog music.”
They kind of opened the door to that creativity and I think as an artist that really worked on me too. I wasn’t a musician, but the stuff The Beatles did creatively especially in the studio years, after they stopped touring, it was mind blowing. It couldn’t help but inspire me in my art. Yellow Submarine, I never really tried to draw in that style, but the creativity that went into that film definitely inspired me.
JS: I got to take a look at the book and it’s gorgeous. It feels and looks like the movie, but how do you think it does in conveying the music, since music is what drove the movie and you don’t have the soundtrack playing in the background while you read the book? I mean, you might.
BM: You can. While I was working on it I had the music playing to just inspire me. I think the great thing about The Beatles’ music, particularly in the film, it’s all stuff that everybody knows. It’s just beloved music you already have ingrained in you. I think when you are reading the book you are playing that in your head. If you don’t have it on the stereo your just playing it in your head anyway. I think it’ sustain sort of built in.
Joe Marziotto: The other thing is the art just stands on its own. You don’t need to have the music with it, the art is that iconic because of all the other things we do with it. You can do some things with Beatles proper, which is ok, but the real fun stuff and the eye catching stuff is this.
JS: It did take me back. When I was a kid I remember watching the movie 5-6 times over the years, at least. I think every year it came on, before cable, like the Wizard of Oz was once a year and The Beatles Yellow Submarine would come once a year, and I would just be entranced. Your book definitely took me back.
BM: Good. That was one of the goals, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, it still works, but if you’ve seen the movie the goal is for the book to take you back into it. Without having to put the movie on, you can kind of revisit and relive it.
JS: You’ve worked on The Simpsons, MAD Magazine, and now The Beatles, are you not afraid to put your hands on anything?
BM: (laughs) That’s funny, that’s a good question. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse. Maybe it’s both. I don’t get intimidated by things until I’m into it. So if somebody says, do you want to do an adaptation of The Beatles Yellow Submarine? I’m like, “Absolutely, of course I want to do that.” Once it dawns on me that I have to do this and I’m doing something millions of Beatles fans are going to see and probably The Beatles themselves are going to look at it, then I start going, ok I committed to something pretty serious here and I got to push through. But that initial reaction is always, “That sounds like fun, let’s do it.” It doesn’t dawn on me until later that this is kind of important.
JS: It’s like the “Yes, and” in improv.
BM: Yeah, it is.
JS: You say yes to anything and deal with it afterwards. And it is a good thing, let me just say that.
BM: It is a blessing.
JS: It’s definitely a blessing, because I think too many people, they overthink things and they talk themselves out of stuff that could be really good for them.
BM: When I first started writing comics, I wasn’t a writer, I was just an artist. I was doing The Simpsons comics in a magazine we had called The Simpsons Illustrated. I drew the first one, but somebody else had written it. Then I wanted to do another one, cause it was the first time I got to do comics. So I called the editor and I said, “If there is another script for the second issue I’d love to be involved.” And he said, “Well we’re scrambling to meet our deadline and we don’t have anything written so if you want to write something you can draw it.” And I said, “Oh, ok.” Then I hung up the phone and I was like, did I just commit to writing a script for a comic?
JS: For The Simpsons.
BM: For The Simpsons? And the answer was I sure did, And I didn’t even know how to type at that point, cause I blew off typing class in school. So I just figured it out and they liked it, and from that point on I was a writer.
JS: Originally you were hired by Dark Horse Comics to do Yellow Submarine for the 30th anniversary. What brought you back to finish it for Titan?
BM: When I wasn’t able to finish it, it was always one of those things sitting in a drawer and I’d look at the pages once in a while and think I really want to finish this someday. At one point I just thought maybe I should just finish this for myself just to have closure on it. No one will ever see it. Maybe I can pitch it to a publisher or maybe I’ll meet somebody from Apple or I can talk them into letting me do it with somebody, But of course that never happened. I never had the time. Luckily, people like Joe and other publishers had seen the pages, so there was sort of an interest going. People liked the pages and were thinking how can we get this into print and let Bill finish this project. I’m just real thankful that they didn’t say let’s find another artist, Bill’s doing The Simpsons, let’s give it to somebody else. I feel very fortunate that it landed back in my lap.
JS: I understand the book sticks pretty close to the movie.
BM: I had a copy of the DVD from 98 or 99, so I really just used that, and my wife and I spent hours listening to the dialogue, like playing scenes over and over. “What’s Ringo saying? Oh my god, get the marbles out of your mouth!”
JS: Closed captioning?
BM: It didn’t exist on this one. When I first started the project I was working off a VHS tape that was struck from a Laserdisc, so the sound was really bad.
JS: That must’ve been a bear.
BM: It was a bear. I remember we had two copies of it, we pulled two copies, and my wife was in one room with a VCR and I’m in the other room, and every couple of minutes she’d say, “You’ve got to come in here and listen to this, I cannot understand what they are saying.” But now the audio is so much better.
JS: Has there been any thought about doing more Beatle stuff? Adapt Hard Day’s Night into a book? Obviously it wasn’t an animated movie, but it came off as animated, that frenzied action in it.
BM: Yeah, they developed some really fun characters for themselves for that movie. No talk about that at this point.
JM: We’re going to see how this goes. I have some other thoughts, but one thing at a time. I’m happy we got this out in time for the 50th.
JS: Like I mentioned before the start, the Alex Ross prints and this.
JM: We’ve done a Lego DL, I did Vans, we get a lot of really cool special deals. I have a turntable deal now, it’s a shaped Yellow Submarine turntable.
BM: Oh my god, I have to get that.
JS: It’s shaped?
JM: Google Project Audio (writer’s note: I did and it was amazing looking, but not inexpensive at $600. Check out www.thebeatlesstore.com and you can get it on a payment plan.) These guys went out of their way, cause I just said we’ll do graphics and they said no, we want to make it in the shape of the sub, and they did. It’s an audiophile turntable.
BM: And you can put it underwater, play your records underwater.
JM: if you have a chance, it’s (Yellow Submarine) going to be playing in the theaters until around August.
BM: I would like to do a comic book graphic novel biography of Paul’s uncle from Hard Day’s Night. Just Paul’s uncle, just his whole life leading up to his appearance in Hards Day’s Night.
JM: Maybe there’s a Magical Mystery Tour concept to expand.
BM: The stuff that The Beatles created, obviously, 50 years later is still popular and still resonates with everybody, so there’s no reason not to explore it.
JM: And every time there’s a change in technology we make the cut. We’re still closing in on 6 billion streams.
JS: It’s stuff I play for my kids, my parents played it for me.
JM: That’s the beauty of the book too, a child could pick the book up and follow, even if they’re not reading, they can follow it.
The book is available in stores now, but in October they will be releasing a special limited edition box set, limited to 1968 copies and for $196.80. It looks amazing.
For further musings from Joshua Stone you can follow him on the Twitter @1NerdyOne