It may take another century for the world to fully understand the cultural impact of that British pop group innocuously named ‘The Beatles’. It is still hard to fathom all the ways in which the four young men – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr – who last performed together on a rooftop in January 1969, created a splash whose ripples continue to be felt.
Reams of scholarly articles have been devoted to their influence on fashion, live performances (they were the first to stage a large stadium concert), recording techniques, or the album format, but they also managed to trigger movements in social and political arenas far from the shores of Liverpool. Books about them could easily fill a library, but two recent additions to that vast body of work stand out for their simplicity and lack of pretension.
The first, titled The Beatles In Comics, is exactly what it promises to be — a graphic adaptation of a story so well known that one’s first reaction is probably, ‘Does this need to exist?’ The answer is, yes, it does. What it does is split the biography into chapters — Mister Epstein, George’s Martin’s Wager, The Man Who Refused To Sign The Beatles, The Beginning Of Beatlemania, etc. — and hand over artistic duties to different illustrators, from Anne-Sophie Servantie and Amandine Puntous to Julien Lamanda, Ben Lebègue and Victor Giménez. It also intersperses the tale with archival photographs (the legendary club Indra in Hamburg, for instance) and pithy commentary, while effectively condensing the band’s history, from the tentative relationship between John and Paul in 1957 to the members who were replaced, their touring years, conquering the world and eventual implosion after little over a decade.
There are also pages dedicated to what each member did after the split, and trivia that should amuse even hardcore fans. Did you know, for example, that McCartney broke a tooth in a moped accident in 1966, and it shows in the promotional films for Rain and Paperback Writer? Or that the Pope pardoned Lennon for the infamous declaration “We’re more popular than Jesus” only in 2011, describing it as the “boast of a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success”? Or that the 1966 tour in Japan required the largest security force ever seen in the 20th century for a group or artist, with 35,000 civil servants mobilised? It all makes for a satisfying snack for children as well as adults.
Another title with the capacity to satisfy both demographics is Yellow Submarine, an authorized graphic novel adaptation celebrating the 50th anniversary of the film, by Bill Morrison, Nathan Kane, and Aditya Bidikar. The story of The Beatles versus the Blue Meanies is well-known, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking this up. Set in Pepperland, the band is recruited by the Captain of the Yellow Submarine to help him free Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from Chief Blue Meanie and his music-hating thugs. One can almost taste the LSD that must have inspired the Four to come up with the plot, and it is a testament to their talented collaborators and timeless music that this naive morality tale works at all.
As a companion piece to the animation, it works magnificently, faithfully replicating the pop-art surrealism that has proven to be so enduring, decades after that kind of psychedelia was last in vogue. Morrison does have a handicap, in the form of an inability to incorporate the songs that breathe life into the film, but substitutes them with stunning colours and word balloons recreating the sense of wide-eyed wonder that permeates every frame of the original. Looming large over these pages is the shadow of late German illustrator Heinz Edelmann, whose art direction gave the film its visual language. The most remarkable thing about Yellow Submarine is that it came into being only because The Beatles had to fulfil a contractual obligation in 1968.
There have been all kinds of graphic novels devoted to the Liverpudlians over the years, some straightforward biographies like Angus Allan’s The Beatles, others like Arne Bellstorf’s Baby’s in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles. Where Vivek Tiwary’s The Fifth Beatle focused on the role of manager Brian Epstein, Mauri Kunnas’s Beatles With An A: Birth of a Band takes a quirky look at some of the more colourful anecdotes surrounding them. The Beatles in Comic Strips by Enzo Gentile and Fabio Schiavo collects around 200 cartoon strips dedicated to Beatlemania, while Carol Tyler’s Fab4 Mania: A Beatles Obsession and the Concert of a Lifetime touchingly chronicles the author’s teenage fandom and account of her experience at a performance in Chicago.
Explaining why The Beatles continue to endure is like trying to justify why Shakespeare is still performed. The music, like those plays, work in mysterious ways to teach us something about ourselves. For that reason alone, more of these books deserve to be written, irrespective of the categories they happen to fall into.