On December 8, 1980 Bill Morrison cried when his girlfriend told him in a phone conversation that John Lennon had been killed.
"I actually made a black armband and wore it to classes at art school," Morrison told CBR News. "I remember that my dad thought that was a little too much. He asked me if I was going to wear a black armband when he died."
A child of the 1960s and 1970s, Morrison had grown up on the Fab Four's music.
"My older brother and sister were big Beatles fans at the height of Beatlemania, so when I was growing up I didn't buy any Beatles albums. I think between the two of them they had every album. As I chronicled in a short story I did for Dark Horse's 'Autobiographics,' I was a little too young for Beatlemania when it hit, but I did
go to the drive-in to see 'A Hard Days Night' when it first came out. I slept in the back of my dad's station wagon through most of it. (Come on, I was five!) The Monkees were more my speed as a kid, probably because they were wackier and on TV. Plus I think that episode with Julie Newmar gave them a Batman connection. I guess the first Beatles album I ever bought myself was the compilation 'Rock and Roll Music' that came out in the mid-seventies. There was sort of a mini resurgence in Beatlemania then and that's when I really got into them."
Nineteen years later, now an artist working for Matt Groening and Bongo Comics, Morrison was approached by Dark Horse Comics to contribute his own piece of Beatles history: A new adaptation of the "Yellow Submarine" in comic book form.
"I guess it would have been early in 1999. The DVD was released in September of '99, and I remember the comic adaptation was being timed to coincide with the DVD release."
There had been a Yellow Submarine comic published by Gold Key Comics in 1968, produced in advance of the movie (including before final character designs had been made or the script had been finalized), but the Dark Horse project was to be a true adaptation of the film.
"This was to be a brand new comic book adaptation of the film. It wasn't really an anniversary, but like I said, it was linked to the DVD release along with a lot of other new Yellow Submarine merchandise, like the action figures from McFarlane Toys. I believe I was first approached by Michael Martens at Dark Horse and asked to adapt the script and draw it."
"It was scheduled to be a full-color 48 page one-shot, prestige format I believe. I was contracted to do the entire project and I brought in a few of my Bongo buddies to help out. Nathan Kane was coloring it, and Chris Ungar was handling the lettering. Also, I enlisted my wife, Kayre, to help me translate some of the dialogue from VHS copies of the film. I remember her calling me into her office to listen over and over to bits of dialogue that neither of us could understand because of the poor audio quality and the thick Liverpool accents."
As he recalls, Morrison was given little input on the direction to take on the project.
"I remember doing a little sample drawing to see if I had the style down, but I believe that was more for my sake than theirs. In fact, I don't recall if I ever showed them that drawing. I do remember doing the cover first, because they were going to print it as a poster. Remember when Dark Horse had those promotional newspaper comics that were distributed at comic shops? It was going to be printed full-size on the back of one of those.
"I don't remember Dark Horse giving me any direction regarding style. It just seemed to be understood that I would be as faithful to the film as possible. I do recall that Dark Horse Publisher Mike Richardson loaned me his personal copy of the original Gold Key Yellow Submarine comic from 1968 for reference. I also found a copy of a Yellow Submarine book with pictures from the film. I really wanted badly to capture the look of the film. As a Beatles fan myself, I approached it from a fan point of view and tried to bury my own style (whatever that is!).
"As for the design, I thought about the film and how psychedelic it is. I wanted to translate that onto the page beyond just what I depicted in each panel. So I found inspiration in the black light posters I used to cover my bedroom walls with. I designed the opening Pepperland pages very much like psychedelic posters. Then the Liverpool scene with Ringo is pretty basic and dull. But when he and Fred start to assemble the other Beatles one by one, the page design starts getting weird and psychedelic again. I always felt that some of the pages could have had a second life as a black light poster book."
But, of course, the project was never completed.
"I completed 26 pages, pencil and ink, and I believe Nathan had ten or so pages colored. I think Chris had most of the 26 pages lettered, too," Morrison said. "From what I understand, the executive at Apple Records who oversees the Beatles merchandise had a change of heart. I heard that he only wanted to do really high-class merchandise for this roll out and he suddenly decided that comic books didn't qualify. He pulled out of the deal and left [Dark Horse Publisher] Mike Richardson holding the bag. And Dark Horse paid me for every bit of my work! He's a real mensch, that Mike. Another story I heard was that George Harrison felt that because his company was also named Dark Horse, people may think that he was the producer of the comic. If it was bad, he'd get blamed for it. But I think that was just a rumor.
"Well, as you can imagine, I was very sad to see it go. As I said, I'm a big Beatles fan, so this project meant a lot to me. To be a part of Beatles history, even in a very minor way, would have been a tremendous thrill for me. (Actually, it still was, even though it wasn't published.) Also, I was excited about doing the first really faithful adaptation of the film. Not to take anything away from the original Gold Key adaptation, but it was obviously done well before the movie was completed. Aspects of the story are different and it's apparent that the artist (Paul S. Newman, I believe) had only preliminary designs to work from, and some characters hadn't even been designed yet.
"Anyway, for a long time I still held out hope that Dark Horse would somehow convince Apple to do it and I could continue. I even considered just completing it on my own for the sake of having closure on it."
Seven years later, there seems little chance the abortive Yellow Submarine comic will ever reach store shelves, but Morrison refuses to just let it be.
"Who knows, maybe if enough Beatles fans knew about it they could bombard Apple with letters. (Hint!) I think if the executive from Apple visited Comic-Con International, he'd see that comics aren't necessarily as junky as he thinks. Maybe he'd have another change of heart and decide to OK it."
CBR Staff Writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this story.