(Note: I wrote the following review in August 2012 for a comics website, but I withdrew it for consideration after the editor of the site, two months later, requested a rewrite. I then submitted it to a Beatles website, that replied to me in early November 2012 that they would be willing to run the piece -- but I never heard anything back about it. So-o-o, since it's been almost a year now since I wrote the thing, I figure I might as well run it here on my own blog. Better late than never! My thanks to JASON SACKS for having provided me with a review copy of this book last summer.)
The Beatles In Comic Strips
Authors: Enzo Gentile and Fabio Schiavo
Publisher: Skira Editore (www.skira.net)
(Distributed in the USA by Rizzoli
International Publications, Inc.)
International Publications, Inc.)
A review by Rob Imes
3 out of 5 stars.
The Beatles In Comic Strips by Enzo Gentile and Fabio Schiavo is a thick, 240-page hardcover book in full color that provides examples from around the world of the Beatles' influence on comics. The book was published in Italy, and there are pages here that most English-speaking fans have likely never seen before. It's an interesting hodge-podge of images from the collection of co-author Fabio Schiavo, covering the group's career from their explosive fame on the world stage in 1964 to the present day where they remain seemingly bigger than ever. There's also a large double-sided fold-out illustration poster in the book.
As noted in Gentile's introduction, the Beatles are well suited for the cartoon life. In the beginning, there was only their name (which drew the inevitable comparison to bugs) and their look (the moptop haircut). Ringo could be easily distinguished from the rest in a cartoon drawing by giving him a bigger nose, and (later) Lennon would always be wearing his familiar round granny glasses. Comics deal in shorthand identification (it's both a strength and limitation) since lingering over a panel too long slows down the flow of the narrative, and so the visual cues provided by the Fab Four works well for the speedy medium. Song titles (and lyrics like "Yeah, yeah, yeah"), iconic album covers, and the drama of their career itself have supplied an endless supply of references for cartoonists to mine over the years.
When I heard of the premise of this book, I was reminded of another Beatles book that I've had for many years, The Art of The Beatles by Mike Evans from 1984, which examined the group's influence on art as well as the group's own imagery. One short section looked at The Beatles in comics, and contrasted the 1978 Marvel Super Special titled The Beatles Story and the 1981 Look-In comics serial The Story of The Beatles. Evans wrote that "the Marvel treatment was unfortunately (and unintentionally) hilarious" due to its inaccuracies and poor likenesses, and consequently the three images from that comic shown in Evans' book were reproduced at tiny size. The Look-In serial, however, Evans praised as "the only worthwhile comic strip record of the Beatles," and a page from that was reproduced at full size. Although the expression "a picture is worth a thousand words" may have some truth to it, Evans' text accompaniment on every other page of the book explained to the reader just what he was looking at, and helped put the images in proper critical context. I learned a lot looking at that book, with Evans as the helpful guide.
In contrast, while The Beatles In Comic Strips is a feast for the eyes, the reader is thrown into a sea of images from around the world with less hand-holding (no pun intended) taking place. Like the Evans book, the Gentile-Schiavo book is set up chronologically, so that the older pieces are at the front of the book, the more recent ones at the end. There is also a timeline of the Beatles' career from 1960 to 2010, just in case the reader isn't sure what happened each year in Beatle history. (This suggests to me that the book may be aiming beyond the Beatle fan market and more at general readers who are less familiar with this basic chronology of events.)
The text pages are separated from the image sections of the book, so that you get a page or two of description and then a smattering of visuals for the next half-dozen or so pages, and then the next page or two of text. This does cause the reader to have to double back to the text when they finally come upon the image that had been described. For example, a paragraph of text on page 30 titled "Across the Universe" (which is accompanied by a large photo of Jane Fonda as Barbarella) concerns the Italian science-fiction comics heroine Alika, and how the Beatles were portrayed in one issue. When a page from the comic is shown in the book, however, it is not until page 54. So, there is a lot of turning of pages back and forth for the reader to recall what was said about the comic being shown.
There is a wealth of Beatles-related images here published in comic books from 1964 to 2010. But each comic is represented by only one page (I counted two pages in a couple rare instances) regardless of whether the comics represented are more Beatlecentric than others. Each image is accompanied by a line of text giving the title and year of publication, country of origin, and occasionally the name of the page's creator(s). Sometimes the cover of the publication is shown at smaller size at the bottom of the page, too (usually obscuring some of the artwork in the process).
Since the material comes from all over the globe, the comics pages are written in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and so forth -- none of which is translated. So unless you are multilingual, there are a few pages in here that -- unless a Beatle is clearly shown -- you may wonder why it was selected for inclusion. Unfortunately, some pages were evidently thought worthy of inclusion if they simply mentioned the title of a Beatles song. For example, a Doom Patrol page from 2000 is included because Robotman calls a villain "the Sgt. Pepper of the senior set!" An Evil Ernie page from 1998 is here because a character says, "The first stop on our Magical Mystery Tour. Follow me. I have a limo waiting." Luckily I can read English and figure out why the page was included (slight though I may think that reasoning); I have less luck on some of the pages written in other languages.
Another drawback for this reader is that the images accompanying the text pieces (as mentioned earlier, with the Barbarella example) are unrelated to the Beatles. To simulate the passing of the decades, text pages are accompanied by big photos (sometimes two-page spreads) of icons of the era that have nothing to do with the Fab Four, such as Charlie's Angels (the late 1970s), Michael Keaton as Batman (actually out of sequence, placed in the early 1970s section to represent the text talking about the 1970 Batman comic inspired by the "Paul is Dead" controversy), and so on. In all, there are 24 pages devoted to such non-Beatles-related photos. Again, their inclusion suggests a view toward appealing outside the Beatles fan market to a wider general readership.
until pages 84-85, where it is accompanied by a photo from Batman Returns. Huh?)
The good thing about this book is that even the most dedicated Beatles fan or comics fan has probably not seen most of these images before -- and even if they had, it's nice to have it all in one sturdy hardcover book. As I read the book, however, I couldn't help but wish its compilers had been more discriminating in their selections. In fact, it got me thinking that a proper anthology of the best Beatles comics appearances would be even better than this book.
What got me thinking about this is when I saw how Alex Toth's 2-pager "Big Daddy's Word to the Wise" (from Big Daddy Roth #2, Dec. 1964) is represented in the book. First, Toth is not credited. Second, only the first of the two pages is shown; the second page, which predicts how the moptops will look in 1994, is omitted. Third, the dialogue balloon which mentions that the second page of the strip will show how the Fabs will look in 1994 is obscured by an unnecessary image of the magazine's cover (not Beatles related). The two-pager can be read in its entirety in Toth: "One for the Road" (Auad Publishing, 2000) and would be a worthy addition to an anthology collection of Beatles comic strips.
(On the left, the Alex Toth page in The Beatles In Comic Strips.
On the right, the same page as reprinted in Toth: "One for the Road" in 2000.)
The front cover of New Voice Comics' 1991 one-shot Johnny is shown in the The Beatles In Comic Strips, but nothing from its interior, which consists of reminisces about Lennon's work from small-press cartoonists. Tim Corrigan's strip that closes Johnny in particular would be worth adding in full to a Beatles anthology (no pun intended) of comics. As would Craig Bartlett's one-page strip "Nothing is Real" (Centifugal Bumble-Puppy #1; Fantagraphics, 1987). The fact that Craig's strip isn't included in The Beatles In Comic Strips leads me to think that one-pagers like his were ineligible because that would have involved reprinting them in full. By reprinting only one page of a larger work, the Gentile-Schiavo book could avoid paying a reprint fee by having the republication qualify as fair use for a scholarly work.
There is another aspect of this book which the reader might wish to know about in advance: some of the selections might be in bad taste. At first I figured this was due to the different cultural norms of different countries, but there is some disturbing stuff in the homegrown comics as well. Page 148 has a lovely ink-brush illustration of the Beatles, but the (non-Beatles) front cover of the magazine in which it originally appeared is also shown, a color painting depicting a close-up of a woman's rear-end on a bed being tied up with rope by a man's hands. Why it was felt necessary to include this cover image is beyond me.
(Page 148 has the lads competing for the reader's attention with a bondage scene.)
Most of the other disturbing images involve the death of John Lennon. The cover of a 1980 Italian publication is shown on page 106, showing a scribbly drawing of Lennon (similar in style to his own artwork) crying "Help!" as what appears to be the muzzle of a gun blasts at him. Page 122 shows a 1983 Metal Hurlant cover of the Fab Four reunited, with Lennon depicted as a rotting corpse with skeletal arms draped around his bandmates. On page 180, Gentile/Schiavo writes about a 1994 cover (shown on page 164 -- see, I told you that you have to flip pages back and forth!) depicting "a John Lennon revenant who looms over his surviving colleagues with crooked glasses and a look straight out of Pet Sematary." Marvel had a storyline where four Skrulls adopted the guise of the Beatles, and on page 219 we are shown the splash page of a 2008 Captain Britain comic where "Lennon" is seen shackled and bloodied, at which his captor then says, "This Skrull has been tortured enough. Please kill it for now." To anyone who loved John Lennon, as I think most serious Beatles fans do, this is obviously a painful and unwelcome image.
There is seemingly a lack of affection in such irreverent depictions, which suggests to me that they may not even be the handiwork of actual Beatles fans, but of comics creators who decided to use (or exploit) the imagery of the Beatles for their own purposes. Again, I would contrast this with Mike Evans' Art of the Beatles book, where more discrimination and taste is on display throughout, and a feeling of real affection for the group. For example, in that book, we see the two versions of artist David Oxtoby's painting of Lennon, "English Rock." The first was painted in 1976 and depicts Lennon's profile against New York in flames. After Lennon's murder, the artist painted over this fiery vision, and replaced the background with a calm blue sky: Lennon at peace. The humanity of the artist is more evident there than in the "clever" appropriation of the group's image for cheap laughs or shock value. Perhaps this says something about the nature of comic books, however, even those in the high-minded independent and foreign comics scene.
My preference would have been for Gentile and Schiavo to have chosen the best material available, explained why it was worthwhile (as Evans did for the art in his book) and left the rest out. Having said that, some of the best comics about the Beatles are in this book; I just wish there was more of that shown, and that there was less of the rest.