A new, comic-book style book offers a new, creative take on the history of The Beatles. Combining history with comics, creator Herve Bourhis has fashioned a fascinatingly visual take on the story of the Fab Four.
Released November 1st through Omnibus Press, The Beatles Graphic is a colorful, vibrant history of one of the world's best-known and most-loved rock bands.
Hervé Bourhis, a multi award-winning French artist and illustrator, who's worked on a number of noted works, including The Little Book of Rock (Dargaud, 2007), tells the story of Liverpool's finest through a series of panels depicting key events in the history of the Fab Four. He literally draws each band member as a baby, and traces their story right up to seeing Paul McCartney live in 2009 ("the first time I have seen a live Beatle in person"). There's plenty of context provided too, though owing to the highly illustrative nature of Bourhis's work, little background knowledge of the band is required in order to enjoy the work; a simple enjoyment of their music is enough.
Useful for popular music buffs is a simple black-and-white panel, "Is it me, or does it sound like," in which Bourhis takes a song from the era he's covering and puts it beside a Beatles tune also from the era. For instance, "Fourth Time Around" by Bob Dylan is put beside "Norwegian Wood." It's a clever, engaging history lesson that shows the range of influences on the Fab Four, as well as Bourhis' wide-ranging musical knowledge.
The cultural pervasiveness of the band, and its various personal and political influences, are colored by interspersing the history lesson with chunks of editorializing on their creative output, along with commentary on their personalities and experiences. It raises the book from being merely another weighty tome full of facts and figures into something far more entertaining, but it also serves (however inadvertently) to highlight the marked differences in personalities between its four vastly different members: we see more clearly the mainstream-loving Paul, the unapologetically experimental John, the worldly, meditative George, and alas, the haplessly floundering Ringo. From this, the reader can clearly deduce the frisson of personalities that lead to so much creative tension, and ultimately, unsustainable beauty. Macca's recent statements about Yoko Ono's role (or lack thereof) in the band's breakup seem richer after a read through Bourhis' book.
Herve Bourhis illustrates every aspect of The Beatles history, including whimsical representations of Beatlemania that spread with the rise of the band's popularity in the 1960s.
Integrated within the art and observations are timely reviews and factoids, which serve to complement Bourhis' drawings and personal observations, though the English translation isn't as seamless as it could be, making it a challenge for non-French readers to appreciate the cultural variance on offer. Furthermore, the occasionally flippant tone diminishes the purity of Bourhis' love for the band. For example, the review of "All You Need Is Love / "Baby You're A Rich Man" focuses on the former, while the latter receives this insight: "The B-side is insufferable." Such a harshly dismissive style, coupled with a total lack of insight, is a frustrating aspect of a book that shines so very brightly in every other way.
Bourhis, however, comes by his music love (and strong opinions) honestly; as well as being a longtime music fan, the artist has dedicated himself to drawing over 500 essential rock album covers (organized by year), the results of which he shares online. In The Beatles Graphic, he draws -literally -more contemporary figures into the story as the book progresses, placing select modern bands beside his heroes for the sake of comparison and contrast; The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance, are depicted paying naughty homage to the Abbey Road album, while Oasis get numerous cartoons and write-ups for their Beatles-esque sound through the Britpop explosion of the 1990s.
He kindly shared his thoughts on drawing the Fab Four, his first memories of hearing the band, artistic influences, and if there's another super-band he'd like to give the graphic treatment to down the road.
Was it intimidating to draw what is arguably the most famous band in the world?
It was intimidating, of course, but since I was fourteen years old, I’ve collected everything I could on the subject. I wasn’t starting from scratch. In order to make this book, before I drew anything, I started re-reading everything I’d ever seen, listening to everything, researching, checking and making notes. That process lasted six months -but, in terms of lifelong work, that's six months plus twenty years of reading about The Beatles!
What really frightened me was making sure that this isn’t just another book about The Beatles - there are so many of those.
Bourhis depicts the early days of The Beatles, including Stuart Sutcliffe's role within the band. He also depicts some of Astrid Kirchherr's celebrated shots of the young Beatles.
What is your first memory of The Beatles?
I was five or six years old, on holiday in Britain, around 1980, and my brother, who is ten years older than me, passed on the album Yellow Submarine. It’s not the best album to discover the group, but perhaps that was why we moved on to other Beatles albums afterwards.
How difficult was it to balance the history of The Beatles with your opinions of their work?
This is my second book on rock, but it is not an academic work -it is openly subjective. I am not a musicologist nor a rock critic, I am an artist. For fans, the facts I share are all true. The drawings are from photographs, and those drawings precisely illustrate the story I'm talking about. I hate anachronisms. But I give my opinion on each disc of the Beatles, as a group or solo, with an occasional bit of criticism.
Bourhis recreates several famous photographs for The Beatles Graphic, including shots from The Beatles' final appearance playing together on the roof of Apple Records in London.
What is it about the marriage of art and music you enjoy?
I think it’s unrealistic to try to graphically represent the emotion you feel when you're listening to music. I tried to do it through fiction, but I failed, so I chose this form of narration-patchwork, and a more documentary-style background. Each drawing was done in a large format, and then I made a montage of everything together to put in the book.
What elements of comic book culture do you think lend themselves well to rock and roll history?
Off the top of my head, I think the work of Daniel Clowes, Gilbert Shelton, and the album (cover designs of) Guy Peellaert are totally in the spirit of the pop era. There’s also a forty-year tradition in France of mixing rock and comics; a comic magazine called Metal Hurlant has as its editor Philippe Manoeuvre, who was a rock critic. I come from that tradition, as do many of us (comic artists) in France.
The Beatles Graphic (originally published in France) also traces the post-Beatles career of the band's former members and their offspring; Bourhis here depicts Sean Lennon's recreation of father John Lennon's famous Annie Liebowitz shot of he and Yoko Ono, with his own girlfriend.
What other band histories would you like to do in this style and why?
There are more I could do, but no other group has had a career as magical as The Beatles. Not even The Rolling Stones. Because I’ve loved the Beatles for so long, people figure, “Oh, he must be really obsessed to go and make books as big and dense as "The Little Book Beatles".” But this is the group of my life, and I can not help it!