The Illustrated Al is a difficult comic to quantify, much like the music of its author. While Alfred Matthew Yankovic (aka “Weird Al”) is most famous as a parodist who found fame mocking Michael Jackson and Queen with songs like “Eat It” and “Another One Rides The Bus,” Al has also written a number of original songs. Some were stylistic satires of other musicians, such as Al’s salute to Sting and The Police with a song about the beauty of a black velvet Elvis Presley painting, “Velvet Elvis.” Others were parodies of certain genres of songs, such as the break-up ballad “Since You’ve Been Gone.” All of them are brilliant, but hard to explain in words. They must be heard.
This makes the idea behind The Illustrated Al all the, well, weirder. As comedian Emo Phillips explains in the introduction, the idea behind this book was to create print music videos for some of Weird Al’s most popular original songs that never got an actual music video based on them. Translating one medium to another is challenging even within a traditional story structure. Adapting music into comics sounds impossible, particularly when the music is devoted to such esoteric topics as a 2000 inch big-screen television set or the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.
Somehow, The Illustrated Al manages it.
Many of the comics contained within this volume feature art that satirizes other artists, in the same way that Weird Al parodies other musicians. For instance, Ruben Bolling (of Tom the Dancing Bug fame) mimics the Love Is… comics in adapting the Weird Al song “You Don’t Love Me Anymore.” The original parody mocked saccharine love songs, with there being a total disconnect between Weird Al’s tender tone and lyrics such as “You slammed my face down on the barbecue grill. Now my scars are healing, but my heart never will.” The comic creates the same comedic disconnect, with the familiar style of Kim Casali portraying a dejected Al being tortured by his “beloved.”
Amazingly, most of the comics don’t require any familiarity with the songs that inspired them, though fans of Weird Al’s music are almost certain to get the most enjoyment out of The Illustrated Al. My personal favorite was Peter Bagge’s adaptation of “Why Does This Always Happen To Me?” in which Al cries to the heavens over various injustices, such as his favorite show being preempted with an emergency report. He also recognizes the victim of a horrific accident as the friend who owes him money and grumbles about never getting paid back now.
Another comic of note is Craig Rousseau’s suitably sinister spin on “Melanie,” which seems like a romantic song about love at first sight. Then you learn that the singer fell in love with the titular Melanie after spying on her showering with a telescope. Another high point is the adaptation of “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” which is expressively illustrated by MAD Magazine artist Gideon Kendall.
The Illustrated Al doesn’t have an official rating, but I’d suggest that, much like Al’s music, it is a firm PG-13 or T For Teen equivalent. There are no curse words, but there is a fair bit of violence and death, including depictions of suicide and self-harm. I’d also like to include a tongue-in-cheek trigger warning for any gun lovers who might accidentally stumble across the adaptation of “Trigger Happy,” which happily mocks those who think the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is sacred but basic firearm safety is optional.
The Illustrated Al By Al Yankovic Art by Peter Bagge, Ruben Bolling, Craig Rousseau, Gideon Kendall Z2 Comics, 2023 ISBN: 9781954928640
Publisher Age Rating: 13+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
From the onset, I must admit to being a long-time, hardcore Doors fan. I became fascinated by Jim Morrison et al. during my early university days living in a dormitory, armed primarily with a portable record player and all of the Doors’ output. I remember adding the Doors fifth studio album, Morrison Hotel, to my collection when it was released. The album was a critical and commercial success upon its release and remains one of the band’s classic albums. I can hardly believe that fifty years have passed since then but reviewing this graphic novel magically and effortlessly dissolved the passage of years.
Jim Morrison died in 1971. The surviving members of The Doors, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, collaborated with author and columnist Leah Moore to transform their legendary album, Morrison Hotel, into an anthology with an impressive selection of illustrators to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Moore, along with the individual artists, did much more than illuminate each of the songs from the album and the history and musings of The Doors themselves. Each of the entries in the anthology dissect the historical period, especially for the United States: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the fight for equality for marginalized people, space travel and the moon landing, and the attitudes of the general public to the waning of the social revolution and music of the nineteen-sixties. This examination of several key events effectively resulted in a time-travel journey back to 1969, armed with the baggage of the era and a memorable and poetic soundtrack to carry the reader there and back.
Krieger and Densmore gave Moore and the illustrators access to their photographic archive and, along with the research into personal and historic events from 1969, the creators used their imaginations to develop the individual entries based on the lyrics of each song on the album while highlighting and telling a linear story of the band and the environment enveloping and shaping them during the recording of this album. The anthology is prefaced by a short introduction by Krieger about the genesis of the album photograph and cover. It establishes the mood for the illustrated journey that follows. In some instances, the lyrics are superimposed on “snapshot” illustrations evoking the tempo of the song, in others, the story is told through the lyrics themselves.
While I enjoyed all of the entries, there were several stories that I found outstanding. Colleen Doran’s “Ship of Fools” intersperses the historical renderings of the shipping boats with the then-contemporary images of the moon landing in a complex and emotive explosion of color and sensations. The following entry, “Land Ho!” by Ryan Kelly, uses gritty realism incorporating the fighting in Vietnam and post-traumatic stress disorder in an intentionally jarring manner, bringing the reader back from the sensuality of Doran’s illustrations. Several entries later, the reader vicariously experiences Jill Thompson’s light and summery rendition of “Indian Summer”. The final entry, “Outro” by Tony Parker and colorist Alladin Collar, brings the reader back to the prose introduction, recapping the discovery of the Morrison Hotel and the how and why of the infamous photograph. It also brings the reader full circle to the satisfying pleasure of listening to the album in its original format—no streaming! Chris Hunt did the art work for the cover of the graphic novel.
As Leah Moore stated in a Rolling Stone interview: “The Doors have so much theatre, and swagger and storytelling, they’re a totally natural fit for a comic. The lyrics they wrote, and the energy they played with—I think the songs don’t just lend themselves to the medium, they actually cry out to be comics.” I think she is 100% correct! Highly recommended for public library collections, especially for music lovers, historians, and aged hippies such as me! It would also be of value for high school collections studying recent American history.
Note: there is also a Limited Deluxe Edition (only 5,000 made) in a slipcase with three (3) 9×14.5 art prints with images from the book, a certificate of authenticity signed by writer Leah Moore, and an exclusive 50th Anniversary Edition 12” picture disc of the complete Morrison Hotel album. Libraries are unlikely to purchase that edition, but diehard Doors fans may want it for their personal collections.
Morrison Hotel By Leah Moore Art by various Z2 Comics, 2021 ISBN: 978-1940878362 Publisher Age Rating: Adult Related media: Music album to comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: British-American