At a time when a growing conspiracy cult has apparently set its sights on launching an all-out ideological civil war not just in the United States, but around the world, it could be argued that releasing a new graphic novel centered around an easily-debunked hoax that thousands, if not millions, of people still cling to might be a case of pouring gasoline onto a fire. In the early going of writer Paolo Baron and artist Ernesto Carbonetti’s Paul Is Dead: The Day The Beatles Lost McCartney (Image Comics, 2020; translated by Adrian Nathan West), however, the promulgation of the crackpot notion in the book’s title take a distinct backseat in favor of a heartfelt examination of the effects that the premature demise of Paul Cartney would ostensibly have on those closest to him, chief among them John Lennon. In fact, right up to about the halfway point of the book, I was thinking that what we might have here, most unexpectedly, is a meditation on grief and loss. You know what they say, though: nothing good lasts forever.
Which isn’t me saying that grief and loss are a good thing, or that Baron and Carbonetti — who had previously collaborated on another music comic released in their native Italy, Punk Is Undead (not to be confused with David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ Punks Not Dead) — have produced a substandard book here: Baron is clearly passionate about the people whose lives he’s writing about, and Carbonetti’s art is quite frequently just plain inspired. But an almost imperceptibly slow shift of tone and focus means that what starts as an introspective and contemplative work loaded with emotions so raw Rocky Balboa would drink them for breakfast ends up taking a turn into a standard over-simplified mystery (think Scooby-Doo without a dog), then another turn into derivative (if gorgeous) psychedelia, before course-correcting at the last moment by delving inward once more to examine the weights and pressures of fame and celebrity on the human psyche. There’s no doubt about it: despite barely ever leaving the confines of Abbey Road studios, this book goes to a lot of different places.
First, though, a bit of background for those new to this subject: in 1969, a hoaxster called into a college radio show in Michigan claiming that Paul McCartney had died three years prior and that his bandmates, fearful of the financial fallout that would ensue, simply replaced him with a double they’d picked out from a celebrity look-alike contest — who also sounded just like him and played bass with his left hand. Obviously a very unlikely story, but nevertheless, a couple of student newspapers in various parts of the US ran with it, again fully aware that it was utter bullshit, but no matter: once the ball was rolling, there was no stopping it, and soon other features had been grafted onto the elaborate tapestry of “Paul Is Dead,” chief among them a belief that The Beatles themselves were offering cryptic clues about it to the public via backward-masking on their albums and Paul (or, rather, his double) appearing barefoot on the cover of their Abbey Road LP while everyone else had shoes. Oh, and somewhere along the line, it became MI-6 that was covering the death up out of fear that the news would cause untold numbers of British teenage girls to kill themselves.
All preposterous, of course, but it’s a belief that still persists to this day — in fact, certain quarters of the catch-all conspiracy theory known as QAnon have latched onto it, claiming that the “real” Paul McCartney has been working behind the scenes to stop the worldwide network of Satanic pedophiles being valiantly fought in secret by Donald Trump and an also-still-very-much-alive John F. Kennedy, Jr. I’d be tempted to say “you can’t make this up” but for the fact that someone, of course, has. There’s no doubt, then, that such a scenario offers fertile ground to extrapolate speculative fictions from — by and large because it’s speculative fiction in the first place.
Baron and Carbonetti certainly give every indication that they’re doing precisely that here, and early on Baron’s sparse prose has a lyrical quality to it that matches up quite nicely with his partner’s lavish artwork to create something quite like comics poetry. Carbonetti’s illustrations often belie fairly obvious hints of photo referencing, but his penchant for exaggerating certain anatomical features at key moments, for cramming figures into borderless panels too small for them, and for laying his pages out in a fluid, almost intuitive fashion gives everything a unique, even elegant look, complemented at all times by rich, watercolor-effect hues that lend the proceedings an appropriately psychedelic “vibe.” On top of all that, the fact that McCartney’s death herein goes down while the band is in the preliminary stages of creating Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the book’s major sub-plot also focusing on a popular Beatles urban legend revolving on the unusual lengths Lennon went to in order to achieve a certain vocal effect, undercuts the free-form qualities of the story with a chronological tightness and specificity that gives everything an interesting creative inner tension. So the elements are all in place for not just a good comic, but a downright memorable one.
Unfortunately, once Ringo Starr and George Harrison are brought in, things really do go off the rails a bit — through no fault of either of those gentlemen, mind you. No, it’s the overall sense of disbelief that sets in with the band — one which Baron plays up as a pretext to get them to launch an investigation that leads them to McCartney’s house — that not only fails to register, but disrupts his own wide-screen narrative in favor of something far more traditional and mundane. I literally spent several pages thinking we’d see a very much living Paul McCartney pop out of one of the closets and say something bout he “would have gotten away with it all if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” Alas, only the first part of that scenario comes to pass.
Which isn’t to say the remainder of the book is a total loss — once we learn that Paul’s not dead, even in the pages of Paul Is Dead, his reasons for pulling the stunt he did take center stage and offer Baron and Carbonetii the chance to operate with the kind of expansive conceptual space that serves them best. If you’re thinking to yourself “hey, that sounds like it might be the perfect time for John Lennon to drop acid,” congratulations — you’re right, and it is. But a certain proportion of what was lost when the creators switched gears is never fully recovered.
Still, on the whole, it has to be said that Carbonetti, in particular, never falters, and when he’s given the kind of material that his talents are best suited to, he absolutely soars. Paul Is Dead may not be a magical mystery tour from start to finish, but it’s killer-diller when it’s dressed to the hilt.