We Talked to Weird Al Yankovic About His New Graphic Novel—and Star Wars

Image:  Z2 Comics
Image: Z2 Comics

When you hear the name “Weird Al” Yankovic, you think of music. You think of parody songs. You think of all the unforgettable music videos he’s made over the years. But Weird Al has always been about spreading his wings. A biopic, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, was released late last year, and now he’s got his very own graphic novel—with a twist that fits in with everything you know and love about him.

The Illustrated Al: The Songs of “Weird Al” Yankovic is now available wherever books are sold, and instead of what you’re thinking—comic book versions of Yankovic’s hit songs—the book goes deeper. It’s, in fact, comic adaptations of some of his hit songs that never had music videos. So, in a way, the graphic novel is a collection of music videos. And the artist list, which includes the likes of Bill Plympton, Wes Hargis, Aaron Augenblick, Felipe Sobreiro, and others, blends all kinds of styles and mindsets. It’s as “Weird Al” as a Weird Al book can be.

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To celebrate the release of the book, io9 did a video chat with the geek and music icon, along with the book’s editor (and president of Z2 Comics) Josh Bernstein. We talked about the book’s origins and development as well as music videos in general, the Weird Al movie and, of course, Star Wars. Because we had to talk Star Wars.

Part of “Everything You Know Is Wrong” from The Illustrated Al, illustrated by Gideon Kendall.
Part of “Everything You Know Is Wrong” from The Illustrated Al, illustrated by Gideon Kendall.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Germain Lussier, io9: My first question for you guys is, when you pick up the book, it’s not immediately obvious what the specific idea behind it is. That being, it’s visual stories for songs that never got music videos. So where did that idea come from?

Josh Bernstein: Yeah, well, when we first launched our company, we sort of spoke about, who are our dream collaborators? And a lot of them, we knocked on their doors, whether it was the Gorillaz, the Doors, David Bowie, and, you know, Weird Al was the top of that list. [He was] one of the first people we reached out to. And with a little persistence and then, of course, the timing of his movie that went into production, we wore him down and eventually submitted some ideas and he came back with an even better idea.

Al is an ally and friend to the cartoon and comics worlds. And his name is synonymous with all of it. So his humor is shared with Mad Magazine and Cracked and every alt-weekly in America for years. Calling all those names in to like, tag team together to bring these songs to life just was too good to pass up, and Al’s songs are already so lush and lyrical and paint such pretty pictures that getting these artists to team up with him was sort of the perfect storm. But once he said that, we were off to the races and I did everything I could to make sure that the book came out right around the time as the movie.

io9: Oh, so you presented ideas, but this specific idea to do the alt music video type idea—that was your idea, is that right, Al?

Al Yankovic: Yeah. Basically, Z2 wanted to do a Weird Al book and I think the original pitch, and they’d done this with some other artists, [was] illustrators would create stories inspired by or based around songs. And that was an interesting idea, but that wasn’t what I was excited about doing because a lot of my songs already tell stories, and I guess I was a little precious about my lyrics. I was okay with artists doing their interpretation of the lyrics, but I didn’t want them to do entire stories outside of what I already had in mind. So basically I just said, I’d love to do this, but can we just have it a bit more literal and basically have them do their version of lyrics without applying an entire subtext or backstory? And as Josh said, I mean, one of the reasons why I was excited about it was because we’re picking a lot of songs that didn’t already have visuals attached, and we have allusions to some of the big hit songs in the book, but it sort of focused on the original songs which have never had music videos. So it was nice to be able to, for the first time, attach some visuals to those pieces.

Part of “Everything You Know Is Wrong” from The Illustrated Al, illustrated by Gideon Kendall
Part of “Everything You Know Is Wrong” from The Illustrated Al, illustrated by Gideon Kendall

io9: Al, I feel like, coming up in the time of MTV, your videos are so entwined with those songs. Like when you hear a song, you almost always picture the video. Do you consider the videos kind of an equal part of the legacy of your music?

Yankovic: A lot of songs, the music is inextricable from the music video. In fact, sometimes when I was writing a song which I knew was going to be a single or a music video, I would kind of be thinking as I’m writing the lyrics, “Okay, how would that translate visually?” Because we’re not in an era where songs live by themselves anymore. There’s almost always a visual component.

io9: Has your view on music videos changed at all, with YouTube now becoming so popular?

Yankovic: Yeah. I mean, a little bit. Music videos are still very important. In fact, now, in a way, maybe even more so, because now you’re not beholden to having some executives at MTV deciding whether it’s going to go on the air or not. You can put out as many videos as you like. In fact, that was one of the reasons why my last album went to number one is because we had a campaign where we released a new music video every single day online, and that created a bit of a media frenzy. And that’s something we couldn’t have done during the heyday of MTV, I don’t think. I mean, this was something that could only exist in an era where YouTube existed.

io9: Now, can you tell me a little bit about how you kind of whittled down the artist list, and then what the collaborations were like? Did they come to you with ideas? Did you approve them? Did you deny any? Tell me a little bit about both aspects of that.

Yankovic: Well, the artist list was a combination of people that I’d worked with before, who’d done music videos for me. Wes Hargis did my children’s books. Felipe Sobreiro illustrated Nathan Rabin’s Weird Al books. Bill Plympton did some music videos. Aaron Augenblick did a video and he also did the animated sequence in my movie. So a lot of the people I’d worked with before or that I knew. Ruben Bolling and Michael Kupperman were friends that I had not worked with before, and the rest of them were people that Josh and Z2 suggested to me. They gave me a long list of artists that they liked or that they thought would be appropriate for the project, and they gave me links to look at samples of their work. So based on that, I went through and I thought, “Oh, this person would be good maybe for this song, or this person [for this song].” And a lot of them, we didn’t tell the artist what they were going to do. We would give them a short list and say, “Here are the songs that are available or that we think you would maybe be good for, but we want you to really respond to the song. Something that you’re passionate about. Whatever song speaks to you, we want you to do that song.” And then beyond that, I didn’t really give any notes because once we selected the artists, basically we wanted to let them be artists and really do their own interpretation and vision for the songs.

io9: And how did those visions, as they were coming in, kind of mesh with maybe visions you had in your head over the years when you were writing them, if at all?

Yankovic: I mean, you know, I wouldn’t say they’re contradictory. Some of them are very literal interpretations of the lyrics. Some of them were interesting quirks. I mean, for “Good Old Days,” Jeff McClelland and Jeff McComsey, they did this kind of sci-fi take on it, which I certainly never would have thought of. But it was a very cool and interesting take on it, which, that’s the kind of thing that I was excited to see.

Part of “Everything You Know Is Wrong” from The Illustrated Al, illustrated by Gideon Kendall
Part of “Everything You Know Is Wrong” from The Illustrated Al, illustrated by Gideon Kendall

io9 Yeah. I really got the sense going through the book that everybody’s style is so different, almost on purpose. What can you say about the wide variety of styles?

Yankovic: Well, that’s something that we also kept in mind. Like my albums, I try to hit as many genres as possible. And I wanted this book to represent as many styles as possible. So that was something—maybe like not the most important consideration, but I think Josh and I both were looking toward. Having a book that was very diverse in terms of styles.

Bernstein: There are a couple of single-page tributes to Al’s parody songs in there because the original thought when we were originally pitching the book was someone could do a crazy lyrical interpretation of “Eat It,” right? And it’s a commentary on society or something. You do all these kinds of crazy different things. But there was a bunch of artists that we really liked that are not sequential artists, if that makes sense. If we give them a one-page thing, they can really knock out of the park and it would break up other chapters a little more.

One of them I had to get was this guy, Tim Leong. Tim I knew for years, he was the art director at Complex and Entertainment Weekly and he dissected “Like a Surgeon” into a grid, almost like an infographic. It was something that I pushed on the project because I was like it’s going to look wildly different from Bill Plympton, right? It was different than Peter Bagge. And to your point, some people did something that looked just like Family Circle. Some did a Robert Crumb thing, a lot of it is a classic Mad, Cracked kind of vibe. No two things looked alike. And I’m sure Al felt the same way, every time I would get something new in the inbox I was like, “Ooh, cool. Oh wow, I can’t wait to show this one.” So yeah, really enjoyable because we’re fans ourselves.

Daniel Radcliffe as Al in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.
Daniel Radcliffe as Al in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.

io9: Josh, you kind of touched on this a little bit, but I’m curious about Al’s take. This coming so close to the movie feels like a concerted effort for you to expand and do some new things in your career. I mean, your career is always about bold, new things, but was this the book company’s idea or are we just kind of lucky that we’re getting all these new Weird Al projects at the same time?

Yankovic: It was a little synchronicity and part of it was by design. But yeah, it was sort of a perfect storm. Like everything kind of hit the end of last year. The movie came out in November. The book I mean, the book I think officially releases today [January 17], but it was starting to trickle out in November.

io9: Pivoting off the book a little bit, Al, I really enjoyed your movie and was very excited to see Critics Choice recognize it with a few awards. What’s it been like to see it come out and has this release had an impact on your album sales or anything like that? What’s been the aftermath of it?

Yankovic: I don’t know if I gave myself a Yankovic Bump. [Laughs] I’m not sure. I mean, it’s personally been a big thrill for me. I mean, I still can’t get over the fact that we won those two Critics Choice Awards. I went to the show for the free drinks. I didn’t think I was going to win anything. So I was over the moon. I thought that was amazing. And that bodes well for all the other things we got nominated for. So I got my fingers crossed. We’ll see.


“Weird Al” Yankovic - The Saga Begins (Official Video)

io9: Also, I’m a big Star Wars fan and I’ve been obsessed with “The Saga Begins” since the day it came out. I love the story behind it, how you got the info from the internet, and the timing of release really connects my memory of it so closely to that time. What are your memories now of releasing that, and do you look back on it now with any new perspective?

Yankovic: I’m amazed we were able to do that. You know the back story about how I got all the plot points online from the various Star Wars fan sites. I don’t know how they got those tidbits of information if they’re going through Lucas’s garbage—I don’t know where those came from, but I wrote the whole song not knowing if that was really the actual movie, you know? So I had the whole album ready to go, but I told the record label, don’t put it out until I actually go to the premiere, because I want to make sure I got everything right. [Also] I wanted to make sure that I pronounce “Qui Gon” correctly. I think that’s one of the things I had to change cause I only saw that in print. So there were a couple of things I might have tweaked after the fact, but it was by in large accurate, which I was very happy about. And it’s gone on to be, you know, one of my most famous songs and obviously loved by fans. And we’ve performed it a thousand times with the 501st... they’re almost always onstage with us and they’re full regalia. Storm Troopers uniforms and Darth Vader or Chewbacca if there’s one around. So it’s always a big multi-media thing whenever we do the Star Wars material.


“Weird Al” Yankovic - Scarif Beach Party (From “LEGO Star Wars: Summer Vacation”)

io9: Sticking with that, you obviously had that for the prequels. You did “Yoda” along with the original trilogy. You just did “Scarif Beach Party” for the Lego special. Do you count that as kind of a close of a Star Wars trilogy for you, or have you thought about doing anything with the sequel specifically or the Disney+ stuff?

Yankovic: A lot of people ask that and although I am tempted, honestly, I’ve got two very popular Star Wars songs already, “Yoda” and “Saga Begins.” And in the best-case scenario, if it did a third one, then I’d have three Star Wars songs, which I’d have to play in concert. And then it becomes the Star Wars show. So I feel like maybe I should leave well enough alone, even though I continue to be a huge, huge fan.

io9: And my last thing, my all-time favorite Weird Al song is “The Rye or the Kaiser,” because I’m also a big Rocky fan. I feel like it doesn’t get the love that it deserves. Would you agree and why do you think that is?

Yankovic: I don’t know! I thought it was sort of ironic when like years later they did a Rocky sequel where he does work in a restaurant. I was like, Oh, yeah, I predicted that!

io9: [laughs]

Yankovic: And I listen back to that and I can say I wish autotune existed back then because my singing on that particular song could have been better. I’m a much better singer now but I still like it.


Theme from Rocky XIII (aka: The Rye or The Kaiser (Theme From Rocky XIII))

The Illustrated Al: The Songs of “Weird Al” Yankovic is available now. Learn more and order it here.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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