Would John Lennon's "Imagine" have been such a big hit if it had come from an unknown singer/songwriter instead of one of the most famous rock stars in the world? Impossible to say. Maybe a better question is: could anyone else have written the song? "Imagine" has become much more than a soft rock anthem since its release in 1971; it has become a global phenomenon. Among the innumerable big events at which the humanist hymn appears we can include, since 2005, New York's New Year's Eve celebration and, just recently, a performance by pop star Shakira at the UN General Assembly just before Pope Francis' historical appearance.
It seems an odd choice, given the song's apparent anti-religious message. And yet, though Lennon was no fan of organized religion, he told Playboy magazine in a 1980 interview that the song was inspired by "the concept of positive prayer" in a Christian prayer book given to him by Dick Gregory. "If you can imagine a world at peace," said Lennon, "with no denominations of religion—not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God-thing—then it can be true…." As if to underscore that particular point in his adaptation of "Imagine" in the video above, cartoonist Pablo Stanley includes such religiously diverse, yet ecumenical figures as the agnostic Albert Einstein, Protestant Martin Luther King, Jr., Hindu Mahatma Gandhi, and Rastafarian Bob Marley, along with less-famous freedom fighters like Harvey Milk and murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
Stanley's "Imagine" originally appeared in webcomic form, sans music, on his blog Stanleycolors.com. It seems that several people took exception to an earlier, mostly black-and-white draft (which also included what looks like the once-very-Southern-Baptist Jimmy Carter), so Stanley issued a multi-point disclaimer under his revised, full-color version. He states that this "is NOT an anti-religion/atheist propaganda comic"---charges also unfairly levied at Lennon's song. Stanley doesn't address the fact that most of the famous people in his comic, including Lennon, were assassinated, though this blog post offers a suggestive theory with interview footage from Lennon himself.
In every respect, the comic adaption of "Imagine" hews pretty closely to Lennon's call for world peace. In another Beatles-penned ballad-adaptation, however, things take a much darker turn. Stanley uses his personal experience of near-suicidal depression in his comic realization of Paul McCartney's song of lost love, "Yesterday." (See a video version above, webcomic version here.) This is grim stuff, to be sure, but Stanley assures us that he "overcame that situation." His commentary offers a hopeful take on the painful ending: "Looking at the yesterday reminds me that I should thrive for the tomorrow." I'm sure McCartney would agree with the sentiment.
For many more smart, moving---though non-Beatles-related---comics from Pablo Stanley, see his blog, Stanley Colors.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness