Ron Campbell on being a crew member of the Yellow Submarine

Ron Campbell, the artist who produced “The Beatles” cartoon series and contributed to Yellow Submarine, is visiting Charlottesville for an exhibition of his work at Graves  International Art starting on September 30. Courtesy of the artist Ron Campbell, the artist who produced “The Beatles” cartoon series and contributed to Yellow Submarine, is visiting Charlottesville for an exhibition of his work at Graves  International Art starting on September 30. Courtesy of the artist

Ron Campbell is best-known by legions of Beatles fans for his work directing the cartoon series “The Beatles” and animating parts of Yellow Submarine, but his résumé is deeper than that. After working on various Beatles projects, he went on to animate, produce and storyboard “Scooby-Doo,” “The Flintstones” and “Rugrats.” Campbell’s creative fingerprints are all over decades of cartoon history. He also spent 10 years working on “The Smurfs.”

“Actually, I love ‘The Smurfs,’” Campbell says. “For a long while it was rather like the European comics. …Gradually [the network] would bring in new elements. Networks are always doing this kind of thing when ratings drop a bit and it always seems to ruin them. Like Scooby-Doo had Scrappy-Doo. And it didn’t work with ‘The Smurfs.’ …They brought in Baby Smurf. Lovely. But they also had a ruling from the network that everyone could carry Baby Smurf except for Smurfette. Because of women’s lib sort of stuff. In point of fact, all of the girls watching the show identified with Smurfette and would have loved to hold Baby Smurf. We were shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Beginning on Friday, September 30, Graves International Art will exhibit Campbell’s original watercolor paintings of characters from the many shows he has worked on. Campbell will be at the gallery on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, doing live painting, signing (and sometimes even doodling on) memorabilia for fans.

“He’s very personable, vital, energetic,” says John Graves Sr., owner of Graves International Art. “He loves working with the public. When you buy a signed print, he’ll usually do a little sketch for you at the same time.”

Psychedelic pop artist and former Charlottesville resident Peter Max has often claimed to have been responsible for the art and animation of Yellow Submarine, but Campbell says that isn’t true.

“Al Brodax [the producer] confronted him once and said, ‘Why do you always let people think you worked on Yellow Submarine?’” Campbell says. “And Brodax says he said that ‘It’s so complicated to tell people that I didn’t.’ Peter Max had nothing to do with it. I’ve even heard Peter Max made up a whole story about how The Beatles called him up and asked him to do it. But The Beatles were happy to give us the songs and go away. Peter felt like he owned the psychedelic look and, in a way, he did.”

“For me especially, given my generation, given the connection to The Beatles, my favorite [art by Ron Campbell] would be the Yellow Submarine work,” says Graves. “I love the head Blue Meanie. He’s a fantastic, surreal character.”

Shows such as “The Beatles” and “The Flintstones” were originally aimed at an adult audience as much as they were toward children. Over the course of Campbell’s career, cartoons became more typically designed for children, with tie-ins to toys and breakfast cereals. But when working on “Rugrats,” he and the other writers found ways of winking at any parents who were also watching. Were the frequent mentions of Dr. Lipschitz, fictional child psychologist, an attempt at getting away with something? “Damn straight!” says Campbell.

Graves believes his gallery is a natural location for this particular show. An original Andy Warhol print of a can of Campbell’s soup greets visitors as they step through the front door. And prints by pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine are displayed too.

Campbell’s work also has a slight connection to Art Spiegelman, the great cartoonist and author of the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, Maus. Early in his career, Spiegelman made ends meet by creating the classic Garbage Pail Kids cards for Topps. Campbell was hired to help turn the cards into a TV show. It didn’t go well.

“I’m proud of everything except for the ‘Garbage Pail Kids,’” Campbell says. “I worked on a few episodes for CBS and I’m not sure that the show ever aired. Whatever the merits of the cards were, the show was just vulgar.”

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