Writer: Vivek J. Tiwary
Artists: Andrew C. Robinson, Kyle Baker
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release Date: November 19, 2013
If you’re looking for a gossipy peek into The Beatles’ early years, or the personal dramas that led to their collapse, you won’t find it here. Those things aren’t the point of The Fifth Beatle and would only distract from the actual story, that of manager Brian Epstein and his brief, ultimately tragic, life.
It’s essentially a story of the spotlight and the shadows, and Epstein lived in both — manager of the band on every teen girl’s mind, but also a gay man in a time and place where he could be jailed for it. Reading writer Vivek J. Tiwary’s telling of it today, the saddest part is that looming “What if?” Would Brian Epstein have needed to quell his demons with pills and poor decisions if the world were more accepting, or at least tolerant, of homosexuality? For all his ambition, he was profoundly lonely.
I’m glad Tiwary told this story. And especially glad he didn’t lose himself in the salacious, tell-all aspects of it. He’s clearly passionate about the subject. Epstein’s story speaks for itself and you can’t help but be moved by it. That said, the dialogue occasionally falls flat or comes off as unnatural. The Beatles themselves are presented as side characters, which works to maintain focus, but they’re also cartoonish. Speaking primarily in hippie-dippie witticisms, they could have been silly-puttied right out of Scooby-Doo. Then again, maybe that’s just how people spoke back then. The ‘60s were a strange time.
The story itself, in another decade, could have been an above-average VH1 movie, but I wondered going in how much it needed to be a graphic novel. As it turns out, the visuals are the book’s truest victories. The general aesthetic is stunning, with a bleak color palette and an expressively-painted magical realism. Penciller Andrew Robinson moves us from dour alleyways to glitzy parties with ease, specializing in sad eyes and furrowed brows. He bends that realism to his will in order to show Epstein’s struggles to fit in, like transforming the money-hungry Colonel Parker into a drooling, gluttonous demon. He also touches on the satirical, with a sudden Bullwinkle-esque cartoon cut scene of the band being chased through the Philippines by Imelda Marcos and her army of shoe-flinging soldiers.
In the end, maybe all the book needed was another 50 pages to develop Epstein’s personal relationships deeper. In any case, that his story hasn’t been told is shocking, considering the effect he had on the world. He did more in half a lifetime than most of us could in two — raising the Beatles from a dank Liverpool barroom and reshaping music and pop culture to an incalculable degree. Without Brian Epstein, there would have been no Beatlemania, and probably no British Invasion. And, without Brian Epstein, I wouldn’t have gone my whole life misspelling “beetle.” But, I’d trade that for “Hey Jude” any day.