• The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story

    Released By: Dark Horse Comics
    Released On: November 19, 2013
    Writer: Vivek J. Tiwary
    Art: Andrew Robinson, Kyle Baker
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    When I heard that there was a graphic novel about The Beatles coming out this year, my first question was "Why?" True, The Beatles are still just as popular as they were when Beatlemania hit a half-century ago (as demonstrated by the strong showing of their repeatedly reissued back catalogue), but is a (ahem) comic book really necessary? Almost all of the essential players have put out extensive autobiographies and been documented otherwise, and, well, we DID have "The Beatles Experience" series done by Rock 'N' Roll Comics all those years ago, although it was maybe a bit....odd. What ultimately did get me semi-stoked for the project was the involvement of writer Vivek J. Tiwary, whose countless Tony Awards for innovative stage productions have proven his competence in pulling off some more abstract ideas, such as the Broadway adaptation of Green Day's "American Idiot" album. Simply put, the man has some slightly different approaches that I thought could take the well-trodden subject of the famous Liverpool rock 'n' rollers and tell it in a way that hasn't been presented before. As with all things Beatles, however, a balance should probably be struck; make the story too entertaining and forego the facts, and you've alienated fans of the Fab Four; or put so much detail and research into the book that you have casual fans passing it over for something more exciting.

    To put it quite lightly, Tiwary hasn't let us down. In The Fifth Beatle, the famous moptops take second-billing to the man who played an integral part in making them legends; their manager, Mr. Brian Epstein. More or less starting at the beginning, The Fifth Beatle finds Brian working for the family business of North End Music Stores, selling records in the daytime, while hustling for sailors down by the docks under cover of night. A change of life-course is in order after he is taken by his associate Moxie to see a local band in a club called The Cavern, and Brian decides to risk pretty much everything by taking the four rough-and-tumble musicians under his wing. Switching out their leather jackets and teddy-boy haircuts for the more familiar bohemian cuts they picked up in Hamburg and matching suits, he gets the band their first recording session with George Martin (before he realizes that his bosses at EMI have already turned them down), and from there it's to America, Ed Sullivan, and the "Toppermost of the Poppermost!"

    Of course, even the most casually interested music fan will know the basics of the story, and that's where Tiwary has switched gears a bit to dig into some aspects overshadowed by the legendary legacy of the Beatles, including Epstein's homosexuality. Treating the subject matter tastefully, he examines the demons that Brian carried with him, being gay in a country where such activity was a criminal offense; the doctor's attempts to curb his "inclinations" through pills, a habit that would eventually overtake him; and his numerous attempts to connect to others in order to establish his idea of happiness. Tiwar's portrait of Epstein is a classic tragic figure who creates unbelievable success and good fortune for others, while internally sinking deeper into the shadows of his own self-loathing.

    This is not to say that The Fifth Beatle is 160 pages of sad stories with no sunshine...Tiwar has done a great job of balancing out the more depressing aspects with some fantastically entertaining Beatles lore. And while it's safe to say that Colonel Tom Parker didn't REALLY morph into a red-eyed pig demon during a dinner conversation, the idea that Ed Sullivan negotiated The Beatles appearance on his show with a ventriloquist's dummy certainly makes for good copy.

    With such compelling writing, there was only the matter of competent artists to make this book truly shine, and the talents of Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker are simply jaw-dropping. I don't normally get wowed by comic art, but this is really something else. The colours pop right off of the page, capturing the era perfectly, and the attention to detail is staggering (you have no idea how thrilled I am as a musician to see SIX strings on a guitar and FOUR strings on a bass), with some of the illustrations coming across as so life-like, they could've been scanned from a magazine cover. With a wide variety of colour schemes to create an assortment of moods and their ability to throw convention and linear layout to the wind in all of the right places, Robinson and Baker have created a literal work of art.

    The Final Word:

    So many things right....nothing wrong. The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story is something that any fan of The Beatles, of music bios, of comics in general, should check out. A well-executed graphic novel about The Beatles may have been a long time coming...but it's very clean.