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If there were a fifth Beatle, most fans would assume it was Pete Best, the drummer Ringo Starr replaced. But Vivek J. Tiwary’s graphic novel (a finalist for a 26th Annual Lambda Literary Award in the graphic novel category) recognizes Brian Epstein as the fifth band member–a silent partner, the brains behind the Beatles’ concept. Tiwary admits telling Epstein’s story has been his life work, adding, “Why shouldn’t he have a life in comics?”
Tiwary goes on to say, “If The Fifth Beatle were a film, we might include an end credit like, ‘This story is based on actual events. In certain cases incidents, characters and timelines have been changed for dramatic purposes.'” He also notes, “…almost everything in the pages you’ve just read actually did happen. But conveying the truth–while important –has never been my primary goal. My goal with The Fifth Beatle is to use 130 pages of my words and Andrew C. Robinson’s gorgeous art to reveal not just the facts but the poetry behind the Brian Epstein story.”
So while much of the book is true, the focus here is on emotional truth, as opposed to factual evidence. Thus, a big event, like Pete Best’s firing by Epstein, isn’t included; George Harrison gets scant dialogue; and John Lennon’s bigoted remarks about Epstein go unmentioned.
Tiwary maintains that Epstein was of equal talent to the Beatles, but his skills of costuming, choreographing and designing what the Beatles became were all behind-the-scenes talents. While the lads from Liverpool played on stage, up front, Epstein remained behind the curtains, unrecognized and unfulfilled.
Epstein was invisible in other ways; he was Jewish and gay in early-1960s England, a society that demanded compliance to conservative norms. His sexuality was kept hidden, with little promise of love or relationships; this repression was enforced by the constant threats of beatings and jail, as it was illegal to be homosexual.
In the novel, Epstein’s struggle to promote his concept of the Beatles and to get them bookings runs parallel with his struggle to assert his own identity. He gets bounced on his ass by two-bit hustlers and record companies alike. His ability to pick himself up and try again is touching and ennobling.
After work, prescription drugs become the solution to squelch Epstein’s sexuality, to numb the twin aches of being excluded from the Beatles camaraderie he masterminded and the personal joy of a meaningful relationship. Lennon’s rumored bisexuality paired with his homophobic taunts rub salt in the wound of what Epstein wants but can’t have. Even the friendship and tenderness between Epstein and his spunky female personal assistant Moxie is bittersweet, as her crush on him is never reciprocated.
When drugs ultimately kill Epstein, the combination of fun-loving lads dies, too, as the complexities of the Beatles’ adult lives tear the band apart.
Robinson’s art captures the many moods of the time period, from the dinginess of postwar Europe, to the blossoming rainbows of psychedelia. His celeb portraits are spot-on, sketching the jauntiness of the early Beatles, the Lurch-faced Ed Sullivan (negotiating through a ventriloquist’s dummy) and the gluttonous sleaze of Colonel Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, all with ease. Kyle Baker drops in as a guest artist to illustrate the Beatles’ tour of the Philippines. His cartoony contribution is fun, but not particularly necessary–or explained.
Tiwary’s poetic tribute is a just and moving remembrance of Epstein, who sacrificed everything–dying at age 32–to create the band that sang, “All you need is love,” something that Epstein sadly never received.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story
By Vivek J. Tiwary
Illustrated by Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker
Dark Horse Comics
Hardcover, 9781616552565, 144 pp.