“The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story” unfurls like a Beatles album. It tells the story of Brian Epstein, the prolific band’s prolific manager, through a series of short chronological vignettes, some are plainly straightforward while others depend on unusual symbolism to illustrate Epstein’s life. Unfortunately, by the end of the book, “The Fifth Beatle” remains an incomplete biography, failing to reveal enough of who Epstein was and what drove him to guide one of the most successful musical acts in history.
It is the positively exquisite illustrations dreamed up by Andrew C. Robinson that make “The Fifth Beatle” an astonishing book; it deserves repeated readings to capture all of thoughtful nuances of Robinson’s gorgeous work. Every page, or two-page splash, of the book is so carefully constructed and rendered. Robinson has meticulously adapted Tiwary’s script to produce one of the most stunningly illustrated graphic novels of the past year.
One page into “The Fifth Beatle” and it’s obvious that great care went into the artwork. It opens with a wide shot of Liverpool, drenched in rain and all of the landmarks are identified with soaked letters; the lyrics to Billy Fury’s “Wondrous Place” narrate the opening as Brian Epstein violently learns that being a homosexual in 1960’s Liverpool can easily come with consequences; in fact, it’s illegal. Brian is attacked by a sailor, right outside the Cavern, where the Beatles are playing a small gig and hoping to break out of obscurity. Robinson’s sense of movement is perfect as Brian walks up to the sailor casually leaning against a wall and whom Brian believes is also gay. But he’s not. The sailor beats Brian nastily, leaving the young man to slink back home in pain, a trail of blood is left behind him.
Our first glimpse at the types of trials Brian will have to face as a gay man during this period in England is uncompromising. Robinson uses grey and blue hues to color the sequence, which helps capture the fog on the streets of Liverpool and the smokey haze within the Cavern. Robinson has an animated style and an excellent sense of expression and body language. The sailor appears to suggestively lean against the wall as Brian approaches him. They both share knowing smiles, but we learn their intentions could not be further apart. Tiwary and Robinson choose to intercut the sequence with an exuberant performance by the Beatles in the Cavern, where the audience soaks in their lively music. Brian returns to his flat, with a terrified and humiliated expression. A matador poster clings to the wall; this is an image the Tiwary, Robinson, and Kyle Baker revisit throughout the book. Baker draws and colors a cartoonish sequence involving Brian and the Beatles’ undiplomatic trip to the Philippines.
This opening sequence is emblematic of the rest of the “The Fifth Beatle”. The illustrations by Robinson are powerful and moving, but what we learn about Epstein rarely transcends something superficial: he’s gay, he’s driven, he’s lonely, he abuses drugs, etcetera. However, Tiwary, who has studied Epstein’s life for years, doesn’t reveal anything much deeper about who the Beatles’ manager was as a person. There are sequences in the “The Fifth Beatle” that use more theatrical images to tell the story, where it would have benefited from slowing down to focus on something more introspective.
As previously indicated, one image that Tiwary and team come back to is that of the matador. Brian compares himself to one throughout the book and, in a sequence with John Lennon and Brian in Spain, he explains his affinity for bullfighting to John:
Brian: “I like bullfighting because it’s a beautiful, aggressive sport. At his final moment of triumph, the matador becomes death—he kills the killing machine. But not before he gives the bull it’s glory, shows the world its beauty, its power, its majesty. He also gives the aficionados something to believe in, something to admire, and ultimately something to hate. So in the end, he gives people hope.”
Brian is the matador, who gave the world the Beatles after tirelessly pushing the band into the limelight once he groomed them into something that a global audience would eventually find insanely attractive. We don’t see the Beatles skyrocketing to superstardom in “The Fifth Beatle”. This wisely all happens in the background, keeping the focus on Brian and his pursuit to continuously bring the band to higher heights. Still, with the focus on Brian’s story, it’s surprising to walk away feeling that I only know of key events in Brian’s life and career, but not what made him tick.
Tiwary’s script also needs a bit of polishing as some dialogue is either wooden or just shy of being fit for a sitcom. An example of this occurs during a scene in Brian’s office in which each of the Beatles arrive late for a meeting with their would-be manager. Brian says “You’re late” to the band members as they come in, one by one, and each of them respond “No I’m not—I’m John” or “No I’m not—I’m George” or—well, you get the picture. The material deserves a crisper script than some of what Tiwary has delivered.
All of this aside, “The Fifth Beatle” is breathtaking from cover to cover. Robinson has produced a book that is filled with memorable images. When Brian goes to see the Beatles for the first time in 1961, Robinson beautifully captures the awe on Brian’s face as he is swept away by their performance. Again, Robinson is exceptional at illustrating facial expressions and clearly communicates his characters’ feelings. One of the strongest sequences in the book, in terms of story and art, features Brian alone in bed and popping pills as he speaks with his loved ones on the phone. Robinson illustrates each of the Beatles as they spend time romancing their lovers in a wonderful montage. The scene ends with Brian staring at his reflection in the window of a car occupied by John, Paul McCartney, and their significant others; they’re all having the time of their lives while Brian remains on the outside looking in. Steve Dutro’s lettering is bold and large, which works with “The Fifth Beatle” as the book is slightly larger than the average hardcover graphic novel.
Robinson’s colors palette is as conscientious as his illustrations, acting to enhance his pencils. Baker fills his panels with a lovely water color style throughout most of the book and with unexpected textures that work to add greater depth to the artwork. Robinson adds seemingly arbitrary lines across some his panels and even through some of the character’s faces, but it delicate and never distracting. One of the most striking scenes is at a gay bar in New York, which is almost exclusively colored in red; you get the sense of the illicitness of this type of saloon in the Sixties.
Although “The Fifth Beatle” rarely captures who Brian Epstein was, the book does manage to provide interesting details about the man behind the successful career of the Beatles. That said, it is Robinson’s phenomenal artwork that makes it a required addition to your bookshelf.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story
Written by: Vivek J. Tiwary
Art: Andrew C. Robinson, Kyle Baker
Inks: Andrew C. Robinson, Kyle Baker
Colors: Andrew C. Robinson, Kyle Baker
Letters: Steve Dutro
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Original Publication Date: November 2013
Pages: 144 pages