Revolution Number 9
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story
Story by Vivek Tiwary
Art by Andrew Robinson (with a special section by Kyle Baker)
Dark Horse/M Press, Nov 2013
Review of the Fifth Beatle
This Vivek Tiwary written story is part biography and also a bit of a defense of The Beatles manager Brian Epstein (deceased 1967) who promoted the group and 'packaged' them from a scruffy Liverpool rock-and-roll band into an impeccably stylish pop group. This book shows that Epstein's interest went beyond business, that The Beatles were a personal project that encapsulated a number of goals Epstein had, though those goals are only vaguely defined in this tale.
Is the story true?
Judging by a comparison to the bio information elsewhere on the internet, Tiwary's story has polished Epstein's adventures, trimmed-out the negatives, and manufactured a few characters to stand in as composites for a much larger cast of people who participated in the events around the rise of the Beatles and Epstein's tormented private life. Highlighted is the incredible energy of the man and his ability to adapt quickly, learning how to manage a group that was creating a tidal-wave phenomenon that was always verging on going out of control (actually, maybe it did get out of control, being as Epstein's often voiced lament in these pages is the difficulty in keeping licensing contracts straight, and having signed too many deals without understanding the ramifications to the Beatles - - and Epstein's - - share of the earnings.)
Epstein's secret life
There is sympathy for Epstein throughout the tale, though the drug-addiction that plagues Epstein (and eventually kills him) is a mysterious force that isn't really explained (nor the situation of the era that handed out drugs so readily). Perhaps this shows The Fifth Beatle largest weakness, the reliance upon the Baby Boomer generation to already understand, be familiar with and accept the 1960s that is being presented as backdrop to Epstein's trauma and adventure. This also is how the book only barely scans the surface of biography about the famous four from Liverpool.
The story always refers back to Epstein's adoration for "his" four Beatles as the central pillar of his life, that along with a need to please his parents, and a kind of oblique ignorance of the character "Moxie" who is his constant assistant during the saga. In this way, Epstein the man is always at the shoulder of millions of Beatles fans. From the Marx Brothers-like introduction to the band at Epstein's office, to the fade-out at the end with the famous four in India, there's never a hint of any gray in the dominating force of the Beatles machine, they're always happy.
In the tale is Epstein's furtive homosexuality, and his story-long victimization by a gay hustler named Dizz (Epstein is warned, and disregards the warning, when it comes to this blackmailing character. Is it assumed that Epstein is too innocent to understand? Or is Epstein simply unable to deny himself something he wants? Events just happen.)
The story excels at showing us the business dealings of a rock-and-roll manager when the medium was still relatively young, and the inventiveness (and trouble) of creating a major pop music business where there was only Elvis, at best, as a guide. (Though famous people appear throughout the tale, special room is made for a major appearance by 'Colonel' Tom Parker, the manager of Elvis Presley. Parker is apparently a demon from pop-music hell, judging by how Robinson and Tiwary present him. A clear contrast is made between these two impresarios: Epstein worships with his eyes, for example when he first sees the Beatles in concert. 'Colonel' Tom Parker, in contrast, is shown panel-by-panel as a monster who uses his teeth., chomping and tearing as he strives to humiliate Epstein during a dinner-meeting the two share.)
Numerous fantasy sections (especially a Groundhog Day style multiple ending which cleverly stitches together varied scenarios) try to sort out what happened to Epstein without confronting obvious questions, for example: was the overdose from sleeping pills an accident or deliberate? Though this book is a 'graphic novel-biography" it also looks like a story-board for an eventual film version, and this book is reminiscent of those classic Hollywood biography films which were expert at cutting away the detail that might muddy the ethical purity of the star (this kind of image-maintenance is helped along by Robinson's artwork in The Fifth Beatle: when Epstein is drug-addled and intoxicated, he never has the baggy, worn-out look of the veteran pill-user and drinker. Instead, he's just very-slightly less sharp and sharply cut than the earlier Epstein).
Baker has several pages in this story which veer off into a kind of animated cartoon movie of the Beatles debacle in the Philippines where while on tour they accidentally insulted Imelda Marcos, wife of the island's dictator/leader.
This section also introduces John Lennon's famous 'The Beatles are bigger than Jesus' remark. Baker gives the episode an apocalyptic slant as chanting Beatles fans worship their gods while the flames pile higher under them all, a Catholic priest urges them to embrace Jesus, and Epstein finally rescues the band by airplane. It's manic and crazy compared to the more carefully composed art by Andrew Robinson. In it's way, Baker's section is probably the most serious part of the whole book, transposing the historical into a kind of eternal moment about the problems of worshipping humans.
Robinson's art is very well-done and maintains the same high level of attention throughout the roughly 127 pages of art and story. Probably my only complaint is when some of the panel art is repeated verbatim, it is unsettling when it's on the same page, and interrupts the story because the repetition is incongruous compared to the liveliness of all the other artwork around it, drawing us out of the story and into noticing the mechanics of printing. By all means make whatever the point is by repeating the same image, but not through cloning.
Robinson shows us the whirlwind of Epstein's energy, but also the bigger whirlwind of events that transpose the Beatles from leather-jacket wearing rockers into counter-culture pop stars. The coloring cleverly alternates according to the kind of scenery, or mood, of the story.
A dream within a dream
The Beatles are always the same smiling, friendly, slightly-goofy mop-tops of legend on these pages, and in a way this makes them eventually seem unreal, as if Epstein is only dreaming them.
Original Page Feb 2014