Written by Broadway producer Vivek J. Tiwary and illustrated by Andrew C. Robinson with Kyle Baker, The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story is, in many ways, representative of my favorite kind of nonfiction: it shares many of the same traits as the best fiction, moving and flowing with the narrative sensibilities of a novel rather than a historical document. The liberties taken to facilitate such an approach may, at times, be detrimental to the stories representation of verifiable historical truth, but when done right, it makes up for it with an even greater emotional truth.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story
One of the most surprising elements of this story is that it is surprising at all. Like many Beatles fans, I already knew many of the in-a-nutshell biography of John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s titular manager before reading this comic. I knew that Brian Epstein was Jewish and gay. I knew that he saw the potential for a scrappy young rock and roll group from Liverpool to become “bigger than Elvis” even as record companies laughed him out of their offices. I knew that he was an exceedingly clever businessman. I knew that he died at the height of the Beatles’ career while only in his early 30’s.
Thankfully, The Brian Epstein Story is not the same live-fast-die-young tale of Rock and Roll excess that we’ve all seen before, thanks both to the events in Epstein’s life themselves and because of Tiwary, Robinson, and Baker’s careful management of reader expectations. Tiwary claims that he spent over twenty years researching Brian Epstein, finding that quite little had already been written about him. As such, even with all that has already been written about The Beatles, a great deal of the information presented in this comic has never before been available to the general public.
Tiwary wisely chooses not to stray from Brian’s perspective, keeping the focus strictly on Brian’s life as he experienced it. Even the few scenes that fans will be familiar to fans, such as The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, feel fresh and exciting thanks to recontextualization. The bulk of the book, though, is made up of moments that will not have been previously familiar to readers, such as the beating that Brian received as a young man that contributed to his lifelong struggle with anxiety.
Tiwary and company presuppose that readers are already well-versed in Beatles history, so if you don’t know Rubber Soul from Let it Be, you’re not part of the target audience. Yet that’s not to say that the book runs on fan service. Many readers will be disappointed by the lack of presence by The Beatles themselves, especially as John Lennon dominates more of the book than any of the other three Beatles combined. It’s a treat when they do make appearances, but Tiwary doesn’t let them diminish Epstein’s rare moment in the spotlight.
At roughly 120 pages (not including over 30 pages of supplementary material, including some must-read commentary), The Fifth Beatle is a brisk, yet dense read. Condensing decades of research into such a short volume is a daunting task, so the structure and pacing of this book feels appropriately deliberate. It’s not easy for any writer to eliminate good material, and I’m sure that Tiwary had plenty of good material that he ultimately left on the cutting room floor—literally, perhaps, because Tiwary is also developing a film about Epstein as well. Yet that deliberative approach raises some questions.
For one, does The Brian Epstein Story really need to be as short as it is? I could understand why Tiwary would choose to make a short read out of what could have been exponentially longer had Tiwary taken a more comprehensive approach. It’s fine that Tiwary set out to create an enjoyable, approachable piece of creative nonfiction, which most readers, including yours truly, would prefer over a textbook. With his experience as a Broadway producer, it’s no surprise that Tiwary knows how to attract a wide audience and maintain their interest. I can’t remember the last time I read a work of nonfiction, in comics or otherwise, that were as well paced as The Fifth Beatle.
But would it not have been possible to tell a longer story without sacrificing momentum? For as skillfully as Tiwary manages audience expectations, and as artistically justified as his choices may be, some omissions almost seem neglectful. The most notable example of this is easily the absence of Pete Best, The Beatles’ original drummer. It’s widely known among fans that Epstein played a major role in the decision to fire Best so that Ringo Starr could take his place.
To say nothing of how it changed the dynamics of the band itself, isn’t the act of firing a band member a significant enough moment in Brian’s professional career to at least be worthy of a panel or two? Perhaps Tiwary intends to include such material in his upcoming film, which he has said will be more of a “companion” to the comic than an adaptation, but I fail to see the logic in that methodology, either. Why can’t the book and the film be complete, standalone works without forcing one to refer to the other? Maybe I should reserve judgment until I see the film, but all I have at the moment is a comic.
When people ask me why they should read a book after they’ve already seen the film adaptation, I often explain how ridiculous it would be for a writer to intentionally write filler, thinking to himself “whatever, they can just cut this out when they make the movie.” The Fifth Beatle is the first book that I’ve read to seemingly take the opposite approach, as if it’s purposely creating gaps for the movie to fill in.
I’ve deliberately chosen not to discuss Robinson or Baker yet. Unless they spent twenty-plus years researching the material as well, Tiwary is easily the most responsible for this project’s development. Yet I don’t mean to devalue their importance to the finished product. Robinson and Baker do all of the penciling, inking, and coloring of their own pages (with solid lettering by Steve Dutro), creating a fitting aesthetic for the comic while letting their individual styles shine.
Andrew C. Robinson dominates the bulk of the story, and he shines from page one. His work has a painterly quality to it, with clean lines and carefully chosen, moody color palettes. At times his characters are remarkably realistic, especially their faces, faces, but the anatomy is still cartoony enough to prove that Robinson doesn’t rely too heavily on digital tools or excessive photo-referencing.
Given the appeal of its subject matter, The Fifth Beatle may attract readers that previously had never read a comic book, so Robinson’s layouts should generally be easily understood to those with a limited sequential art vocabulary. Much like the music of the Beatles, though, Robinson’s pages generally have a simple structure with a “pop” approachability, but that doesn’t mean he won’t experiment with something unconventional when the situation calls for it.
During the story’s most psychedelic moments, Kyle Baker takes over on art duties. His panels aren’t marked as such, but you’ll know it when you see it. Baker is a versatile artist, and here it ranges from endearingly silly to disturbingly chaotic.
These moments of abstraction will frustrate some readers. They would have found it frustrating even if The Fifth Beatle was a work of fiction, but a work of nonfiction that blurs the lines between fact and fiction presents a challenge that some readers will find difficult to accept. This may be the most important factor in determining how much a reader will enjoy this comic. The Fifth Beatle may be more easily digestible for some readers if they think of it as historical fiction. If you’re looking for exhaustive, academic research, you’re not going to find it here.
As for me, as questionable as The Fifth Beatle can be at times, I was immensely satisfied by the time I finished it. I didn’t expect to find so many connections between Brian’s struggles as a manager and my struggles as a writer. I didn’t expect to gain a newfound respect for the “suits” of the music industry, so often portrayed as the villains of artistic expression. I didn’t expect to feel so moved by events that I knew were coming.
- A moving, inspiring, and (surprisingly) surprising story.
- Densely written with a brisk pace.
- Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker.
- Glosses over some key events.
- Brevity doesn’t seem necessary.
- Non-Beatles-fans won’t get much out of it.
In the commentary, Tiwary explains that he feels a deep personal connection to Brian’s story, and it shows. This was too much of a labor of love for him to have taken a traditional approach. Brian’s story needed to read like a Beatles album sounds: varied, energetic, accessible, and perhaps a little shorter than one would have hoped for, but only because each song was so consistently good. That doesn’t mean that The Brian Epstein Story is the comics equivalent of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I think the Beatles would have liked it.
Is It Good?
Definitely, which is why I wish it was longer.
By the way, we’ll be conducting an interview with writer Vivek J. Tiwary in the near future, so be on the lookout for that!