The Fifth Beatle is a monumental comic that combines bold styles, uses every comics storytelling trick in the proverbial book and a fast-paced style to recount ten years of history, from about 1957-1967. Those were probably among the most important ten years in recent cultural history, and one of the most important things that happened in those years was that musical group from Liverpool England with the funny name, The Beatles. By this point most of us, or at least the ones that have an interest in the subject, probably think we’ve heard everything there is to know on that subject. Shelves groan with books about that era, and the surviving lads themselves gave us a 12-hour documentary where they hold forth on their little band that made it big. Swirling around the Beatles in modern folklore are figures that have received some share of the glory over the years, such as Sir George Martin, their producer, Derek Taylor, their saavy press officer, bodyguard and friend Mal Evans, road manager Neil Aspinall and even the electronics wacko “Magic Alex” is known to some quarter of Beatles fandom. The one figure who has remained something of a mystery to many but who probably played the most important role in make the Beatles what they were, and are, is Brian Epstein.
Epstein wrote a short biography, A Cellarful of Noise, as the Beatles were ascending to the world stage, but like so much that he said and did, it was a work that had, to be polite, an ambiguous relationship to the truth. Brian, down to the way he dressed, the accent he used when he spoke, the topics he chose to discuss and the image he gave to the world, was a character. The real man himself, Brian Epstein, had created this character many years before to hide or at least downplay some uncomfortable truths (he was Jewish and very close with his successful family) and some downright dangerous truths (he was gay, at a time when that was a very serious crime in England). He died at a very young age, 32, and before The Beatles had passed from being the biggest pop group in the world to the most important musical event of the 1960s. He had, to a great extent, given them that success and provided them with the artistic and financial freedom with which to explore “new worlds and new civilizations” of music, to use a contemporary phrase. But he himself, despite his “pommy” demeanour and smiling business persona, was desperately sad and lonely, with deep drug problems and great darkness at the centre of his personal life. No matter how much success the Beatles had, Brian became a casualty.
Bringing Epstein’s story to light and reminding the world of what an important part of the Beatles he was is a noble and important mission, and this comic book certainly accomplishes it. But it’s in the way it seemingly effortlessly evokes an era and a place, with such a strong sense of perspective (Brian’s perspective) that this book touches greatness.
Presented in an oversized hardcover with gorgeous painted frames, the Fifth Beatle is the comics equivalent of a technicolor cinematic movie, big on style and mood and filling the frame with detail. Then, the style changes considerably as the story goes on, incorporating traditional cartoonish art (for an exciting sequence in the Philippines), abstract styles and even some moments of creeping terror. The diversity of artistic styles, by painter Andrew Robinson and more traditional comics artist Kyle Baker, is united by its quality and elegance. This is a “classy” comic, with a refined artistic style, all in the service of a true story.
Vivek Tiwary is the writer, and he keeps the focus squarely on Brian, even as the forces around him become more and more dramatic and interesting. We never see, for example, The Beatles performing at Shea Stadium or meeting Elvis or Bob Dylan. We don’t see their innovation in the studio under the guidance of George Martin, the comedy producer who gave them a chance. In fact, The Beatles themselves are somewhat marginal players in the great scheme of Brian’s life, although they are beautifully and accurately rendered out. John Lennon gets the most individual attention, including a re-telling of the infamous vacation that he and Brian took together in Spain. Lennon himself, if we are to believe the book, was simply more assertive than the rest and demanded Brian’s attention in a way the other’s simply didn’t. (Ringo probably has no more than three lines in the whole comic.) Instead, the people in Brian’s life get the full scenes, like his unforgettable lunch with Colonel Tom Parker (a delicious role for any character actor), or Nat Weiss, to whom Brian confesses what he sees as his business failures. Moxie, Brian’s “girl Friday” is another recurring character, with her crush on him going unrequited for reasons that are obvious to us, and to Brian, but which seem distant and confusing to her. Tiwary deserves big kudos for allowing Brian’s story to trump all of the other tempting paths he could have taken.
The story starts with a full, moody splash page of Liverpool on a rainy, dark night. Major landmarks and cultural signifiers are tossed out as a shorthand description of the city (the foot ball club, the Liver building, sailors). The first sequence is told entirely without dialogue, showing Brian, alone and well-dressed in the worst part of town, by the docks, trying to pick up a sailor. He winds up beaten to a bloody pulp outside of the Cavern club, where inside The Beatles are playing one of their loud evening sets. Brian heads home to his posh dwelling and is seen the next morning managing the record store own by his family’s business NEMS Enterprises. Rather than show Brian’s family as being somehow a hinderance to his ambitions, the Epsteins are pillars of support, and he shows fierce loyalty to both them as people and the businesses they run.
Anti-semitism must have been an issue for the Epsteins in some way. In an interview from 1982, for the infamous documentary The Compleat Beatles, an old Liverpudlian recalls that Brian’s family “had money, and owned record shops.” The way he pronounces “money” is with such disgust and contempt that it must represent an echo of the sort of “soft racism” they faced. Certainly they did very well in Liverpool, and Brian remained thoroughly English and devoted to both his family and his country with a purity of heart that seemed difficult for others to understand. In a later sequence, we see his failed attempts to join the army (where he’s criticized for having too “smart” a uniform) or become a fashion designer (again he’s criticized for his florid artistic inclinations). Brian genuinely tried to be a part of mainstream British society in 1950s and 1960s, but, at least as he experienced it, his sexuality and his family background always seemed to hold him back.
Rock music wasn’t really on Brian’s radar until a young customer asked for a Beatles record that the shop didn’t have. (It was recorded in Germany during their time there and wasn’t exactly an artistic masterpiece: a revved-up version of “My Bonnie” with the Beatles serving as the backing group for singer Tony Sheridan.) Intrigued by the popularity of the group, and by the possibility of seeing lots of “boys” in a dark club, he visits the Cavern. In two beautifully illustrated pages, we see that Epstein was fairly seduced by the leather-clad Beatles, for him resembling nothing so much as Matadors from his favourite sport. As he later admitted, he was attracted to their “personal charm” as much as their music, and though such a statement could be easily mis-read, given Brian’s sexual inclination, the Beatles were very charming in those days to everyone they met. He, like George Martin later on, bought into their personalities and how they came out in their music. Both older men knew that there was enough raw talent there and combined with their wit and humour, they could be a formidable artistic force.
When asked by the reliable Moxie what he sees in them specifically, Brian in this book answers that he sees a great “boredom” with the world and desire to make it more colourful and interesting. He also likes the connection they create with their audiences and the sense of belonging they have and they conjure through their music. A challenge and a sense of acceptance: these were obviously the things Epstein was dreaming of having all those long days managing the NEMS shop.
The Beatles are introduced in a great sequence capturing them at their early Goon Show best, where Brian woos them from his desk as each in turn shows up at his office seeking a contract. Brian’s first two managerial suggestions set the course of their lives: don’t swear on stage: you’re a family act, and try these new suits. It’s the culmination of a life spent trying to impress one’s “betters” (something of a British pastime) and an interest in how heroic male figures are presented to the public. Elvis’s raw energy had long since gone (he was just out of the Army when the Beatles signed with Epstein) and even he would soon acknowledge the power of a theatrical stage persona. To Epstein, putting the Beatles in snappy suits but not altering their music in any way allowed him to take the energy and connection he sensed in their music and present it to a skeptical British (and world) public in such a way the belied its origins. It was he who came up with the notion of selling them as “four lads from Liverpool”, a city that had given him everything but from which he couldn’t wait to escape.
Brian’s life over the next period was an endless series of train trips down to London and back, cradling rough demoes and posters, trying to get his “boys” a record deal. Turned down by everyone, George Martin, the fourth-string Parlophone producer of comedy records, heard something and asked them to come in. It’s just here in the story that Tiwary introduces Brian’s achilles heel: pills. Using the usual time-tested strategy of seeing multiple doctors and lying to them all (this abuse plan remains in use), Epstein acquired seemingly endless amounts of whatever prescription medication was his poison, probably the usual cocktail of stimulants and sedatives, along with something for “homosexual inclinations” (then considered a dangerous mental illness). Kept in Epstein’s ever-present briefcase, the pills would gradually shrink Brian’s world in alarming and disturbing ways. Far from achieving any kind of medical result, they undoubtedly contributed to his death.
But in those early, exuberant days, it was all about getting to the “toppermost of the poppermost” as Lennon put it, and Brian is absolutely along for the ride. The famous incident where he ordered massive quantities of “Love Me Do” for his shop in order to boost the song in the ratings is recounted without shame, and just the usual business shenanigans. All part of the game, old chap, is the sentiment.
Brian is given opportunities here, and later, to express his mixed feelings for his home city, and for Moxie, his loyal assistant. On a balcony overlooking the city at night, he ruminates on how the “liver birds” visit but always come back. If they ever decided to fly away, Liverpool would sink into the sea. Moxie joins him and, like many scenes they share, she is swept up in the celebration of the times (in this case, the Beatles’ first number one record) and can’t understand why Brian seems cut off from it. This is an omen of things to come.
But first, two key sequences are wonderfully drawn. On a sunny beach in Spain, Epstein and John Lennon relax and watch the boys on the beach. This infamous trip has been used by biographers as exhibit A in the case that Lennon was gay, or bisexual. Just writing that reminds us how far we’ve come in the years since. In this day and age, asserting that Lennon may have had gay experiences just makes him more interesting and modern, whereas making those assertions in the eighties would have been scandalous. Whatever did or did not happen in Spain, Lennon and Epstein were close, and John enjoyed his time there. Brian still couldn’t let his mask slip and this informs the very next sequence, as dark as the Spain episode was bright, involving negotiations for the American debut. Here, Robinson and Baker opt for a David Lynch-style New York office, dimly lit with ominous photos hanging in the boardroom with poses of forced geniality. The booking agent, however, is represented simply by a wooden doll, a ventriloquist dummy in fact. Over and above the satirical sensibility of portraying show business types as dummies with no voice of their own (a bit “on the nose”), the key resonance here is showing how Brian saw himself in the field of business negotiations. Like others who weren’t raised in the cutthroat world of the entertainment business, Epstein was a bit of an innocent, who pushed where he should have relaxed, and relaxed where he should have pushed. In a later scene he confesses that the Beatles aren’t getting anywhere close to what they should be for licensing rights, for example, for the oodles of merchandise sold during their heyday.
As the story goes on in The Fifth Beatle, Brian seems increasingly isolated from the world around him. We see the sixties, exploding and alive with new possibilities in terms of art, culture, science and business, Brian’s shell remains impenetrable. He had been adopting pommy manners and a fabricated geniality for so long that, tragically, the mask had fused to his face. When the Beatles make it over to the US for their Stateside triumph, Epstein lets the mask fall slightly and becomes involved with a handsome young blonde man named “Dizzy”. As innocent in his relationships as with his business dealings, Brian is hurt and used by Dizzy, as culture hadn’t yet reached the point where two men could have an honest and open relationship with stability. Brian, being thoroughly English with old-fashioned manners and values, was inclined to seek a stable long-term life partner. Dizzy, part of that pre-Stonewall gay underground in New York, is all about freedom and casual relationships.
Brian spends the second half of this book seeking some human connection that he can understand. He expects to get it from Colonel Tom Parker, who invites him for breakfast just as The Beatles are winding down their mop-top phase and getting ready to retire from live performing. Epstein, touching in his innocence, expects that the manager of the other unquestionably huge act in rock and roll will understand him and his problems. Instead, the old carnival barker and dog catcher munches down on a veritable feast with red eyes and spiked teeth. He’s drawn here as a literal monster, gobbling all in sight. Facing the urbane, demure Epstein at the other end of the table, Colonel’s one piece of useful advice is to stop managing other acts and focus entirely on his Beatles. Brian, feeling commitments to his other acts such as Cilla Black, politely thanks the apparition and walks away, leaving the Colonel feasting on Dutch chocolate cake.
The tone of The Fifth Beatle now builds slowly, surely towards tragedy. It’s interesting to notice how, as the story goes on and the music gets more complex and confident, the Beatles literally recede from the pages of the comic, seen now only in long-shot or as part of a montage, or increasingly through the television. As their world explodes into colour and possibility, Brian’s world kept shrinking into pills and pretence, abusive relationships with both lovers and business associates. By the end, Brian is like some Howard Hughes figure, or the aged Bowman at the end of 2001, living out an empty life in a first-class hotel suite. Lennon’s famous, “Bigger than God” comment, for which Brian urged him to publicly apologize, only serves to illustrate his diminishing power over his star act. By the time psychedelia rolls around, Brian is out touch and out of time, visited on his deathbed by the loyal Moxie, who always loved him in a way he could never return.
That’s the greatest irony of The Fifth Beatle: showing us how small the world got for Epstein when it should have been at its biggest. How did it happen and why? The comic offers the usual explanations: innocence mixed with power, drugs and a conflicted sense of identity. Without Brian there would have never been the Beatles, at least not as history remembers them. But history has somewhat forgotten the sad, lonely man at the centre of it all. This book does something to return Brian Epstein to the centre of the Beatles story and make him, at last, known to the world. It’s wonderfully progressive that the major work on Brian Epstein is in the medium that many consider to be the one that will define this half of the new century: the comic book. There’s nothing apologetic about this comic. It’s a mature, confident piece of art that treats its medium with all the dignity it has earned. He was “beautiful fella,” John Lennon said, and now he has a beautiful book.