This has been a big year for one of the most elegant and beautiful comics to come along in some time, The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew Robinson (which I had previously reviewed here on Sequart). Telling the story of Beatles manager Brian Epstein with style, wit and true poetic grace, this book won the Eisner Award this past weekend for Best Reality-Based Graphic Novel, an astonishing achievement from first-time comics writer Tiwary. Released by Dark Horse this past November, the book has been optioned and will be adapted for the screen, and I had a chance to meet up with the writer and artist at San Diego Comic Con, both one-on-one and in their interesting panel presentation and discussion.
It was particularly interesting to hear how this book came about in the first place, as one would not necessarily expect a New Yorker with Indian roots like Tiwary to be writing the biography of such a thoroughly English man as Epstein. He addressed this through the lens of his own experience in the arts, as a band manager and Broadway producer in his own right. At the outset, Tiwary recalled, he was interested in Brian as a businessman. Children of Indian immigrants today, as was the case with many immigrant groups in the past, aren’t encouraged to go into the arts. They’re directed into business, or law, or science or medicine or some other high-paying professional position with a lot of social prestige. The arts and humanities are seen as decidedly second rate occupations. What’s true today for Indian families in New York was just as true for Jewish families in Liverpool, 50-60 years ago. Epstein, though he had the support and love of his family, was expected to run the NEMS record shop that his family owned and succeed in business, even though his heart belonged to Matadors and their sense of theatricality. Tiwary sympathized with Brian to a surprising degree.
Aside from any similarity in ethnic terms, there was the simple admiration of a good fellow person of business, as there’s no doubt that Epstein was primarily responsible for taking a tough-looking bar band trained in the roughest clubs in Germany and making them The Beatles. Putting them in suits, enforcing a strict “no swearing, no drinking” policy on stage (they did plenty of both off-stage), Brian produced immediate results for the group, getting them more money, as George Harrison later recalled, which was always a good way to motivate the young Beatles. How did he do it, became Tiwary’s question.
But the sad, tragic aspect of Epstein’s life didn’t come from his Jewish heritage (although, like many recent immigrants today, he faced a polite version of racism) but from his sexuality. At a time in England when to be gay was a crime, Epstein medicated himself, was subject to repeated bashings and beatings and was forced to live a very lonely, isolated life. That final, human dimension was what formed the emotional through-line of the book and gives it much of its effectiveness. Brian literally gave everything to The Beatles, including in the end, his own life.
Brian’s management style set the tone for what effective artistic management should be, according to Tiwary: he took care of business, made all the deals, counted all the money and left the group completely to their own devices to create their music. He never tried to shape their art, consciously, or give them any criticism of their music. He simply said, “You will never have to worry about business, just go make your art.” This further isolated him from the energy that The Beatles started to generate in the early 1960s, as he was very active and busy making business deals left and right, sometimes slightly out of his depth, sometimes making mistakes, but working tirelessly to help get them on to the world stage. But the nature of his work was largely invisible: he kept it that way. It wasn’t until his tragic death in 1967 that The Beatles began to realize how much he had been doing for them, as they famously ran most of their business ventures into the ground in three short years, finally splitting up amidst financial disarray in 1970. Paul McCartney’s quote in the book that Brian was “The Fifth Beatle” comes not from 1968, but the late 1990s, suggesting how long it took the individual members of the band to appreciate his contribution.
As of 2014, however, The Beatles have rightly adopted Tiwary’s book as the proper tribute to their “friend”, as Ringo describes him. “More than anything else, Brian was a friend of ours,” the witty drummer says in The Beatles Anthology, and the outpouring of support for the book from all quarters of the sometimes-prickly Beatles extended family has been an interesting demonstration of their love for this dapper man who made them famous. Paul, Ringo and the widows of John and George have all signed off on the upcoming feature film adaptation of the book, giving the filmmakers an extremely rare opportunity to use as much Beatles music as they would like. Moreover, artist Andrew Robinson, whose beautifully painted panels are one of the book’s strongest elements, is going to be the film’s artistic director, hopefully creating a rare continuity between graphic novel and adaptation.
The upcoming film will be live-action, with possibly a short animated sequence or two, and it should be seen as a “companion piece” to the book rather than a simple adaptation. For example, the book doesn’t mention original Beatles drummer Pete Best, who Epstein had to fire after George Martin criticized his drumming abilities. This was ultimately a decision made in the interests of clarity: the book was telling the story of Epstein, not “The Beatles” as a whole, so Best could be omitted. But he will appear in the film, as the incident is a famous example of Brian’s management style. Tiwary says that it won’t be a film like Walk the Line or Ray as much as a cross between Billy Elliot and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, where music counterpoints a dramatic moment and sometimes plays a narrative role, but the film itself will not be a “musical” as such.
If the film can capture the artistic scope and dramatic effectiveness of The Fifth Beatle, with any luck the Eisners won’t be the only award it collects in the next few years.