As an actual graphic novel, (As in it is a comic released as a complete whole in one volume rather than a collected trade of single issues but called a graphic novel instead of a comic book trade by people too scared to call things comic books out of fear of being labelled immature by people with pointy fingers.), The Fifth Beatle takes the reader on a journey through the life of the man behind the Beatles, Brian Epstein and how he took a group of lads from Liverpool and helped make them music gods. (They were more popular than Jesus don’t ya know) It is a comic book so fancy it even got its own trailer to help drum up interest in the book.
It is also a comic that takes liberties with the truth to tell a better story for the right reasons and also, fittingly in the same way that Epstein himself mythologised the Beatles. By changing names, faces, events and adding an element of the other, the book stands out as a tour de force of filmic comic book story telling. It is a tightly packed story that hits all the right beats (heh) while painting a picture of a man that so few know about. It is one of the best non-Superhero comics that I have had the pleasure of reading and I cannot wait to see how this graphic novel will be adapted into film. (Yes they are making a movie of it too!)
On the whole The Fifth Beatle does nothing truly groundbreaking with the comic book medium but it does not really have to. It takes the techniques and lessons of the past and implements them in such a way that the story comes alive in your hands as you read it. Simple things like the sudden infusion of colour to the art when Brian sees The Beatles for the first time or the subtle ways Moxie is included and talked about in key scenes in the story have been seen before. But in this book with Andrew Robinson’s so beautiful it hurts art, it all feels fresh.
The story is squarely focused on Brian and his view of and place in the world. The Beatles themselves come in and out of the story as needed, usually bringing an element of comic mischief with them but apart from that this is all Brian all the time. Which is a very good thing. The tendency with these kinds of stories is to sideline the focus in favour of what they made famous but here writer, Vivek Tiwary stays on target and for a damn good reason too. Brian Epstein is a really interesting character.
The book deals with Epstein’s homosexuality as a central part of its story. Showing how he wrestles with it during a time were in England it was still illegal to be gay and in America it was still a very grey issue. Brian’s regular intake of prescription pills meant to suppress his homosexual urges and trips to various Doctors to acquire more show how this was such a hard choice for him as an individual. His continued attempts to suppress it while at the same time, as the Beatles begin to conquer the world, embrace it add complexity to the man. It is also something that contributes to his death. By the end of the book you see that while equal rights for LGBT people have come a long way in such a short period of time they still have a long way to go.
The impact of which is most telling because I started doing some research and searching for LGBT rights timelines and issues after finishing the book.
Other aspects of Epstein’s character are given equal care as well. You see the very un-British big thinker with lavish taste hiding within the traditionally British look and demeanour he presents to the world. Typified by the recurring references to matadors and how they control the crowd and kill the bull with style and flare. You get a real sense of Brian as a person and come to care for him as the story goes on right to the heartbreaking conclusion. You see his thought processes, depression, manic glee and much more. While being surrounded by archetypes and our perceived ideas of famous faces Brian’s character stands out due to his inherent outsider nature.
All of this is conveyed to you by Andrew Robinson’s truly gorgeous art and replication of the familiar faces of the Beatles and people around them. It sells you on the world of the book and both the fact and fiction of the story. Everyone looks as they should but with slight tweaks and changes to bring out their key features. Away from the characters the backgrounds a filled with detail and little references to the Beatles’ career and the 60s. All enhanced by washes of colour to bring out the mood and illicit emotion. The art alone is a reason to by this book. Trust me.
It’s not all smooth sailing however, as The Fifth Beatle does have some issues. The last part of the book becomes somewhat muddled as it attempts to replicated the degrading state of Epstein’s health. You become lost and confused in pages that contain key story beats and plot reveals/resolutions. It also feels a tad rushed compared to the rest of the story. It is the shortest part of the three that make up the book and it comes at you so fast you have little time to process it all before Moxie and you have to say goodbye to Brian.
The story also calls for some assumed knowledge of The Beatle’s career timeline to get the most out of it due to a lot of it happening in the background around Brian and his struggles. Many key moments are also jumped and skipped over in the quest to keep Brian Epstein at the forefront of the narrative. So while it will still be an enjoyable read for someone not well versed in such things, it will almost certainly be missing a key element of magic to it. Something that could easily be rectified by adding a timeline of key events at the end of the book.
When buying the Fifth Beatle I opted for the Hardback Collector’s Edition version of the book which comes with some extra material in the back highlighting some Epstein related Beatles memorabilia along with a very informative breakdown of the art process and character creation. The Forewords and Afterwords also add a personal touch to the proceedings as at first you get help understanding the man that was Brian Epstein and then later the reasons why his story had to be told and the impact of it.
It is a very entertaining comic that will take you on a journey. The slight issues I have with it are totally overshadowed by what’s good that I only included them in this review to show I am not a complete loon who loves everything he reads. If you have any interest in The Beatles as a band and moment in pop culture history at all or are just merely curious. You owe it to yourself to read The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story.
Even if it is only to be that person who says “Pfft, the comic was better.” When the movie comes out.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story was published in 2013 by M Press, a division of Dark Horse Comics. It is available digitally via the Dark Horse Comics website and app or in trade and on Kindle via Amazon. For more information visit thefifthbeatle.com