Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story Review (Vivek Tiwary, Andrew C Robinson)

“Mythology is better and more fondly remembered than history! So we create legends rather than recount truths.” - Brian Epstein

The Fifth Beatle is a graphic biography of Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ first manager, who broke them to the world and took them further than they thought possible - becoming more popular than Elvis - before passing away shortly after the release of Sgt Peppers from a drug overdose. 

Writer Vivek Tiwary presents a vivid and colourful portrait of the man who was also a troubled, lonely and tragic figure whose nature would be his own downfall. As the quote above indicates, Tiwary plays with fact and fiction in his retelling to spice up the story such as Epstein’s fictional assistant, Moxie, who becomes his confidant on his journey to the top, perhaps representing his ambition, while scenes like Ed Sullivan interviewing Epstein with a ventriloquist’s dummy remain potentially true or false. 

Before Epstein became The Beatles’ manager, he had tried his hand at fashion which would play a major part in transforming the leather jacket-wearing scousers into the smart, iconic young men who the world would come to know via songs like Please, Please Me and Love Me Do. But he also had a keen eye for bullfighting and is presented on the cover as a matador. 

In a key scene with John, he explains his fascination of the matador: “At his final moment of triumph, the matador becomes death - he kills the killing machine. But not before he gives the bull its glory, shows the world its beauty, its powers, its majesty. He also gives the aficionados something to believe in, something to admire, and ultimately something to hate. So in the end, he gives people hope.” That’s Tiwary’s approach to Epstein in this book - Epstein is the matador who shows the bull (The Beatles) to the world, exposing the glory and beauty of their music. 

Epstein was also a closet homosexual, though not particularly due to shame but because during his lifetime homosexuality was literally illegal - a fact that would change mere months after Epstein’s early death. And his sexuality does play a big part in his story as it isolated him from true companionship, like when The Beatles find girlfriends and spend time with them rather than Epstein who’s left looking into his mirror murmuring “Oh, if love were all… I should be lonely” and taking pills to “curb” his homosexual inclinations. 

Pills would be Epstein’s downfall as the stress of managing the world’s biggest band would cause anxiety, insomnia and exhaustion, and make him dependent upon sleeping pills to rest. He would eventually die at the age of 32 of a sleeping pill overdose. 

The book doesn’t go into too much detail of Epstein’s life, sometimes choosing Andrew Robinson’s superb art to tell an ambiguous scene rather than literally spell it out to the reader, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. For example, if you wanted to know why Epstein was in a hospital towards the end of the book, you’d have to look it up separately to find out he was undergoing rehab to change his destructive lifestyle and wean himself off the drugs - in the book, he’s just in a hospital bed, exhausted. And there is a dream-like sequence in his flat as he’s dying that’s a bit too ambiguous for my liking and was also repetitive and a bit too on the nose in explaining Epstein’s feelings. 

Andrew Robinson’s art in this book is a revelation. His painted style gives the book an incredibly lavish look like when he takes traditional narrative captions and moulds them into the scene - the establishing landscape shot of Liverpool in the rain sees the words “Liverpool” etched across the sky forming part of the rain. But really every page is stunning, especially the colours, but I loved the dream sequence where he’s on a train to London and sees himself outside, outrunning the train with a copy of Love Me Do in his hands, and the dance montage with Moxie was incredibly beautiful (as was Moxie!). The clothes of the time, the character designs, the imaginative layouts and angles - it’s all perfect. 

For some reason Kyle Baker was brought in to draw the section dedicated to The Beatles’ Philippines Tour which was the only downpoint of the art in the book. Baker is one of the worst Marvel artists I’ve ever seen and his work on David Lapham’s Deadpool is shocking. I suppose his style was designed to show the humour of the tour? Ech. 

I wouldn’t say The Fifth Beatle is a perfect book as it only really shows a stylised portrait of Brian Epstein rather than the full picture but you do come away from it with the right ideas about him. That he was a lonely, somewhat tragic figure but a brilliant, charismatic man whose ambition and vision paved the way in introducing to the world the greatest pop group of all time. And it really is an absolutely gorgeous book to have (for the most part). Well worth a read if you’re interested in finding out more about the manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein.

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story

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