(Spoiler Alert: Not really about The Beatles, but sorta about them. No, not really.)
Sometimes it can be a good idea to make an impulse purchase when you’re drunk. Thankfully the few times I have done this have led to reading some books I’d never consider purchasing like The Fifth Beatle. I was in Portland on MLK day with two friends from my program, and drifted off to a nearby comic book shop right before we were going to head back to Corvallis. I had already purchased Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque from Powell’s earlier that day, so I did not intend to get any other books. However, in my buzzed state I could not resist the call of Bridge City Comics, and entered uncertain about what I would get because God forbid I enter a store and leave empty-handed (What would the employees and other customers think?). I started mulling about the independent publisher sections, and when an employee offered to help me, and I blurted out The Fifth Beatle. It was unavailable among the stacks, but she made a search in the back and while I was on the phone with my mom, she returned and thrust the oversized graphic novel in my free arm.
I first heard The Beatles at an embarrassingly late age. I was seventeen; living in Belize, and one of my cousins had made his return from his first semester at St. Louis University. Other than stories about the women he hooked up with, and the superior quality of everything but the food, he had brought back a massive catalog of music taken from an American cousin’s collection. The collection included all of The Beatles’ albums, and my cousin first played me ‘Strawberry Hills Forever’ and I fell in love with it and the rest of the foursome’s discography. What I realize now is that I enjoy The Beatles as much as I do because of their obsession with crafting love songs in strange shapes. I listened obsessively to the Fab Four over the next couple months, and still play some of their tracks whenever I’m feeling lovelorn or in love (while my favorite The Beatles song has changed to ‘A Day In the Life’).
I had never cared to figure out much biographical info on The Beatles, and didn’t know who Brian Epstein was before reading The Fifth Beatle. I knew they were English but not that they were from Liverpool, I knew that cancer killed George and a maniac killed John, that Paul made a band called Wings after the band’s breakup, that Ringo is the luckiest man in the world, and that some people blame John’s second wife Yoko Ono for the band’s split. Because of this I think I missed a lot of the nods to historical moments in The Beatles career that Vivek Tiwary shows only in glimpses.
The graphic novel is beautifully rendered by Andrew C. Robinson whose work with Kyle Baker gives the world of 50’s Liverpool a bleak, but dreamy quality in the graphic novel’s earlier parts before bursting into full color when Brian Epstein first sees the Beatles at a concert in a local venue days after a man assaults him in an alley. This assault haunts the entire book as we see Epstein struggle with finding ever-increasing pharmaceutical means to suppress his anxieties and homosexual desires, which were still illegal at the time in the UK.
However, The Fifth Beatle feels like a misleading title for this book meant to generate buzz rather than say what the book is about. Truly this book is about Brian Epstein—an ambitious, passionate, and hard working man—who completely invested himself in a project that he saw could bring love into a world mired by war and cynicism. And in the way Tiwary tells the story, Epstein partially gave of his whole self to the project of The Beatles in the hope that the English laws and cultural norms that told him he could not love due to his homosexuality could perhaps be circumscribed for himself if he worked hard enough. The Beatles are featured throughout in bits here and there, Epstein endearingly referring to them as ‘the Boys,’ getting into shenanigans and relationships that emphasize Epstein’s increased isolation.
I’ve read in a few places that people were upset after reading this book because it didn’t cover in greater detail the relationship between Brian, and each of the individual Beatles well enough, but that doesn’t seem like Tiwary’s intention at all. I get the sense that The Beatles were just as lucky to find Brian as he was to have them sign on with him as an untested manager.
The Fifth Beatle is a tragic story about a man who was not allowed to lead the life that he wanted, but was able to give much more to the world than many of those who barred him from that life. Read if you’re already familiar with The Beatles history, so you can fully enjoy all the Easter eggs throughout. Read if you’re into beautifully colored art about a time in the world not depicted enough in graphic novels. Read if you love ‘Yellow Submarine.’