When Hunter Davies’ biography of the Beatles was nearing publication in 1968, its author had almost forgotten to clear the manuscript with the mother of Brian Epstein, the man who shepherded the Liverpool, England “guitar group” to interstellar wealth and popularity. Beatles manager Epstein put together the original contract that solidified Davies as band’s authorized biographer, and as Brian had died of an accidental drug overdose by then, Davies was obligated to show his draft to Mrs. Queenie Epstein. She objected to any mention of her son’s homosexuality in the book. Outside of a stray appearance of the then-ambiguous phrase “gay bachelor,” the biographer had to edit as directed.
“With Brian,” wrote Davies in his introduction to the expanded 1985 edition of The Beatles, “I think (Epstein’s sex life) did matter, and it was a vital clue to his personality, to his death, and also to the birth of his interest in the Beatles.” The United Kingdom was a bigoted, repressive, and dangerous environment for a homosexual back then; Epstein closely guarded his orientation. Even as The Fifth Beatle graphic novel is far from exhaustive, theatre producer Vivek J. Tiwary handles Brian’s secret with great care, tracing his under-reported ascension from managing the music department of his old man’s furniture store to the role that would dramatically alter every corner of his life.
Brian Epstein glides about in artist Andrew C. Robinson’s era-appropriate composite of cinematic framing and psychedelic overtones, clad in conservative blue or brown pinstripe suits. Each panel’s impossible Valley of the Dolls-like gloss — occasionally dressed in an effect that reproduces a color camera filter — owes to Robinson’s paint-first, digital studio-second methodology. He sets Northern England in a striking rain-blanketed swirl of blues, mossy green, and unfriendly damp alleyways, and The Fifth Beatle’s first few pages unfurl near the River Mersey, where an early Beatles gig is cross-cut with a harrowing encounter along the Liverpool South Docks. Epstein approaches a young seaman under the misconception he’d been flirted with and is “beaten…badly,” as recounted in the novel. Robinson’s whirlwind of punches and sharp kicks comes to a head with Epstein limping away, bleeding all over a discarded issue of Mersey Beat. It mirrors closely his perilous late-night stop-offs in the early 1960s, and Epstein’s romantic entanglements in Tiwary’s script prove just as tragic. “(Brian) cruised in some terrible places,” Beatles affiliate Terry Doran told The Washington Post‘s Glenn Frankel in 2007. “[…] He was a glutton for punishment, really.” Epstein exhausted himself, too — Robinson’s widescreen depictions of tumbling pills in The Fifth Beatle follow exchanges with doctors who scribble prescriptions for fatigue as well as for his “intimate inclinations.”
Not far from the menacing docks meet-ups, Epstein first experiences the Beatles at the Cavern Club (“…black as a deep grave, dank and damp and smelly,” reported Brian and ghostwriter Derek Taylor in Epstein’s autobiography A Cellarful of Noise). Robinson fits the then-unpolished, slender four-piece with slick black leather jackets and tousled long hair. The Beatles were a scrappy local band in 1961, and between drinking, smoking, and eating lunch onstage, they stormed through Little Richard and Buddy Holly covers for meager pay. Bored with his father’s store, Brian quickly secured a business relationship with the lads, shaping everything from merchandise and tour contracts (which he often bungled) to manners and haircuts. Helming the act’s business, promotion, and media affairs was a daunting, time-swallowing task for The Fifth Beatle‘s fastidiously attired Englishman, but Tiwary’s subject is driven and ambitious. “I think with my help these boys could be stars,” he says after the rowdy early show. The renderings of the initial Epstein-Beatles interactions are vibrant and funny, with Robinson locking down the small things like the familiar angular crest of John Lennon’s nose. While the plotting here recreates exactly the volley of banter we love in A Hard Day’s Night, it seems that getting the larger picture into The Fifth Beatle was a bit more difficult.
At a slim 130 pages (introspective back matter aside), Epstein’s launch of his Liverpool act gets a rush job in Vivek Tiwary’s final draft. Firing then-drummer Pete Best and replacing him with Ringo Starr was left to the uncomfortable new manager, for example, and it doesn’t make it into the book. The move yielded physical attacks from Best’s rabid fan base, and George Harrison earned a black eye. Later, The Fifth Beatle’s presentation of the band’s 1966 Philippines trip is handled curiously, too. It culminated in a return to the States only to find Beatles records being publicly burned due to John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” remark. But the episode moves at a breakneck pace here, and collaborating artist Kyle Baker resurrects the era’s Saturday morning cartoon Fabs to speedily tell the tale. The Manila visit actually turned frightening (and a bit violent) when Epstein unintentionally snubbed first lady Imelda Marcos by declining a breakfast invitation on behalf of his clients, so the choice to lighten it with Baker’s albeit lively pen work and florid pastels is a puzzling one. And while Tiwary’s work emphasizes the string of tender relationships that Epstein fostered during his adult life, the death of Brian’s father – just weeks before Epstein passed – didn’t make it through The Fifth Beatle’s editing stage either.
Harry Epstein died while anxiety and severe loneliness was wearing his son into the ground. Brian was cycling through anti-depressants and sedatives for insomnia while he tended to his grieving mother. “Drugs became his crutch,” writes Beatles historian Paul Du Noyer of the younger Epstein’s struggles in 1967. When Beatles touring was halted late in the year previous, a shift toward studio experimentation and away from humming day calendars effectively condensed their manager’s role and their communication with him. Unlikely as it seems, Epstein had become unraveled by loneliness. The dark days that followed would produce temper tantrums, suicide attempts, and deep-seated feelings of abandonment. There, at the flowering center of post-Beatlemania, the fifth Beatle was an outsider. This graphic telling doesn’t much delve into the period, opting for a weightless, intangible treatment that involves ambling conversations and strange visits with a bed-stricken Brian. It’s a whitewashing that’s ultimately preferable to the truth: A police report detailing the recovery of 17 pill bottles in Brian’s home and a probe that attributed his accidental death to a toxic brew of anti-depressants, barbiturates, and sleeping pills. When his housekeeper found him dead in August of 1967, Brian Epstein was 32.
“I think Brian’s one of the forgotten people,” Lennon’s first wife Cynthia told the The Washington Post‘s Frankel. “It’s almost as if he’s been written out of the story. I don’t think they’d have got anywhere without Brian.”