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I'd been looking forward to reading this book for many moons now, following various sneak preview posts and tidbits on facebook and elsewhere. I've been a fan of artist Andrew Robinson's work for literally decades, having had the great pleasure of being one of his "teachers" at the Savanah College of Design. Now that I think of it, we even had the occasional opportunity to collaborate (Andy provided exquisitely rendered illustrations for a number of movie reviews I wrote for the school newspaper).
I mention all this just to clear the air in the spirit of "full disclosure." After all, one's suspicions are always raised when you read an unapologetically RAVE review like the one I'm posting here.
First of all, even though the story of Brian Epstein was thoroughly researched by author Vivek Tiwary, this is far, far from a straightforward narrative. Choosing instead to go with a more expressionistic, surreal approach, The Fifth Beatle takes quite a few liberties with both the story and the storytelling, and the reader is all the better for it. I can still remember the disappointing feeling I had while reading 1977's Marvel Super Special Number 7: The Beatles Story, written by David Anthony Kraft and drawn by George Perez and Klaus Janson. Despite being a fan of all three creators, it was sadly obvious that their by-the-numbers hack job didn't come close to capturing the essence and excitement of all-things Beatles. It read like it was produced by a committee, without a shred of creativity or inspiration. It was nothing more than "product," not remotely to be confused with art.
But The Fifth Beatle is something different, something new. This is apparent right from the start, via an almost wordless five-page opening sequence, portraying Brian's private struggles to find personal happiness (looking for randy sailors down by the docks) in contrast with Liverpudlian teenagers seeking the communal joys of a Cavern Club concert appearance by The Beatles. Robinson uses a limited palette of blues and greys to suggest the limited options and quiet desperation of life in Northern England in general, and Brian Epstein's closeted life specifically. Of course, once Brian's path intersects with The Beatles, the color palette opens up considerably, with all the appropriately powerful symbolism this historic pairing deserves.
Throughout the book, the art works its magic in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, much the same way the best music of The Beatles combined instantly accessible melodies with innovative arrangements and unique sounds (backwards guitars, sitars, tape loops). His images of Brian and The Beatles are equal parts larger-than-life caricatures and sensitively nuanced character studies. The page designs and panel layouts, while always serving the needs of the story, are also never afraid to take chances, constantly taking advantage of Andy's innate sense of graphic design, along with his painterly "anything goes" mindset. Any fan of his illustration and comics art needs to be aware that this book is overflowing with some of the most outstanding artwork of his career--and the collector's edition is packed with bonus pages showcasing original penciled art and preliminary character designs sketches, along with Andy's comments about his process. For many, this will be reason enough to purchase a copy (or two) of this book.
Most of the art in The Fifth Beatle was produced by Andy Robinson, but celebrated comic artist Kyle Baker contributes a brief, but very effective sequence that reads like an never-aired episode of The Beatles 60s cartoon show, detailing The Beatles' bizarre, horrific treatment while on tour in the Philippines.
Some critics have harped on some of the clunkier aspects of the script, such as the frequent use of Beatles' songs within the dialogue between characters. But I'd rather focus on how author Vivek Tiwary chose to craft a more poetic, magical realist tale of the true story of how one man's fierce determination to love and to share love, ultimately led to a worldwide lovefest for the music of The Beatles and everything it represents. "All You Need Is Love," the 1967 anthem of the "summer of love" itself, has also often been criticised for its naive message, but history has proven that most people strongly disagree, rightfully understanding that, yes, all you really DO need is love. Vivek's script for The Fifth Beatle is just the right amount of pyschological probing and heartfelt stargazing. The brutal reality of his tortured private life is there for all to see, but so is his easily empathetic need to be loved, and his need to bring love to the rest of the world.
For a more "accurate" account of Brian Epstein's life before and after The Beatles, you'll need to search elsewhere. But if you're interested in reading a beautifully imagined and gorgeously illustrated story that uncovers the truth behind the truth, look no further. Plans are already well underway to adapt The Fifth Beatle into a motion picture, but this graphic novel stands on its own, a labor of love for all concerned, and a moving tribute to a relatively unsung hero in The Beatles' saga.