There are a great many graphic novels out there for music fans, but perhaps none as important to the whole of the music landscape as The Fifth Beatle. The Fifth Beatle casts its paneled gaze to the last great mystery of the Beatles’ beyond-legendary career: Brian Epstein, their manager. Epstein, the man who gave The Beatles to the world, who’s vision of four Liverpudlian lads becoming the greatest sensation the world had ever known was utterly laughable – until he proved everyone wrong. But that part of the journey is the better-known half. It’s Epstein’s personal life, his dreams and doubts, and how they weaved in and out of The Beatles’ storied timeline that makes The Fifth Beatle a truly essential read.
Broadway theater producer Vivek Tiwary (American Idiot, The Addams Family) is joined by comic art greats Andrew Robinson (Starman, King Conan) and Kyle Baker (Why I Hate Saturn) for an unrivaled experience in music biographies. The Fifth Beatle isn’t a blow-by-blow story of adversity overcome, but rather a beautiful and tragic look at a man who gave the world everything and left little for himself. As a gay man in a time where it was illegal to be gay, Epstein lived a life of secrecy and shame. Now, over 40 years after his death, and after 20 years of research, his story can finally be told – in gorgeously illustrated realism and awe-inspiring dream sequences.
The Fifth Beatle hits stores this week, and to celebrate the occasion – CoS Art Director and Nerdy Show host, Cap Blackard spoke with the book’s author, Vivek Tiwary, about his long and winding road of research, challenges of bringing Epstein’s story to life, and the forthcoming film adaptation – the first film to have authorized use of The Beatles’ song catalog.
Check out an eight-page preview of the book below and order it here.
Before getting into the thick of it, I wanted to congratulate you on a fantastic book. I didn’t know what to expect. Obviously the art was gorgeous; that led me to the project in addition to my semi-fanaticism over The Beatles, but it’s a very emotional and compelling read. And it’s a corner of The Beatles history that I had been wanting to see, so – job well done, sir.
Thank you so much! It is a real labor of love for me so it really means the world to hear that the story is affecting people. That’s what brought me to it. It’s a story that really affected me, and if I can move and inspire other people by writing it then I have done my job. That really means the world to me.
There is a lot to work with and a lot to contend with when you’re up against mythology as vast and celebrated as The Beatles’. But in telling Brian Epstein’s story, you’re shedding light on a hugely important aspect of the mythos that is relatively unknown. I imagine the pressure is kind of a burden.
The story is really one that I am so passionate about that it never occurred to me that there was a burden here. It was really important for me to get it right so I spent years researching it and talking to people who knew him and being very meticulous in accuracy. There are certain things that I took liberties with in terms of doing things that worked with the story, but anytime I was diverting from actual fact I knew that I was doing it and I had a reason for doing it. I felt a great responsibility that if I was going to tell this story to make sure I was going to tell it right and correctly, but it never felt like that was stressful or problematic. It really was a joy.
Well that’s ideal then, because all eyes are going to be on you shortly. It’s kind of the last puzzle piece of The Beatles’ chronology falling into place. This comic represents 20 years of devotion, research, fandom, and tenacity by you to learn more about one of your greatest idols. For most of us as fans and admirers of pop culture, we just love from afar, but you got hands on. What was that first step that led you down the rabbit hole?
I was in business school, 21 years ago, so literally more than half my life ago, and I was dreaming about doing a lot of the things I’m doing now. Working as an entrepreneur in the entertainment space and being a little bit academic. Life-long Beatles fan. Huge music fan -The Beatles and their management team were the team that wrote and rewrote the rules of the pop music business. So I decided to study the life of Brian Epstein and I was stunned that there was no easy research materials readily available.
Now, keep in mind this was 21 years ago so there was no Wikipedia. There was no YouTube. There were none of these sort of online resources there are right now. I was amazed. You can find a book about John Lennon’s astrologist and you can’t find a book about the guy that discovered the band and helped them to become the massive successes they became. It’s really mind-boggling.
There are three books about Brian that are worth reading and now they’re all out of print. There’s a book called The Man Who Made the Beatles by Ray Coleman – it’s a bit of a doorstop, not for somebody who is just casually interested in the story. It’s for someone who wants an intense, textbook-like exposure to Brian Epstein, but it’s a great book. At the time I went to The Strand bookstore in Downtown NY, did a rare book search, and the book was found three months later. It really was like uncovering a mystery. [One of the other ones] is Brian’s “autobiography,” A Cellar Full of Noise. The problem with that is that it was written in the early to mid-’60s so it doesn’t even cover the more interesting parts of the band’s career and certainly not Brian’s personal psyche. One of the most important things about his personal life was the fact that he was gay at a point when it was literally against the law to be gay. If it had come out that he was a homosexual, he would have been thrown in jail. So, needless to say he doesn’t write about that in his book.
Through those two books, I got a list of folks who knew Brian. I began to understand who some of the major players were in his life. Some of them were no longer with us, like Alistair Taylor [Brian’s personal assistant at NEMS]. I was incredibly fortunate to have spent a lot of time with Nat Weiss and Sid Bernstein. Nat Weiss was Brian’s best friend and the Beatles’ attorney. Sid was the legendary concert promoter who brought the Beatles to the U.S. and knew Brian very well. Both Nat and Sid very sadly have passed away in recent months. They were both New Yorkers and I spent a lot of time with them learning about Brian. The other person I’ll just name check is Joanne Newfield, now Joanne Peterson. She was Brian’s personal assistant in the 1960s. She was really his right hand woman, if you will. Literally the person who was there when they knocked down the bedroom door and found out he had passed away in his sleep. She was there by his side throughout. She lives in Australia now and has been a tremendous amount of support to me, a source of insight, and a lovely human being. And that was the beginning of the rabbit hole. It started with a couple of books I had a hard time tracking down and then tracked down a few people who knew Brian.
Since it began with you hunting to find an answer in general, it makes sense that you just kept hunting until you published your own book.
Yeah, you unravel this research, and wonder, why is this so hard to find out? And the other thing is there are conflicting memories. Memories are a weird thing. I wouldn’t say that people are lying, but as time passes, your mind plays tricks on you and you remember things the way you want to remember them or the way you think they were. I sat down with people who said “Brian would never do this” and other people who said “I was there when Brian did that thing” and at the end of the day you just have to compile as much information about this guy as possible. Then you have my take: this is what I think Brian was all about. It really is a tremendous labor of love.
The book weaves in and out of things that are known moments of Beatles history, lesser-known and unknown parts of their history, and dream sequences. You’ve come up with a narrative that can both info-dump in some ways but also move the emotional momentum of the story forward, which struck me as something that must have been somewhat difficult to figure out. You’ve got so much research on your hands and you’re trying to distill a person into a few pages.
Yeah, there is no question that that was a very difficult process. The sequence that Kyle Baker draws so brilliantly, paying homage to the old Beatles cartoons of the 1960s – The Philippines sequence. The benefit of telling it in that crazy surreal cartoon style was that I was able to tell this very big story in just seven pages and I think that that period in Brian’s life and in the Beatles’ career things got cartoony. That’s the poetry behind it. Everything went a little crazy. They get chased out of the country, and it was around the same time John delivered his “more popular than Jesus” quote. As soon as they got out of the Philippines, they found out that lots of places in America were burning Beatles’ records. Working with Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker was a gift. I was very fortunate to have collaborators like that who were up for that challenge and had great ideas of their own to bring.
Andrew Robinson commands the page. Whether in dream sequences or the scenes that call for realism – it all has so much dynamism, clearly so much research put into the backgrounds and clothing.
We did spend a lot of time doing photo references. Andrew was very concerned, as was I, about making sure we nailed the architecture, the period clothing, all of that. And of course the iconic faces of some of these very well known individuals, and not just The Beatles. So I spent hours researching, getting my hands on photographs, and stuff that I would send Andrew. He would request things of me. He’d say “Can you give me some ideas on what kind of cars they were driving?” And I would go ahead and send him materials to supplement his own research. One of the double page spreads that I know was very difficult for Andrew was the party sequence at Brian’s house towards the end. If you look around in the crowd, there is barely a face there that isn’t actually someone. A couple members of The Who are there, Marianne Faithful is there, Linda Eastman is there. It’s a scene with a lot of famous faces, even if we don’t call them out, we’re hoping that people who read carefully will be able to nail some of these people. And obviously the wardrobe is very particular in that sequence.
There are some really powerful moments during the story that take place specifically as nods to the reader’s modern perceptions of the Beatles’ story. Like, Brian becoming Julian Lennon’s godfather, ominously hinting to Julian’s tragic life, and the appearance of Yoko for a single frame. Also, Brian’s really powerful goodbye conversation with Paul. How did you weigh when it was right to turn the lens around on the story?
Yeah, that was really a by-the-throat kind of thing as a writer. It’s something that I wanted to do a number of times and I didn’t do it so mathematically, looking for the page counts, but I tried to space them out a little bit, so that every so often there would be one of those nods to the reader. But it was really just where I felt it would be most effective.
The Yoko moment is kind of a joke and it is sort of a throw away moment. It’s already in a joke sequence, you may remember, “number 9, number 9,” [when “Please Please Me” enters the charts at number 9 ]. We were already in the territory of surreal jokiness so I thought that was a great place to throw something in. And the ending sequence was really important. I wanted the piece to end with Brian’s passing. I didn’t want to do a whole sequence of what happened afterward. So between that goodbye sequence that you were referring to with Paul, and a tiny postscript at the end of the book, I hope to get across a reminder to the reader of what happened after Brian’s legacy played itself out, without actually showing those things. The most important part was finding the right moments where they emotionally made the most sense.
The Yoko sequence in particular, I wanted to ask you about because – it was funny, with everybody shouting “number 9” and then: boom! Scary demonic Yoko. That moment sent an icy chill down my spine. That struck me as profoundly ominous, but her plot thread isn’t featured anywhere in the story, so it feels in a way like a loose thread.
You know, Yoko really does show up right after Brian passes away in the chronology of the Beatles’ and John Lennon. There really is almost a line in the sand. Brian dies and Yoko is there. John Lennon, said once, “there were only two people in my life that I listened to and that was Brian and Yoko.” He said, “nobody else could tell me what to do but when they said do something I did it.” And in a lot of ways maybe you could argue that Yoko kind of filled that role for John after Brian died.
Whatever the case, her story really doesn’t overlap with Brian’s. The only other mention for people who really know their Beatles’ history is in that sequence where Paul says, “John would’ve come but he’s been busy with Cynthia and other things,” and actually that’s kind of at the moment where John’s relationship with Cynthia is disintegrating and he’s spending a lot of time with Yoko – the final straw when Cynthia walks in on Yoko in her bed is about to happen. So for those of who know that, that comment is kind of like, “he’s busy with his disintegrating relationship with Cynthia.”
With a lot of these threads I asked, “Is this thread integral to the Brian Epstein story, or is it integral to the Beatles’ story?”
You honor Brian as a person, his flaws, his successes – everything is out there. The book strikes me as being as truthful as it possibly can be to a man who is not here to speak for himself, especially under the circumstances he was hiding a great part of himself.
I describe Brian as my historical mentor and I choose that phrase very carefully. I am not a fan, I think fandom applies a certain degree of unconditional love and I believe in fandom. I am a huge Beatles fan, for example. But with Brian – he is somebody I think of as a mentor. Somebody whose life I look to to learn what to do and what not to do. Every new piece that I uncovered was a lesson for me, and some of those were hard to learn, but they were all lessons and they were all inspiring lessons. Brian didn’t make enough time for the love that was around him. Obviously he had obstacles with him being gay and it being against the law, obstacles I don’t have.
One of the first things I did when I decided to tell this story was I flew to Liverpool to meet with his estate. They were very much on board with me. This is not an officially endorsed by the estate project. They were admirably so keen to let me do what I needed to do. They did not want it to have the appearance of being a white washed tale, so it’s not officially endorsed, but they have been incredibly supportive, and welcoming, and have told their stories, and shared old photographs etc. with me.
Some years ago, there was a bit of a controversy over a tell-all book that Joanne Peterson was said to be working on. You said that you became friends with Joanne, and I assume that a lot of what was going to become her memoir was imparted to you. Is The Fifth Beatle in some way a realization of that book?
You know, I’m not aware that there was controversy over it. I know that she talked about putting her memories into a book that I think she was going to call There’s A Beatle In My Closet. When I did meet Joanne, which is a decade ago, she told me that she was working on a book, but never did the work on her book impact her forthcomingness with anything I had to ask of her. She was always completely willing to tell me anything I wanted to know and offered stories about Brian without my asking,
The controversy specifically was that it was being solicited that the book would reveal which Beatle Brian Epstein had a homosexual relationship with. It was a very tabloid-like headline.
That’s not Joanne’s style at all. I think if she knew something like that she would either not want to talk about it or would talk about it with the utmost discretion. She is not the type of person who thrives from controversy. And without putting words into her mouth, she is definitely not somebody who would give two wits about selling books. If she put her memoir out it would not be to make money, because I don’t think she cares about that. I think it would be more about telling a story before it is lost in time. That sounds like a fabrication of the British press in particular.
Brian’s sexuality does take a very prominent role in the book and it was a matter of shame for him. Was it a challenge to find a right balance for it on the page?
Definitely. It was definitely something that we were very careful about, both in the script and in the artwork. I hope we nailed it. It was an important part of his psyche. It’s not the only part of Brian’s personal life that matters, but it is a big one. It’s something that we wanted to embrace and to spend a lot of time with. Also I didn’t want it to be the Brian Epstein story: the story of a tortured homosexual. I think that would have been the wrong way to tell the story. It was a challenge to walk that balance. I hope we did a good job because we definitely worked hard at it.
Can you share some of the details of the book’s partnership with Freedom to Marry?
Brian said “I think Beatles never ought to be married but one day they will and maybe one day I will too”. He said it as a seemingly throw-away comment during a press interview. Brian picked his words very carefully and for people who knew him it was a powerful thing for him to say because I don’t think he ever thought that would happen. It’s tied to the line where he sits with John after John tells him he got Cynthia pregnant and Brian says, “It’s a lovely, lucky thing to have a child”, but he didn’t think he would ever have a child. I don’t think he could have foreseen a day where gay couples were adopting children. And that’s sad. If that could’ve been, then Brian would have been a much happier person. So that struggle, to me, was a very important part of Brian’s struggle.
Freedom to Marry is an organization that I have a long history with. When my wife and I got married eight years ago, instead of wedding presents we made donations to Freedom to Marry. We gave a toast at our wedding to explain the great work that they were doing. It was hard for us that we were so happy to be together, and celebrated that in terms of getting married – and yet there were a great number of our friends who were guests at our wedding who, because of their sexuality, were being told they couldn’t get married. My wife and I really struggled about that. I feel that the partnership helps honor Brian’s legacy. It’s esoteric, but I think it is what he would have wanted.
As I thought about telling his story, the very very first thing I did, and this might make me sound crazy – but I flew to Liverpool, and I found his grave site and I sat on his grave and asked his permission. And the next thing I did was I met with the estate, his relatives. Because if I was going to do this, it would have been important for Brian to know that I wasn’t causing his family any distress. And if I was going to spend a lot of time talking about his homosexuality, Brian would have wanted me to do some good with that. The way I decided to do some good was to attach the story with Freedom to Marry and hopefully people who are moved by this book will click on the link, make a donation, get involved, tell their friends, do something – do some good.
I loved seeing your rendition of The Beatles on the page. It felt so authentic to the way they personified themselves in Help! for example – as high water mark of The Beatles being The Beatles for everybody to see. It was really refreshing. I remember back when there was talk of Robert Zemeckis remaking Yellow Submarine, and I thought, “I don’t want that. No one wants that.” But seeing the Beatles doing new stuff as The Beatles, I was like “Man, I would totally watch more Beatles movies – new ones, not remakes. That would be great!” I loved getting more new Beatles via there scenes in this book.
That is an incredibly high compliment. Thank you. I was keenly aware of the responsibility I had in those sequences. I’ve got to get this right, because I’m a huge Beatles fan and I would be annoyed if I didn’t get it right.
The film is a really exciting prospect, especially since you’ve secured the rights to using Beatles music. You’ve said that you didn’t make a graphic novel solely for the purpose of turning into a film. Both versions would stand on their own. How do you anticipate the film will express itself differently?
We’re out to directors right now and the types of directors we are talking to are top guys and gals as they say – not the type of directors who are hired guns. I’m the producer and the screenwriter so I want a director who will share my vision for the project, but they are folks who are creative and will put their own spin on things. Obviously the book is done and I think that it is very cinematic, so the film is technically an adaptation of the graphic novel, but there are a great number of sequences that are in the film script that aren’t in the graphic novel and vice versa.
To give you two obvious examples: The film will be full of music. There are a great number of music sequences that just wouldn’t work on the page. One example of the other direction is the hallucinatory sequence where Brian does the satire of Shakespeare’s St. Christian Day speech, the “Lonely Heart’s Club Band of Brothers” moment. It is a sort of collage sequence. When we were discussing it, part of our discussion was as if Salvador Dalí did one of the early Star Wars movie posters. I think Andrew does it beautifully and it works perfectly in the book, but if we tried to do that in film, it could be done, but it would look pretty out there, pretty absurd. I think it is one of those things that works on the page but might not work on the screen. So we wanted to be very cognizant of both of those things and also to enjoy the ability to tell the story in two different ways and include some threads that I didn’t include in the book.
I’ll tell you one right now: Pete Best. He’s not in the book and ultimately I decided I would feel irresponsible to tell the Beatles’ story without the story of Pete Best. But in the Brian Epstein story, I don’t think that’s irresponsible. I think it is an important part of the story, but not important enough to include in 128 pages. But the film will have more music in it, and Pete Best was a part of the music. I thought it would be irresponsible to show the Beatles in an early tavern sequence with Pete and not have him in the rest of the movie. So Pete Best is a character and there are sequences with Pete and how Brian deals with that. I’m hoping the film will have a very new flavor to it. It won’t be a very strict adaptation. The comic is not a storyboard for the film but certainly the graphic novel informed the screenplay more than two separate projects would. They’re not completely separate.
Any good adaptation will have two unique experiences that are both enjoyable, and that sounds like a perfect balance you’ve got going on there.
You know, I tend to be a geek about this kind of stuff, but one of the technical definitions of adaptation is a biological term really, about an organism growing and changing to suit its new medium and I think creative adaptations are the same. It’s not just about taking your graphic novel and putting it on screen. That’s part of it and you want to make sure you pay respect to the source material, but it’s also about adapting it for the advantages and disadvantages of the new medium. It should be different.
This book is your first major work as an author. Do you have any other comic projects in mind?
I love the medium, I grew up reading comics. I always say I probably learned to read by reading comics. So I do have a couple other original graphic novel ideas kicking around. None of them are developed enough that I would feel comfortable talking about them just yet, but I do have a bunch more ideas. I will say that none of them are rock biographies. I do love the historical space. I love period pieces and that sort of thing. So some of my ideas do have a period element to them, but none of them are rock bios.