Jessica Baldanzi
Jessica Baldanzi
Jessica Baldanzi grew up in New Jersey near New York City, but has been gradually transforming into a Hoosier since 1995, when she began graduate school at IU Bloomington. She’s been teaching English at Goshen College since 2006 and spends her spare time wrangling her two toddler sidekicks, as well as writing, running and of course, reading. (Photo above by Kyle Schlabach.)

Commons Comics: A review of 'The Fifth Beatle'

Blogger Jessica Baldanzi reviews “The Fifth Beatle,” a graphic novel about Brian Epstein – a visionary businessman who managed the band and wore himself out trying to hide that he was gay in a time when he could have been jailed for it.

Posted on Aug. 13, 2014 at 11:58 a.m.

Thanks to Better World Books, 215 S. Main St. in Goshen, for providing me with books to review. You can find all of these books at the store.

Beatles cover scan

The cover of “The Fifth Beatle” by Vivek Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker.

“The Fifth Beatle,” written by Vivek Tiwary and illustrated by Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker, is not a book about The Beatles themselves — plenty of those have been published, and plenty more are surely on the way. Neither is this book about the person usually referred to as the fifth Beatle: Pete Best, the drummer who preceded Ringo Starr. The book’s title instead comes from a 1999 quote by Paul McCartney: “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.” Brian Epstein was the manager — and some would argue the “designer” — of the Beatles, the man who transformed a witty and talented but ragged band into the polished, worldwide zeitgeist we remember it as today.

Jessica Baldanzi is an English professor at Goshen College who reviews comics and graphic novels in her community blog, Commons Comics. 

The main story of this book is how Epstein became a visionary businessman, but wore himself out trying to hide the fact that he was a gay man at a time when he could be jailed for it. He died at 32 of an overdose, probably accidental, of medication and alcohol.

For various reasons, both legal and personal, much of Epstein’s story was left out of early Beatles biographies. Although Tiwary fictionalized much of this version of the story — Epstein’s personal assistant Moxie, for example, while based on a real person, becomes larger than life on the page — he also undertook original research, which makes this a fascinating read for those who know some of the history of the Beatles.

But whether you know the Beatles a lot, a little or not at all, this is an engaging and beautifully illustrated story. The Beatles themselves float in and out of the story in entertaining subplots, and it’s especially fun to see main illustrator Andrew C. Robinson capture them perfectly in single, simple frames.


A page from “The Fifth Beatle” by Vivek Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker.

The individual Beatles aren’t explored in depth, mostly because this is a story about the phenomenon they became, the version of the band polished for global marketability rather than depth of character. Especially striking are the parallels between the creation of the Beatles’ public image and Epstein’s struggles with his own public image — the marketing tricks he applied to himself to mask a major facet of his identity. Through his pills, the beautiful Moxie and other means, Epstein attempts to package himself as effectively as he packages the Beatles. Ultimately, however, can’t keep up appearances any more than the Beatles could without him — they broke up within two years after his death.

Vivek Tiwary is a businessman as much as a writer, so for fans of comics as a genre, his interviews prove disappointing; this book serves as a trailer for a future live-action movie version of the story, and as such was designed to be a brief, digestible and visually compelling a promotional tool. “I wanted it to be something you could read in one sitting, depending on how fast you could read, to be able to finish it in about two hours,” he said in an interview with Bleeding Cool. (Read the rest of the interview here.)

Please don’t read this book in two hours — or if you do, please go back and read it again more carefully, because there’s so much to miss. One of the best examples is the lush sequence when Epstein first sees the Beatles, of which this page is only an excerpt:

Bull fight

A page from “The Fifth Beatle” by Vivek Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker.

Robinson’s use of color also expertly advances the story: The moment when Epstein first sees the Beatles, much like the moment when Dorothy wakes up in Oz, opens the whole story into Technicolor. Robinson continues to orchestrate color like a musical score, emotions and themes sweeping back and forth among dominant browns, grays, blues, reds and finally white.

Another section worth slowing down for is the lead-up to the Beatles’ 1964 “invasion” of the United States, only a few months after President Kennedy was shot. Here Tiwary’s narrative and Robinson’s illustrations juxtapose the innocence of the Beatles’ public image in these early years with the start of this dark chapter of U.S. history.


A page from “The Fifth Beatle” by Vivek Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker.

Tiwary is cagey about whether or not Epstein really had to negotiate with TV host Ed Sullivan’s dummy, but this scene effectively exposes the muddy undercurrents roiling beneath the Fab Four’s squeaky clean exterior.

In the book’s afterword, as well as recent interviews, Tiwary repeatedly calls Epstein’s story “inspiring;” in an interview with Bleeding Cool, he went as far as to say Epstein “realized some beautiful dreams to the benefit of all mankind.” A bit much, yes, especially for a project so expertly crafted to maximize profits. Yet the book itself proves much more nuanced and complex than Tiwary’s interviews alone might suggest. As with any work of art, it’s precisely that complexity that makes this book not only worth reading, but slowing down for.

See you in two weeks for a review of a very different type of comic. “Sunny,” by Taiyo Matsumoto, is a manga — or Japanese comic — series that has been garnering awards and acclaim and among Western fans of graphic novels.

Sunny one

The cover of "Sunny, Vol. 1" by Taiyo Matsumoto.

Sunny Two

The cover of "Sunny, Vol. 2" by Taiyo Matsumoto.

Would you like to become a community blogger for The Elkhart Truth? Get in touch with community engagement manager Ann Elise Taylor at ataylor@elkharttruth.com


Recommended for You

Back to top ^