Vivek Tiwary knows a thing or two about pop culture phenomena. The writer and producer is perhaps best known for his work bringing Broadway productions like “Green Day’s American Idiot,” “The Addams Family” and Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” but for his first comics project, Tiwary is going back to the roots of rock’s craziest success story: the birth of The Beatles.
On November 19, Dark Horse Comics will release “The Fifth Beatle” — a graphic novel biography of legendary Beatles manager Brian Epstein with art by acclaimed comics painter Andrew C. Robinson with a special section by cartoonist Kyle Baker. Epstein is known as the man who discovered and promoted the band from their earliest days in Liverpool on through their conquering of America and the world, but his status as a closeted gay man in the 1960s kept the full details of his life hidden for decades.
CBR News spoke to Tiwary about “The Fifth Beatle,” his personal connections to Epstein’s career and life, the search to find the true story of a misunderstood figure from rock history and the lasting appeal of Beatlemania.
CBR News: Tell me about your own history with the Beatles music. I assume you were the kind of person who was playing the old records through giant headphones when you were six years old.
Vivek Tiwary: Definitely. My parents played The Beatles in our house. The Beatles were the soundtrack of my childhood. I went to business school and was dreaming about doing the things I’m doing now — producing theater, film, television, et cetera — and I tend to be a little academic, so I decided that if I’m going to be in the entertainment industry, I should spend some time studying one of the great visionaries. I thought that The Beatles and Brian broke the rules of the pop music industry, so I should study the life of Brian Epstein. That’s what brought me to his story. I was a young man interested in a business blueprint — how he got the band a record deal when no one else wanted to sign them, how he decided to put them in suits and give them the haircuts, how he convinced Ed Sullivan to book them.
And it’s a wonderful story, which is all in the book, and it’s an untold Beatles story — but it’s really the human side of Brian’s story, which I knew nothing about, that ended up striking a deep chord for me. The short version of it is that he was gay, Jewish and from Liverpool. And in the 1960s, those were three huge obstacles. The Oscar Wilde laws were still in place, so it was literally a felony to be gay. There was quite a lot of anti-Semitism in the UK. And Liverpool, while is it a strategic port town, didn’t really have anything cultural going on then. So for this gay Jewish man from Liverpool to say, “I found this band, and they’re going to be bigger than Elvis” was just absurd. I find Brian Epstein’s story incredibly inspiring. This guy followed his dream and didn’t give up, and he was right.
I’m a first generation American. My parents were from Guyana, South America by way of India, and I also feel — much like I assume Brian did — like an outsider in my chosen field. There are not a lot of people of Indian origin doing what I do. I can really relate to this story, and it’s a real labor of love.
It’s funny how that distinction of “Fifth Beatle” that can be tied to original drummer Pete Best, or to George Martin, who in recent years has done a lot to get credit for his work on the band’s music. But Epstein strikes me as someone in this story with a vital role who had very little personal ego about what he helped them accomplish. Was it harder to learn about him because he was so private?
Absolutely. He was so private about his life and, as I said, was gay at a time when it was against the law. So even those who were close to him, for obvious reasons, didn’t talk about that. For years after he died, they kept that quiet because even when the laws were overturned, it was still socially unacceptable to be gay. I would say in a lot of ways that this is a story that has to be told, and I wish it could have been told four years ago. But really, its time has come. What I mean by that is that the world is a little more tolerant — though we’ve still got work to do — and now so much time has passed that the people who knew Brian are finally coming forward to talk about him. That’s in large part because they’re all older now, and many of them are passing away. They realize that if we don’t talk about it and tell his story, it’s going to get lost. Most of the research I did for this were interviews — talking to the people who really knew him.
Who was your big get on that front?
That’s the thing about Brian’s story. I don’t know that there was one big get. It’s lots of little ones. Joanne Petersen, who was Joanne Newfield back then and was Brian’s assistant in those years, is still alive and living in Australia. She was a hugely eloquent and passionate reference on Brian. Nat Weiss, who was his best friend and business manager and attorney, also had a ton of great stories about Brian. Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed the Rolling Stones, worked for Brian. The story is that Andrew brought Brian the Rolling Stones, but he felt they could be competitive and distracting to the Beatles within the company. So Brian encouraged Andrew to leave his job and manage the Rolling Stones instead. That’s why the Beatles and the Stones never put out an album at the same time or competed with tours, because Andrew and Brian were in close contact with each other. Andrew thinks of Brian as a mentor and wrote a book called “Stone Free” that he dedicated to Brian. He was really warm and welcoming. These were the people that were so useful to talk to.
How did this project come to comics? You’ve worked in a lot of areas in media, but this is a first graphic novel for you, and you’ve got interior art from Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker who are well known and I assume in high demand. For a first time creator, that’s quite a team to put together.
Thank you. When I decided that I wanted to tell the Brian Epstein story, it was about five years ago. I was so passionate about it and had a wealth of knowledge about it, and I felt like it was time for the story to be told. But when I first thought about it, I immediately thought of it in color terms — in a color palette. It starts in Liverpool which is very industrial — very dark and gray and very black and white. And it ends in 1967 London, which is the birth of the psychedelic era and very Technicolor. Thinking in those color terms, it immediately screamed out to me “visual arts!”
I grew up reading comics, and I’ve often said I probably learned how to read with comics. I’m a bit nerdy about this stuff, so I always buy the special edition graphic novels so I can read the script pages in the back to compare the script to the final pages. Even though I hadn’t worked in the field, I was very familiar with the creation of comics. I would also say that Scott McCloud’s books were huge influences in terms of learning how to write for comics. So I decided that comics was the medium because of all those color ideas, and I started writing a script.
I come from a music background. I worked for Mercury Records and Sony before I worked for myself, and even though I worked at big labels, my background was always D.I.Y. I’d always tell bands, “Don’t wait for a label to sign you. Put out your own records and demos. Get your own fans and tour. When the excitement comes, they’ll come to you.” In my theater life, where I produced “Green Day’s American Idiot” and “The Addams Family,” that’s always how you do it. You raise some money and put a show on. So that’s what I’m used to, and I never thought of this in terms of a publisher. I just felt like I should get together a team, and we could do it on our own. I had a network of investors, so I raised some money.
I’m on the Board of Directors for Valiant Entertainment — I’m a Valiant fan, so I invested in the company — and through Jason Kothari, one of the founders of the new Valiant, I was introduced to Mark Irwin, who is Andrew Robinson’s agent. I asked Mark to help me find an artist, and he immediately thought of Andrew. I was already familiar with Andrew’s work, and it’s gorgeous. It speaks for itself. We met, and — I don’t want to put words in Andrew’s mouth, but I think he was very excited to work on this. He’s never done a full book like this, so it was a new opportunity for him, and it wasn’t superhero work — not that there’s anything wrong with superheroes, but I don’t think Andrew gets called on for a lot of work that isn’t superheroes. He’s also a huge Beatles fan, so he loved the project and my script. We hit it off. Having not worked in comics before, I wanted someone I could really collaborate with and who would take ideas from me, and Andrew and I quickly established that relationship.
Most of the book is all Andrew’s art. It’s fully painted on canvas, and it’s gorgeous stuff. That was the style I was looking for. But there’s also a seven-page segment near the end of the book which chronicles the band’s time in the Philippines where they inadvertently snub Imelda Marcos and she literally has the Filipino Army chase the band out of the country. They have to hop on a plane and are running down the tarmac. It was a crazy story! This was also during the time when the press discovered John Lennon’s quote about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus.” So in America, they started burning Beatles records. In my mind as a writer, that felt like a time in the band’s life that was very cartoony, so why not do a cartoon? We did it as a section in honor of the old Beatles cartoons, and Kyle Baker does this fantastic seven-page sequence that tips its hat to those old cartoons. Kyle grew up with those cartoons, and he was a big Beatles fan, so he was happy to do it. Kyle lives in New York, and I grew up in New York, so we knew each other from the scene. I just approached him about doing this, and he was beyond excited.
So that’s how this all came together. We were doing it on our own. The idea was to finish it and then take it to a publisher. It never occurred to me to go look for a publisher to put it together when I could do it all myself. Andrew and Kyle are really well known artists, and it’s a Beatles story, so anything Beatles gets attention. So it was wonderful that the company’s started calling me. It was finally at Book Expo about three years ago when I met Michael Martin, who is the Director of Sales at Dark Horse. I explained to him what I was doing, and I wasn’t pitching him at all. He actually said, “Are you looking for a publisher?” and I said, “No!” [Laughs] But he said, “My Publisher, Mike Richardson, is a huge Beatles fan, so I’d love to talk to him about it.” I said sure, and Mike really took to it. He flew out to New York to meet with me, and everyone at Dark Horse was so incredibly passionate. It was clear that this was a great home. Andrew and I were about 20 pages in at that point, and we suddenly had a book deal. It was great.
Obviously, this is going to be of interest to a lot of Beatles fans and comic fans alike. When they put down the book, what do you think is going to be the biggest takeaway on Brian’s life?
Brian is a really misunderstood figure. A lot of people know nothing about him, and if they do know anything about him, they think he was the Jewish manager of The Beatles who was a tortured homosexual who got lucky in signing them and maybe signed some bad merchandising deals and maybe committed suicide. If you know anything about him, it’s probably stuff like that, which gets him very wrong. This book will dispel all those myths. He was definitely sad at the end of his life. Here’s a guy who worked tirelessly to spread the Beatles message of love to the entire world, and yet he died at the age of 32, lonely and never having had a boyfriend. But he didn’t live his life in this tortured state the way many people think. There was a lot of lightness and magic in Brian’s life, which I think we’ve captured in the book. A lot of humor and whimsey. He didn’t get lucky in signing the band. Nobody wanted to sign them! They were desperate for help, and, if anything, they were lucky to have found him — a guy who so believed in them so passionately. And in terms of the merchandising deals, there’s no question if you read those in light of other deals that came in their wake, he signed a terrible deal. However, it was the first of its kind. To put it in perspective, if bands made t-shirts — and that’s a big if back then — they made them for promotional reasons. Nobody could have imagined that you could make money off of merchandise. It’s true that he gave a way a lot in terms of royalties, but nobody knew what that could be worth, then.
I firmly believe that this book is going to dispel a lot of the myths about Brian, tell a side of the Beatles story that nobody knows, but more than all that, it’s an inspirational human story. It’s an underdog story. It’s the story of the least likely guy to succeed making it all the way. We’re adapting this into a film, and when I talk about that project, I say that it’s a music biopic, but it’s less “Ray” or “Walk The Line” and more “Billy Elliot” or “Rocky.” And much like those movies, in that you don’t need to be a fan of ballet or boxing to enjoy those stories, you don’t need to be a Beatles fan to be inspired by the Brian Epstein story. It’s an uplifting story for anyone who ever believed in a dream or dared to dream. That’s all of us.
“The Fifth Beatle” arrives in November from Dark Horse.