'The Fifth Beatle,' and the power of reality-based comics

My labor-of-love graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story was recently nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, and after coming back down to Earth (I learned what it meant to jump for joy — I was airborne!) I realized that I was equally honored by the nomination itself as I was by being a part of the category. Comics have certainly entertained me over the years — but more than that they have educated and inspired me. Many people have asked why I chose the graphic novel medium to tell the Brian Epstein story, and the heart of my answer is my steadfast belief that comics is simply one of the most powerful mediums for telling reality-based stories. Comics can capture the factual history of a tale alongside its poetic essence in a way prose biographies couldn’t dream of.

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Many folks of Indian origin like myself can claim to have started reading comics when we were children. Indeed, many of us first learned our great Indian epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata through easy-to-digest (and fun), cheap comic book adaptations. These ashcan-like books may have seemed like merely disposable entertainment, but the epics they’re based on are touchstones of the Indian identity. Those comics surreptitiously taught us about who we are, where we come from, and the power of both story and history. It’s perhaps no surprise that my Indian parents loved comics, and some of my earliest memories include browsing the comics racks at Forbidden Planet with them (then going home to listen to their Beatles’ records). And even when my childhood longboxes were full of the funnies, I somehow sensed that comics were more than just “comic” books.

Having researched the Brian Epstein story for 21 years, I certainly could have written a prose biography of the man — how he discovered the Beatles in a basement club in Liverpool and guided them from obscurity to unprecedented international superstardom; and how he simultaneously struggled with the personal obstacles of being homosexual when it was classified as a felony, Jewish during a time of pervasive anti-semitism, and from Liverpool at a time when the town had no cultural influence. There’s ripe enough material for a serious, “traditional” biography to be sure. But I’ll argue that none of the countless Beatles books out there has captured what it felt like to see the band perform for the first time in the way these three pages by Andrew C. Robinson do:

Thanks to the art, you can all but feel Brian’s sense of possibility and hope. That night filled his dead-end, black-and-white Liverpool world with the infinite power of limitless color. The Fifth Beatle moves from 1961 Liverpool to 1967 London — from a working-class black-and-white port town to the Technicolor dream of the psychedelic era and London’s summer of love. Accordingly, our book moves from a few muted colors in Andrew’s introductory pages to the wild and wonderful colors of Kyle Baker’s “Chaos in the Philippines” sequence toward the end. Sequential art (itself a term coined by the great Will Eisner and the namesake of the awards mentioned earlier) hereby allowed me to not just tell the untold story of Brian’s life, but to show its full range and impact — by introducing the full scope of the color spectrum. As a writer, I could think of no better way to portray those turbulent times than showing how they visually were a-changin’.

I recently did a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe in Manhattan, and a young Beatles fan who discovered The Fifth Beatle at a Fest for Beatles Fans came in for a signed copy. The Fifth Beatle was the first comic she’d ever read, and JHU was the first comic shop she’d ever walked into … and she walked out that day not only with my book, but also with a copy of Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler’s inspiring God is Disappointed in You, and a few singles issues of Valiant’s Harbinger.

My reality-based graphic novel may have created a well-rounded comics reader that day! Indeed, it’s my fondest hope that The Fifth Beatle won’t just tell the untold story of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein — but that it’ll get more non-comics readers reading comics, and more non-comics writers embracing the graphic novel as an obvious choice for unwieldy reality-based stories.

It’s been said that the pen is mightier than the sword… And that a picture is worth a thousand words … so what happens when you merge words and pictures together? That’s the true superpower of a medium that’s not just for superheroes.

That’s the power of reality-based graphic novels.

That’s the dominion of comics.

Vivek J. TiwaryNew York 2014

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