Brian Epstein's Life Comes Out of the Closet in The Fifth Beatle

Throughout the 1960s, the Beatles dominated the music entertainment scene. However, their early success is in large part due to the imagination of Brian Epstein. Without Epstein, John, Paul, George and Ringo would probably never have reached the Ed Sullivan Show, much less the London pop scene. Sadly, Epstein spent his life as a closeted gay man and while he was able to help the Beatles acheive the stardom they deserved, his personal life was never completely fulfilled.

Luckily, The Fifth Beatle, a graphic novel written by Vivek Tiwary with art by Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker, helps illustrate Epstein's role in pop culture history. I chatted with Vivek during Chicago's C2E2 convention in April, just before the Lambda Literary Awards were announced. Additionally, The Fifth Beatle has also been nominated for two Eisner Awards: Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior Art) and Best Reality-Based Work.

If you're at San Diego Comic-Con this weekend, be sure to visit Vivek at the Dark Horse Comics booth, and check out the winners of the Eisner Awards when they're announced this Friday, July 25!

Patrick: What was it like being nominated for a Lammy?

VT: It was amazing! It was an incredible honor. This is the first year that they’ve had a graphic novel category so it completely blindsided me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be a Lambda Literary finalist. It was incredible. I’m a huge Beatles fan and it’s been very gratifying to get the love of the Beatles fan community. Beatles historians [and] Beatles fans have been embracing this book and that’s wonderful.

But when groups like the LGBT community the Jewish community embrace it, that to me really feels like I’m doing my job right. To me the heart of the story is not what he did with the Beatles. The heart of the story is that he did that when [being] a gay man was considered against the law, that he was Jewish at a time of pervasive Anti-Semitism, that he overcame these personal obstacles. So when those communities recognize that this is their story, or our story I guess because I find it a very human story, that makes me feel like I did my job correctly.

I’m incredibly honored by the Eisner Awards that we were just nominated for, which are the comic industry’s highest awards, but the Lambda Award has a really particular place in my heart. 

PY: You’re involved with other LGBT organizations, like Freedom to Marry, I think? 

VT: We have a partnership, if you will, with Freedom to Marry. It’s an organization that I’ve cared about for a very, very long time. I’ve actually been involved with Freedom to Marry since before I was working on The Fifth Beatle.

When my wife and I got married nine years ago, in lieu of wedding presents we made a big donation to Freedom to Marry and we highlighted them at our wedding. My wife and I are pretty progressive people and we didn’t really think that getting married was, to be honest, such a big deal…We didn’t really think we would care so much. But all of the sudden when we found ourselves engaged we realized we did care and it was really cool. But, it was also really difficult because we had a lot of gay and bisexual friends, and lesbian friends, many of whom had been together longer than us, who were being told that because of their sexuality they were not allowed to get married. That was a very weird moment for us and we all of the sudden really understood what the struggle was about.

And, not to get too carried away but for me the step between being told you can’t get married because of your sexuality, [is] like [being told] a brown guy shouldn’t get married to a white girl. My wife is white and I’m brown obviously, [so] that to me is not that big a leap. It’s the same struggle playing out in different ways, so that fight [for marriage equality] became very personal to me and so [Freedom to Marry is] an organization that I’ve been supportive of for a very long time.

In my mind The Fifth Beatle isn’t an activist book per se but I hope that it’s an inspirational book. I believe again that the step between inspiration and activism is a small one. Activism is sort of like inspiration in motion, really, so I hope that if I’ve done my job with this book that you close it wanting to make a difference. The message of the Brian Epstein story I think is chasing your dreams no matter what obstacles you might face. I hope that people leave this book wanting to make the world a little bit of a better place. At the end of the book we’ve highlighted Freedom to Marry, as one way, one place to put that inspiration. I’ll go so far as to say [The Fifth Beatle does] have a little activist slant.

Freedom to Marry is an organization that Brian probably couldn’t have dreamed of existing in the 1960s. He was worried about staying out of jail much less getting married and potentially having children. It’s an organization that I think would have made an incredible difference in his life. I know it is making an incredible difference in my friends’ lives. I’m very proud to say that over the past nine years many of those friends are married and it’s a fight that we are winning, which is awesome, and so it’s just something that I’m really proud of. I’m really proud of when the book is closed, the first thing you see is information on Freedom to Marry.

We got Howard Cruse, an amazing cartoonist, [creator of] one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, Stuck Rubber Baby, he wrote a little introduction to our Freedom to Marry partnership. I don’t know if you know Howard’s work, but you should check it out. He’s incredible. So it’s just been a great honor. And Alison Bechdel is being honored at the Lambda event that I’m a finalist at. You know to be working with Howard and to be honored in the same breath as Alison it’s just dreamy. It’s a dream come true.

PY: That’s really exciting to hear. You spoke a little bit about Brian Epstein but I was wondering if you could talk about what inspired you to write the book.

VT: I discovered the story 21 years ago when I was in business school and dreaming about being an entrepreneur in the entertainment industry. Being a little academic I thought that I should study the lives of the great entertainment visionaries and that’s what led me to a study of Brian. Being a life-long Beatles fan I knew that they sort of rewrote the rules of the pop music business. I thought that would be a good case study. I wanted to know, how did he get them a record deal when no one wanted to sign them? How did he come up with the suits and the haircuts? How did he convince Ed Sullivan to book the band when a British band never made an impact in the United States? These were the stories I was after, and I got them. They are little known, they are inspiring. They’re fascinating.

But all that being said, what really struck a deep chord was the human side of his story, which I will be very honest, I didn’t care about at first, I wasn’t looking for it. I uncovered it almost by accident. But being gay at a time where it was against the law, being Jewish at a time of pervasive anti-Semitism, and being from Liverpool, as I said, and Liverpool prior to the Beatles had no cultural influence. You know, you’ve got this gay Jewish man running around Liverpool, saying, “I’ve found a local band and they’re going to be bigger than Elvis! They’re going to elevate pop music into an art form!” It was crazy! People said, a) the dream is crazy anyway, and b) people like you don’t do these sorts of things. That is what really struck a deep chord for me.

I always want to be very clear about this: I never want to suggest that the obstacles I faced in my life have been even remotely the same degree of the obstacles Brian faced. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been told that your sexuality is illegal. I don’t want to suggest we’ve had the same struggles.

But nevertheless, Brian was an outsider and a misfit and had dreams that he was told were crazy. That I could relate to. Being a young kid of Indian origin, wanting to put a punk rock album on stage, when I was producing Green Day’s American Idiot, people told me I was crazy. People of my ethnicity, we are steered towards engineering and technology and medicine. People of Indian origin don’t get shepherded toward graphic novels and Broadway producing, film, that sort of thing. That’s what really drew me to the Brian Esptein story. That’s why it was so personal to me and that’s why I’ve been with it for twenty years! That’s why it’s such a labor of love.

PY: In the process of writing the book, obviously music is a huge part of it and what were some of the challenges and benefits that you faced translating that [into a] graphic novel?

VT: Yeah! I love the graphic novel medium because I think it’s very poetic. They say a picture can speak a thousand words. Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker, the art that they did on the book is breathtaking. I was very blessed to work with these amazing artists. I very much believed that if anyone could make those pages sing, it would be Andrew and Kyle. The benefit of doing a graphic novel over a prose biography is that you can tell the poetry.

My main goal was telling about Brian, was telling his human struggles. I was more interested in conveying to the audience what it must have felt like when he first saw the Beatles, when he saw the possibilities that they held for him. What were his struggles like when he was blackmailed by someone who said, I’m going to let out to the world that you’re gay and that could risk throwing you in jail and jeopardizing your clients’ careers? What must that have been like? I believed through art I could tell that much better than I could through a prose biography.

Those were the challenges of the medium but, as much as I think those artists can make those pages sing, that’s very poetic but technically they can’t. Pages don’t break out into song, you know! Nevertheless I will argue that if you want to know what it must have felt like, what it must have sounded like for Brian to have seen the Beatles live at the Cavern, you’ll learn more from looking at those three pages of Andrew’s art than you will from any prose biography or from any film to be quite frank. But it was a challenge, there’s no question.

Andrew, Kyle and I talked extensively about how do we get the music into those pages? Kyle Baker does the Philippines sequence, which is sort of an homage to the old Beatles cartoons of the 1960s, and we scored that sequence. I told him, imagine that sequence set to “Help!” So there were music cues in my script that the artists [had] the unenviable challenge of trying to make our audience hear that music, and it was a challenge.

PY: I was happy every time I would pick up on one of the quotes from one of their songs…

VT: And that we did too. It was a challenge getting lyric clearances, to be able to put those little quotes in there. But I’m glad you picked up on some of them because we did that for people like you.

PY: [laughs.]

VT: I was going to say, we’re also making a film. One of the very exciting pieces of news on the film is that we’ve got music rights. Paul Macartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison have all signed off on it. Paul in particular is a huge fan and we’ve done a deal with Sony ATV, which is a long-winded and technical way of saying we have access to Beatles music. We’ve very excited about [that], because it will allow me to do some things that I just couldn’t do from the graphic novel…There’ll be a lot more music sequences in the film obviously than we can do in the book.

If you’ll let me babble for another minute I will point out a particular page, when Brian Epstein gives a party at his house for Sgt. Pepper’s. He is really on his downward spiral. He’s hooked on drugs and painkillers at this point, and so we did this page which — it’s a very hallucinatory page where he delivers the Sgt. Pepper speech as a riff on Shakespeare’s St. Crispian’s Day speech. Instead of “band of brothers” it’s “Lonely Hearts Club Band of Brothers.” I told Andrew Robinson I wanted to do this page as though it was Salvador Dali drawing an early Star Wars movie poster. I think he kinda nailed it.

But this is something that, could you do this in film? Maybe, but it would be really trippy, far trippier than we imagine our film being. This is an example of something that the graphic novel medium can do in a way that if I told the director, imagine if this was David Lynch meets George Lucas, it’d be pretty bizarre. But, it works here in a way that it couldn’t work on film. There were joys like that. [They] were not easy but made a lot of sense for the graphic novel medium, and then there were challenges like the music sequences.

PY: Cool. Well, speaking of the movie, who is your dream cast for some of the roles?

VT: I hope you won’t be mad when I tell you I can’t talk about casting. We are casting right now. We are out to a number of amazing actors who are interested in Brian. Brian was 32 when he died. So, he is in his late 20s to early 30s for most of the script and I will say that many of the actors we’re talking to are fanboy-friendly and I’ll let you guess from there who they might be. I’m sorry that I can’t let that out.

PY: That’s ok. Do you have an estimated release date?

VT: No, but we’re hoping to shoot in the spring of next year and the actors that we’re talking to are available then so we should be on track for that.

PY: Fantastic. Any other resources you would suggest for people who are interested in learning more about Brian?

VT: Thank you for asking that question. On our Fifth Beatle website we have a page where we point people to various places to buy more reference materials.

There’s an excellent book called The Man Who Made The Beatles by Ray Coleman, which was impossible to find. It’s been out of print for thirty years. When I began this twenty-one years ago you just couldn’t find it. But now with Amazon marketplace and eBooks you can find a used copy pretty easily. It’s a wonderful resource on Brian Epstein.

A few years ago the BBC did a documentary on their arena series on Brian that unfortunately you can’t get in the United States. They did make a book which was a transcription of several of the interviews they did. The book is called In My Life, written by the late Debbie Gellar who is a friend and a huge supporter of The Fifth Beatle and again, there’s some links on TheFifthBeatle.com where you can find that book.

There is a play that is opening in the U.K. soon that’s called Epstein: The Man Who Made the Beatles. It’s not connected to the book that I mentioned, it just has a similar title. It’s a wonderful play that will teach you about Brian’s life.

To find out more information about us, TheFifthBeatle.com has a lot of information. We’re on Twitter at @FifthBeatle, we have a Facebook page.

I will say that to me [the graphic novel and film version of] The Fifth Beatle…I think of it as a mission, if you will, and the mission is to sing the unsung story of Brian Epstein. If I can do that through a graphic novel, that’s a Fifth Beatle thing. If I can do it through a film, that’s a Fifth Beatle thing. If I can do it through this interview, that’s a Fifth Beatle thing. You know, Brian was inducted into the Rock ’N Roll Hall of Fame a few weeks ago, and they called me and asked me to consult to help them with the inductions. To me, that was furthering the mission of The Fifth Beatle.

When I say to follow us and to join us, it’s not just to promote my project, it really is a mission that I have to further his legacy. And whenever we hear of other people doing good work, we promote them. We’re happy to do that. I believe that the more people who care about Brian, the better.

on July 25, 2014