Books of The Times: ‘Nowhere Men’ and ‘The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story’

The writer, Eric Stephenson, who is also the publisher of Image Comics and a music aficionado, has said that the Beatles were one of the initial inspirations for the scientists of World Corp. You can see that inspiration in the title, of course, and in flashbacks in which one of the scientists, Emerson Strange, looks like John Lennon. More important, the scientists, like the Beatles, are celebrities with an outsize influence on culture, which allows Mr. Stephenson and the illustrator, Nate Bellegarde, to explore the love-hate relationship we have with our idols in the context of a richly complex, created world.

The first chapter of “Fates Worse Than Death,” which collects the first six issues of the continuing “Nowhere Men” series, is a good indicator of what lies ahead and what will be repeated motifs: flashbacks of the men in more idealistic days; excerpts from scientific journals and magazines that offer insights into their personalities; and present-day intrigues, including several humans dealing with the after-effects of being experimented on. These people gain special abilities, but are unlikely to become typical superheroes. They don’t have model good looks (one is reminiscent of a crimson Komodo dragon), and their powers seems incompatible with fighting crime (another has become an eerie, erosive inkblot).

When a writer-artist team is truly clicking, something magical can happen, and it does here. Mr. Stephenson and Mr. Bellegarde juggle multiple characters and locations — in geography and in time — yet personalities and appearances remain distinct. (Jordie Bellaire is the colorist, and Steven Finch, who goes by the name Fonografiks, is the designer.) And Mr. Bellegarde has some show-stopping images, including double-page spreads of a weird gorilla creature that appear near the beginning and the end of this volume. The creative team has also supplied realistic ephemera — personal letters, magazine covers and interviews, World Corp. logos and advertisements — that enrich the experience and fill-in the back story. “Nowhere Men” has a lot to absorb, and that’s most welcome at a time when some comic books take only minutes to read.

The real Fab Four are supporting characters in “The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story,” which focuses on six tumultuous years, beginning in 1961, when Epstein, the band’s manager, first saw the group perform at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England, and ending in 1967 with his death, caused by a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol.

Written by Vivek J. Tiwary and lavishly illustrated by Andrew C. Robinson with Kyle Baker, “The Fifth Beatle” is maddeningly uneven. It abounds with emotional moments, but they would be more resonant if balanced with additional facts about Epstein’s life. In some ways, this book feels like a teaser for the movie version of “The Fifth Beatle,” which Mr. Tiwary is producing.

The graphic novel presents Epstein as the outsider he was: Jewish and gay, at a time in England when the first wasn’t very popular and engaging in homosexual activity was a criminal act. Mr. Tiwary also paints Brian as too trusting — the story opens with a potential dalliance with a sailor that becomes violent rather than amorous — a personality trait that continually harms him.

Working at his family’s music store, Epstein learns of a popular local band and ventures out to hear it play. Three panels, over three pages, focus on his face as he watches the Beatles perform for the first time. This kind of repetition is used throughout the novel, but not always this successfully.

So much can be garnered from Epstein’s expression as he watches the band: wonderment, attraction, a desire to belong. The crowd at the club fades while his face becomes more real, just shy of photorealist. These panels are some of Mr. Robinson’s strongest in a book filled with vibrant images.

The story exaggerates certain events and people, like the demonic portrayal of Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, who is depicted with red eyes, sharp teeth and pointy ears. But some moments of high absurdity may be true: When Epstein negotiates with Ed Sullivan about the Beatles fateful appearance on his show, Sullivan communicates, in part, through a ventriloquist dummy. (In his afterword, Mr. Tiwary is coy about whether this actually happened.)

What feels more truthful is Epstein’s relationship with a hustler he meets at a gay bar in New York. Mr. Robinson makes great use of color in these scenes: The initial meeting has a crimson hue, which adds to the taste of the forbidden. (“I didn’t know places like this exist!” Epstein says.) Their first sexual encounter, accented with cigarettes, pills and booze, has a yellow tinge, and a walk in the park is radiantly bright, with a blue bird and green trees. In this scene, Epstein is still naïvely buoyant about their relationship, though there are clear signs that it is one sided. By the time the hustler gets around to extortion, his dialogue is presented in black balloons with white type, giving his treatment of Epstein an even more sinister edge.

In the final scenes, Epstein is bedridden and feverish. He receives several visitors, real and imagined, including Paul McCartney, who reminds him of the love that Epstein and the band brought into the world; and Moxie, his loyal assistant who nursed a not-so-secret crush on him.

The two-page coda, on the day of Epstein’s death, Aug. 27, 1967, finds the Beatles with their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and they eulogize their manager in captions. (“Brian Epstein accomplished more by the age of 32 than most people do in an entire lifetime.”) But the more emotional beat comes just before, when Epstein and Moxie discuss plans for a tomorrow that will never come.

Source Article from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/books/nowhere-men-and-the-fifth-beatle-the-brian-epstein-story.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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