In the year after the release of Mark Lewisohn’s 1,800 page Proustian Beatles biography “All These Years”, (merely part-one-of-a-trilogy) most Beatles writers have, quite justifiably one suspects, thrown down their pens in despair, turned to drink, or begun to dust off their Rolling Stones records and collect stories on The Beatles’ main rivals.
However, this year, two writers have noticed a chink in Lewisohn’s armoury, viz, he might be a peerless biographer, but he can’t draw for toffee.
The result is two Beatles Graphic Novels (we don’t call them comic books any more). Both are excellent, and say something interesting and new about the Fab Four. And one might just be the best Beatles book since Lewisohn’s, covering similar ground to “All These Years” in just 77 fun packed pages.
“Beatles with an A” tells the story of The Beatles’ early years, and stylistically resembles A-Hard-Days-Night-meets-Asterix. It’s a knockabout, zany romp full of fireworks and humour. It is also historically pretty accurate and full of obscure facts – many apparently checked with Lewisohn himself.
Beatles With An A has been something of a labour of love for its writer and illustrator, Mauri Kunnas who is otherwise best known as Finland’s most successful author of children’s books, with 7 million copies sold.
Said Kunnas a few years ago on the subject of his reading: “Quite a bit of it seems to revolve around books about The Beatles. I guess the Fab Four count as a kind of hobby/obsession: I collect records (vinyl), and tapes with old interviews with the band and their press conferences. I’ve also been planning doing a comic-strip version of the Beatles life-history for at least a dozen years. We’ll see if anything ever comes of it.”
Well, that time has come, and it was worth the wait.
What makes the book so successful is that it gives a terrific insight into the early lives of the Beatles, without ever getting too worthy. Whilst school bullies, early struggles with rickets and illegitimacy might all build a picture of a subject, we’ve all read biographies where we can’t wait for the author to get to the good bits. Kunnas somehow manages to cover the early lives of pre-fame John, Paul and George* in little more than twenty entertaining pages with enormous aplomb, and scarcely leaving anything out. Lewisohn’s book is wonderful, but it took him five hundred pages to get to a similar point, and he didn’t write nearly so many jokes**. It’s true what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words…
Another common issue that Kunnas side-steps neatly is the difficulty in using dialogue in a biography. Comic book dialogue in particular has never had a Tarantinoesque reputation for being snappy and crisp, and in a biography there’s always a danger you put rather clunky fabricated dialogue into the mouths of more erudite people. It doesn’t hurt that The Beatles have a well documented canon of snappy, non fictional dialogue, which Kunnas takes full advantage of, including the moment Paul was late for the boys’ meeting with Epstein due to his having a bath:
George: “He’s in the bath”
Brian: “He’s very late”
George: “Yes, but he’s very clean…”
And there’s the moment The Beatles audition for George Martin at Abbey Road.
George Martin: “Any questions? Anything in particular you don’t like?”
George Harrison: “Well, there’s your tie for a start…”
But Kunnas also avoids making “Beatles with an A” sound like a straight-to-DVD-docu-drama by taking a situation and making his own jokes. There’s an especially tortuous joke involving the origin of McCartney’s song “Mull of Kintyre” which deserves special praise, if that’s the right word, and which I won’t spoil by revealing here.
It took seven years for Lewisohn to complete “All These Years” and at least twelve for Kunnas to write “Beatles with an A”. I certainly hope we don’t have to wait another twelve years for part two of Kunnas’ work.
Whilst Beatles with an A is a veritable romp, in contrast The Fifth Beatle, written by Vivek Tiwary and illustrated by Andrew C. Robinson rather plums the depths of the human soul, and is a graphic novel telling the tale of Brian Epstein.
It focuses on Epstein’s struggle with his homosexuality at a time when “coming out” might mean a jail sentence, and speculates how this contributed to a dependence on prescription drugs. It also acts as a biography of the rise of the Beatles to the “Toppermost of the Poppermost” – a phrase the boys would use ironically whenever the wheels fell off their touring van, or they played to a half-empty hall.
We’ll never know Epstein’s innermost thoughts, save for what he wrote in his book “Cellarful of noise”, so like Kunnas, Tiwary also uses well documented sources for dialogue including the “he’s very clean” joke again, and he cleverly quotes as dialogue the telegrams the Beatles sent to Epstein when news came through that that Parlophone had signed The Beatles (John: “Please wire £10,000 advance royalties”; Paul: “When are we going to be millionaires?”; George: “Please order four new guitars”).
Epstein is a crucial part of the Beatles story – indeed he was the subject of a two-part BBC documentary earlier this year, and Lewisohn said in 2013 that without him, The Beatles would almost certainly have split up.
The Fifth Beatle is an enjoyable graphic novel. It uses some artistic licence, including the use of a fictional character called “Moxie” to add colour to Epstein’s dialogue, whilst staying true(ish) to the story. It has been written with love, and is beautifully illustrated.
* None of whom appear to have had rickets.
** If you haven’t yet read Lewisohn’s book, I strongly recommend you do.