Without Brian Epstein’s managerial leadership, it’s likely that The Beatles would have never risen to the band’s legendary status as musicians. Epstein saw the promise of four Liverpool boys playing rock shows in the dingy Cavern Club and turned them into international superstars, a journey detailed in The Fifth Beatle (Dark Horse), the new graphic novel by writer Vivek J. Tiwary and comic-book masters Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker. A theater producer trying his hand at his first book, Tiwary tells a story about one man’s infinite devotion to his clients, a devotion that couldn’t fill the hole in Epstein’s spirit. A gay man who turned to drugs to curb his sexual desires and calm his nerves, Epstein escaped his personal troubles through his work, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to save him from an accidental bromoureide overdose that took his life at the young age of 32.
The script for The Fifth Beatle suffers from a major problem that plagues many autobiographical stage plays—fitting, considering Tiwary’s theater background—rushing through significant moments to provide a comprehensive exploration of Epstein’s history that is more expository than emotional. There are bigger plans for this story, which is currently in development to become a feature film, but Tiwary doesn’t have the limitations of a performed piece when working in the comic book medium. With the graphic novel coming in at a slim 130 pages, there’s plenty of room for the writer to expand on the events that are hastily depicted here.
The blunt, matter-of-fact dialogue prevents the characters from seeming like real people, and Tiwary often steers toward caricature instead of more nuanced character development. (This is most evident during a conversation between Epstein and Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, depicted as a gluttonous demon with flaming red eyes and sits at a chair adorned with horns.) Britain’s strict laws against homosexuality forced Epstein to hide his inner feelings from others, but they shouldn’t be hidden from readers, who need a stronger understanding of his personal turmoil in order to comprehend why he turned to unhealthy relationships and drugs as a solution to his suffering.
While the writing leaves much to be desired, that’s not the case with the artwork. Robinson is a creator who doesn’t do much interior work nowadays, and his fully painted interiors are a wonder to behold. His interpretations of the real-life figures are spot-on, and a slightly cartoonish quality heightens their expressions. He does remarkable work evoking the story’s shifts in tone, and his impeccable design work captures the immense cultural changes that occurred over the course of the ’60s. Kyle Baker’s talents are used for a chaotic sequence showing The Beatles’ infamous 1966 trip to the Philippines drawn in the style of The Beatles animated TV series, and while it’s an energetic example of Baker’s cartooning skill, it has the same rushed pace as the rest of the book. The high quality of the art makes The Fifth Beatle a valuable book for Fab Four superfans, but the script prevents it from achieving must-read status. [OS]
Eight years ago, famed mini-comics creator John Porcellino published Perfect Example, a bittersweet Bildungsroman named after a song from Hüsker Dü’s 1985 album New Day Rising. Now Charles Forsman has done the same with Celebrated Summer (Fantagraphics). In fact, those two songs, “Perfect Example” and “Celebrated Summer,” appear next to each other on the album—and it’s no stretch to assume Forsman is a Porcellino fan, to the point where the influence of the latter’s long-running King-Cat Comics And Stories is all over Celebrated Summer. But Forsman is no Porcellino clone. As shown in his masterful Fantagraphics debut from earlier this year, The End Of The Fucking World, Forsman is one of the strongest and most vital young cartoonists currently putting pen to paper—not to mention one of the most fully, uniquely realized.
Celebrated Summer only reinforces that. The opening splash alone tells an entire book’s worth of story: In a messy bedroom littered with leaves, carpet stains, an empty pizza box, an acoustic guitar, and an unmade mattress with no frame, two teenagers—one skinny, one fat—hover over a blotter of acid. It’s as if they’re praying to it, as if the small sheet of paper has as much of a power to transport them from their boring surroundings as the page of a comic book does. But this is not meta, nor is it a tale of escapism. Mike and Wolf drop that acid, and they go on a hike through the woods.
Framed in that most mundane of suburban odysseys, Celebrated Summer unfolds in a shaggy, easygoing, episodic manner. It’s far from the taut, fraught-with-violence and moral claustrophobia of The End Of The Fucking World. Instead, the desires and anxieties of the misfit 18-year-old—responsibility, sexuality, identity, eternity, and waiting for the drugs to kick in—become amplified. Tony details are lingered on quietly, as Mike and Wolf wait for the world to erupt in a phantasmagoria of wonder and splendor; it’s an aching metaphor for how adolescents, even the most troubled ones, cast hopeful glances at the future, all the while knowing in their bones that it’s a pipe dream.
Owing far more to Chester Brown’s exquisite linework and Charles M. Schulz’s deceptive lushness than to Porcellino’s piercing iconography, Forsman’s efforts on Celebrated Summer nonetheless radiate a singular soulfulness. By the time Mike and Wolf’s quest takes them to a nearby city—which begins to warp and melt in the lysergic sun—it becomes clear that they’re not going anywhere, nor will they ever. They live in their own heads, as do we all, and no amount of running anywhere can change that. “You feeling it?” Wolf asks Mike halfway through the book, as a tiny flower blooms and grows impossibly huge right before his eyes. The answer, all-around, is yes. [JH]
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to lead the first American expedition across the western territory of the United States, but what if there was more to their story than what’s been published in history books? Manifest Destiny #1 (Image) is a stunningly beautiful piece of historical fiction that instills a heavy dose of fantasy horror into Lewis and Clark’s journey, putting the two men and their crew in the middle of a strange, otherworldly landscape populated by creatures that aren’t quite human or animal. Writer Chris Dingess builds a tense, suspenseful tale that balances the awe-inspiring quality of Lewis and Clark’s discoveries with the sense of foreboding that comes from venturing into unknown territory, filled with a cast of characters with well-defined personalities and motivations. There’s the terror of mystical elements like a skull-shaped flower or a half-man, half-buffalo warrior, but there’s also the terror of what lies within each man when faced with increasingly desperate circumstances.
Matthew Roberts has an intricately detailed, smoothly animated art style reminiscent of The Walking Dead co-creator Tony Moore, balancing breathtaking spectacle with a keen eye for character expression. The amount of research is staggering, from the wildlife and foliage to the clothing, weaponry, and ship design, immersing the reader in the time period. There are plenty of splash pages in this first issue, but none of them feel like gratuitous padding, instead they serve to capture the majesty of the expansive, unexplored territory and the startling impact of an attack from the aforementioned buffalo-man. Owen Gieni’s colors provide marvelous depth to Roberts’ linework, with splashes of red and orange cutting into the natural blues, greens, and browns to emphasize dramatic moments in the midst of the serene landscape. Manifest Destiny is an incredible debut that pulls readers in with captivating writing and artwork, taking readers on an unforgettable journey that shows immense promise for future issues. [OS]
DC received a lot of flak regarding its talent search contest for Harley Quinn #0 (DC), which asked artists to draw a script page that included the titular supervillain committing suicide in various ways, including naked in a bathtub surrounded by electrical appliances. That page makes its way into this introductory issue without the bathtub panel (featuring slick, Jim Lee-esque artwork by newcomer Jeremy Roberts), and the publisher makes up for the controversy by turning out a product that showcases a huge array of artistic talent. Featuring 17 different artists—ranging from Harley Quinn creator Bruce Timm and comic-book visionaries like Walt Simonson and Sam Kieth to hip younger creators like Becky Cloonan and Tradd Moore—this first chapter of Harley’s new ongoing series has the main character chatting with husband-and-wife writing duo Amanda Conner (who also contributes a few pages of art) and Jimmy Palmiotti to pick the right visual style for the title’s future.
It’s an appropriately irreverent take on one of DC’s most fun-loving characters, who has been forced into serious storylines and a more provocative costume since the New 52 relaunch. Unfortunately, it also showcases how visually bland most of DC’s output has become over the past two years, especially when compared to highly stylized artists like Darwyn Cooke, Dan Panosian, and Art Baltazar. (The issue also features one of the most phoned-in Jim Lee pages ever: a reprint of a scene from his “Hush” storyline with Harley’s costumed digitally changed to reflect her New 52 appearance.) Harley and the writers ultimately settle on Chad Hardin as the ongoing artist, and his page-and-a-half inspires a lot of confidence for the future of the series, exhibiting a fine mix of Conner’s more animated style with the more detailed rendering of DC’s current house style. The final line of the book has Harley proclaiming, “Oh, this is gonna be fun!” and this first issue suggests that she’s not wrong. [OS]
Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten received heaps of critical acclaim for their post apocalyptic Oni horror series Wasteland, and Umbral #1 (Image) has them bringing that same chilling atmosphere to the world of high fantasy. Set in the medieval kingdom of Strakan, this first issue throws readers head-first into the hellish day of a girl thief named Rascal, whose attempt to steal a magical object with the help of young Prince Arthir quickly becomes a blood-soaked nightmare populated by monsters made of shadows and rows of sharp teeth. This issue moves at a breakneck speed that reflects Rascal’s disorientation as she finds herself in way over her head, but Johnston provides just enough exposition to familiarize the audience with this world before turning everything upside down. Mitten’s art style inhabits a middle ground between the realistic rendering of Michael Lark and the sketchy, expressionistic linework of Bill Sienkiewicz, creating an intensely detailed world that exhibits an especially phantasmagoric quality. That feeling is intensified by John Rauch’s color palette, drenching pages in intense pinks and purples that heighten the ethereal ambiance of Rascal’s encounters with the shadowy Umbral. As frightening as it is gorgeous, this explosive opening chapter showcases Johnston and Mitten’s established creative synergy, making Strakan a place worth many return visits… [OS]
The breakout series of digital publisher Monkeybrain Comics (and winner of the 2013 Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic), Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette (Dark Horse) finally makes its way to print, and this sleek hardcover package is well worth the wait. Following a young dancer/thief and her gang of accomplices on the streets of France, the all-ages series is one of the most purely fun comics produced in recent memory, featuring dazzling ink wash artwork by Coover. Having the first five delightful issues in one place is good enough reason to buy this collection, but the staggering number of extras makes this an essential book for comic-book lovers. Beyond the main attraction, there are eight short “Urchin Stories” written by Tobin and spotlighting supporting cast members with art by creators like Steve Lieber, Tina Kim, Jonathan Case, and Erika Moen, an 11-page prose story starring Bandette’s love interest Daniel, a list of Bandette’s stolen loot, and an in-depth look at the writing and artistic process of the title. For those that have been following Bandette’s story digitally, this collection gives plenty of reasons to double-dip, and it’s a perfect holiday gift, especially for younger readers seeking a confident female hero… [OS]
Another digital comic featuring a fun, zingy female protagonist—although one that hasn’t made it to print—is Violenzia (Fantagraphics). The sizeable one-shot is the latest from Richard Sala, who brings his cheerfully eerie sensibility and angular, subtly retro style to the story of its title character—a two-fisted, pistol-wielding vigilante who fights human-worshipping cults, evil hillbillies, and a Rasputin-like villain with a secret. It’s all played as pulpy adventure, only laced with Sala’s deliciously off-kilter view of genre comics. But there’s not a trace of mocking, sophomoric spoof to it. No one does weird as accessibly as Sala—and with Violenzia, he creates a magnetic, yet hilariously silent antihero who only speaks with her trigger finger… [JH]
Charles Forsman’s Celebrated Summer isn’t the only coming-of-age graphic novel Fantagraphics has put out recently. There’s also Jesse Reklaw’s vastly different, and less successful, Couch Tag. Comprising five autobiographical short stories, the book trucks through some extremely shopworn childhood-through-post-adolescent-angst territory, from pets to toys to making comics. It’s all immaculately, charismatically drawn and delivered, but Reklaw relies too much on huge blocks of expositional text that render most panels little more than illustrative afterthoughts. And even those blocks of text are dry and lacking in nuance, as are Reklaw’s stories themselves. There’s nothing glaringly terrible about Couch Tag, other than that it embodies middle-of-the-road, color-by-numbers autobio-comics… [JH]