Baby’s in Black

If you came to Baby’s in Black, writer-artist Arne Bellstorf’s take on the young Beatles’ bohemian demimonde in early-‘60s Hamburg, expecting a darkly glamorous romantic tragedy amid the gathering clouds of a pop-culture hurricane—well, I can’t say I’d blame you. Starting with the title and the cover itself, featuring the black-clad soft-focus side-eyed angelic figures of John, Paul, erstwhile bassist/wannabe painter Stuart Sutcliffe, and German photographer/stylist/superfriend Astrid Kircherr, the visual tone is set for the entire affair. The art throughout is as warm and sensual and smoky as a cigarette-filled basement beerhall, with Bellstorf’s figurework and portraiture particularly impressive, a cross between Blaise Larmee’s cherubic androgynes and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s sexy-cute cartoon hipsters. (The likenesses for the famous characters, especially John and Paul, are crazy good.) And I’m hard pressed to think of a single image in which the main characters (who also include George Harrison and Kircherr’s friend and future tertiary Beatle-helper Klaus Voorman) aren’t turned in three-quarter profile, giving their every line the feel of a conspiratorial whisper we readers have been privileged to overhear.

But that’s about as much drama as you’re gonna get. Baby’s in Black tells the story of this pivotal stage in the Beatles’ career without storytelling. Bellstorf works tirelessly to sap the mystique out of the Beatles bildungsroman generally, and the oft-told tale of fifth-Beatle Sutcliffe, John’s close friend, ankling the band for an arty life with Astrid specifically. The events are enumerated quietly and chronologically through action and dialogue (lots of simple sentences ending in periods in which characters explain things to one another), until they stop. There are no blow-ups with the rest of the band about the departure, no Byronic tortured-artist moments. Astrid’s mother is supportive to the point of treating Stu like a son after they’ve shacked up. Klaus supports his lovely ex’s decision to date Stu and accepts his missed opportunity to replace him on bass in the Beatles (he’d get his chance later with the Plastic Ono Band) with good grace as well. Aside from the basic components of the look, the art eschews grand romantic gestures as well (aside from one sequence of Stu painting in Astrid’s attic that in retrospect communicates as much about his worsening medical condition as anything else). Overall it’s a good look, though there’s a trade-off involved: The insistent refinement and good taste of it all makes it feel slight where a less decorous, more shoot-for-the-moon take could have hit harder.

Perhaps that’s why the few stylistic flourishes Bellstorf allows himself linger so. When Astrid and Stu have sex, Bellstorf cuts away to a comparatively bright-white forest dreamscape, in which the couple wander (fully clothed) through a mass of entangled trunks and limbs. It’s one of the strangest visual metaphors for sex I’ve ever seen, and its uniqueness made it work all the better somehow, like “Yeah, okay, never thought of it that way before, but sure.” It’s also charmingly demure, which is another strength of the book on a number of levels. Whatever the Beatles became, collectively or individually, here they were just a bunch of friendly kids who enjoyed playing rock and roll music semi-professionally. They enjoyed hanging out together, they were pleased (almost honored) to get gigs playing at bars or recording as an in-studio back-up band for a colleague on the scene, and in particular they were as happy to meet and make friends with interesting, kind, like-minded people their age, like Astrid and Klaus, as everyone else tends to be. Bellstorf shows how it was only context – the seedy bars in bad neighborhoods and stuffed with rough customers that were the only places they could get gigs; an Englishness and a love of American rock music that made them seem enticingly alien; a series of language-barrier-enhanced run-ins with concert-hall managers and immigration-enforcement officials that led to arrests for arson and work-visa violations; much later on, their trajectory toward world domination – that made this quintet of perfectly nice young men seem like the rebel vanguard of an incipient youth revolution. Even their infamous boozing and speeding of the time is pushed off-panel, mentioned in passing by Paul one morning as he bashfully admits they got a bit wild the night before. Since everything that’s gone before has been so stately and reasonable, it’s all the more shocking when Bellstorf reaches the climax of the story, such as it is, and addresses it in lethally abrupt and straightforward fashion. The final panel of the book is its most dramatic, and its best. (That’s a good look, too, and a rare one—cf. Acme Novelty Library #20 or B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground.)

Only as I write this do I think that maybe this is the point, and the message of Baby’s in Black. It’s good to be reasonable, but shocking, sudden, life-changing things happen anyway, for both good and bad. Sometimes they’re both at the same time. Sometimes they’re one thing for you, and something else entirely for the guy on the bass guitar just a few feet away.


4 Responses to Baby’s in Black

  1. Francis Dawson says:

    I quite enjoyed this too. I The one thing I didn’t love about it was the lettering. When it’s hand lettered it looks great but I really don’t like it when a comicky font is used on those big, empty speech bubbles. Is it a translated work that was hand lettered in the original do you know?

  2. Brett Sterling says:

    It’s translated from German, but the original uses the same font with lots of space in the speech bubbles.

  3. Eric Reynolds says:

    Good review, Sean. I’ve been kind of fascinated by this book, as a huge Beatles nerd. I was taken aback by how quiet it was. “Charmingly demure” is a good way to put it. The understatedness of it is very much a part of its effectiveness to my mind, though I wonder if it will fall flat on anyone but the most die-hard Beatles fan. It almost borders a little too much into twee territory, but personally, it worked for me. I enjoyed how much it sapped the mystique and just let the boys be boys, so to speak, as supporting characters stripped of their individual mythologies. The milieu (the nightclubs of early 1960s Hamburg) was more evocative here than any of the individual characters; I thought it was a more effective period piece than any of the films that have attempted to depict the pre-superstar years of the Beatles (Backbeat, Nowhere Boy). And I’m glad you mentioned the likenesses, because they are very, very good despite what an elegantly simple style Bellstorf has. Which is important, because individual characterization isn’t necessary of paramount importance here; this isn’t the story of shy George, cute Paul, thoughtful John, etc. — it’s about a group of like-minded young people who found each other precisely because they weren’t much different from each other. So it helps when the cartooning itself can communicate who is who in a dark sea of smoke and black turtlenecks. This book didn’t knock my socks off but I found it very quietly readable and effective, especially by the time you reach the finale that you are fully aware is coming. Anything less abrupt or more of an attempt to milk for emotion would have sucked.

  4. Agreed about the ending, which cut against the the twee tendencies you describe very effectively. It’s easy to imagine what a florid affair the ending could have been, based solely on the book’s own narrative aesthetic.

    You may be right about it appealing primarily to Beatles superfans, but fortunately for Bellstorf and First Second, there are an awful lot of those around!

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