“Baby’s in Black” won’t leave readers blue

Robert Starr

There was a time when The Beatles were just a bunch of starry-eyed teens staying up past their bedtime to play a gig for whoever would hire them. And although they eventually became a worldwide sensation, there’s something humbling about “Baby’s in Black,” a new graphic novel by Arne Bellstorf that uses the early years of The Beatles as a backdrop for a sweet true-life love story between bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and his muse Astrid Kirchherr.

Fans of The Beatles are likely already familiar with the facts surrounding the relationship of Sutcliffe and Kirchherr as well as their significance in the band’s early years. Sutcliffe was the original bassist for the band until he left The Beatles to pursue his artistic career. Kirchherr took several early pictures of the band and is also said to have invented their original moptop hairstyle, although she still argues about how much credit she really deserves for that.

What this graphic novel provides, rather than the dry facts, is the raw emotion surrounding both young love and being surrounded by talented musicians who haven’t yet risen from obscurity. The original meeting of Kirchherr and The Beatles wasn’t any sort of professional connection — she just went up and talked to them after a show. Contrast that with images from the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” (filmed only a few years after the events of this book), which parodies the obsession of Beatlemaniacs by showing the Fab Four continually on the run from their fans.

The story here is very simple and never has a strong sense of urgency, but much of what happens has a kind of unforced irony, because we know how everything turns out. Although the boys knew that they were going to be huge (in the same naive way that every teenage band “knows” that they’ll make it big), they got a thrill out of performing at rowdy, live, hole-in-the-wall venues. That same kind of energy that was eventually captured on tape for the Please Please Me album flows through this novel, particularly in the scenes showing the band playing.

Still, The Beatles aren’t the focus of the story, nor are any of the members that actually ended up becoming The Beatles as the rest of the world came to know them. This is really about Kirchherr and Sutcliffe. If anything, the band got in the way of their love rather than the other way around. In many ways, Sutcliffe’s departure from the band was a blessing in disguise. Though they all loved him (especially John), he didn’t have the musical chops to keep up with the rest of the members.

“Baby’s in Black” is a bittersweet love story that would have been effective even if it involved a band that fizzled into obscurity before hitting it big. But, the fact that it’s about The Beatles gives it some additional appeal. The artwork is black and white, evoking the feeling of an old documentary on the subject as well as a sense of nostalgia, adding to the story in a way that’s special to the format. It’s unlikely that either a traditional novel or even filmic adaptation would provide the same feel as what Bellstorf has created here.

There have been many, many books written about The Beatles over the past 50 or so years. The most remarkable thing about “Baby’s in Black” is that, despite this, it still provides a fresh and distinct look at the band that both die-hard and casual fans alike should enjoy.