“And though he’ll never come back, she’s dressed in black”
by Arne Bellstorf
“Oh dear, what can I do?
Baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue,
Tell me, oh what can I do?
She thinks of him,
and so she dresses in black,
And though he’ll never come back,
she’s dressed in black.”
The Beatles – Baby’s In Black (1964)
Baby’s In Black tells of the short yet ever so intense saga of the love affair between Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe; the young German photographer and the artistic, but hardly musical “fifth Beatle”. Theirs is a classic tragic love story – short, passionate, life-changing for both and ultimately doomed.
Arne Bellstorf’s graphic biography, written following a series of conversations with Kirchherr, is a beautifully rendered graphic biography that’s both heartfelt and sentimental in it’s telling of two lovers and also manages to capture the excitement of the defining moments in the history of The Beatles.
Kirchherr’s tale begins in October 1960 when she agrees to visit one of Hamburg’s less salubrious venues along Berlin’s Reeperbahn to see this unknown little English rock and roll band called The Beatles that her friend/lover/boyfriend Klaus is raving over.
And it ends, less than two years later, April 1962, with Sutcliffe’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage aged just 21.
Baby’s In Black is a gentle piece, as a recollected, nostalgic love story should be with as much distance from the tragedy of Sutcliffe’s death as Kirchherr has now. But it does cover both the intensity of the events surrounding The Beatles at the time, as they suffered the terrible living conditions in Hamburg in the hope of making it big and the intensity of the relationship between Astrid and Sutcliffe as they fall in love so quickly.
And, by dropping into events through the affair, perfectly in tune with the natural conversational rhythm of Kirchherr talking to Bellstorf, the piece feels like a recollected memory, with Bellstorf simply transposing a life onto the page, event by event.
The important events are all touched upon, the fab five (John, Paul, George, Stuart and pre-Ringo drummer Pete Best) play Hamburg night after night and their characters are lovingly and knowingly done. But whilst the band may be looking for success, enjoying the attention of these new artistic fans, Sutcliffe, always a talented artist more than a musician and less than comfortable perhaps in the band, gravitates towards Astrid and Klaus, as fellow artists.
This isn’t a Beatles story, here they’re just the background. It’s Kirchherr and Sutcliffe’s tale. And it’s unashamedly a love story; one told to the artist by a woman whose life was profoundly affected by one young Liverpudlian artist for the brief time they had together.
The art is, on the whole, rather delightful. Simple black and white brush-strokes, with a lot of black – quite fitting in an era of dark suits and black roll necks that everyone on the page seems to be wearing. And Bellstorf’s figure work is almost cartoonish, with a near childish touch to his faces.
But each character is neatly captured with a touch here and there; Kirchherr’s close cropped pixie cut, Sutcliffe’s glasses and hairstyle – changed partway through from the classic rock and roller too something very Berliner as he mimics and morphs into Astrid’s world, even Lennon’s nose – little touches, but well done.
There are problems, but these are minor. One of the strangest is Bellstorf’s insistence on putting those quite offputtingly silly squiggles onto everyone’s cheeks. Yes, it may be something ridiculous to get snippy over, but after 50 pages I found myself more and more annoyed.
Of course, my annoyance may have been exacerbated by the continual reminder, panel after panel, page after page, that I’m not smoking. And everyone, absolutely everyone in 60s Berlin is.
But, irritating squiggles and nicotine withdrawal not withstanding Baby’s In Black is a lovingly told biographical tale, that captures all the essence of both an emotional but doomed love story and the turbulent spirit of the times. It’s gentle, very readable and very enjoyable indeed. (Just not one for quitting smoking to.)