Rock and roll subjects have not exactly been excluded from the exploding popularity of indie comics over the last few decades, but they have not been a consistent point of reference either. Maybe the fact that you can’t hear a comic book is one factor. But with a band as universally popular as the Beatles, that would hardly seem to matter. As early as 1978, Marvel released a special edition “Story of the Beatles, overseen by Stan Lee. In the late 80s and early 90s, Rock N Roll Comics released a string of cartoon band bios, everyone from the Grateful Dead to AC/DC, but these have been criticized for being too skimpy and/or clichéd.
With the growing sophistication of the art-comic genre, it’s time to expect more. In 2014, German artist-writer Arne Bellstorf made a big move in the right direction with this 196-page graphic novelization of the Beatles’ early days as the house band at various Hamburg clubs. “Baby’s in Black” hones in on the romance between the group’s then-bassist Stu Sutcliffe and local photographer Astrid Kirchherr. She was part of the city’s bohemian art crowd (also included was her friend Klaus Voormann was another) that befriended the group. This was a natural angle for Bellstorf, who also hails from Hamburg.
Not only does romance sell, but this story has a tragic dénouement. As many baby-boomer rock fans already know, Sutcliffe left the band to devote more time to his primary passion (painting) while also getting engaged to Kirchherr. Then he died unexpectedly in April of 1962, likely due to a congenital brain condition that caused a fatal hemorrhage. The Beatles first hit record (“Love Me Do”) came out six months later.
So this early slice of pop history, played out in the rollicking red-light districts and quiet residential streets of Germany’s second largest city, has potentially a lot to offer on the developmental days of what would become rock and roll’s most famous band. But finding the right balance between these two main story elements is not always smooth going for Bellstorf.
His pencil and ink style is fetching and fairly naturalistic; it is especially good in his spatial reproductions of the infamous Reeperbahn with its elaborate signage and other landmarks, like Hamburg’s central train station. But his odd way with a human visage: black marble eyes, tiny mouths and limited expression, give the book an almost naïve look that can grow unsettling. This is accentuated by his habit of filling in backgrounds and clothing with what look to be gray crayon squiggles.
So yeah, I wanted to like “Baby’s in Black” a bit more than I did, though some of it may not be due to Bellstorf. The rather flat dialogue may have been partially caused by the English translation and I guess one can only surmise so much about what these folks were actually saying back then, especially considering that some of them (Kirchherr, Voorman and Paul McCartney) are still very much alive. There remains a lot to appreciate here. The scenes where Astrid—with her trusty Rolleicord camera—arranges her famous outdoor photo shoot with the boys is a revelation on the humble origins of what became the band’s legendarily photogenic aura. Also, the narrative does (lightly) chart the progress of the Beatles as they ascend from the dingier Reeperbahn dives to more high-profile clubs and make their first record, backing up singer Tony Sheridan. Towards the end, there are several image-only pages (which include wordless speech balloons) that convey Sutcliffe’s terrible fate with much eloquence.
I do hope that rock and roll graphic novels, produced with the sensitivity that Bellstorf displays here, do become more of a thing. The pop stories of our musical heroes have been hashed over in various media formats over the years, but graphic novels, with their combination of fiction writing’s interiority and cinema’s visceral immediacy, seems like a great forum in which to re-experience pop history.
But apparently this may be a case of be careful what you wish for. Yesterday I read a news item announcing the imminent arrival (in late March) of a 464-page book called “Tales of the Smiths: A Graphic Biography.” That’s a whole lotta Morrissey! I think I have the early front-runner for the Feel-Bad Book of the Year award…
On a more positive note, you can check out Klaus Voormann’s own coffee-table sized graphic novel, “Birth of an Icon: Revolver 50,” based around the making of his totemic Beatles’ album cover in 1966.