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Review time! with Baby’s in Black

Well, I’m certainly trying to catch up with my reviews! I’m only slightly over two months behind right now!

I will admit to not quite getting the Beatles. I like them, sure, and I recognize their importance to pop music, but I don’t get them. In other words, I don’t understand the swooning of the early years and the genius of the later years. Maybe it’s because I didn’t live through it, but I just don’t get it. So I’ve never been a huge fan, but that doesn’t mean I won’t read a book about them! I find their Hamburg years fascinating (I enjoyed Backbeat quite a bit), and now Arne Bellstorf has mined that vein with Baby’s in Black, which chronicles the romance between Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe, the “fifth Beatle” (poor Pete Best is apparently the “sixth Beatle” these days). The book is from First Second and costs $24.99.

Bellstorf gives us a very naturalistic version of the romance – it’s very much a chronicle, with events moving toward their inevitable conclusion (if you don’t know how the romance ended, I won’t spoil it, but Bellstorf handles it very well – the final page of this book is amazing). The few times he veers from this mode of storytelling is to show Astrid’s dreams – she always wanders through a forest, and the last time she does, we see some nice foreshadowing. Astrid, of course, is a German photographer who helped define the Beatles’ early look (she’s 74 now – here’s her Facebook page). She is introduced to the band by her friend Klaus, who happens to see them at one of their shows, and she falls in love with Stuart, the band’s bassist. Bellstorf basically goes over the course of their romance and how he eventually quit the band to focus on his art. Sutcliffe was apparently a talented artist, and he wasn’t all that interested in playing in a rock band – he was friends with Lennon, who recruited him. It wasn’t hard for him to ditch the band (McCartney took over on bass) and get engaged to Astrid.

The problem with this story is it’s awfully familiar, even to someone who isn’t a huge Beatles fan (like me), and Bellstorf really doesn’t do too much with it. There’s very little conflict – the band loves Astrid and they’re happy that Stu is happy with her. Bellstorf gets into the problems they had with their manager, who wouldn’t let them play bigger venues and eventually gets them deported (until they make their triumphant return in 1962), but that’s a sideshow. There’s almost no conflict in this book – the two main characters fall in love easily and never have any problems until the end of the book, and that problem isn’t really with their romance. Stu himself doesn’t have any problems fitting into Hamburg society – he’s so talented that the university almost throws money at him to stay in Germany and paint. Klaus, who seems to carry a torch for Astrid, happily concedes to Stu because he wants Astrid to be happy. It’s all very cheery, and it means the book lacks drama. I kept expecting some problems to intercede, but except for Stu’s health – which seems almost a sidebar for much of the book – nothing really does. I don’t mind nice love stories, but this is a little too nice, I guess. There’s not even enough character development to be happy for the two lovers – Astrid seems cool as ice throughout, and Stu is only a little more human. They obviously love each other, but it’s kind of difficult to really like them as characters.

Part of the problem with the tone is because of Bellstorf’s art. It’s not bad artwork at all, and some of the street scenes and sights of Hamburg are delicately beautiful, but he draws these characters as robots, almost, and it’s hard to figure them out. Astrid and Stu exchange some furtive looks early on, but Bellstorf doesn’t really do much with non-verbal communication, and it helps add to the cool tone of the book. He doesn’t give the male characters in the book much personality – Klaus is a bit more angular than the Beatles, and Stu wears glasses, and Bellstorf gives Lennon a beak instead of a nose, but the characters look and dress so similarly that it’s occasionally difficult to figure out who’s who. This is especially true about the other Beatles – Lennon is the only one who gets any significant page time (well, except for Stu, who kind of doesn’t count), so they just fade into the background. This is always a bit of an issue with stories about the Beatles’ early years – Lennon is the star, and creators don’t really care too much about the others. The same haircuts, the similar clothing, and the lack of character development in the dialogue means that it’s very hard to immerse yourself in this story, and that’s too bad.

This might sound like I hated Baby’s in Black, but I didn’t. The artwork is pleasant and gorgeous in some places, and it’s the kind of story where knowing the ending – or at least how the Beatles turned out – is helpful, because we can appreciate Stu’s choices a bit more. At the time he quit the band, he had no idea how big they would get, but we do, so the fact that he left for love and art is impressive. Bellstorf might not add too much that’s new to the story, but it’s still a charming love story. Therefore, I will Mildly Recommend this comic, but I do want to warn you that if you already know the story, I don’t know if you’re going to find too much that’s new here. If you don’t know the story, this is as good a place to read about it as any!

5 Comments

Is the fact that you don’t get the Beatles a part of that “tearing down sacred cows” aspect that you’ve said you like so much? :-)

Pedro: No, not really. If they need tearing down, I’m perfectly happy to do it, but it’s really just that I can’t quite grasp the phenomenon. I like the Beatles, but for me, personally, I just don’t swoon when the band is brought up. I reserve my tearing down of sacred cows when I think the sacred cow actually stinks! Which isn’t the case here.

I wasn’t bothered by the lack of real conflict so far as plot is concerned. For me it played as more like one of those indie or foreign films that owe more to art cinema than to the more plot-centric Hollywood formula. Approaching it like that help me not be bothered by how nice everyone was about Sutcliffe’s desertion of the band. As well, it seems more to be Astrid’s story than that of the Beatles (born out I think by the title).

Awhile back, I wrote in response to the question of what the book offers those readers familiar with music history who already know the end of the matter: “Bellstorf creates a lively mise-en-scene, filled with breathing characters whose lives, dreams, and hopes are affixed to reality without becoming sentimentalized. This last part may be the book’s chief charm—that a book principally founded on unfulfilled longing could avoid sentimentalization is mark of distinction. It would have been easy for Baby’s in Black to play to manipulation; that the book remains honest throughout is to Bellstorf’s credit.”

It struck me as less a book about what happened in terms of Beatles history and a vignette into the life of this young woman and how her collision with these historical giants would change her life, focusing less on the events of her life and more on the implication of those events.

Seth: I can certainly see that as what Bellstorf was going for, but I don’t think he completely succeeds. I don’t think the longing is “unfulfilled” – are you talking about their romance? because that’s pretty fulfilling – but I do agree it’s not manipulative. I guess my problem is that I don’t mind a little sentimentalization – it’s young love, after all – and I think Bellstorf goes a bit too far with what you’re talking about. That’s not a bad perspective, though.

By longing, I’m more referring to the romance of love not cut short. Astrid, I think, pretty clearly still longs for Stu in the book’s epilogue. She longed for a life with him—or at least for something with a little more durability than fate allowed.

I’m with you on sentimentalization. I don’t mind a little. Sometimes, I don’t even mind a lot (cf. Twin Spica). But I really do appreciate when creators do something that isn’t as easy as what we’re most used to seeing. So while I would have been something of a sucker for a Baby’s in Black that played more to heart-strings, I was also glad for Bellstorf’s version.

I think I most admired that aspect of the book as it was an adaptation of non-fictional events. It gave a familiar story an interesting twist (interesting to me at any rate).

By the way though, I think you’re right about the other characters. John, Astrid, Stu, and Klaus are all easy to pick out. Paul and George, if I recall, took me a little while to differentiate. (At the same time, having grown up at the wrong time I think and not having been a tremendous fan, I always have a hard time telling who’s who in the early Beatles anyway…)

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