The “before they were famous” narrative is a mainstay of writing about pop culture, and accounts of the Beatles’ residency in Hamburg are at the head of that canon.
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Like all such stories, the Hamburg narrative lets us look at familiar subjects in new ways. It restores to the lads from Liverpool some of the sexy-dangerous aura that faded from them as the ’60s ground on—caftans, love beads and bad mustaches still in some hazy future, the Fab Four still Five, leather-clad shag-monsters, greasy-quiffed, tearing through six sets a night, ripped to the tits on speed, lager and their own intoxicating youth.
It provides fodder for hypotheticals—if Stu Sutcliffe had stayed with the group, had he not died so young—for when history alone can no longer satisfy. And it allows us to perform a sort of reverse detective act, tracing the evidence found in the past to reconstruct the future, predicting the shapes of the exit wounds from reminiscences of bullets that were as yet safely in their chambers.
The story of the Beatles and the night club Kaiserkeller has been told in countless biographies, in photographs (notably the gorgeous, limited-edition collection When We Was Fab), and in fictionalized films like Backbeat. Now the German cartoonist Arne Bellstorf takes up the tale, with his graphic novel Baby’s In Black.
But the Beatles—the Beatles as we know them anyway—are only supporting characters here. Baby’s In Black is set entirely in Hamburg, focusing mainly on Astrid Kirchherr, the young German artist and photographer who becomes the band’s first stylist, cutting their hair in that iconic mop and designing their famous collarless suits; on Klaus Voormann, graphic artist and scenester, himself an aspiring musician; and on the individual who falls into their orbit and, eventually, out of the Beatles—Sutcliffe, the art-school chum of John Lennon’s who briefly holds down the bass chair for the band.
Though Sutcliffe never set foot in a recording studio, he was in a way the prototype for the postmodern rock star. He had relatively little interest in (and less aptitude for) music, but he was James Dean-handsome, with a thousand-yard stare behind coal-black shades, and it must be said he wore his bass guitar divinely. And he was much more attuned to the worlds of the visual arts and fashion than were his bandmates. He was a talented painter himself, and—through his association with Kirchherr—had a strong hand in developing the young band’s image.
The Sutcliffe of Baby’s In Black is never fully committed to the rock ’n’ roll life. The Beatles are, for him, primarily a means of getting to Germany, where he wins a scholarship at the prestigious Hamburg College of Art and parts amicably with the band. In one heartbreaking little scene, early Beatles superfan Voorman eagerly volunteers to take Stu’s place only to be rebuffed by Lennon. And so midway through Baby’s In Black, the Beatles disappear from the book, returning to the UK.
If Baby’s In Black has a weakness, it is that Sutcliffe himself feels a little too good to be true. He is bright, talented and charismatic. He works hard and devotes himself to his studies. And he instantly wins the affections of nearly everyone he meets—club kids, art professors and bourgeois hausfraus alike. Naturally we romanticize the artist cut down in his prime, but Bellstorf seems to be fitting him for a halo.
Otherwise the characterization is quite good and relatively nuanced. Lennon and Paul McCartney, though less central to the story, are well-defined. George Harrison rates little more than a cameo, and poor old Pete Best gets left out again.
The simple device of using German viewpoint characters casts new light on old elements of the Beatles legend. It’s well known, for instance, that Lennon would often make jokes about the Nazis, and for a British audience this was simply evidence of Beatle John’s waggish irreverence. Those wisecracks come off very different, though, when dropped in conversation with Kirchher and Voorman. Bellstorf doesn’t overplay their discomfort, or Lennon’s obnoxious cluelessness, but he doesn’t have to. But the Lennon of Baby’s In Black is capable of kindness and grace, too, as when Sutcliffe parts with the group.
The rest of the story you probably know. Sutcliffe remains in Hamburg, moving in with Kirchherr’s family. The two plan to marry. They are devoted to each other, but both are ambitious and artistically restless. The book’s back end relates their struggles to balance love and work as Sutcliffe’s health inexplicably declines. And then he is gone. A sudden brain hemorrhage strikes him down, just days before he is to be reunited with his old friends from Liverpool.
So it’s not the story of the Beatles at all, but the Ballad of Stu and Astrid, counterpointed occasionally with reports of nascent Beatlemania trickling in from offstage. Bellstorf captures the doomed love affair with a wonderfully dreamy, romantic tone. The two wander through wintry forests and cityscapes, talking of art and beauty, and the simple, bold lines—crayon-scribbly, almost like a children’s book—make us feel that special isolation that young lovers have as they create a world of their own. There’s a magical stillness even the early scenes of the Beatles in performance. While Kirchherr is swept away by their presence and their passion, the sequence feels silent.
We knew that comics could do big and spectacular—pick up any superhero book for evidence. By contrast, Baby’s In Black finds Bellstorf using the expressive tools of the medium to make his story smaller, more interior—an intimate love story drawn in the margins of cultural history. It’s a melancholy wonder, as lyrical and haunting as—well, as the Beatles at their best.
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