There may be an overabundance of literature on the Beatles but one era of the band's history remains mostly overlooked. Before the group had settled into the Fab Four arrangement we're all familiar with, they were a band of expatriates temporarily settled in Hamburg, Germany, playing a dismal, roughneck bar and slowly gaining the attention of the art kids in the city. Their core lineup of John, Paul and George was already in place, but behind the kit was Pete Best and on bass was Stuart Sutcliffe, an artist who had been talked into joining the band despite not knowing how to play his assigned instrument. Sutcliffe has long been a romantic figure in the band's history, regarded as the coolest, most serious of the gang and a major impact on the artsiness that the group always had, even when they were playing screaming R&B numbers to German youth.
Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black, newly translated and released for North American audiences by First Second, focuses on Sutcliffe and the relationship he had with Astrid Kirchherr, herself an important artist who was a key influence on the development of the band (you can thank Kirchherr for those moptop haircuts). That means that Baby's in Black isn't completely a "Beatles book," but it does mean that it provides an intensely intimate look at the band's history at that point and specifically the divergent paths that emerged between the band and Sutcliffe, who would eventually leave the band just as they were starting to break out.
Bellstorf excels when he's examining that facet of the story and the role Kirchherr played in that split. Sutcliffe and the rest of the Beatles all left on friendly terms, thus prohibiting the story from turning into some kind of proto-Yoko situation, and Bellstorf utilizes Kirchherr's perspective as a way of illustrating how the Beatles functioned as a path out of England for Sutcliffe rather than something he was ever entirely serious about. The burgeoning romance between Sutcliffe and Kirchherr also sped up that split, sure, but as Bellstorf illustrates Kirchherr's experiences, it seems clear the band was nothing less than supportive.
Granted, Baby's in Black is notably built around interviews Bellstorf conducted with Kirchherr to get the full story, so it's naturally colored by her perspective and inherently biased. But that's also a significant portion of the appeal, since her unique perspective allows for a rare experience that couldn't possibly be provided otherwise, not even by the remaining surviving Beatles, who weren't present for much of the book's events. Where the book struggles is in its depictions of some of the darker elements of the time, from the band's dependency on speed (which is hinted at but never fully explored) to the health problems that eventually felled Sutcliffe, but that can likely be explained as something Kirchherr may not have been comfortable discussing or something she may not have been involved in enough herself to comment.
For the book, Bellstorf utilizes a somewhat whimsical, cute style, built around simplicity, which works well for the giddy excitement of the timeframe but can seem somewhat lacking in the headier moments. The style is also responsible for the way many of the characters blend together, as even the Beatles can be difficult to tell apart due to the combination of the clothing they actually wore and Bellstorf's way of minimizing faces to big eyes and small expressions. Nonetheless, Sutcliffe gets some excellent sequences in, including a recurring dream segment that seems to indicate that Kirchherr was subconsciously aware that Sutcliffe wasn't long for this world.
Regardless of the minor issues with the art, Baby's in Black is a tremendously valuable work, if for no other reason than the uniqueness of its perspective. Whether you're coming at it with an interest for the art scene of the time or the Beatles or are merely curious, it's a refreshing biographical work that succeeds in large part because of the medium itself, which allows Bellstorf to mix straightforward memoir elements with comic crafting and artier sequences.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.