Arne Bellstorf’s graphic “novel” Baby’s in Black is the true story of Astrid who becomes involved with Stuart, a guy who plays in a band. He likes the band scene but really wants to be a painter. Astrid becomes friends with the other guys in the band too as she helps Stuart follow his true artistic calling. The girl is Astrid Kirchherr, and her boyfriend is Stuart Sutcliffe. The year is 1960, and the band is The Beatles–at that time John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Pete Best.
Baby’s in Black comes at the well-known Beatles story by focusing on their friends, Astrid and Klaus Voormann, two German fans and talented artists who are also interested in French art and culture. Bellstorf illuminates what it was like to be around The Beatles in those early days when they were playing nightly at The Cavern, a dingy working-class club in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles were pure rock and roll, but many of their fans and friends lived at the nexus of the European art world and the rock world.
The convergence of these worlds provides the primary story line of Baby’s in Black–the relationship between Astrid and Stuart–but we also see the other Beatles as secondary characters at this remarkable time in their career. John Lennon is the band’s leader, stormy in outlook and uncompromising in his belief in the band. George Harrison is the 17-year old guitar wonder not legally old enough to be playing in the clubs where The Beatles were making their mark. Paul McCartney is the charismatic musician whose stage presence is a huge part of the band’s appeal. Pete Best is barely seen, foreshadowing that his time with the band will end shortly after this period. Bellstorf presents The Beatles as a tight group who kept most people at a distance: “They share their own special humor,” as Klaus says.
Baby’s in Black provides enough glimpses into Beatles lore to satisfy fans. The Astrid Kirchherr photo session that produced the early iconic images of The Beatles in leather and pompadours is chronicled here, and we see allusions to Astrid’s contributions to the Beatles’ moptop haircuts. Bellstorf also fully imagines the apocryphal moment when Klaus approaches John to show him some album cover art and John tells him, “You’re better off showing Stuart summat like that.” Several years later, of course, Klaus designed the well-known Revolver album cover, a black-and-white rendering, which this book’s design echoes.
The drawings here are simple but evocative, much like the rock music The Beatles were playing in the Cavern years. Some of the characters look quite a bit alike but maybe that’s part of the point. Klaus, John, and George are almost indistinguishable in appearance except for their noses.
Baby’s in Black will appeal to those young readers who wear Beatles shirts more than 40 years after the band’s demise, as well as those interested in the indie music scene, classic rock, or the artistic life. Teachers and librarians for middle grades should know that Baby’s in Black features a lot of smoking. That’s an understatement. Cigarette smoke appears (to great effect) in almost every panel. Other possible areas of concern include a couple of drug references and one f-bomb. But that’s rock and roll.