Title: Baby’s in Black
Author: Written and illustrated by Arne Bellstorf
Publisher: First Second
Pub. Date: May 08, 2012
It’s been said that true test of your character is how you answer the following question: Stones or Beatles? I have to confess that I choose the Rolling Stones, which excludes me from the target audience for Baby's in Black. I like the Beatles, but I don’t worship them (with the exception of Rubber Soul, which is definitely in my top 5 albums). So as an amateur Beatles fan, I was unfamiliar with Stuart Sutcliffe, the fifth Beatle.
Baby's in Black is a primer on Sutfcliffe and the early years of the band. It charts the course of Sutcliffe’s relationship with Astrid, a German artist, which coincides with his gradual exodus from the band and his development of a mysterious illness. As Sutcliffe and Astrid’s relationship progresses, Sutcliffe grows as a visual artist. He leaves the band to pursue this interest, yet he still retains a close friendship with the other band members that is nicely conveyed.
The narrative benefits from the likely familiarity of the reader with Beatles songs. When you read the lyrics from some of their most famous songs, it’s easy to supply the sound in your imagination. These sections trade on the cultural pervasiveness of the Beatles. Had this graphic novel been about an unknown band, they would come off as fairly flat.
The black and white illustrations are characterized by a curious resemblance between most of the characters, who share protruding ears, big eyes, small mouths and sharp noses. Most are unappealing to the eye. The loose scribbling which appears as circles on all the characters’ cheeks and as sparse filling for everything from heads to backgrounds becomes grating as the story progresses. Yet Lennon and McCartney are skillfully rendered with only a handful of distinguishing visual details.
For the lukewarm fan, Baby in Black does not have enough narrative tension to sustain the reader’s interest. Without the weight of the Beatles to lend the story significance, it would be merely a slow-paced romance between two young artists with a startling ending. But the magic of the mythic band makes the story of Stuart and Astrid an important footnote in the history of the Beatles. Baby in Black will be a pleasurable read for serious Beatles fans who enjoy graphic novels.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes from netgalley.com.