Written and Illustrated by: Arne Bellstorf
Published by: First Second
Reviewed by: Kristian Horn
Valentine’s Day is here! Time to review a romance comic!
The first thing you need to know about Baby’s In Black is that it is a graphic novel presentation of the romance between the famed doomed “fifth Beatle” Stuart Sutcliffe and photographer Astrid Kirchherr. The second thing you need to know about Baby’s In Black is that it contains some of the most delicately beautiful cartooning I’ve ever seen.
Truth to tell it was the art of this book that sucked me in. From the moment I found the graphic novel sitting on a comic store shelf and peered through its pages I knew that I wanted to read it. I just knew that I wanted to look at that art for a while. I wasn’t really dying to learn any more about the Sutcliffe and Kricherr romance than I’d learned by watching the movie Backbeat but I’m always interested to see what comics can bring to the table when not dealing with the spandex and underpants crowd so I figured I’d give this book a chance.
It’s Bellstorf’s art that is Baby’s In Black’s strongest asset. I don’t think I can go into exactly how much I loved the illustrated style of this graphic novel. The closest I can come to a description is that I find it to be like poetry on the page. It’s simple, pretty, and haunting. Yes, there are aspects of Bellstorf’s style that reminded me of Manga. At one point I actually thought that Baby’s In Black was very much like what it might have been like if Osamu Tezuka had done a story about The Beatles. That opinion is not meant to be a slam in any way. I happen to be very much a fan of Manga and if Bellstorf does embrace the characteristics of Japanese comic books he is able to embody the highest aspects of the art form within the pages of his book.
Unfortunately, it is the cartoonish style of Bellstorf’s art that keeps Baby’s In Black from rising above just a surface re-telling of Kircherr and Sutcliffe’s romance. As much as I really appreciated the style of the artwork, it’s that style that keeps Baby’s In Black from really delivering any real dramatic punch. Belistorf seems to be more interested in making things look a certain way than presenting a real romantic drama about people. Let’s face it, the story of Sutcliff and Kircherr’s relationship is some pretty romantically tragic stuff. Bellstorf never really taps into the melodrama of the subject matter. This is also a bit hampered by the fact that it can be a bit hard to tell the characters apart. As much as I loved Bellstorf’s cartooning, it really did become a bit difficult in places to tell who was who. Everyone in the book wears black turtlenecks and black leather jackets all the time and Bellstorf doesn’t make enough of a distinction between their faces (with the exception of John Lennon) so that you can tell who’s talking to who. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not impossible to know who’s who…it’s just difficult at times.
Having said all that, I still think that Baby’s In Black is a beautiful visual piece. Obviously, comics are about the combination of story and art so Baby’s In Black wasn’t a complete success in my opinion. But Bellstorf’s style is beautiful enough and poignant enough that I would recommend checking this book out for fans of this particular type of Manga style art or even if you’re a fan of early Beatles history. I can’t emphasize enough how much I loved looking at Bellstorf’s drawings even if I think that his story could have packed a bit more punch.