Baby’s in Black
Created by: Arne Bellstorf
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596437715 (Amazon)
There’s no two ways about it: adaptations of non-fictional stories are a tough beast to approach—and doubly so when the non-fictional account revolves about a tragic death. The trick, see, is the fact that anyone who’s aware of history, of the story being unveiled, will know how the retelling will end. When we watched The Perfect Storm, most of us were well aware that George Clooney and Marky Mark wouldn’t make it to the film’s credits (save perhaps through some kind of treacle flashback montage). We may know how Milk, Zodiac, Schindler’s List, and Downfall end—depending on how aware of twentieth century history and culture played out.
So for the sake of the high percentage of those for whom the ending is spoiled years before ever seeing the based-on-a-true story,* authors of stories based on actual historical events must ground their narrative on something beyond the typical need to know What Happens Next. If surprise and anticipation are removed from the storytellers’ arsenal, they need focus on something outside an envigourating plotline. Certainly, plots are still valuable—most true-to-life stories are interesting because of how they surprise us in their extraordinariness—but that’s not all they can rely upon. It’s kind of like how thrillers that rely wholly on their game-shifting story twist suffer in terms of rewatchability.
Instead, in historical adaptations, we look for things like ambitious character portraits, fascinating authorial technique, cinematic flourish, or some kind of thematic framework to add meaning to the whole enterprise. Maybe even some kind of historical fabrication to change the story’s ending entirely (a la Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). In any case, the author’s got to make it so that an audience’s knowledge of the finale won’t be related at all to the power of the story. So then, what does Baby’s in Black offer, being a recountment of the ill-fated Stuart Sutcliffe and the Beatles’ time in Hamburg?
First an excursis. Because I’m like that.
I’m a late-comer to the Beatles party. I hit kindergarten in the late ‘70s, had a hippie for a father (he still retains the remnant long hair and beard), and was exposed to a fair amount of classic rock. Still, despite understanding that the Beatles were a Big band (like the New Kids, right?), I remained pretty thoroughly unaware of their body of work. By junior high, I had figured out that the Beatles were responsible for “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” By high school, when I was waist-deep in Metallica and Motorhead, I had heard stodgy churchgoers—who evidently feared the pernicious influence of rock’n'roll—remark in solemn tones that John Lennon had declared the Beatles more popular than Jesus. I had a hard time seeing the I-wanna-hold-your-hand band being in the same league of perniciousness as Motorhead, who sang about Orgasmatron, but what did I know.** Finally, in college I heard some Sergeant Pepper’s while working at a restaurant that had the album installed in its jukebox—this was where I discovered that the Beatles did that whole I-am-the-walrus bit.
Pitiful, right? In fact, I wasn’t to come to realize my interest and enjoyment in the Beatles until a particular videogame was released a little while years back. My wife and I, coming off a couple years of enjoying Guitar Hero, discovered Rock Band and enjoyed the division of labours allowed by the game. The only problem was that while I knew most of the songs featured, my wife didn’t. Call it a lapse in her education*** or call it serendipity—the result was that when the Beatles edition of the game was released, we jumped on the opportunity because our distinct musical educations filled in each other’s gaps. She was a fan and would finally be able to take real joy in the Rock Band experience. Because it’s my way, the day after we first played the game, I spent an afternoon googling all their songs—so that I’d be able to sing along passably well. That led, obviously, to becoming a fan. And that new-found fan’s interest led me to read their band’s history, as related on Wikipedia.
So yes, by the time I picked up Baby’s in Black, I was aware of Sutcliffe and Astrid and Klaus and the bare bones of what went on in Hamburg. I was looking for something that would take what I already knew and do something special with it. Baby’s in Black succeeds wildly.
Apart from relating what in many ways is a doleful tale (the book is titled after the Beatles’ song, “Baby’s in Black,” a song about Astrid Kirchherr mourning for the departed Sutcliffe), Arne Bellstorf’s adaptation creates a lively mise-en-scene, filled with breathing characters whose lives, dreams, and hopes are affixed to reality without becoming sentimentalized. This last part may be the book’s chief charm—that a book principally founded on unfulfilled longing could avoid sentimentalization is mark of distinction. It would have been easy for Baby’s in Black to play to manipulation; that the book remains honest throughout is to Bellstorf’s credit.
Baby’s in Black is told through Astrid’s eyes. It is more her story than Sutcliffe’s. And while Sutcliffe may fill the principal male role, as the object of her attentions, John, Paul, George, and Klaus feature only as supporting figures, filling the background and painting a raucous sort of peoplescape over which the story’s romance blooms. Pete Best flits through the book almost entirely unseen and Ringo was not yet a part of history. Still, for all these small parts, Bellstorf does well in choosing these sidemen’s character moments and gives the reader a sense of who these clowns were during the Hamburg era.
Oh John—you cad.
Visually, Baby’s in Black develops its story through wonderful cartooning. The powerful black-and-white drawing helps underscore how indelibly this historical moment will carve itself into Astrid’s life. While Sutcliffe admits an affinity for the colour red in his art, Astrid prefers black. For this, it’s fitting that her tale should be told without colour—save for an appropriate dash of red text on the book’s cover on the US edition.**** Despite the book’s cartoony character designs, the figures’ simplicity never threatens to diminish the story. Bellstorf conveys almost the whole of the burgeoning romance in a series of looks that pass between the eyes. We are allowed to see so much in such simple line gestures.
The writing, translated, functions perfectly. It’s always difficult to tell where to pin responsibility for a translated text, but whether on Bellstorf or on his interlocutor, the English version is a success. The words conveyed suit the story, mixing appropriately the melancholy, joviality, and beauty of life. Perhaps the most powerful moment of Baby’s in Black occurs in a segment needing no translation, being wholly conveyed through appropriate punctuation.
My one struggle with the book, perhaps, is in its choice of text-type for the word balloons. I don’t know what was present in the original, but at least in this US edition, dialogue plays out in a sans-serifed font. It’s not as unsuitable as a roman font would have been, but it still feels ungainly and unfairly austere. But with such an enjoyable work, this is a single small complaint.
I have been previously unaware of Bellstorf’s work as a cartoonist, but Baby’s in Black has made me interested in what other books he may have produced. I have not yet checked, but I hope there are many. And I hope they are even half as enjoyable as Baby’s in Black. I can’t think of how best to compliment this story, so perhaps this sentiment will suffice: that I want to read more from this creator.
* Now that I think about it, this probably goes the same for Nicholas Sparks stories (at least according to popular legend) and movies about dogs (dogs in drama never live and dogs in comedies will probably be injured but narrowly survive).
** I also have a hard time seeing how Jesus in 1960 could possibly have been more popular than the Beatles, so it’s likely that however great Lennon’s hubris, he spoke accurately.
*** Says the guy who didn’t know the Beatles.
**** I prefer the German edition’s cover but really do think the First Second edition’s use of red is appropriate given some of Sutcliffe’s statements about the colour included in the book.
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