You probably know a little about the story of Stu Sutcliffe, the Fifth Beatle, and his doomed romance with phtographer Astrid Kircherr; but you’ve never seen the story like in German comic book creator Arne Bellstorf’s new graphic novel “Baby’s In Black.” That is, unless you live in Germany where the book was a runaway bestseller. Now the book hits stateside, following a similar path to The Beatles themselves. Will it be greeted by thousands of screaming young girls? Probably not, but the book does mix emotion, history, and biography in a fascinating way.
We chatted with Bellstorf in advance of the release of the book to find out more about his take on Sutcliffe, why his life needed to be told in graphic novel form, and just what’s going on with the German comic book scene:
MTV Geek: Why The Beatles, and why Stu Sutcliffe? Clearly there’s no dearth of material on the subject, so what made you gravitate towards it? And what, to you, was unique about your take?
Arne Bellstorf: It's the existentialist side of the story, the absurd, that I found so interesting. The Beatles started out as a Rock'n'Roll cover band, influenced by American culture – and then there are these German art students, heavily borrowing from the French boheme. It's the story of a young people, the post-war generation, who did not grow up with a mainstream pop culture and didn't know they were about to change society with the things they started. Astrid and Stu were a very 'modern' couple, wearing the same clothes and haircut at a time when probably only few people had heard of a term like 'androgynous,’ or even had an idea of what 'unisex' was about. All these things would change in the Sixties, and the Beatles and the people they met are a good starting point to understand how this all came about.
Geek: What I think is most interesting about Stu’s story is that, other than of course his rather tragic end, there’s not a lot of conflict in his life... Everybody seemed to like him, and things came easily to him. Yet clearly his is a compelling story - why is that?
AB: That's exactly the absurd thing I was talking about. Why did the Beatles become famous, why did Stuart have to die before he could rise to fame as an artist? He will forever be the “fifth Beatle,” although he never was part of the Beatles as we know them. So I really tried not to look at his story as part of Beatles mythology, and Astrid's perspective helped a lot. If you look at the typical dramatized biographic storytelling, the life of someone famous, even the ones who have died young, it's always the same boring stuff. Life is not like in those biopic movies, where you'll find the usual way a drama is constructed, and everything makes sense within the storyline.
Stuart's story – just because it's so closely connected to the most successful story in pop culture – seemed to me like the most 'true' story about life. It's absolutely senseless. He left this then unknown group, thinking he finally had made the right decision to choose art over playing bass guitar, he had found a beautiful girl, the biggest love in his life so far, he got a scholarship and an attic at Astrid's house where he could paint all day – and then he died. He's no hero, no antagonist except for your own 'destiny'. Stuart's life, his promising talent and the perfect relationship with Astrid are cut short, at a point when everything else around him points towards a successful future.
Geek: I have to admit, there’s such a mystique to the Beatles that even reading the book, it seemed inconceivable that at some point you could just walk up to them on a stage and start chatting with them... What was it like for you, from the artistic perspective?
AB: Maybe that was something I wanted to remove from this people, the mysticism. It was Astrid, who helped the Beatles become aware of a distinctive look, and how important it is to create an image of yourself. It's the story before the myth begins. Furthermore, it was rather Astrid, who most people couldn't imagine just start chatting with. She was the one with that mystic, untouchable aura.
Geek: Why was it important to tell this story in the graphic novel form? Other than that being the form you’re most familiar with?
AB: Astrid Kirchherr 's story, her passion for black and white photography, her undying admiration for Jean Cocteau and finally, the romance between her and Stuart Sutcliffe, seemed to me like a story that simply had to be told in images. She has always been interested in communicating visually, not only as a photographer, but through her own appearance, distinctive look and clear aesthetic vision.
So, her world was black and white, her photography, her clothes, the films she was watching. The Beatles wore black leather and had dark hair … The whole story just demanded to be drawn in black and white. Explaining her fascination with the young Teddy Boys from Liverpool she met, she said she was “amazed how beautiful these boys looked. It was a photographer's dream.” First and foremost, she fell in love with a picture, a look, a certain attitude – the image of Rock'n'Roll.
Geek: I also thought it was an interesting choice to never really show Stu’s art - or any of the art, for the most part, other than lyrics. Why was that?
AB: Well, there are a few panels with him painting, where you get a glimpse at his abstract paintings. To be honest, it is difficult to transform a painting – which is about colour and thick layers of almost sculptured paint – into a black and white drawing. For me, drawing and painting (at least the idea Stuart had of painting) are two different approaches to work with creating images. But beyond that, I didn't want the book to be about the 'artist' and depict his genius 'art' as if he was Picasso. Stuart was still a student, experimenting with different things. I was interested in the process, his search and struggle, his curiousness, not just the 'finished' paintings.
Geek: What was it like for you, going from the short form to the long form like this? What’s more difficult - or more freeing - about working in the graphic novel format?
AB: I like the long format, I feel most comfortable with it, although it takes such a long time to draw a graphic novel. I think the freedom I have with a book is, that I don't have to have a punchline or something like that at the end of a page. That's the challenging thing with strips and shorter stories, and I'm not good at being a 'funny' cartoonist I guess.
Geek: I’m told this book was extremely successful in Germany... Out of total ignorance, what is the German graphic novel scene like? Is it changing as rapidly as the American comics scene?
AB: We've been using the term 'graphic novel' here only for a couple of years, and I can't remember using it when my first book came out in 2005. So things have changed since then, and there is a small market and a national production of comic books for adults. I don't know how things will develop, but Germany's definitely not France, and we'll probably never catch up with the French comics culture.
Geek: What’s your hope in bringing the book over to America? What do you expect will resonate more - or less - with an American audience?
AB: The story is very European, and my approach and way of storytelling is probably very German, but since the book also deals with the most internationally famous pop band in history, I hope people all around the world can relate to it in one way or another!
Geek: Anything you want to leave us with? Final thoughts on the book?
AB: Be prepared for less Beatles than the American cover suggests, and put on Juliette Greco and some cool jazz records while you read the book
Baby’s In Black is currently on book stands from First Second!