Artes y Oficios

Baby's in Black, A Graphic Novel

Por Angélica Noboa Pagán

The sum total of my trips to European cities is less than the number of fingers on my hands. Except for a few Spanish and Swedish cities and a weekend in Paris, I have only known the old continent through school and university books, cinema, literature, photography, paintings, and music. Filling out an application to participate in a summer 2020 program on Technology and Legal Operations at Bucerius Law School was supposed to add a German metropolis to the list: Hamburg.

After getting an interview with Elena Poniatowska, just by asking her through the public contact information shared by the writer, I was motivated to request another interview directly, relying solely upon the generosity of the interviewee. This time it was a German lens artist who has my admiration. A professional photographer who, when she was just twenty years old, fused that urban nucleus, Hamburg, in a set of artistic portraits of her own, with a moment of profound cultural change. Without imagining it,  Astrid Kirchherrmade a scenographic representation that astonished professional photographers around the world. The importance of her collection was defined by time. Her portraits of the The Beatles between 1960 and 1962, when only a few Germans knew who they were, turned her work into an anthropological treasure about postwar European youth, at the precise moment in which the construction of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the Cold War.

When I was fifteen or sixteen (ca. 1979-1980), on a visit to my aunt Evelia's house, I came across a collection of old LIFE magazines. They belonged to her husband, the lawyer Mario García Alvarado, who had passed. Mario was a charming human being who played the guitar and had a bohemian soul. As soon as he noticed my interest in those old gazettes, he said I could have them. The collection portrayed anthological images from the 20th century. I found the original editions that covered the coronation of Elizabeth II of England, the April 1965 Revolution in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and the assassination of Che Guevara in Bolivia, which was published in 1968. Along with coverage of Che's assassination, that issue contained what I consider a gem: a summary of Hunter Davies' authorized biography on The Beatles' beginnings, prior to their worldwide fame.

Before that, Anita Valdez, Soraya Pérez-Gautier —my friends from school— and I, who were hardcore Beatlemaniacs amid the disco era, had devoured Davies's book. It had been recounted to the biographer by the members of the quartet and other witnesses, including the young German photographer. When we discovered those old magazines at my aunt's house, we became aware of the artistic quality of the portraits and of the purity with which they framed Astrid Kirchherr's photos. Using her Rolleicord professional camera to capture these, the young woman who met the unknown group by mere chance did not anticipate the anthological value that her work would have. Her photos document the prehistory of the most famous rock band in the world and the intense events —some funny, others rude— they lived during that time they spent in the German city.

In March of the present year, when I filled out the Bucerius Law School form, in a state of total denial regarding the seriousness of the pandemic, I wrote to my friend Enmanuel Cedeño-Brea, who resides in Hamburg: “Enma, let's go visit the Kaiserkeller and the Top Ten with your family.” “Where?”, replied my young friend, who has studied music and is a lover of the Fab4's music. “Oh, you don't know? Let me explain. Or rather, let's knock on Astrid Kirchherr's door, so she can tell us about it.” Cedeño-Brea had no idea what I was talking about, but he's cool and played along. However, quarantine arrived and Bucerius Law School sent a terse notice: We have chosen to cancel the 2020 Summer Program due to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19. They said they might offer the program next summer. We all went into lockdown, a strange global phenomenon.

On May 12 of this year, during our confinement, through a statement made by the German painter and musician Klaus Voormann, the news of Kirchherr's death was revealed. She died at the age of eighty-one, a cancer victim. The press revealed that she died alone in her apartment, the same place I intended to drag Enmanuel to. In an excess of enthusiasm, after recording Poniatowska, I had been plotting in my head to ask my friend —who is not in Germany to indulge me but to work on very serious law & economics issues— if he could find me a small local crew in Hamburg. Perhaps the German photographer, like the Mexican writer, would invite us into her home. It was a sad coincidence, and amid so much tragedy happening to people around me who have been infected with COVID-19 or have lost loved ones, one I couldn´t possibly dwell on.

I was going to forget about the whole thing, but then I discovered Arne Bellstorf's work, who is a cartoonist and the author of the graphic novel Baby's in Black. I found his book by doing a search on Amazon, purchased it, and received it two months later, when commercial flights were allowed into Mexico. Bellstorf, born when I was looking at LIFE magazines at my aunt's house, is from Hamburg. Of course, ever since he was a child he had heard the urban legend about a British group of working-class boys who came to his hometown to earn a few marks, not many. It was in the port city overlooking the North Sea on the Elbe River that, night after night, playing in grotty bars, the Beatles achieved a style without equal.

Bellstorf says he approached Astrid Kirchherr in the interest of adding her testimony to the story he was writing about the band, which at that time had five members. Ever since I saw the interview that both novelist and protagonist of the novel offered to promote the comic, I knew I had to read it (link). Someone had arrived where destiny had not allowed me, and it took him three years of artistic work to communicate the photographer's testimony. There was more to discover. Upon meeting Astrid, described by those who knew her as a woman of deep sensitivity, Bellstorf radically altered the point of view of her narrative. Baby's in Black is not just another novel or script for yet another animated film about the British quartet. It is a textual tribute to Kirchherr, the artist and the woman. She was dating Stuart Sutcliffe, the fifth member of the band, during that period. Sutcliffe resigned from the rock group to stay with Astrid and to forge a career as a plastic painter at a university in the German city. Kirchherr was also the creator of the image that characterized them. She is the author of the musicians' famous haircut.

I hadn't read a comic book since my sons were kids. I had introduced them to Tin Tin, Asterix, Galleon and Bussi Bear. However, Archie, Parakeet, Salt and Pepper, Superman, Josie and the Pussycats, Flash, among other comics, were my initial readings. Many will remember those street vendors who, until the seventies, went from neighborhood to neighborhood and from house to house in Santo Domingo, bellowing: “¡Paquitos y novelas!”[Comics and novels!]. Depending on the quality and title of the copy, exchanges were made or a few extra cents were paid to the informal merchant who placed the copies in a wooden box he carried on his shoulders full of paquitos. And in some homes, like those of my neighbors, the Calín brothers and Enma Ginebra, there were collection boxes that we devoured with the same enthusiasm children show for video games today.

Two experts on genre have explained a bit more to me. The first was my Sociology of Communication professor, Felifrán Ayuso (RIP), when I told him that the first time I was in a Chicago suburb, I felt at home. The place looked like a scene from Little Lulu. He gave me a lecture on the semiotics behind comic books. The other was my son, Simón Ramírez, who studied these disciplines at the Universidad Anáhuac México Norte. I asked him for an evaluation of Arne Bellstorf's work, which he summed up as follows: “It shows a modernist style of simple shapes. It is a character-driven story. Its profiles are focused on the looks, the hairstyles, and the silhouette lines, to highlight their youth. In drawing, the use of crayon to color the background of the story evokes a time of innocence. The black and white contrast is a resource of discrepancy and shows a dynamic maneuver throughout the comic, to accentuate moments of emotion in the story. The moments of silence, in which you only see the city of Hamburg and the characters without speaking, is a resource to achieve a memorable story.”

In these days of mourning, collective pain, and anxiety management, I read Baby's in Black —Astrid and Stu's love story— as slowly as if it were a Susy, Secrets of the Heart comic, but its penetrating content also reminded me of the novel The Lover by Marguerite Duras. I stopped to examine Bellstorf's remarkable effort in drawing each frame and his selection of scenes, dialogues, timely silences, wide shots, and close-ups. The book is not a comic, it is a graphic novel with a deep exploration of the main characters (Astrid and her beloved Stu) and the supporting ones (Klaus, John, Paul, George, and Astrid's mother). I seemed to have been there in Hamburg, seeing with my own eyes how the romance was sparked between a German girl and a young English man, who did not speak the other's language very well, but built a solid relationship based on their common search for expression artistic.

Also, the novel is effectively introduced into the dynamic of cultural exchange between the young Germans —Klaus, Astrid, Jorgen, and others who read Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Cocteau, and who dreamed of living in Paris— and these British folks —John, Paul, George, Stu, Pete, Rory and Ringo, who reinterpreted the rebellious American music of African descendants like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and dreamed of success in the United States. Meanwhile, Europe was inevitably entering into a long period of tension. There was a need for change in that new demographic. In a few years, both phenomena, political bipolarity and counterculture, moved like strong shock waves globally. That small group of people in Hamburg, at that time unknown, were left at the center of the cultural revolution. It makes me think that some group of young people will very soon do the same during this pandemic. In this new case, I would like it if they come from some country in the south of the world.

Sutcliffe left the position of bass player in The Beatles to Paul McCartney and explained to his friend John Lennon, a former colleague from the Liverpool School of Visual Arts that recruited him into the band, that he would stay in Hamburg, along with Astrid, to pursue his painting career. I never gave up my fascination with the subplot. That is, Bellstorf's recreation, based on Kirchherr's testimony, of this group —sometimes pretentious, sometimes insecure— of working-class musicians who wanted to live rock'n roll, but didn't even have money to buy breakfast; and one of them, George Harrison, didn´t even have the age to play in cabarets, nor his immigration documents in order.

However, as the author discovered, it is the main plot, the romance of Astrid and Stu, that offers an amplified perspective of the predicaments of youth in those territories during that period. The role of Germany in World War II is a burden borne by young people who sought solutions and answers in existentialism. And suddenly, a rock'n roll band, originally from another European port and industrial city, changed everything. Living (or surviving) without wondering about anything else, defined the nights of The Beatles at the Kaiserkeller and the Top Ten.

I have enjoyed this substantial paquito. I read it little by little, by way of occupational therapy at the end of quarantine afternoons. I was walking around my house dressed in black like an “exi” (a nickname Lennon gave to his German friends who were fanatical of the existentialist philosophical movement); and I accompanied the reading with the recording they made in 1961 in Hamburg, thanks to an opportunity given by singer Tony Sheridan. On that album, Sheridan gave this other singer a chance (Ain't she sweet) The book contains Astrid's perspective of the story, and the reader feels as if he or she is sharing her same state of fascination and amazement for the band, but in particular, for the member of the band she fell in love with, Stuart Sutcliffe.

The powerful calling of Sutcliffe's artistic vocation is noticeable. Neither the adversity he faces nor his voluntary disengagement from the musical project that seemed increasingly promising separated him from his own search for expression. Not surprisingly, the exceptional witness told the novelist what we have heard before, especially from John Lennon. If the members of the musical group were exceptional artists, Sutcliffe, a plastic painter, had even more potential. By Lennon and Kirchherr's criteria, the fifth Beatle had a more advanced understanding of aesthetics than all of them. (Plastic artwork by Stuart Sutcliffe).

Knowing that only some know the end of the story, which occurred in May 1962, I will limit myself to recommending the enjoyment of its black and white pages, which mirror Astrid's photos, as well as those of the Hunter Davies biography, or, if you prefer, the two films that deal with the subject matter: Birth of the Beatles (1979) and Backbeat (1994).  I believe the graphic novel has an added artistic value, since it is established in an innovative narrative plane. In my opinion, it better contrasts the differences between the English —who managed their vulnerability with constant jokes that emulated the style of the Marx brothers in American cinema— and the Germans —whose temperament is calm and thoughtful.

Thanks to this paquito-novela, as the vendors from my childhood would call them, I was able to hear Astrid's voice, the lady whose door I wanted to knock on this summer, so that she could share with me her youth experiences. From an adult perspective on the same subject that attracted me as a teenager, I appreciate the new approaches in Bellstorf's work. For example, to learn a little more about the quality of the pictures painted by Sutcliffe in that period, which at the beginning of 2020 were exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum. Also that Kirchherr's images are not only important because of the objective they aim for, but also because of the framing organized by the portraitist, documenting a specific moment in the second half of the 20th century in Europe and the world; while revealing the influence of the Flemish School of Painting during the Renaissance. (Kirchherr photographies)

For some strange reason, decade transitions are accompanied by some strong event or turning point: the building of a wall, a man taken to the moon, the destruction of twin towers, the crashing of stock markets or the arrival of a pandemic. Shortly after discovering those LIFE magazines at my aunt Evelia's house, the murder of John Lennon (December 8, 1980) coincided with the showing of the Birth of the Beatles film in Santo Domingo. A couple of nights ago, YouTube allowed me to verify that the movie that I saw with the eyes of a sad teenager, is really a good production. I appreciated the dialogue and the cinematography. But Bellstorf's graphic novel offered me something different, a renewed message of the same story, by establishing the role of the artist and her feminine sensitivity in the creative process of the musical band we know, of the plastic artist Stuart Sutcliffe, and of her own work as a portraitist.

Arne Bellstorf titled his graphic novel after one of Lennon & McCartney's most harmonious compositions. It speaks of a duel and a girl who wears black, faced with the loss of her lover. The melody is upbeat, the vocal arrangement and lead guitar chords are wonderful. However, the lyrics of the song speak of an irremediable sadness. It is not wrong to reflect philosophically on what happens to us during the pandemic; but hearing it is simply makes you joyful, full of optimism, probably how the “exis” Germans felt when they went to the Kaiserkeller and the Top Ten, drawn by the magnetism of its melody. Someday, our collective grief will also pass.  (Baby's in Black)

Traslation: Alicia Pelliccionne. 

Note: After publishing the original version of this article in Acento, I had an email exchange with the author of the novel. He clarified that from the beginning his inspiration was Astrid Kirchherr, an artist he highly admired who had attended the same art school in Hamburg as him

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