Graphic Novel

“Life writes the best stories.” – Arne Bellstorf on his new Beatles comic.

ReproduktReproduktBaby's in Black is the title of a sad love song written by the Beatles musicians John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The song’s theme is a love story that is also the focus of a new comic by Arne Bellstorf.

With simple black-and-white drawings, Bellstorf, a comic artist who lives in Hamburg, depicts how Astrid Kirchner meets the Beatles’ bassist Stuart Sutcliffe in a cellar pub in 1960 and falls in love with him. The young woman, a photographer, takes the first pictures of the band and inspires the musicians to adopt their soon-to-be iconic black clothing and “mushroom-top” haircuts.

Sutcliffe stays on in Hamburg when the Beatles leave the city. But the love story ends tragically: the musician dies in 1962 of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 21, shortly before the Beatles appear once again in Hamburg. In an interview, Arne Bellstorf tells how the comic arose.

Herr Bellstorf, you have created a comic about Astrid Kirchherr and her relationship with the Beatles musician Stuart Sutcliffe. How did you come up with this theme?

After my first comic, I started a book on Hamburg in the 1960’s. I then came upon Astrid Kirchherr’s photographs and began to do research on her. I saw the 1994 film Backbeat, in which the love relationship between Astrid Kirchhherr and Stuart Sutcliffe is put in dramatic form. After further research I discovered that the real story ended completely differently. For me, the exciting part of the project was that the Beatles were still unknown at the time and looked totally different. They didn’t have their “mushroom-top” haircuts yet, and were not yet icons of pop history.

How did your contact with Astrid Kirchherr come about?

Astrid Kirchherr lives a very secluded life. There is no biography about her. She also never went public with her story. Most of the information about her is widely scattered. There are a few interviews, a couple of letters and texts, last year a volume of her photographs came out. I came into contact with Astrid Kirchhherr through the agent Ulf Krüger. At a meeting, I asked her what she would think of my putting the story of her youth in a graphic novel. She said that she preferred a comic adaptation to a biography. She liked the idea of a new aesthetics. Astrid willingly gave me information about her life and granted me access to her private archives. I saw photographs that were unknown to me until then. For me, that was the deciding impulse.

Where did the impulses for her image motifs come from?

There is a lot of literature and photo books about Hamburg in the 1960’s. The narrative around Kirchhherr and the Beatles plays out between the Reeperbahn and middle-class Emsbüttel. Of course, not everything I need in the way of pictorial material was documented, so I have had many spaces described for me and then developed my own pictures of them. This is above all the case with Hamburg’s clubs and bars like the Kaiserkeller.

Are you a Beatles fan?

I’m not a big Beatles fan. I got to know a lot of people in the course of my research who know a lot more about the history of the band than I do. My main interest is in the early history of the Beatles: where were these guys coming from, musically? I’m interested in the rock ‘n’ roll they played at that time, the jazz they heard in Hamburg and how they integrated both into their music. I have read a good deal about the Beatles’ beginnings through 1963 – but I haven’t dealt with the time after that. At some point I said to myself: I don’t need to know all that.

How did you develop the dialogues?

The dialogues arose from my reading. There s a book with letters from Stuart and a book in which Kirchhherr goes into some things. And people have described many situations to me that I retell. The comic is a fiction: the figures are based on persons, but have become my own characters. I seek to capture them in tone or in gesture, but at some point a figure takes on a life of its own, as well. After all, that’s what’s great about comics.

How does the story end?

The story ends as tragically as it did in reality – with Stuart’s death. My comic is a love story between Astrid and Stuart, who left the Beatles in 1961 and stayed on in Hamburg. When the Beatles came to Hamburg in 1962 for the opening of the Star Club, both wanted to come to the concert. But Stuart died a day before their appearance. This dramaturgy of the events is so dense that I don’t need to invent anything. Life writes the best stories.



Arne Bellstorf is one of a new generation of young German comic artists. The author, born in 1979 in Dannenberg by the Elbe, studied illustration at the University of Applied Sciences (Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften) in Hamburg. In 2006, Bellstorf was distinguished with the Sondermann Award for “Best Newcomer” for his comic debut Acht, Neun, Zehn (i.e. eight, nine, ten).
Baby’s in Black – The Story of Astrid Kirchher & Stuart Sutcliffe, ISBN 978-3-941099-12-8, 224 pages, black/white, 23 x 16 cm, fold-out, 20 EUR, 2010 Reprodukt Verlag 2010.

Rieke C. Harmsen conducted the interview.
She is an art historian and editor for the Evangelischer Pressedienst (Lutheran press sevice, epd) in Munich.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2010

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