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Originally published Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Book review

'Baby's in Black': heart-tugging graphic novel about the Beatles

Arne Bellstorf has created a graphic novel about the Beatles that begins with their early days performing in Hamburg's red-light district.

Seattle Times music writer

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'Baby's in Black'

by Arne Bellstorf

First Second Books,

196 pp., $24.99

Arne Bellstorf's sad, magically charming graphic novel about the Beatles in Hamburg — when the band's then-bassist Stuart Sutcliffe fell in love with German photographer Astrid Kirch-

herr — evokes the innocence and romantic hunger of youth with quiet, heart-tugging grace. The period is 1960-62, when the Beatles were playing nightly in a rathole on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's tough red-light district, the crucible in which the band's world-shattering sound was formed. Klaus Voormann, Kirchherr's fellow art student and boyfriend (who later designed the cover of "Revolver"), wanders down to the district one night — not a place he would usually go, being a middle-class lad — and is distracted by the sound of the band wafting up from the Kaiserkeller. He can't wait to drag the reluctant Astrid and other friends to see these Teddy boys with the choirboy voices and rockin' guitars.

The story that follows is well-known. The hip German art students expose the lads to existentialist cool and they swap their Elvis haircuts and leathers for turtlenecks and Parisian-style moptops (but not before Kirchherr snaps some historic photos in all their greaser glory). They get tossed out of the country on visa violations; Sutcliffe quits the band to study art; the boys return, with Paul McCartney switching from guitar to bass; Sutcliffe and Kirchherr get engaged; then Sutcliffe, who has been experiencing severe headaches, suddenly dies of an aneurysm.

Bellstorf tells this fated love story in black-and-white panels — three to six per page — conjuring John Lennon's pointed nose and Astrid's doe-eye gaze with caricaturelike lines and punctuating his minimalist cartooning with great swatches of black (Kirchherr's favorite color). There are some great scenes, including Lennon snarling at the (non-English-speaking) crowd, "And don't forget, we won the war"; Kirchherr and Sutcliffe walking in the woods, with the lyrics of "Love Me Tender" scrolling above.

I confess this is the first graphic novel I've ever read. For all the other baby boomers who grew up listening to the Beatles, it's a great place to start.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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