Comic strip historian and pioneer Bill Blackbeard has died at age 84, it has been reported. Blackbeard had been in a nursing home for some years, and passed away on March 10th. As the outpourings of appreciations have shown, Blackbeard was, perhaps more than any other individual, responsible for the emergence of comic strips and (by extension) comic books as a legitimate source of art to be treasured and preserved on an institutional level.
If there was ever a stamp for comics history, Blackbeard is the man who should be on it. We can testify to our own respect and reverence for Blackbeard and his vast knowledge and archives of comic strips — won through a valiant call to action where others might have let history go up in flames. We had a few correspondences with him back in our early days and he was definitely a role model to aspire to. He edited The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, a protean document that was no mere argument for the beauty of power of comics — it was the proof itself, as watertight as any mathematical formula in its oversized grandeur and unassailable contents. As Jeet Heer notes, it also showcased Blackbeard’s own favorite school of cartoonist,
the rollicking cartoony adventure strips of the early 1930s: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse, and Segar’s Thimble Theatre. These were the strips that Blackbeard read as a young boy. They are all given generous (and well-deserved) space in the Smithsonian collection. Blackbeard’s boyish passion for these particular strips was, I think, the secret heart of all the energy he devoted to comics.
Blackbeard was a pioneer of comics scholarship, rescuing aging library collections from libraries that were transitioning to microfilm, and creating the basic canon of comics strip lore along the way. While his holdings were long housed in a garage, they were eventually shipped off to the Ohio State University archives, to be preserved in a more fitting fashion.
It’s hard to overstate Blackbeard’s importance in the history of comics. Many remembrances are online, to tell his story. Jeet Heer has the outline:
The outlines of Blackbeard’s career have been told several times, with the best account found in Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Papers. In the early 1960s Blackbeard, then a middle-aged World War II vet and pulp fiction enthusiast, noted that local libraries were microfilming their newspaper collections and throwing away the paper versions, on the grounds that the paper copies took up too much space and were going to crumble quickly. Blackbeard immediately understood the dangers this presented to anyone interested in using newspapers as a source and in particular how this would make it impossible to preserve the history of comic strips. A newspaper tearsheet for a comic strip could be reprinted and give readers a good idea of what the strip looked like, something that was impossible from microfilm. Blackbeard asked his local library if he could have the newspapers they were throwing away. He was told that as a private citizen he wouldn’t be allowed to but they could be donated to an institution. Blackbeard’s solution was to make himself into an institution, becoming the Founder-Director of the San Francisco Academy of Comics Art in 1968.
R.C. Harvey (who took the photos accompanying this) calls him The Man Who Saved Comics:
Blackbeard and his wife Barbara and a haphazard cadre of comic strip enthusiasts who volunteered at the Academy, spent years meticulously clipping comic strips from the old newspapers, arranging them in chronological runs of each strip title, and storing them in filing cabinets (which were often fruit crates turned sideways to make shelving). By the 1990s, Blackbeard estimated that they had clipped and organized 350,000 Sunday strips and 2.5 million dailies. Long before then, Blackbeard began raiding the trove to produce the content for over 200 books, some of which he wrote or edited, including the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977), The Comic Strip Century (two slipcased volumes, 1995), Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid (1995) Eclipse’s and Fantagraphics’ Krazy Kat series, and NBM’s 12-volume Terry and the Pirates (1984-87) and its18-volume Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy (1987-92).
Tom Spurgeon has a full obituary tracing the later movements of this treasure trove:
In 1997, Blackbeard sold the vast majority of the SFACA holdings to the Cartoon Library & Museum (now the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum) at Ohio State University, and began the processing of moving his holdings to that Midwestern campus in early 1998. It was a huge stamp of approbation for the yeoman’s work done by museum curator Lucy Shelton Caswell in growing OSU’s holdings from a few personal archives into a major cultural institution. One piece of legend that turned out to be true is that the bulk of the material made its way to Columbus in six massive trucks; another was that the collection wasn’t organized in a way that a university library could immediately put the collection to use, which caused ripples throughout the reprints collection community.
He also reminds us that Blackbeard is on the Eisner Hall of Fame ballot this year, and unknowingly, a few days after Blackbeard had died, urged his voting in to the Hall of Fame:
Bill Blackbeard is the embodiment of the impulse to see comics as more than that thing that is right before our eyes, more than that which is here and gone. He is comics’ Prester John. So much of what we value and enjoy in comics today and so much of what our grandsons and granddaughters and their progeny will enjoy 100 years from now owes its rescue from oblivion to his hard work and discerning eye.
It’s a notion we endorse heartily.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.