Saturday, April 30, 2011

Deceased--Bill Blackbeard

Bill Blackbeard
April 28th, 1926 to March 10th, 2011

"Bill Blackbeard, scholar of newspaper comics, dies at 84"

Bill Blackbeard, who grew up in Newport Beach, created an exhaustive archive of newspaper comics, preserving an American art form and helping to legitimize the study of comics in popular culture.


Valerie J. Nelson

May 9th, 2011

Los Angeles Times

Bill Blackbeard, an early scholar of newspaper comics who created an indispensable archive in San Francisco that helped legitimize the study of comics in popular culture, has died. He was 84.

Blackbeard died at a Country Villa nursing home in Watsonville, Calif. His March 10 death, confirmed by Social Security records became public only in late April when news of it circulated on websites devoted to comics.

"It's not an understatement to say that the entire movement of looking at comics as American history and culture would be fundamentally different without Bill and his contributions," said Andrew Farago of the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco.

In 1967, Blackbeard set out to write a scholarly history of newspaper comics but was sidetracked by a reality that did not amuse him. There was no comprehensive archive devoted to newspaper funnies to pull from, so he resolved to build one.

He soon realized that libraries across the country were converting newspapers and colorful comics to black-and-white microfiche to save space and then dumping their massive archives.

A comic-strip aficionado since his boyhood in Newport Beach, Blackbeard was aghast over what he saw as widespread disregard for preservation. He called the discovery "horripilating." ("He even talked like an old-time comics character," Farago said.)

"Blackbeard realized this was a major American art form, and it was not being properly appreciated," Farago said. "He took it upon himself to go from library to library with a rental truck and house these collections himself."

To enable libraries to legally donate their discards, Blackbeard founded a nonprofit organization, the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, headquartered in the home near Golden Gate Park that he shared with his wife, Barbara.

The couple sold their car and many possessions to establish what they believed was "a very necessary and important repository," Blackbeard told The Times in 1971.

By then, their two-story home was already jammed floor to ceiling with bound newspapers and comics-related material. Only the bathroom was spared from doubling as academy space.

His goal was to put together a complete run of every nationally syndicated comic strip, dating from their beginning in the mid-1890s, and he largely succeeded, Farago said.

In the 1990s, Blackbeard estimated that he and volunteers had clipped and organized 350,000 Sunday comic strips and 2.5 million dailies.

He reached into his vast stockpile to contribute to more than 200 books.

Chief among them was 1977's "The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics," considered a seminal book on the history of comics. He co-edited the tome, and his archives were the source of its hundreds of images — from 1896's "Hogan's Alley" to 1976's "The Wizard of Id."

"That book was a real milestone," Farago said. "If I ran through everyone who owned that book or cited it as a major influence, it would be a very impressive 'Who's Who.' "

Before moving to Santa Cruz, Blackbeard negotiated with Ohio State University's cartoon research library in 1997 to take over his collection. Six semitrucks were needed to move it.

It was the largest collection acquired by the library and "one of the most important for the study of popular culture in general and graphic narrative … in particular," wrote library curator Jenny E. Robb in 2009 in the Journal of American Culture. The article was titled "Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued the Comics."

William Elsworth Blackbeard was born April 28, 1926, in Indianapolis and moved to Newport Beach when he was about 9. His father, Sidney Blackbeard, was an electrician, and his mother, Thelma, kept the books for his father's business.

As an adolescent, Bill wandered into a neighbor's garage that was brimming with stacks of colorful Sunday comics. After that, he "had no other interest," he later said.

During World War II, he served in the Army in Europe. Upon his return, he attended Fullerton College and became a freelance writer.

Among the books Blackbeard wrote was "R.F. Outcault's the Yellow Kid" (1995), a detailed history of the early comic strip. He also co-edited "The Comic Strip Century" (1995), an unofficial companion to his Smithsonian work.

Although he never wrote his official history of comics, Blackbeard left "a really outstanding legacy," Farago said. "No historian or cartoon museum employee would be where they are today without his work as the cornerstone."

"Bill Blackbeard, Comic Strip Champion, Dies at 84"


Margalit Fox

April 29th, 2011

The New York Times

In the 1890s, when newspapers were made of sweat and trees and ink, some, amid circulation wars, began to carry a new kind of narrative art form: the comic strip. The strips were devoured daily by readers; on Sundays a new technology, color printing, further enhanced their appeal.

Those early comics were the essence of ephemera, preserved only by libraries and fervent collectors. Then, in the mid-20th century, microfilm let libraries unload decades of newspapers in their unwieldy bound volumes. Mutt and Jeff, Little Nemo, Polly Sleepyhead and the denizens of Gasoline Alley seemed destined to spend eternity as tiny black-and-white ghosts of their once-vibrant selves.

This did not please Bill Blackbeard. An author, editor, anthologist and ardent accumulator who died in March at 84, Mr. Blackbeard is widely credited with helping save the American newspaper comic strip from the scrap heap, amassing a collection considered the most comprehensive ever assembled.

His death, on March 10 in Watsonville, Calif., was confirmed by Social Security records. The death was not made public at the time — Mr. Blackbeard, an enigmatic, somewhat elusive figure, appears to have left no immediate survivors who might have done so — and word of it began percolating in the online world of comics aficionados only recently. The delay befits a man who spent his life steeped in the news-has-reached-us-by-packet-ship age.

Mr. Blackbeard first brought attention to the comic strip as pop-cultural treasure with “The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics” (1977), which he edited with Martin Williams. The book teems with images from Mr. Blackbeard’s personal archive, which eventually comprised more than 2.5 million strips published between 1893 and 1996, culled from libraries and newspaper morgues across the country.

In 1997 the archive was acquired by Ohio State University, where it forms part of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. It took six semitrucks to move the collection, more than 75 tons in all.

Those tons previously resided in the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, the nonprofit institution that Mr. Blackbeard founded in 1967 and ran for decades from his house there. (More precisely, the academy was his house there, which he shared with his wife at the time, Barbara.)

To judge from published accounts of the place, Mr. Blackbeard used the same interior decorator as the Collyer brothers. Every horizontal surface — he collected more than comics — was piled with books, magazines, dime novels, penny dreadfuls, pulp paperbacks, Holmesiana and, of course, newspapers: whole papers, loose sheets, Sunday supplements, bound volumes and the torrent of comic strips he had shorn from them all.

There were newspapers in the garage, where stacks stretched to the ceiling. There were newspapers in the bedroom. There were newspapers in the living room, where foot traffic was dictated by the paths carved among tottering piles. There were newspapers in the kitchen. There were newspapers everywhere but the bathroom, and that, Mr. Blackbeard told inquisitors, was only because the humidity would have been bad for them.

It was perhaps just as well that he cared little for comic books, which he called “meretricious dreck.”

Meeting Mr. Blackbeard inspired Nicholson Baker, who caught newsprint fever from him, to write “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper” (2001), in which Mr. Blackbeard appears.

“The thing about Blackbeard — he is like so many collectors in that he saved something terribly important, but he was single-minded: he saved things with a razor,” Mr. Baker, sounding pained, said in a telephone interview. “He had no interest in the women’s sections, in the magazine sections, in the beautiful photographs that had nothing to do with comics.”

In later years, Jenny E. Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, said, Mr. Blackbeard reformed and left bound volumes intact.

William Elsworth Blackbeard was born on April 28, 1926, in Lawrence, Ind., and reared in Newport Beach, Calif. Though “Blackbeard” sounds lifted straight from a comic-strip character, it appears to have been his actual surname.

Entranced by comic strips, young Bill discovered that neighbors were delighted to have him cart away their piles of old newspapers, which he promptly took home. This did not please his mother.

After Army service in Europe in World War II, Mr. Blackbeard studied literature and history at Fullerton College in California. He was later a freelance writer for pulp magazines including Weird Tales.

In the 1960s, wanting to write a history of the American comic strip, Mr. Blackbeard began scouring libraries for old newspapers. But no archive had all the strips he hoped to study, and he hoped to study the entire run of every strip ever published.

He soon learned that the San Francisco Public Library, having microfilmed its newspapers, was about to jettison them. As he had done with his childhood neighbors, he offered to relieve its burden. Word got around, and before long, Mr. Blackbeard had unburdened the Library of Congress, the Chicago Public Library, the Los Angeles Public Library and many others.

Mr. Blackbeard, whose marriage appears to have dissolved in later years, had lived recently in Santa Cruz, Calif.

His other books include several volumes he compiled and edited, among them “The Comic Strip Art of Lyonel Feininger,” about the German-American painter who drew strips for The Chicago Tribune; “R. F. Outcault’s the Yellow Kid”; and “Sherlock Holmes in America.”

Mr. Blackbeard’s messianic lifework gave rise to the work of many other scholars, artists and publishers.

“A filmmaker like Martin Scorsese couldn’t make what he makes if he had never heard of D. W. Griffith and Orson Welles,” Art Spiegelman, who created the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic narrative “Maus,” said in a telephone interview. “Similarly, as my art form develops, it’s clear that the future of comics is in the past. And Blackbeard was the granddaddy that gave us all access to it.”

[Click to enlarge.]

Mutt and Jeff play Sherlock Holmes style detectives on the trail of the mysterious "Phantom" in Slick Sleuths. Originally released in 1926 this film was hand colored in the early 1930s and re-released.

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