A Hoarder for History: Comic-Strip Archivist Bill Blackbeard, 1926-2011 Comics archivist Bill Blackbeard died last month, a man whose lifelong dedication to preserving the earliest examples of newspaper comics strips led one writer to dub him "The man who gave (the medium of) comics its memory."
NPR logo A Hoarder for History: Comic-Strip Archivist Bill Blackbeard, 1926-2011

A Hoarder for History: Comic-Strip Archivist Bill Blackbeard, 1926-2011

Comics Archivist Bill Blackbeard, 1926-2011 R. C. Harvey/Courtesy The Comics Journal hide caption

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R. C. Harvey/Courtesy The Comics Journal

Comics Archivist Bill Blackbeard, 1926-2011

R. C. Harvey/Courtesy The Comics Journal

Much of what we know today about the earliest days of the comics medium can be traced to one man — the awesomely-named historian Bill Blackbeard, who died last month at the age of 84.

The encomiums have been rolling in since news of his death surfaced on Tuesday. They paint a picture of a man who, to rescue the newspaper comic strip from the Trashbin of History, spent much of his life rescuing hundreds and thousands of actual newspaper comic strips from some very literal trash bins.

He was one of the first scholars of this singular niche of American popular culture. He edited several books about the birth (and gangly adolescence) of newspaper strips; he created and maintained the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, a massive archive where he clipped and organized millions of examples of the form; he was a voluble and opinionated advocate for viewing newspaper comics as an art, and one that was in desperate need of preservation.

You should read what comics historians like R. C. Harvey and Jeet Heer have to say about the guy. Harvey's long remembrance over at The Comics Journal includes excerpts from an illuminating interview he did with Blackbeard several years back.

Heer's eulogy (also at The Comics Journal) dubs Blackbeard "the man who gave comics its memory," and places his work in a contemporary context, pointing out how much of what today's comics creators know about people like Windsor McCay (Little Nemo), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and E.C. Segar (Popeye) is thanks to Blackbeard.

Heer would likely take me to task for my headline, noting that "Collectors come in two basic types: hoarders and sharers. Hoarders collect as much to deny other people their treasures as to enjoy it themselves. Blackbeard was a sharer. He loved those old strips and wanted as many people as possible to look at them."

Go and click, they're both great reads, but I'll note here some of the details that struck me:

  • According to Harvey, "By the 1990s, Blackbeard estimated that [he and his colleagues] had clipped and organized 350,000 Sunday strips and 2.5 million dailies" and piled them into stacked fruit crates and Pizza Hut boxes in a huge, dimly-lit cellar under his house.
  • Like many old-school fans of newspaper comics strips, Blackbeard didn't much care for comic books when they came on the scene in the '30s. He didn't like that comic-book producers were hiring teenagers to fill up pages, rather than tell good stories.
  • Superman? "Meretricious dreck," according to Blackbeard. The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner? "Psychotic, the work of a lunatic."
  • In the 1960s, he resolved to write a history of newspaper comics strips, only to find — to his horror — that he couldn't get his hands on primary sources. Comics syndicates didn't preserve old strips, and local libraries (one of the few places that collected and housed old newspapers) were moving to microfilm and pulping the originals - which meant, unless he did something about it, that the bold colors of the Sunday funnies would disappear forever.
  • He created the SFACA, a non-profit entity, to enable libraries to donate to him the stacks and stacks of newspapers they were preparing to pulp (as they weren't permitted to donate to individuals.)
  • In 1998 much of Blackbeard's collection was shipped to the Ohio State University Cartoon Library and Museum.
  • In 1977 he edited (with Martin Williams) The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics - a huge, gorgeous, massive and beloved tome that stands as a testament to the lasting cultural and artistic importance of the newspaper strip.

I'll give the last word to Blackbeard's fellow comics historian/knower-of-things Maggie Thompson (who is also, not for nothing, mom to NPR Music's own Stephen Thompson):

Bill was a fascinating friend, always a source of an incredible blend of fact and judgment on the pop culture of printed fiction, whether in books, comics, or pulps. ... My guess is that much of Bill's scholarship remains unavailable to more than a handful of researchers so far — though we can hope that eventually we can all share it.

For example: His article [written for the book All in Color for a Dime, edited by Maggie's husband Don and Richard Lupoff] on Elzie Segar's Popeye ... introduced Don and me to the richness of an icon we hadn't explored until we'd read what Bill had to say. (His contention: Popeye was the first super-hero.)

[Thompson believes a longer version of this Popeye treatise was eventually published elsewhere.]

It's definitely time for scholars to unearth and perpetuate Bill's less-public writings.