Bill Blackbeard: Tributes

Gary Groth:

We have all been touched by Bill Blackbeard’s contribution to comics. Who, in the event, do I mean by “we”? Good question. I mean those of us who value the history, preservation, and appreciation of comic strips. Bill was instrumental in cultivating a widespread awareness of the newspaper strip as more than a quaint relic of early 20th century pop culture, but rather as an example of the vitality of early American mass art and of the unique virtues of the comics form.

I grew up reading comic books; my exposure to newspaper strips was peripheral, and by the time I read them casually in the newspaper —the 1960s— the glory days of strips were long gone, and none of them could compete with the pleasures I found in Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, or the Fantastic Four. Adventure strips were on the wane, and even those strips that defined the genre –Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Steve Canyon— had all seen better days. The variety of genres had declined, the demographics had withered, the art shrunk, the visual innovations mostly gone. Those sublime full-page, full-color Sunday pages were a thing of the past and kids my age never even knew they existed. There were few newspaper strip reprints available at the time that reflected the range and beauty of those old strips.

But there were a few. The earliest such collections that piqued my interest were Woody Gelman’s books, issued under his Nostalgia Press imprint, in the ’60s and ’70s (with contributions by Bill): black and white collections of Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Sickles’ Scorchy Smith, Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, and Segar’s Thimble Theatre —all welcome, intriguing, but slightly exotic to my narrowly focused eyes— they were like neither contemporary comic books nor newspaper strips, so what were they?— but even taken together, they weren’t enough to demonstrate the breadth of the early newspaper strip art. I was obsessed enough to track down several comics histories that were available at the time, all of which reprinted a tantalizingly meager sampling of strips — all in black and white: The Penguin Book of Comics (edited by George Perry and Alan Aldridge, 1971), Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium (by Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs, 1971), Comics and Their Creators (by Martin Sheridan, 1944), and The Comics (by Colton Waugh, 1947). They reprinted just enough comic strips to whet one’s appetite, but where you could one find more? Nowhere.

Until The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics came out in 1977. I don’t know a single member of my generation who was not influenced or affected by this landmark publishing event. We’d heard of many of these strips, read about them in fanzines, seen panels and pages here and there, but finally, an entire book achieved critical mass! It was like being hit in the head with a ball bat. It opened our eyes to the rich history of newspaper strips by presenting sizable samplings of the most spectacular and idiosyncratic cartooning — everything from Little Nemo to Barney Google to Gasoline Alley to The Bungle Family, to Skippy to Alley Oop to The Gumps! My God, The Gumps! It even included a few strips I recognized — Peanuts, Doonesbury, The Wizard of Id. It was a panoramic view of history — not a sea of text with a sprinkling of tiny images. Newspaper strips from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s were, to me, like a foreign country; in fact, they were to the comic books I’d grown up reading what foreign film were to the American movies I’d grown up watching. I still remember having the same feeling of discovery and revelation and excitement after reading through the Smithsonian Collection that I had leaving the first Bergman film I’d seen, thinking, “So that’s what a foreign film is like,” and knowing that I’d just been exposed to something significant that would affect me for the rest of my life. The book was, of course, co-edited by Bill and Martin Williams. (Williams, who worked for the Smithsonian and helped bring the idea of a book about comics to fruition, was himself a superb critic of pop culture, primarily of jazz and film; his book on D. W. Griffith is essential reading to everyone interested in film.)

Bill followed the Smithsonian Collection up by editing a series of black-and-white strip collections from Hyperion Press, the first time a (more or less) systematic reprinting project had been undertaken. Once again, Bill’s selections were astute, eclectic, and idiosyncratic — A. Mutt, Baron Bean, Abbie the Agent, Connie, The Bungle Family, and others. Apparently, there was no market for such books at the time, and the line expired. Another valiant effort by Bill.

It was my great fortune to begin working with Bill a few years later. In 1981, Fantagraphics began publishing NEMO The Classic Comics Library, a quarterly magazine devoted to comic strip reprints, scholarly essays, and interviews with cartoonists under the brilliant editorship of Rick Marschall. Bill was a frequent contributor. We also began publishing our own newspaper strip reprints —Popeye, Prince Valiant, and others (for which there was, incidentally, still no market)— for which we tapped Bill for introductions and historical essays. Bill was always incredibly generous with his expertise and his time, always happy to provide us with missing strips or better versions of what we had — acting promptly and professionally and with little remuneration. Bill continued to help us over the next 30 years on a variety of projects —including at least one that won’t be published for another two or three years!

I didn’t talk to Bill as much as I would’ve liked. We spoke mostly when I wanted to involve him in a project or needed to tap his vast knowledge about comics, about which he was never proprietary and always giving. Oddly, although we’d spoken many times on the phone over that time, Bill and I had never met. I decided to rectify this in 2009. By then, I had missed my chance to visit the Academy of Comic Art in San Francisco, his legendary home/repository so ably described by R.C. Harvey, but I could still meet Bill. My plan was to drive up the coast with my son after the 2009 San Diego Comicon International, making pit stops along the way, and flying out of San Francisco. One of those stops, of course, was to visit Bill, which I did on the 29th of July.

Bill was, by then, living in a nursing home in Watsonville, California — always an unfortunate portent. But, the facility appeared to be efficiently run, and Bill’s room was airy and light, opening out on to a tastefully landscaped court. Bill was in good spirits, and mentally alert, if somewhat physically frail. Here I was, meeting someone for the first time who I’d read for years, talked to, worked with, published, who contributed to my own education and understanding — and I was thrilled. We got along instantly, and spent two hours chatting — about comics, of course, but also about his life, about his clipping newspaper strips when he was young, his stint in the Army (if I remember correctly, he told me he drove an ambulance during WWII), his next deadline for us.

One of my most vivid memories, perhaps because so unexpected, is of Bill talking excitedly and effusively about — John Grisham. He practically jumped out of his chair, walked across his crowded room and opened a dresser drawer full of Grisham novels. He pulled one out, The Last Juror, and insisted I take it. Which I did, cheerfully, even though I didn’t think I’d ever read it, and which I’ve kept as a memento of my afternoon with Bill. At first, Bill’s enthusiasm for Grisham, not exactly known for his prose style, was incongruous with his more refined taste in comic strips, or so I thought. How to reconcile this.

Bill wrote criticism as well as history, but I always considered him an historian first and foremost. A critic has to know something of history and an historian must be critically alive, but usually one skill serves the purposes and priorities of the other and rarely do you find someone who can practice both equally well (after all, who is the most recent critic-historian equally gifted in both disciplines, George Saintsbury?). Bill’s vocation, I think, was cultural history — I say this despite the fact that he had the elitist temperament of a born critic. (He was hilarious on Golden Age superhero comics; referring to why he didn’t want to edit the Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, he told Dylan Williams, “I just couldn’t see giving another boost to those meretricious superheroes, which I think are sub-moronic. …The six or seven year olds that jumped around on their beds reading Superman, in the early years, that was exactly the mental level that the thing was created for, that was its audience. It had no substantial worth except in the incidental touch of Shuster art… The content, the storylines, were imbecilic.” And who could disagree?)

Yet, fortunately, he wasn’t highbrow enough to be put off by the vulgarity and —let’s admit it— the imbecility of many newspaper strips that had compensating aesthetic virtues. His artistic preferences ran toward strips with strong, popularly conceived narratives, vivid characters, and original visual styles  — Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Roy Crane, Floyd Gottfredson. In a sense, he was working from an 19th century aesthetic (he was more likely to reference Dickens than Broch), which served him well in his exploration and appreciation of the American comic strip. It was this combination of critical acumen and catholicity of taste, his contempt for ignorance and his cantankerous refusal to accept the comic strip’s lowly place in the cultural hierarchy that made Bill Blackbeard the art form’s first true historian.


Lucy Shelton Caswell, Professor Emerita, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

It isn’t an overstatement to say that Bill Blackbeard saved the history of American comics.  Without his commitment, much of the heritage of newspaper comics would have been lost. Everyone who cares about comics is in his debt—and we here at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University are especially grateful that he entrusted his treasures to us. His legacy is great.


Chris Ware:

As an undergraduate student and aspiring cartoonist, the book laid open most often on my drawing table was Blackbeard and Williams' weighty Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics. For years I'd been led to believe by various comic book aficionados that the zenith of achievement for the medium were the EC comic books of the 1950s, but after discovering the Smithsonian book, it became all too clear to me that the real original geniuses of the medium were the pre-cinema cartoonists of the throwaway Sunday supplements of a half century prior. As a general history, the book evenly balanced a necessary all-inclusivity with an otherwise gently insistent esthetic sophistication, which was something of a virtuosic tightrope act of curation: covering everything while still allowing the greats to shine. Choosing a few representative examples of Krazy Kat and Little Nemo is hard enough, but what about introducing Gasoline Alley and Polly and Her Pals to a brand-new readership, to say nothing of uncovering the obscure efforts of George Luks and Lyonel Feininger? Even better, the strips were presented in a warm, large, full-color format which at the time must have been extraordinarily expensive, but allowed their complicated and intricate compositions to be truly re-appreciated; earlier histories of comics had tended towards text-clotted black-and-white tour schedules, amputating single panels and freeze-drying them in black and white as little more than passing souvenirs of an outmoded 19th and early 20th century naïveté. (As an aside, one of the deciding reasons I agreed to design the "Krazy and Ignatz" series was that Mr. Blackbeard was its acting editor, and I considered it a personal honor to be asked to contribute.) By devoting his life to the preservation and location of these near-extinct supplements and sections, Bill Blackbeard saved an American art from the certain peril of trash men, librarians and ultraviolet light so that we, the generations to come, could appreciate their unprepossessing, unpretentious and uproarious beauty. The comic strip may have been disposable, but Bill Blackbeard's founding contribution to the understanding of it as an art was, and always will be, timeless.


Robert Beerbohm:

Last Thursday I called to OSU seeking contact information for Bill. The long-time numbers I had for him were disconnected, but I finally had time to come pay him a visit again. I got Gary Groth on the horn; he let me know where Bill was housed. The lady who answered said a Bill Blackbeard was not on their roll list, so she clicked me over to their medical records department. That person informed me Bill had passed away some time ago.

It hit me like a ton of bricks had fallen on my head.

"What?" is all I managed to get out at first.

After going round and round with her for some minutes I realized they were not going to divulge any information, as I was not on a "next of kin" info list. A bit of anger overtook me when it sunk in that Bill had passed away over a month ago and no one knew. "Why is that?" is the question still on my mind. Tears came to my eyes as I realized I was too late to ever say goodbye to my friend of almost 40 years.

So I thank Gary for allowing me a bit of space here to do so now.

I first met Bill Blackbeard in late 1972. I had recently moved to the Bay Area and partnered with Bud Plant and the late John Barrett to open The Berkeley Comic Art Shoppe at 2512 Telegraph Ave. This older gent (we were all of 20 at the time) came into the store and engaged me in a discussion in early comic strips, which I found fascinating. Somewhere into the conversation he informed me who he was, that he had founded something called The San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, which I had dimly heard of.

I proudly informed him that the year before I had been to the house of the earliest known comics collector, one Ernie McGee, who had begun seriously collecting in 1914 when he was 20, and asked Bill how his holdings compared. Ernie had been so impressed that a (then) 19-year-old was into the earliest newspaper comic strips that he gave me his triplicate copies of the first, second, and fourth Yellow Kid tear sheets from 1895 New York World Sundays. Bill was impressed -- he didn't (yet) have those earliest Outcault creations.

Some weeks later I paid a visit to the "Academy" on Ulloha Street in San Francisco's Sunset District. My mind was blown: There were mountains of comic strips and bound volumes all carefully indexed and sorted. Ernie's three story house was full of comics material, but he had trouble finding anything. Bill knew exactly where everything was.

After a few hours of absorbing what his mission on this planet was, I became an ardent fan of his work, supporting him every way I could, which led to a lifelong friendship. After Ernie passed away in the mid 1970s, Jack Herbert, a noted New York City collector, obtained Ernie's Yellow Kid run. When Jack passed away sometime later, he, in turn, willed the precious treasure to Bill, who turned it into the 1995 book R.F. Outcalt's Yellow Kid. Most every newspaper comic strip reprint project published over the past 40 years was possible at least in part due to Bill Blackbeard spending countless thousands of hours clipping and sorting, assembling duplicates of the best printed examples of nearly every comic strip ever published.

In 1996, when I was asked to create the Platinum Era section of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, Bill was one of my first sources. We spent several days going through drawer after drawer, with Bill talking to the effect about "what took you guys so long?" to recognize the comic books published before Famous Funnies in 1934. Most recently, Bill and I worked together via Chris Ware on the current Fantagraphics editions of Krazy Kat, as I was able to supply some crucial ephemera.

When it came time for Bill to think about his future, and as the deal to sell the archive to OSU was being made, I asked Bill "why?" and his reply was, "Bob, at some point one thinks more about Metamucil than anything else. Besides, I am keeping the 'good stuff' for another decade, which is everything earlier than 1920." We laughed about that, and about time marching on.

In retirement Bill and Barbara moved down to Santa Cruz near the ocean. Until recent years, I visited Bill there every year. I'm still coming out of the shock that I can never talk to my friend again. Then again, all we can do is pass our lore and knowledge onto future generations like Bill tirelessly did in his lifetime.


Mark Newgarden:

I never met Bill Blackbeard but I always felt like he was one of the family. I’ve lived with that name staring back at me from my bookshelves since I was old enough to have my own bookshelf. During my childhood, every new book on old comics seemed to find its way under the tree for me at Christmas time, and every book, invariably, seemed to have some something to do with Bill Blackbeard. Starting with All in Color for A Dime, the Nostalgia Press Popeye volume, the entire Hyperion Library of Classic American Comic Strips series, and of course The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. I devoured each and every one, usually by New Year's Day, and then over and over again. These books, ultimately, made me a cartoonist and made me a collector. Thank you, Bill Blackbeard.


Michael Tisserand:

A few years ago, the first stop in my research for an upcoming biography of George Herriman was Bill Blackbeard's mightily cluttered home, which sat just a brick's throw from the ocean. As we talked I couldn't help but scan the science fiction posters and pictures on the walls, the Isaac Asimov books on the shelves, and the Laurel & Hardy films scattered on the floor. It was like a cave filled with treasure, fitting for someone with a great pirate name.

Blackbeard was generous, insightful, and funny. I knew that he had been involved in some debates in the past about Herriman's ethnicity, so I approached that tricky topic gingerly. I needn't have worried. He was eager to learn what I had uncovered and ready to discuss in detail the nuances of the issue. I was well aware that I was in the presence of a crackling intellect, a gifted writer, and a collector who, as Jeet Heer wrote in his tribute, collected not to hoard, but to share. I also knew that Blackbeard's work made mine possible.

At the end of the morning he graciously gave me a couple of his SPEC publications of The Family Upstairs. I asked if he would sign one and he declined, saying that he would never sign something that was really the cartoonist's work.

In May 2008, for Fantagraphics' collection of Herriman's 1943-1944 Krazy Kat comics, Blackbeard penned an introduction that Heer later pointed out to me seemed to be both an elegant appreciation of Herriman's final work as well as an acknowledgment of Blackbeard's own failing health.

Blackbeard wrote:

"When the ravages of a disease like George Herriman's deadly cirrhosis of 1944 have taken their toll on a once active intellect, what remains may be the mere breathing hull of a departed persona where a mentality has simply shut down for good. Poe put it well: 'Broken is the golden bowl, the spirit flown forever.' It is a kind of death in seeming life, the saddest exit a human being can take from creative self-awareness in art and life."

He then finished the essay with an illuminating study of the final Krazy Kat strips and their images of "interment and submersion ... unmoored from any apparent point or premise within the strips' storylines."

As Asimov said, "Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome."

R.I.P. and thank you, Bill Blackbeard.


Trina Robbins:

I was so sorry and sad to read this news. Of course I knew Bill was not well, and that he was getting on, but it still comes as a shock. I owe so much to Bill! It was in 1970 that he gave me my first Nell Brinkley newspaper page, thus setting me on the road that eventually became two books on Nell. I could not have done any of my histories of women cartoonists and superheroines without Bill, who gladly went above and beyond what I asked of him, finding women cartoonists for me that I hadn't even known about. If Bill liked you, he could be worth his weight in gold, but if he DIDN'T like you -- and here's a story: Alex Toth visited Bill's house once. If you'd ever been there, you'd know it was floor to ceiling paper products, many ancient and flaking, so of course he had a no smoking rule. Alex, whom many of us remember was not a particularly pleasant person, smoked and refused to put out his cigarette to enter Bill's house, so Bill wouldn't let him in. That was Alex's loss.

He also never answered his phone. When you phoned, you'd get a message that you'd reached the Academy of Cartoon Art, and to leave a message. If he liked you, he'd return the call. I'm very grateful that Bill liked me.

I remember when some folks I knew were visiting San Fran and wanted to visit the Cartoon Art Museum, but they kept phoning Bill's Academy of Cartoon Art by mistake, and they complained bitterly to me that they wanted to visit the museum, but their phone calls were never returned! I was able to figure out their mistake, and they got their visit to the museum.

Bill was also a fount of information about the early days of fandom and a pleasure to listen to.


Peter Maresca:

Bill was a friend and a mentor. I first met him in 1980, but only got to know him well in the last decade. I visited with him a few times a year since he moved from San Francisco down to Santa Cruz. The last visit was just before Christmas; his mind and movement were considerably slower than just a few months earlier, but he still talked about projects present and future. Somehow I thought he’d keep going forever.

I watched his health deteriorate steadily over the last eight years, but his spirit—his love for and devotion to his calling—remained strong to the end. Art Spiegelman and I took him out to lunch one day shortly before he was forced to move from his trailer to the nursing home in Watsonville, a few miles to the south. Unfortunately, there was no one around to give him the home care he needed. He could barely walk, occasionally needed oxygen, but during our visit he made only slight reference to his ailments, as if they were a minor nuisance, and much preferred to hear more about what we were doing. Art was in Santa Cruz that day to speak on his No Towers book and how he channeled the early comics artists to help himself through frightening times. I had just released my first Little Nemo collection, conceived with great encouragement from Bill. I listened as he told stories and shared his knowledge of comics history, expanding an appreciation of both the medium and the work he had done to bring it to a modern audience.

I don’t think there would be a Sunday Press Books without Bill Blackbeard. And if he had not spent those many years mining the trash of our short-sighted libraries, sorting, clipping, cataloging, Xeroxing, and of course, writing and editing, I’m pretty sure that the wealth of comics reprints we enjoy today would be greatly diminished, as would the broad appreciation and acceptance of the true American art form known as the comic strip. Bill was certainly aware of his accomplishments, but of greater importance to him was that he was having such fun doing it all.

Bill is gone, but I can state with more meaning than is usually found in this old saying: we’ll see him in the funny papers.


Jeet Heer:

I’ve already paid my respects to Bill Blackbeard but as the tributes and eulogies continue to pile up, I feel that there are still important parts of his legacy that need to be showcased. Like most other obituarists, I tipped my hat to Blackbeard’s monumental achievements as an archivist and also his work co-editing (with Martin Williams) the landmark Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. These were, I still believe, Blackbeard’s most important contributions, but in celebrating them there is the danger that short shrift will be given to Blackbeard’s writing.

The eagle-eyed Tom Spurgeon has already noted that little attention is being given to Blackbeard’s writing and to make amends I want to make a few notes. Blackbeard’s two best essays were “The First (arf, arf) Superhero of Them All (Popeye)” (which can be found in the anthology All In Color For a Dime edited by Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff) and "Mickey Mouse and the Phantom Artist" (which deals with Floyd Gottfredson and appeared in the anthology The Comic-Book Book, another Thompson/Lupoff production). These essays were exemplary acts of evocative appreciative criticism: written at a time when the comics of Segar and Gottfredson were nearly wholly inaccessible, they vividly described the vitality and narrative inventiveness of these artists.

Descriptive accuracy is an underrated skill in criticism. High-spirited and peppered with peppy prose, these essays captured the experience of following day by day or week by week a long story featuring Poyeye and Mickey Mouse. I actually read these essays before I encountered either Segar’s or Gottfredson’s work, so when I actually read the strips I had a sense of déjà vu since Blackbeard’s evocation were so faithful and observant.

In a slightly different key, Blackbeard’s wrote a strong historical essay on The Yellow Kid for the 1995 Kitchen Sink volume reprinting Outcault’s influential strip. This long introduction – really a short book – was Blackbeard’s most sustained effort as a historian and was notable for overturning many oft-repeated bits of newspaper folklore. Blackbeard brought a level of factual care to comics history that remains rare. If we had deeply researched essays for all the other major cartoonists of the early 20th century comparable to Blackbeard’s best writing, our entire sense of the form’s history would be different.

As R.C. Harvey has suggested, Blackbeard was an idiosyncratic writer, given to digressions, at time garrulous and in love with arcane slang. You could never be quite sure what tack he would take: I recall one introduction to a Roy Crane reprint that dealt largely with Victorian illustrators. A reader looking for information on Crane would be puzzled by this approach, although as it happens Blackbeard was exactly right in locating comic strips in the larger tradition of writing with pictures that includes the Victorian illustrated novel. Blackbeard occasionally indulged a penchant for useless argumentation, as when he argued that Prince Valiant wasn’t really comics because it had no word balloons (an argument that actually conflicted with his otherwise admirable catholic sense of the heterogeneity of the comics form).

But however maddening he could occasionally be, Blackbeard’s writing always had personality and verve. You could never mistake his voice for the humdrum journalistic or academic language that dominates most critical writing.

Gary Groth is right to say that Blackbeard was more of a historian than a critic but I’d add a few provisos. Firstly, Blackbeard focused more on history than criticism in part out of sheer necessity: the history of comics was so thinly written, so filled with inaccuracies, that he had little choice but to try to create an infrastructure so that genuine knowledge could exist. Hence his work as an archivist and editor. Secondly, editing at its best can be a critical act: in selecting so carefully the best of the comics past and presenting the material in a way that made its merits impossible to ignore, Blackbeard and Williams were committing a critical act (comparable, I’ve argued elsewhere to the various editorial interventions of Spiegelman and Mouly, Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies, Hugh Kenner’s volume of Seventeenth Century Poetry or the Subtreasury of American Humor edited by E.B. and Katharine White). Editing at its best has a creative side and also is a salutary critical act; certainly Blackbeard’s exemplary editing didn’t just preserve the past, it also altered how we looked at the past.