May 19, 2024

Bill Blackbeard, Comic Strip Champion, Dies at 84

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.”

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