Bill Blackbeard, the man who saved comics

Bill Blackbeard, the man who saved comics
Blackbeard and his collection. Photo by Joseph J. Rosenthal of SFChronicle / San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Archives

This is a frequent reference to Bill Blackbeard and, as you will see, this is no exaggeration.

An exhibition, curated by Ann Lennon and Caitlin McGurk and opening in November 2022, on view until 7 May this year at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio, bears the same name: MAN SAVES COMICS! Bill Blackbeard's Treasure of 20th Century Newspapers.

A neat digital version of the exhibition, obviously very summarised due to its magnitude, can be visited on this page.

Bill Blackbeard, el hombre que salvó los cómics

Six trucks with 75 tons of cartoons

Twenty-five years ago, six semi-trailers arrived at the Ohio State University (OSU) library. Inside were 75 tons of printed material. It was the world's most complete collection of comic strips and newspaper cartoons. It consisted of some 2.5 million pieces that Bill Blackbeard, a comic book historian and collector, had collected since 1967 in his home in San Francisco.

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A cartoon from this comic

Moving the treasure

The beginning of the history of this collection is very well told by Jenny E. Robb in an article published in 2009 in the Journal of American Culture.

In early January 1998, a moving crew arrived at 2850 Ulloa Street, in the quiet residential neighbourhood known as San Francisco's Sunset District. Inside, they discovered that the modest Spanish stucco house was literally filled from top to bottom with paper material of all shapes and sizes: books, magazines, comics, pulps, story sheets, prints, drawings and, most importantly, newspapers: bound newspapers, loose newspapers, loose sheets of newspapers and clippings.

The huge collection took up most of the rooms upstairs and the entire spacious garage on the ground floor, which stretched the length of the building. The huge garage was a maze of narrow alleyways made up of floor-to-ceiling stacks of bound newspaper volumes and loose sheets, boxes and filing cabinets containing millions of comic book clippings, and rows of shelves made up of boxes to hold books and periodicals. For decades, the building was also the residence of the man responsible for collecting this great mass of paper, Bill Blackbeard who lived there with his wife, Barbara, and more than seventy-five tons of popular culture material, when in 1997 he learned that his landlord would not renew his lease.

Source: Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued the Comics / 2009/ Jenny E. Robb Museum Curator and Associate Professor at OSU.

The history of the collection in a comic book

Ten years later, this article was turned into a 16-page comic book published by the museum with Alec Longstreth on pencils, which can be downloaded for free here.

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As the exhibition review on the museum's library blog reads:

"These priceless historical documents offer a unique insight into the popular graphic art of the early 20th century, when illustrated newspaper pages and comic strips occupied a central place in visual culture and communication. Pre-dating radio, film, and television, the impact of the newspaper as a tool for information and entertainment cannot be overstated, and the cartoonists whose images and ideas filled the pages entered the homes of millions of Americans. Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, called the collection"the most important endangered archive left on our planet since the destruction of the Royal Library of Alexandria".

Blackbeard, alife devoted to preserving comics

William Elsworth Blackbeard was born in Lawrence, Indiana, on 28 April 1926, and grew up in Newport Beach, California. He began reading comics in the 1930s, a time when the likes of Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, George Herriman, E. C. Segar, Cliff Sterrett, Chester Gould and many others were emerging.

He attended high school in Newport Beach and attended Fullerton College thanks to the GI Bill or Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, a law commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights since Blackbeard's military service was in the 89th Reconnaissance Cavalry Squadron, 9th Army, in France, Belgium and Germany during World War II.

The G.I. Bill was a law that provided a range of benefits to World War II veterans who returned home after spending at least 90 days on active duty during the war period and were not dishonourably discharged.

Benefits included low-interest mortgages and low-interest loans to start a business or farm, one year of unemployment benefits, and specific payments for tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college or vocational school. Although this law expired in 1956, the term "G.I. Bill" is still used to refer to the U.S. military veterans' assistance programmes.

During his time in high school and college, his main interests were history and literature, especially English and American literature. After college, Blackbeard began working as a freelance editor, writing stories for periodicals such as Weird Tales, a pulp magazine. Weirs Tales was a popular fiction magazine created in 1923 by Jacob Clark Hennenberger and J. M. Lansinger, founders of Rural Publications, and edited by Farnsworth Wright and published until September 1954.

He wrote, edited or contributed to over 200 books, mainly on the history and criticism of comics, several of which used pieces from his collection.

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A CBS Sunday Morning crew at the SFACA / Source

This vast compilation by the San Francisco Comic Academy(SFACA) is the great life's work and legacy of this collector, whose goal was to create a complete collection of American newspaper cartoons, starting with the earliest issues.

The SFACA collection not only includes newspaper cartoons, it grew to include popular fiction periodicals, popular film, narrative art reference works, comic books and graphic novels, dime novels and short stories, Victorian fiction illustrated with cartoons, science fiction fanzines, British children's newspapers and"Penny dreadfuls", as well as the works of important fiction writers, reflecting Blackbeard's desire to assemble a complete collection of popular fiction.

Surviving microfimation

In the 1960s he began to consider writing a history of comics. However, he discovered that there was no research centre that collected the complete series of comic strips published in American newspapers. At the same time, he discovered that many public and university libraries discarded old bound newspapers after microfilming them and, aware of the limitations of black-and-white microfilm for preserving such cultural heritage, he decided to get hold of them. All of them.

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A page from this comic

All for the collection

With the firm intention of buying this bestial amount of publications, in 1968 Bill and Barbara sold their car and most of their possessions to create the SFACA as a non-profit organisation and began collecting newspapers from California libraries, later expanding their scope to institutions all over the country, including the Library of Congress.

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The collection during their stay in California. Photograph by R.C. Harvey. From the collection of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Over the next 30 years, Blackbeard continued to acquire newspapers and other publications until 1997, when he sold the SFACA collection to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University to ensure that the collection remained intact and available for research.

The total collection consisted of 75 tons of material with works published between 1893 and 1996 and was transported from California to Ohio in six moving trucks. Blackbeard moved the SFACA to Santa Cruz as a publicly accessible reference centre.

Bill He continued to edit and publish comic collections and compile representations of popular narrative art until his death on March 10, 2011.

Sources consulted:

Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued the Comics / Jenny E. Robb

A Visit to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum / Glenn Fleishman

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