Bill Blackbeard, R.I.P.


As we like to stress here at Reason, this is a staggeringly wonderful age of cultural reproduction and preservation and access. If you are into newspaper comic strips, one of the major people you have to thank for the revival and preservation of the old paper in which these wonderful bits of American art appeared is Bill Blackbeard, who alas died recently. Tom Spurgeon in a well reported, well thought, and well felt piece at Comics Reporter gets to the heart of his achievement:

It is because of Blackbeard and a few fellow travelers that it's hard to conceive of the notion, but there was a time in the battle between the newspaper comic strip and oblivion that you could make a case that oblivion on a mass scale stood a good chance of eventually winning out. Newspapers themselves and local libraries kept copies of printed issues, but there were always storage space issues with the former and exposure issues with latter. As radio and television media continued to surge in the 1940s and into the 1950s, markets served by several newspapers—and several sets of comics—began to shrink into double- and single-paper cities, with only intermittent attention paid to saving the fallen publication's physical record. There was the further matter of the quality of the material being saved. Fans less mature and more focused on the obsessive joys of owning a run of a certain strip as they saw it appear daily might not pay attention to the way the post-War publication might trim the edges to have more features fit. Judging from the relative quality of Blackbeard's future archives, his holdings tended to represent the best copy of a strip available in a way that could not have been an accident. Blackbeard was that rare reader and enjoyer of comics with wide enough taste so that a great deal of material was saved, but also maintaining standards as to what he was reading and enjoying so that the reputation of certain strips would be protected and promoted above others. He was clearly the ideal man, the only man, for the job of his lifetime.

Hoping to parlay his collection into a book about the comic strip form, the 1960s saw Blackbeard's archival efforts intensify. Published-strip collection—clipping individual strips right out of the paper or the rarer choice of keeping sheets of the funny pages intact—wasn't just important for the fact that it could be left to the self-actualized efforts of a Bill Blackbeard, it was in many ways the only dependable resource for gathering together the art in any format….Syndicate tearsheets and similar material devoted to the publication process have become a source for many collection efforts in recent years, but particularly with the older strips they fail to cohere into a dependable resource because of their own versions of the problems facing both newspaper/library holdings (syndicates were institutions that frequently went out of business) and original art (such hard-copy records weren't valued within many of those companies). It is in no way a stretch to suggest that the archival comics efforts of the last 35 years would, without Blackbeard, be a vastly spotty, arbitrary and much more limited affair.

Blackbeard's foundational acquisition, and a turning point in his career, came in I believe the early 1960s when he secured from the Library of Congress a number of newspapers from their warehouses that they were in the process of scanning for microfilm and destroying. Not only did this yield truckloads of material for Blackbeard's holdings, but it provided a strategy to pursue in securing more material and a cultural movement to fight against. Since at least the early 1940s, libraries had been collecting newspaper material with the idea that it would have to be eventually scanned into microfilm or other medium because of storage concerns and the inevitable decay of the material. Blackbeard quickly seized on a counter-narrative: that the printed material wasn't decaying to significant extent except as it was haphazardly exposed to light, that a great deal of this material's power would be lost to a form that did not feature color or a way to capture delicacies of line, and that this was going to happen mostly because the libraries had invested in a way of thinking that said it was going to happen, any evidence to the contrary be damned. Blackbeard would eventually find an eager recipient for his thoughts on the matter in the author Nicholson Baker, who had discovered and written about the destruction of printed material in San Francisco's libraries using versions of the same specious arguments that Blackbeard had now spent decades inveighing against. Blackbeard appears as a kind of combination wise man, spiritual teacher and desert prophet in Baker's award-winning 2001 Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (and the New Yorker pieces that preceded it), about the latter stages of a movement against keeping and cherishing print that Blackbeard had witnessed three to four decades earlier.

Spurgeon's whole obit is well worth reading, as is the Baker book he alludes to above. Spurgeon also has a roundup of the rest of the comic world's reaction to Blackbeard's passing.

The Blackbeard-edited Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics was the beginning of education in and love for the old strips for me and a whole generation, as Spurgeon notes. All this whimsy, personality, comedy, humanity, love, all of it appearing daily and meant to disappear: Blackbeard wasn't going to let it. The most quotidian of arts, still huge, still peculiar, still insightful and ridiculous and lovely and pleasing, and thanks to Blackbeard, still here, and probably never to go away. The relentless passions of both the artists and Blackbeard, rewarding thousands probably millions now and in the future: worth honoring and remembering.

As comics historian Jeet Heer noted, Blackbeard's gift to the cartoonists of today was a usable, accessible history of their own art: even if you don't care for the specific wonders of 20th century newspaper strips, if you love any modern cartoonist, you still should tip your hat to Blackbeard.