Bill Blackbeard's Final Splash Panel

The other day Art Spiegelman called, saddened and surprised that Bill Blackbeard, founder of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art (SFACA), had died in early March, and “nobody has heard about it until now.” His wife apparently did not inform anyone of the passing for a month. Blackbeard was a dedicated keeper of the comics, who devoted his life to preserving them and raising their cultural visibility. His death is an occasion to celebrate his life, and not just in the comics community.

The news was announced in The Comics Journal in an obituary by R.C. Harvey titled “Bill Blackbeard, The Man Who Saved Comics, Dead at 84.” He writes:

Bill Blackbeard, without question or quibble, is the only absolutely indispensable figure in the history of comics scholarship for the last quarter century—and will undoubtedly retain the title for well into this century and beyond. On March 10, only a few weeks shy of his 85th birthday, Blackbeard died in California at Country Villa Watsonville East Nursing Home where he had been living for some time. But long before he died, Blackbeard knew he would live on in scores of books that reprint American newspaper comic strips, all compiled from his monumental collection.

This was followed by a memorial, “Bill Blackbeard R.I.P.” by Jeet Heer, here:

If I had to sum up the achievement of the late Bill Blackbeard in one sentence, I would say that he was the man who gave comics its memory. Cartoonists like Winsor McCay and Frank King were immensely popular in their heyday but they worked in a notoriously fleeting medium, the newspaper page, and once their work stopped being published they were relegated to the dusty corner of the cultural consciousness reserved for trivia questions (“Who created Gasoline Alley?”). Largely thanks to Blackbeard’s unparalleled work as a collector and archivist, McCay, King, and countless other cartoonists from the early 20th century aren’t just answers to trivia questions, but rather are living forces in the comics world, with their major works in print and vibrantly influential on the best young cartoonists of the day.

I met Blackbeard only once, when he came to speak at an annual symposium I had co-chaired at SVA, Modernism & Eclecticism: The History of Graphic Design. He was surprisingly shy on stage, but his passion was extreme. I recall getting in an argument with him over racial and ethnic stereotypes in comics (I was writing a book on the subject). He said they were indeed racist, but context is everything, and discussing stereotyping in relation to American history would fill volumes. Alas, I never finished mine.

As Spiegelman and most anyone involved in comics will tell you, without Blackbeard, the so-called “Savior of Paper,” comics would be a trivial pursuit in pop culture. His Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics was the turning point in the study and popular appreciation of the form. He didn’t just leave lots of comics in his collection, he left an invaluable  historical record (currently residing at Ohio State University).

For a significant article on Blackbeard’s essential contribution see Jenny E. Robb’s  “Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued The Comics” here. And here is an excerpt:

For Blackbeard, collecting newspapers and comic strips became more than a hobby and more than a career; it became his way of life. He and his San Francisco Academy of Comic Art call to mind the words of Nikolai Aristides, who defined a collection as ‘‘an obsession organized’’ and says of the collector, ‘‘if he has any introspection, he begins at some point to sense that the collection possesses him’’ (330). In the text for an SFACA brochure written in 1975, Blackbeard promises ‘‘twenty-four-hour accessibility to this material.’’ Twenty years later, he wrote, ‘‘The Academy founder and director is in residence at the Academy with his wife (who is employed elsewhere), and is thus able to work with the collections and Academy undertakings during his waking hours seven days a week’’ (Blackbeard, A Brief 1995 Summary, 2). An early Los Angeles Times article by Charles Hillinger about the collection reported that Blackbeard and his wife sold their car and most of their possessions to start the Academy.

Above image courtesy of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art.

(Graphic design as the poetry of everyday life on yesterday’s Nightly Heller)

3 thoughts on “Bill Blackbeard's Final Splash Panel

  1. Pingback: Trina Robbins on Comics Heroines, Feminism, and Lacy Underthings — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  2. Linda Rodgers

    Steven Heller’s article points out how remise the comic and graphic design community focus so much on top names and miss once famous contributors to the fields. Bill Blackbeard had made it possible to explore these jewels. Are we hurd animals that only follow the most recent star and never look at the wonderful people that made it possible for the new generation to go further. Blackbeard has given writers, artist, illustrators, cartoonest and many others a fantastic historical resource. I know I have used his collection for research. Unfortunately, Ohio State doesn’t have the money to digitize but a small part of the collection. If a person has some specific information, one can ask and pay a nomenal fee to have certain images digitized for use in articles or books.
    In Blackbeard’s collection there are examples of the work of women cartoonest that we rarely here about. The field isn’t exclusively all male. It would be nice for people to explore some of those people that have also made contributions. Few writers have taken advantage of this resource as much as Trina Robbins. If you studio the work of past comic illustrators you can see the influence in todays work.
    Many thanks to Steven Heller for noteing the passing of Bill Blackbeard and making reference to his wonderful gift to the world.

  3. Susan Bergeron-West

    The Modernism & Eclecticism conferences were the best. It was a huge privilege to hear and meet the giants of graphic design. I remember that discussion. The panel presentations were always unbelievably lively and inspirational. Thank you once again. Bill Blackbeard will indeed be missed.