Bill Blackbeard, who did as much as anyone in history to rescue the American comic strip from the dustbin of history, died in Watsonville, California just a few weeks short of his 85th birthday. Blackbeard was born in Indiana in 1926 and moved with his family to California where the discovery of a huge stack of old newspapers in a neighbor’s garage led to a lifelong obsession with collecting comic strips.
The late 20th Century decision by libraries to replace bound copies of old newspapers with microfilm allowed Blackbeard to acquire thousands of newspaper volumes which he stored at the San Francisco Academy of Cartoon Art, which he founded in 1968. According to R.C. Harvey, who has written a lengthy and fascinating obituary of Blackbeard for The Comics Journal, by the 1990s Blackbeard and his band of comic strip devotees had clipped and organized 350,000 Sunday strips and 2.5 million dailies. Blackbeard’s enormous collection is now housed at Ohio State University. Blackbeard not only collected comic strips, he also shared his immense knowledge of the field in over 200 volumes that he either wrote or edited including the groundbreaking Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics.
We are privileged to live in the “Golden Age” of comic strip reprints. Over 100 years of priceless examples of a true American art form are now available to study and enjoy and their survival is the result of collectors such as Blackbeard who recognized the true worth of what most people dismissed as ephemera. Over 80% of all the American silent films are irretrievably lost, so the survival of so much of our comic strip heritage from those same years was by no means guaranteed. Those in the future who study American culture will be forever in the debt of collectors like Blackbeard who preserved a precious record of how Americans talked, the characters they loved, and the way they looked at the world, all expressed in an art form that was as individualistic, complex, and varied as those quintessential streams of American popular music such as jazz, blues, country, and pop.