News of Yore 1982: Comics Historian Bill Blackbeard Profiled

The Academy of Comic Art
By Jerry D. Lewis
(reprinted from The Press, Vol.7 #2, 1982)

The stars and producers of the play “Grease” gathered backstage at New York’s Royale Theatre on December 8th, 1979 and celebrated wildly to mark the production’s 3243rd performance. That established it as the longest running show in Broadway history.

True fans of comic strips, like San Francisco’s Bill Blackbeard, jeer at that statistic.

“Hell,” he says, “Blondie has been appearing in daily and Sunday papers since 193O. That’s almost 20,000 performances, and it’s still going strong. With a hundred million readers a day in more than 1,800 papers, Blondie makes author-artist Dean Young one of the best read writers in the world, a writer who produces a best-seller every day.”

If the name Bill Blackbeard should be unfamiliar to you, he’s a broad-shouldered, bespectacled Hoosier out of Lawrence, Indiana, who’s spent the later part of his 55 years in California. As a free-lance writer back in 1967, he came up with an idea and sold it to Oxford University Press. The idea — to write a book on comic strips as an American contribution to art.

“I signed a contract with Oxford, but the first week I started to do research, I knew it was a lost cause,” he says. “Not only had no previous research of any value ever been done, but almost every old book on early comic book history — and there were only five of them -was full of misinformation. You couldn’t find any two sources that agreed with each other.

“I still haven’t delivered that book to Oxford, but this is to give them proper warning. One of these years, I will get around to it.”

Setting out to do original research on some of the first comic strips in 19th century newspapers – the first was Richard Felton Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, which appeared in the N.Y. Sunday Journal in 1896 — Bill made a discovery which horrified him. Many files of back copies of big city newspapers were being copied onto microfilm, then destroyed.

“That saved space,” Bill notes, “but it also meant those papers were gone so far as being reproduced for graphic purposes was concerned. You just can’t do that kind of reproduction from microfilm.”

Blackbeard then asked the libraries in various cities to give him the files of back newspapers. They found they were prohibited by ancient laws from giving the papers to an individual, or even from selling them to him. Bill got around that hurdle by establishing the Academy of Comic Art as a non-profit organization in his San Francisco home. The three story yellow Spanish stucco building sits at the corner of Ulloa Street and 3Oth Avenue in the Sunset District of the city. As you walk up the front steps, your eye is delighted by the nearby blue Pacific in one direction and the equally pleasant waters of the San Francisco Bay in another.

Once inside the door with its one-way mirror peephole, you are escorted by Blackbeard through a living room filled with loaded book shelves on every wall. You follow him down a crooked stairway leading to a dimly-lit, climate controlled basement. Here, you find a space a few feet square where Bill has his desk and a visitor’s chair. The remaining space is occupied by bound volumes of old newspapers, piled so they divide the area into some 20 “rooms,” with narrow aisles between them. The contents of each volume are cross-indexed in filing cabinets bursting with several hundred thousand three by five cards.

Bill also has stored 2.000 dime novels and 5,000 pulp magazines (Black Mask, Spicy Adventure, Crime Busters, etc.) from the 20’s and 30’s, along with more than 10.000 comic books.

From those sources unduplicated anywhere else, Bill reproduces material for ad agencies, editors and TV producers. Those fees help support the Academy. The remaining funds come from Bill’s royalties on the 22 books he’s edited for Hyperion Press. Those volumes include reproductions of such early day comic strips as Skippy, Barney Google, Thimble Theatre (Popeye) and Bringing Up Father.

Blackbeard also authored two recent books on comics. One, Sherlock Holmes In America, from Harry N. Abrams, the prestigious art book publisher, reproduces all comic strips depicting the famed Arthur Conan Doyle detective. The other book, The Great Comic Cats, published by Troubador Press of San Francisco, is likewise available this month at your local bookstore.

Get either or both of those tomes, plus a scattering of the earlier Hyperion editions if you want to savor the period comic strip experts like Blackbeard refer to as the Golden Age of Comics — the 20’s and 30’s.

“People too young to have been around in those years,” Blackbeard tells you, “can’t have any idea of how a top comic captured the attention of the country.

“The work of a top artist, like Segar’s Thimble Theatre, for example, introduced characters and phrases which became part of the American language, Popeye’s ‘I yam what I yam, and tha’s all I yam,’ the offer of the All American moocher Wimpy ‘I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today’ were heard everywhere, and the names of two characters — Jeep and Goon — have entered the dictionary.

“It was easier in those days,” Bill notes, “because everybody read the comics as regularly as they brushed their teeth. Even someone as aloof as Henry Ford. When Sandy vanished as part of the Little Orphan Annie narrative in 1933, he sent a wire to the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, pleading ‘Please do all you can to help Annie find Sandy. We are all interested.’

“President Wilson, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were devotees of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Author William Faulkner relished Bringing Up Father and Mark Twain followed the exploits of Buster Brown.

“However, radio, then TV entered the competition for the public’s entertainment hours. Then, too, the greatly increased cost of newsprint forced papers to cut the size of the strips. In the past, 16 and 24 page color-comic sections devoted complete pages to the work of a top cartoonist. Today, the strips are three and four to a page on Sundays. And the daily comics page, which once offered a stage for six to eight large-paneled strips, now flaunts two stacks of 15 to 2O comics.

“It’s almost impossible to maintain any intelligent complexity of narrative or humor – and today’s cartoonists rarely try — in daily strips of three tiny panels or in Sunday comics of six panels.”

Blackbeard doesn’t see the end of comic strips approaching, though.

“The pendulum swings both ways. Maybe we were paying too much attention to the comics in the old days. I guess it wasn’t in the cards for a character like Popeye to continue forever to so captivate the American public that people in the 30’s flocked to movie theatres to see Popeye cartoon shorts and walked out when they ended, without waiting for the feature film.

“Through the last couple decades, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction, and except for a very few strips, like Peanuts, Blondie, and a couple others, people paid very little attention to the comics. Now the pendulum is moving again, and cartoon art is being more widely accepted. Some of Burne Hogarth’s drawings of Tarzan, for example, were displayed in the Louvre.”

We can and should all be thankful for one thing. Bill Blackbeard has earned our gratitude for recognizing the cultural value of this American contribution to art in time to save the best examples for future generations.

If you think that’s too strong a statement, drop in some day at the Academy of Comic Art in San Francisco. Bill will be delighted to let you browse as long as you wish among the mountains of evidence — the lovingly collected files which include every comic strip published since 1896.

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