Bill Blackbeard dies at 84; scholar of newspaper comics

Bill Blackbeard, an early scholar of newspaper comics who created an indispensable archive in San Francisco that helped legitimize the study of comics in popular culture, has died. He was 84.

Blackbeard died at a Country Villa nursing home in Watsonville, Calif. His March 10 death, confirmed by Social Security records became public only in late April when news of it circulated on websites devoted to comics.

"It's not an understatement to say that the entire movement of looking at comics as American history and culture would be fundamentally different without Bill and his contributions," said Andrew Farago of the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco.

In 1967, Blackbeard set out to write a scholarly history of newspaper comics but was sidetracked by a reality that did not amuse him. There was no comprehensive archive devoted to newspaper funnies to pull from, so he resolved to build one.

He soon realized that libraries across the country were converting newspapers and colorful comics to black-and-white microfiche to save space and then dumping their massive archives.

A comic-strip aficionado since his boyhood in Newport Beach, Blackbeard was aghast over what he saw as widespread disregard for preservation. He called the discovery "horripilating." ("He even talked like an old-time comics character," Farago said.)

"Blackbeard realized this was a major American art form, and it was not being properly appreciated," Farago said. "He took it upon himself to go from library to library with a rental truck and house these collections himself."

To enable libraries to legally donate their discards, Blackbeard founded a nonprofit organization, the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, headquartered in the home near Golden Gate Park that he shared with his wife, Barbara.

The couple sold their car and many possessions to establish what they believed was "a very necessary and important repository," Blackbeard told The Times in 1971.

By then, their two-story home was already jammed floor to ceiling with bound newspapers and comics-related material. Only the bathroom was spared from doubling as academy space.

His goal was to put together a complete run of every nationally syndicated comic strip, dating from their beginning in the mid-1890s, and he largely succeeded, Farago said.

In the 1990s, Blackbeard estimated that he and volunteers had clipped and organized 350,000 Sunday comic strips and 2.5 million dailies.

He reached into his vast stockpile to contribute to more than 200 books.

Chief among them was 1977's "The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics," considered a seminal book on the history of comics. He co-edited the tome, and his archives were the source of its hundreds of images — from 1896's "Hogan's Alley" to 1976's "The Wizard of Id."

"That book was a real milestone," Farago said. "If I ran through everyone who owned that book or cited it as a major influence, it would be a very impressive 'Who's Who.' "

Before moving to Santa Cruz, Blackbeard negotiated with Ohio State University's cartoon research library in 1997 to take over his collection. Six semitrucks were needed to move it.

It was the largest collection acquired by the library and "one of the most important for the study of popular culture in general and graphic narrative … in particular," wrote library curator Jenny E. Robb in 2009 in the Journal of American Culture. The article was titled "Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued the Comics."

William Elsworth Blackbeard was born April 28, 1926, in Indianapolis and moved to Newport Beach when he was about 9. His father, Sidney Blackbeard, was an electrician, and his mother, Thelma, kept the books for his father's business.

As an adolescent, Bill wandered into a neighbor's garage that was brimming with stacks of colorful Sunday comics. After that, he "had no other interest," he later said.

During World War II, he served in the Army in Europe. Upon his return, he attended Fullerton College and became a freelance writer.

Among the books Blackbeard wrote was "R.F. Outcault's the Yellow Kid" (1995), a detailed history of the early comic strip. He also co-edited "The Comic Strip Century" (1995), an unofficial companion to his Smithsonian work.

Although he never wrote his official history of comics, Blackbeard left "a really outstanding legacy," Farago said. "No historian or cartoon museum employee would be where they are today without his work as the cornerstone."

Information on survivors was not available.

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