April 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last year at around this time, the comics community discovered that Bill Blackbeard had died. Here is my tribute to Blackbeard, originally posted on The Panelists on April 26, 2011.
When I teach the history of comics and graphic novels, I always take my class on a field trip to the microfilm readers in our campus library. The library’s only got two microfilm readers left standing, so I pick two students at random and ask them to perform a couple of tasks. First, they have to find a newspaper on microfilm that carries Terry and the Pirates in their comics section. This isn’t hard to do, given Caniff’s popularity during the 1930s and ‘40s. Second, I ask the students to hunt down a specific Terry strip: the daily for October 16, 1941, when Raven Sherman dies in Dude Hennick’s arms, a comic strip milestone. Invariably, when the students bring this strip up on the screen of the microfilm reader, it looks like shit, all blurry focus and surface grit.
Then I talk about Bill Blackbeard. I outline the facts of his collecting life, especially his acquisition of the Library of Congress Naval collection, and claim that without Blackbeard’s efforts, much of comics history would be a smudged mess. “It’s Blackbeard’s preservation of original newspapers, combined with digital restoration techniques, that give us results like this,” I say, and then I break out the October 16 daily as reprinted in all its pristine glory in the IDW Terry books. (Before the IDW volumes, I used the NBM reprints, which were still considerably better than microfilmed newspaper versions.) The students get it—they understand why Blackbeard’s work was so important—and to the students I’ve taught in film history classes, I mention that Blackbeard is the comics medium’s Henri Langlois.
Blackbeard’s importance goes far beyond his role as a preservationist. Dozens of cartoonists cite his co-edited (with Martin Williams) Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics as a major inspiration, and its oversized opulence reverberates in such contemporary anthologies as Kramers Ergot #7 (2008). Also, his work was a major influence on Nicholson Baker’s critique of contemporary libraries (as Kristy Valenti and Jeet Heer also point out). Baker begins his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), a jeremiad against such library practices as throwing away books and newspaper collections, with an account of meeting Blackbeard and being impressed by his efforts and ideas. Let me quote Baker at length:
A man named Blackbeard told a reporter that he had a story for me. He wouldn’t reveal any details to the reporter (who was Nina Siegal, of the San Francisco Bay Guardian); I was supposed to call him. I didn’t make the call right away, though, because the squabble over the San Francisco Public Library was sufficiently distracting, and because my family and I were packing to spend a year in England. Some weeks later, going through some papers, I found the name, Bill Blackbeard, and his number, which I dialed. Blackbeard had a formal, slightly breathless way of talking; he was obviously intelligent, perhaps a little Ancient Marinerian in the way that lifelong collectors can be. He had edited collections of comic strips (early Popeye, Terry and the Pirates, Krazy Kat), and he ran something called the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art—a one-man curatorship, apparently—which owned, he said, a very large number of ex-library newspaper volumes, including one-of-a-kind runs of the great early Hearst papers. Some of what Blackbeard told me I couldn’t quite comprehend: that the Library of Congress, the purported library of last resort, had replaced most of its enormous collection of late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspapers with microfilm, and that research libraries were relying on what he called ‘fraudulent’ scientific studies when they justified the discarding of books and newspapers on the basis of diagnosed states of acidity and embrittlement. I said that it all sounded extremely interesting and that maybe he should write about it himself: I thanked him and hung up. I was tired of finding fault with libraries; in theory, I loved libraries.
Almost two years later, I thought of Blackbeard again, and I decided to pay him a visit. He had by this time sold his newspaper collection, which filled six tractor trailers, to Ohio State University, and he had moved to Santa Cruz, where his wife liked to surf. He was in his early seventies, fit, clean shaven, wearing a nubbly gold sweater and a baseball hat turned backward. One room of his very small house was filled with dime novels and old science-fiction magazines in white boxes. In his youth, he’d written for Weird Tales; he’d driven armored vehicles in the Eighty-ninth Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in the Second World War; and in 1967, filled with an ambition to write a history of the American comic strip, he’d discovered that libraries were getting rid of their newspaper collections. The San Francisco Public Library had, Blackbeard said, an ‘incredible treasure trove.’ Staff members told him that they would love to have him take it away, but unfortunately he was a private citizen—the library’s charter permitted the transfer of material only to a non-profit organization. ‘I became a non-profit organization so fast you couldn’t believe it,’ Blackbeard told me. Soon he had acquired a bound run of William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, which the Hearst Corporation had donated to the Los Angeles Public Library (the library kept the custom-made burnished mahogany shelves), and another American run from the Stanford University Libraries. He went around the country picking up newspaper volumes, which he called ‘files,’ a usage that confused me at first. Sometimes he cut the comic strips of Sunday sections out and sold the remains to dealers; sometimes he kept the volumes whole. ‘When I suddenly discovered that I could have any of them that I wanted, I just went off my rocker. It was the most wonderful thing in the world.’ Blackbeard also told me about a test that librarians were using on paper, in which they folded the corner of a page back and forth until it broke. (viii-ix)
This test is invoked in the title of Baker’s book, Double Fold. It’s a test to determine the fragility of paper, which both Blackbeard and Baker argue is much more resilient than librarians presume, and infinitely preferable to crummy microfilm scans of Terry dailies. Blackbeard inspired Baker to write his expose of dubious library procedures, and Double Fold ends with Baker following Blackbeard’s example. In 1999, when Baker heard about the British Library liquidating their foreign newspaper holdings, he started his own non-profit, the American Newspaper Repository, and bought more than ninety runs. (In 2004, Baker deposited the holdings of the American Newspaper Repository at Duke University’s Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library.) With the images found in these newspapers, Baker and his wife Margaret Brentano put together the invaluable The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (2005), which I also use in class: while the two students hunt down the Terry strip on microfilm, the rest of gasp at how ravishingly beautiful the drawings and engravings in Pulitzer’s World were, and lament the state of the contemporary newspaper.
Thank you Bill, and thank you Nicholson. As Al Williamson said in his interview in The Comics Journal #90 (May 1984), “God bless the collectors. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have any history left” (89).