Monday, April 25, 2011

Bill Blackbeard

I got some sad news this weekend. An old friend died last month. Bill Blackbeard was a guy like no other I've ever met. In this era of trendy books on old comics, second rate scholarship and a sense that the love has gone out of old comics, Bill was and will always abe a shining star. He wasn't the first guy to be a fan of comics and turn it into a life long pursuit. But in so many ways, for me, he was the greatest. I love almost all of the first generation of comics fans, the ones who did it because they liked it, not because they wanted to make a buck or get a publishing deal. From Jerry Bails to Ron Goulart, those guys were my teachers. Bill was the principle at the school.

Bill first entered my life like he did almost everyone's, through the Smithsonian Book of Comic Strips. I was 8, my grandfather and grandmother knew I loved comics and were pretty high-minded so they figured that a book like this from the Smithsonian would be just the thing to get my head out of the comic shop and smarten me up. It worked, almost too well. And like for almost everyone from my generation (70s kids) the book opened up vistas beyond imagination. Everyone had their favorites. Mine were Wash Tubbs, Jimmy Swinnerton, and Milt Gross. Maybe most of all, two White Boy strips that would haunt me forever. My family had already got me hooked on Barnaby, Krazy Kat and Katzenjammer Kids.  The book was like a bible for comics, is exactly still a bible for comics. If you don't own it, you should.

So, it was shocking years later when I started reading collections of books like Terry & the Pirates, Wash Tubbs, Polly & Her Pals, and Krazy Kat and saw his name everywhere. Besides Rick Marshall he seemed to be the guy who knew everything about old comics. And then I found out he lived in San Francisco across the bay and ran a library/museum that I could go to. I figured it out in 1993. And I showed up. The museum was in its last days. All the work had been done and I could just sit their and reap the bennifits. To me, Bill was the nicest guy in the world, he was a classic comics, movie, pulp and old pop culture fan in exactly the same way I felt like I was. Of course, what he knew was so far beyond what I was understanding at the time. Still is, most likely. But he always shared. From the minute I went there I felt like this was a guy who wanted to help me find anything I was looking for. I read stacks of Scorchy Smith, Barney Google, and even White Boy. I kept on coming back, bringing friends. Every weekend I could. Eventually Bill turned my on to The Bungle Family. He had the patience of a saint and the wisdom of a true guru. And he was no bullshit. No highminded trying to legitamize comics. I think he taught me that comics are inherrently legitmate.

And then he started explaining newspaper history to me. I'd never really understood what had gone on at newspapers. It is a complex story but the gist of it is that newspaper editors hated comics and chased them out of the paper, shrinking them at every turn. Dumbing them down whenever possible. If you read the interview below, you can see this in his love for the comic strip Ernie, as one of the last really intelligent comics at the time. He gets into this in the interview.

So, I moved away from the Bay Area at the end of 1997 and stopped going to Bill's. I would visit and we wrote a few times. He moved to Santa Cruz and gave a giant amount of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art to the Ohio State library. Watching him work, talking with him and learning from him I'd realized a lot of things about life had never been clear to me. Life wasn't about being the most well known, making the most money or showing off. It was about enjoying what you do and sharing it. And for a collector, like me, I was realizing that it wasn't about having everything and knowing the most. It was about enjoying what you could and sharing it.

In the second part of the 90s there would be a boom in old timey influenced comics. Chris Ware, Seth, Joe Matt, Dan Clowes, Ivan Brunetti and all of their descendants would fall under the spell of old comics all based on the work of Bill. They'd be the first to acknowledge it. It may seem like just the way the world is, with everyone being into old comics, but in the 80s and early 90s most every alternative comics artist was headed as far away from comics history as they could. Just by sharing what he liked, tirelessly Bill hadn't just changed the past of comics, he'd changed the future. In the 2000s a whole new crop of comics historians would pop up. Ones who owed everything to Bill (and the people who'd been working for so little for so long). So, when you read a collection of Buzz Sawyer, Gasoline Alley or Popeye think about Bill, even if he didn't write the introduction, much of the research was done by him and a handful of others.

One last thing to add about Bill. He always spoke truth to power. He wasn't a thorn in the side of authority or anything but he always spoke up. He knew so much about the way newspapers were run, the way libraries dealt with papers and the way comics at large worked. For example, he was the man behind the facts of Libraries' abandonment of paper in favor of microfilm. Kristy Valenti (another great writer) wrote an article on it here. As Bill once told me, "Paper only yellows and gets brittle if you leave it out in the sun." Bill never stopped at promoting his view on comics and all the inaccuracies in the way they had been interpreted. As I get older I understand this more and more. Little things like "yellowing paper" mean nothing to people but they change the way you see comics from the past. Saying that things aren't working, that goes much deeper. Only Bill Blackbeard and Bill Waterson ever had the guts to explain how newspaper editors killed comics, in spite of an ever giant audience for them. And years later, in the day of the vanishing newspaper, killed one of the few things that may have kept people reading comics. His complaining pissed off a lot of librarians and I'm sure a lot of newspaper editors. He wasn't always right and RC Harvey points out some contested points in his piece over at the TCJ.

I've missed talking with Bill every weekend for years. And now, I miss everything about the guy. He will always be my teacher, my inspiration, my doorway and my friend. Thank you Bill for everything you've done for all of us. Comics owes you more than it will ever know.

(I should note that I was 24 when I did this interview and pretty silly about a lot of things. I think, in a lot of ways, my ignorance helps the reader. But, for me it is embarassing to re-read the bold text. Bill's part is still sage-like. Jeff LeVine was nice enough to print this in his visionary Destroy All Comics magazine, and if I remember right he did all the layout and some/all of the transcribing?)

 

6 comments:

Cartoon said...

Thanks for posting this! I'm kicking myself that I never got around to visiting Bill in person, but I'm glad that all of these great interviews are surfacing now.

tom Neely said...

you were lucky to have known him.
thanks for sharing.

SEAN ÄABERG said...

This was great Dylan.

dylan sparkplug said...

A great, informative post about other writing by Blackbeard:

http://john-adcock.blogspot.com/2011/04/from-weird-tales-to-hogans-alley.html

J.T. Dockery said...

That interview was really when Blackbeard entered my consciousness in a big way; I remembered it but not that you did it. Destory All Comics was a big deal to me.

dylan sparkplug said...

Thanks JT and Tom and Sean. I'm glad this went over well. Bill is deserving of a book or two.

Destroy All Comics! Even though I got to be in it, it was a big deal for me too. I feel like it was one of the closest intersections of punk and comics.