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A treasure trove of comic strip art

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And for the late Bill Blackbeard, the treasure he stored floor to ceiling in his San Francisco home was perhaps the largest, most comprehensive personal collection of American newspaper comics.

“He was a loner,” said Caitlin McGurk, curator of comics and cartoon art at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. “He felt a calling to preserve this kind of material that no one else really cares about. I mean, comic art is an underdog in the art world.”

The library is currently displaying a sampling of the trove of cartoons (about 2.5 million pieces in all, dating back to 1893) that Blackbeard collected over 30 years. The exhibition is called “Man Saves Comics.”


Curator Caitlin McGurk and correspondent Luke Burbank inspect the exhibit “Man Saves Comics!” At the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

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Among the cartoons featured: Windsor McCoy’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” one of the earliest fantasy comics by one of history’s greatest cartoonists.


An original of “Little Nemo in Slumberland” from 1906.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

And there is also a complete run of “Hugo Hercules” from 1902 “This is basically 30-plus years before Superman existed,” McGurk said.


“Hugo Hercules” (1902), written and drawn by Wilhelm Heinrich Detlev Korner, is considered the first superhero in comics, predating Superman by more than three decades.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

You may be wondering why it fell to an eccentric scholar to do so much of this conservation, and why is it important?

Long ago, before the Internet, when things weren’t stored digitally, that meant a Sunday morning comic, with its vibrant color and social significance, could be lost forever if someone didn’t save that particular issue of that particular newspaper.

Burbank asked, “Why do you think newspaper comics might not get the respect they deserve?”

McGurk replied, “People have historically seen newspaper comics, or comics in general, as something that was made only for children or for the masses. Because of that it was neglected from the beginning.”

But they were important for a variety of reasons, from early representations of same-sex relationships to black time travelers, to entertaining children on Sundays.


In the 1905 “Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye” series, the heroines’ long kiss goodbye always spells disaster for themselves or others.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

Of course, there were libraries that converted their old newspaper collections to microfilm, but microfilm was black-and-white, and that meant the rich colors of Sunday comics would be lost to history.

And the microfilm was fragile: “It became covered in scratches and became unusable after a few uses by patrons,” McGurk said.

Bill Blackbeard collected and preserved 2.5 million pieces of comic art during his lifetime.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

Where Blackbeard stepped. Along with his wife and some volunteer friends, he began traveling around the United States in a van, collecting volumes of discarded bound newspapers so that he could clip the comics section from them, which he preserved in his writing. home. “The only room he didn’t have newsprint in was the bathroom, because he was worried about how the water would affect the paper,” McGurk said.

Decades later, Blackbeard faced eviction from his California rental home, so he sold his collection to the university. But getting all that material to Ohio in 1998 was no small feat: His 75 tons of newspaper clippings arrived in six semi-trucks. And 25 years later, they’re still taking stock.

Jenny Robb, Chief Curator of Comics and Cartoon Art, oversees a small team tasked with cataloging and properly preserving all of Blackbeard’s content. “We’re about 30 to 40 percent of what’s processed,” he said. “We have a lot of elements that we still have to overcome.”

“Are there any unopened boxes?” Burbank asked.

“There are boxes that haven’t been opened in decades!” Rob said.

Among items processed and stored at exactly 64 degrees for archival purposes? The entire 1931 run of “Blondie”. And there are names you may be less familiar with, like Elsie Robinson, a single mother who built an editorial cartoon and syndicated column empire that lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s.

“He was incredibly famous in his time,” says Alison Gilbert, who wrote the first biography of Robinson. “He had over 20 million readers. And just to put that in perspective, that’s twice the number of subscribers the New York Times has today.”

And her cartoons took on topics that might not have been tackled in other parts of the newspaper, from feminism, marriage, gender equality and pay inequality to racism and the death penalty.


A cartoon on sharing housework by Elsie Robinson.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

Bill Blackbeard died in 2011, but not before his life’s passion – the preservation of a fleeting and often undervalued art form – was safely passed on to a new generation … like something out of a superhero story.

“I have to imagine he’s going to be very excited to see it run here,” Burbank said.

“We hope he would be proud,” McGurk said. “We discovered such incredible things (in his collection) and we are grateful for what he has done.”


Richard F. From Outcult’s “The Yellow Kid,” 1896.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

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Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: Emmanuel Seki.

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