Monday, May 2, 2011

Bill Blackbeard (1928-2011)

Writer, Editor, Anthologist, and Comic Strip Historian
Born April 28, 1926, Lawrence, Indiana
Died March 10, 2011, Watsonville, California

Before he amassed what was probably the world's largest collection of newspaper comic strips, Bill Blackbeard was a writer for science fiction fanzines and pulp magazines, including Weird Tales. He was born William Elsworth Blackbeard on April 28, 1926, in Lawrence, Indiana, a town then just northeast of Indianapolis and now engulfed by the city. He started collecting comics as a twelve-year-old boy in California, where he grew up, and he never stopped. His collection eventually amounted to seventy-five tons and an estimated three million or more items. Most of that collection is now housed at Ohio State University, at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.

Although he never cared much for comic books (at one point he referred to them as "meretricious dreck"), Blackbeard greatly admired the two forms that gave rise to them, comic strips of course, and pulp magazines. Writing under his own name (and perhaps also under a transparent nom de plume as William Teach), Blackbeard authored stories and articles for science fiction fanzines, pulp magazines, and other publications. Only one of those stories appeared in Weird Tales. It may have been his first to see print. The story was called "Hammer of Cain," its co-author, James Causey, and it was printed in the November 1943 issue of "The Unique Magazine." Blackbeard was all of seventeen years old at the time. Causey was nineteen. The story's appearance must have been quite a thrill for them (although Blackbeard's name had already seen print in Weird Tales, in a letter to "The Eyrie" from September 1942, while the magazine had published two of Causey's stories earlier in 1943). In any case, Blackbeard's budding career was soon interrupted by service with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. After the war, he attended Fullerton College on the G.I. Bill and embarked in earnest on a career as a writer, moreover as a collector--or savior--of American newspaper comic strips. Blackbeard died on March 10, 2011. Announcements of his death and tributes to him are all over the Internet as I write. One tribute of interest is on a blog called "Yesterday's Papers," by cartoonist and writer John Adcock, here.

Bill Blackbeard's Letter and Story in Weird Tales
Letter to "The Eyrie" (Sept. 1942)
"Hammer of Cain," with James Causey (Nov. 1943)

Further Reading
Bill Blackbeard authored or edited 200 or more books, but I have never read his fiction. For his non-fiction, you might start with:
  • The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press and Harry N. Abrams, 1977)
  • Sherlock Holmes in America (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981)
  • The Comic Strip Century, two volumes, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Dale Crain (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: O.G. Publishing, 1995)

Bill Blackbeard in 1971. Photograph by Fitzgerald Whitney, Los Angeles Times.
Text copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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