Happy Birthday, Bill Blackbeard! (April 28, 1926 – March 10, 2011)

Here at the Cartoon Library, Bill Blackbeard is a regular household name. We hope the same goes for all of you readers, as the Man Who Saved Comics deserves much remembrance and praise.

Portrait of Bill Blackbeard, ink and gouache original by Alfredo Alcala. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

This Saturday, April 28th would be Bill’s 86th birthday. In 1998, Bill Blackbeard’s life’s work–The San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection–arrived at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in six semi-trucks, filled to the brim with 2.5 million newsprint clippings of comic strips, entire Sunday comics sections, and tearsheets. This collection had resided with Bill Blackbeard and his wife in their home in California since the 1960s.

The late Bill Blackbeard, among the SFACA collection in its California home. Photo taken by R.C. Harvey. From the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Having collected the bundles of discarded daily newspapers at the end of the week from neighbors houses as a child, Bill’s enthusiasm and fixation on the newsprint comics form grew exponentially throughout the rest of his life. In the 1960’s, libraries across the country began to convert their large bound volumes of newspapers to microfilm in order to conserve shelf space. Once the papers were converted, these hundreds upon thousands of volumes were then discarded or transferred elsewhere. When Bill Blackbeard found out this was happening, he and his wife Barbara and some volunteering friends rescued these volumes of newspapers from around the country – specifically for the comics sections. Because of certain policies in place about the transference of library materials to an individual collector- in one week’s time Bill established himself as a nonprofit organization, The San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. Overnight, Bill and Barbara’s home became the Academy, and one of the most important establishments in comics history of all time.

SFACA collection while it was housed in California. Photo by R.C. Harvey. From the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Declared as being open for visitors and researchers at “all hours of every day” (because Bill lived there), the SFACA collection made possible an endless amount of comics scholarship, reprint books, and inspiration for cartoonists and fans alike. Bill, with help of volunteers, spent his days, years, and entire life clipping these strips and organizing them chronologically under each title.

The SFACA collection continues to have an incalculable impact at its permanent home here at the Cartoon Library- where it is easily our most highly-used collection.

Further Information:

To find out much-much more about Bill Blackbeard’s legacy and the collection’s arrival at the Cartoon Library, follow this link to the OSU Knowdledge Bank for an exhaustive article by our head curator Jenny Robb entitled Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued the Comics.

To see many more fantastic pictures of Bill Blackbeard and his collection, you can visit our “We Love Bill Blackbeard Album” by liking the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum on Facebook.

To browse the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art finding aid, visit this link. Due to the size of the SFACA collection, it is constantly under processing so this is in no way a complete representation. We are very proud to have about 40% of the collection processed at this time (remember, it contains  millions of items!)

Happy Birthday, Bill Blackbeard!

Portrait of Bill Blackbeard, original in ink and gouache, by Alfredo Alcala. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

-Caitlin McGurk



  1. A nice tribute, Caitlin!

  2. Great guy, great pioneer! I wish I knew him even better….we talked a few times of the years, corresponded occasionally ..he was always interesting and gracious.
    We even traded a couple of times….pulps for penny bloods! I miss him!

    RIP…while your collection will live on!

    Joe Rainone

  3. If it weren’t for Bill’s friendship, knowledge, and collection—and his willingness to share it—our current golden age of newspaper strip reprints would not exist. Those of us who spend our time researching and preserving old strips owe everything to him. Happy birthday, Bill!

  4. I first met Bill Blackbeard in August 1972 when he wandered in to our first Comics & Comix outlet begun by the late John Barrett, myself and Bud Plant located then at 2512 Telegraph Ave just a couple blocks down from UC-Berkeley. Prof Don Ault was still teaching there, legendary in his own right teaching a full semester upper level English course on Carl Barks which I tried to audit, but the class was overly full. Years later Don told me I should merely have asked him and he would have implanted in therein, a lot of memories come flooding back, but I digress….

    Bill we knew of already as his San Francisco Academy of Comic Art was already becoming well known in comics collecting circles as the guy who have formed a 501 (c) 3 org in order to have libraries across the country send him their bound volumes of newspapers they were foolishly sending to land fill cuz the powers that be were then enthralled with the “new” technology of microfilm, thereby they could discard the mountains of paper too many deemed useless. Whoever invented microfilm is retrospect an enemy of proper posterity in my book. -:)

    Six months prior to us opening, Bill was involved with a comics forum at the DeYoung Museum of which I own the original art to the flyer I got from Roger Brand in the mid 70s which you can look at here. This was one of the very first presentations on comics in such a setting. http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryPiece.asp?Piece=856816&GSub=100142

    Over the years I visited Bill well over two hundred times in his Casa Blackbeard on in the Sunset District. Once upon a time I had multiple brick & mortar outlets called Best of Two Worlds mercantiling comics from all over the world. One of those outlets was less than a mile from his HQ.

    We traded many a rare comics item over the decades. Bill drew this for me in my memory book as we wrangled over how many Sunday comic strip duplicates of his he was going to trade off for a very rare 1906 Little Nemo comic book by Winsor McCay I had scored and was not that interested in letting go of. Needless to say the stack grew quite large before I gave in to his gentle persuasive powers -:)


    Eventually Bill taught me to partner up with a journalism Prof over at Merritt college in Oakland off I-580 whereby that Prof could order library loads of bound volumes from these land fill bound crazy people since it was thru a school on loads he could not handle. I paid for the shipments which came to the school, his students would slice out the comics pages, they would end up with the rest to use to learn how to be good journalists. We did quite a few loads till I deemed then I had too many comics strips -:)

    In the late 90s, following my having moved out of the Bay Area a few years earlier following a heart breaking warehouse flooding of Best of Two Worlds main warehouse located then just 43 miles from where Eclipse Comics (Hi Dean!) was washed down in the Russian River in Feb 1986, then the death of Rick Griffin 2.5 months after I had opened an art gallery to showcase my friend’s world class art works to the world in The Cannery of world famous Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Bill called me to inform me he was selling out to Lucy Caswell at Ohio State University arranged by our mutual friend Art Spiegelman.

    I was initially shocked. I asked Bill “why?”

    He replied, “Bob, at some point one is more concerned with Metamucil then any thing else, his wry humor always present. He also told me he still retained the “good stuff” which was all the pre 1920 comics for his further study, relieved as he was from the responsibility of curating the massive holdings which had grown to well over two million artifacts of a by-gone era in the world of comics.

    He further informed me Ohio State University was going to be looking for a curator to handle sorting out the six semi-truck loads it took to empty out his place were I had spent hundreds of countless hours learning the lore, how the early comic strips inter-connected with each other as well as with all the other media as those forms of entertainment developed over the years. I could not even begin to explain what I learn inside Bill’s comics HQ as well as imparting to him many of my own findings as we wrangled trades innumerable.

    With his urging I applied for the position. Bill wrote me up a nice recommendation as did many friends in the comics world such as the aforementioned Art Spiegelman. Lucy Caswell herself even informed me she would love to hire me in to the position. All to no avail.

    Alas, Step One was having a Master Degree in Library Science.

    It is a shame on some levels that after 14 years only 40% of Bill’s holdings are documented and sorted out so the article reads. I know I would have had the job accomplished years ago due to my having graduated from the Comics School of Hard Knocks and been expanding from there.

    Having created instead the Victorian and Platinum Era sections inside the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide with several dozen comics historian collector friends beginning in 1999, therein lies some solace that I was able to contribute to the comics history world useful data for future historians to contemplate. One of the first places I visited when Steve Geppi’s then right hand man John Snyder asked me to do this was Bill’s place. We spent many days indexing out every early comic book in his holdings. There was a lot to wade thru.

    A few years ago, shortly before she retired, Lucy Caswell called me up to see if I was interested in their duplicates of their comic strips holdings. I was honored to say a heart-felt “yes” as much of what I had gathered together to study back in the 70s and 80s had been turned in to paper mache bricks due to the Feb 86 flooding of Best Of Two Worlds main warehouse previously mentioned. Here I say a “Thank You, Lucy!” once again.

    After Bill moved to Santa Cruz I used to visit him a couple times a year when I would come back in to California for San Diego Comicon and Wondercon held in San Francisco.

    In the late 00s my hip joints “blew out” from having been a passenger in a vehicle accident back in 73 partially written up in the Dark Horse book Between the Panels as “On the Road” necessitating my seeking hip joint replacement surgeries. With ensuing complications, i was laid up for over four years.

    When I felt able to travel again like I had been in days of yore, one of the first persons I wished to go visit was my friend Bill.

    As I was getting ready for Wondercon last year in 2011 I contacted both Gary Groth, one of his long time publishers, as well as OSU, both of whom informed me they had not talked to Bill in at least six months. I called them because the phone numbers i then had for Bill were dis-connected, but he had a “new” number in a nursing facility in Watsonville,.

    I called, this was in April, the person who answered said they had no Bill Blackbeard listed. I called back both Gary and OSU, to make sure i had the correct place’s number.

    I called again to where Bill had been spending his last months on earth. I pressed the issue. This time I was connected to their records department. The person informed me Bill had passed away some time back but would not/could not give up any details. I fell in to a bit of shock. It appears no one knew Bill had died months before.

    I then called back Gary Groth as well as Jenny Robb, whom by then I had learned had taken over most of Lucy’s duties to inform them of the sad news. I also called Art Spiegelman and another mutual friend Peter Meresca, the latter these days publisher of some fine large size comic books doing the comics “right” with plenty of TLC applied.

    RIP Bill, you truly are “the man who saved the comics” and I learned so much from you. I miss my friend very much.

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