News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bill Blackbeard reminisces (2003)

Reprinted from the International Journal of Comic Art, 5:2 (Fall 2003).

The Four Color Paper Trail: A Look Back

 

Bill Blackbeard

 

 

Once upon a Sunday page there was a mighty nation called the United States. The comic artists of this blessed country had for 60 rollicking years woven and wrought for us a brilliant new narrative art form called the newspaper comic strip. This unique and innovative picture-story art filled the pages of the nation's press with dozens of continuing daily black and white comic strip episodes featuring nationally followed comic characters -- and backed them up with multi-page color comic sections every Sunday, delighting us with still more about these same characters. 313 daily strip episodes and 52 full color Sunday strip pages there were, faithfully omnipresent year in and year out, from 1896 through the 1960s, comprising hundreds of titles over these happy years. Europeans, deprived of any similar bounty, marveled at the richly abundant U.S. art, but found themselves, like many enthralled Americans, unable to access the whole of the staggering creative accomplishment for research and rereading. For by the 1960s, when one would have expected to see the archival shelves of such fundamental American historical data centers as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the nation's university and major city libraries, groaning with the tens of thousands of newsprint pages the strip art form had filled from its inception, proudly filed by title and artist in chronological order and sturdily bound for easy reference, one found -- nothing.

 

Well then, reasoning afficionados might have thought, the newspaper and syndicate owners of the ultifarious strips printed over so many decades must have maintained their own carefully preserved files. The great Hearst newspaper chain, which filled its comic pages with the widely relished likes of Jiggs, Popeye, the Katzenjammer Kids, Flash Gordon, Krazy Kat, and dozens more, presided over by the nations' foremost champion of the comic strip page, William Randolph Hearst himself, must have immaculate and cherished files of every strip it had ever published. So must the other great newspaper strip syndicates. But turning here, again, one found nothing.

 

The reasons for this tragic neglect must be the unhappy subject of other papers; our concern here is with the total lack of nationally accessible files of the unique comic strip narrative art form in its own birthplace. What had survived -- in an effectively closed archive -- were hundreds of monthly bound files of the nation's newspapers, still in the 1960s to be found in hundreds of libraries and newspaper offices. Because of the cumbersome weight of these volumes and the lack of any indexing of their comic strip contents -- which varied sharply from one newspaper to the next -- their utility as a research source was grieviously limited. (A single strip of 40 years duration might run for 30 years in one paper and only five in another, depending on the whim of the editorial staff, and might be found to have never appeared for its complete run in any one paper. Multiply this hurdle by some hundreds of strip titles, run partially in dozens of papers spread across the country, and you have a research situation that was impossibly costly to pursue in terms of both money and time.) Writers of strip history did the best they could do, but the bulk of their pre-1970s' texts are largely derived from strip texts inadequately recalled over the years, strips seen only partially whole, and the erroneous classic strip artist anecdotes endemic among cartoonists for decades, i.e. that the term "yellow journalism" was coined because of the use of the "Yellow Kid" comic in building circulation for rival newspapers in the 1890s, while the term actually came from Hearst press headlines blatantly promoting its own promotional bicycle race to the west coast, years before the "Yellow Kid" saw competitive print: the Hearst cylist color was yellow, echoed in headlines screaming "YELLOW AHEAD" and "YELLOW REACHES DENVER" day after day.

 

But at least all of the newspaper comic strips from 1896 on (when R.F. Outcault drew the first definitive comic strip in his 1890s' "Yellow Kid" series) were intact -- just impossibly out of practical reading or research reach. We had it all but we didn't have it at all. Then, in the mid-1960s, even this parlous treasure was threatened, this time with outright extinction. The great lure to the American library system of microfilm reproduction of newsprint had entered the scene. Wonder of wonders, it would now be possible to (whee!) microfilm all of those weighty newspaper volumes, putting all of those endless pages of newsprint (wow!) onto slender rolled lengths of microfilm for reading on a magnified view screen and kept (gee!) in tiny file boxes occupying less than five per cent of the space (ugh!) filled with the nasty discarded newspaper volumes. Truly a librarian's millennium solution to printed bulk! But it was death to Bonnie and Clyde -- and to Little Nemo and the Kin-Der-Kids and Dick Tracy and Captain Easy and the myriad comic strip characters that still held glorious stored carnival in all those immediately condemned newspaper files.

 

(Entering into the suddenly discovered hatred of old newsprint as well was a fixed librarian belief -- mythical from the start -- that newsprint was decaying internally at a fixed rate that would soon leave only dusty fibre in its wake, and so clearly spurred the need for rapid transition to microfilm. Strip collectors and researchers knew, of course, that several generations of librarians would be dust before a single newspaper page self-destructed, but this sound certainty, based on decades of direct work with properly preserved newspaper runs, went unheeded by the public payroll vandals. They wanted the hundreds of newspaper volumes then in every library gone -- simply GONE -- and gone they were in fairly short order, destined for useful disposal in local landfill.)

 

The Library of Congress led the way in this holocaust of national newsprint archives, destroying century-long runs of virtually every major city newspaper in the country (most of them in immaculate condition), which it had long stored in immense naval warehouses in Alexandria, Virginia. The Library dutifully microfilmed the lot over several years of intense work, duly offering the filmed files to other institutional libraries first (knowing that none would be wanted by kindred librarians elsewhere), then putting themup for sale as waste paper to anyone willing to pay a few bucks, which at last got the dread things off the premises. Locally, around the country, other libraries followed suit by making or purchasing microfilm copies of their own newspaper files, then discarding them in the most efficacious way. All of this went on largely unnoted by the public and only casually covered by the press itself, the claim of decaying newsprint going unchallenged everywhere.

 

Among the worldwide afficianados of the newspaper comic strip I had long numbered myself through the early 1960s and before, persuading local libraries to permit me to remove old Sunday comic sections from their bound paper files with the argument that these pages were not editorial product of the papers concerned and therefore held no research worth by continuing to clutter up the file. (I was not allowed to touch the daily strips, however, since these might carry Part 6 classified ads or some similarly vital part of the papers on their reverse sides

 

The grapevine I had already set up among local San Francisco librarians about my strip interests led to my hearing that the city library had just decided to "deaccess" (dump) their bound newspaper holdings, an incredibly vast accumulation of regional and San Francisco papers from the 1870s on, stored in city administration basements and attics as the often duplicating files were passed into the library's keeping over the decades. But it seemed they had a knotty problem of sorts in simply turning them over to a very eager me (I having already volunteered to cover all pickup and removal costs, which they thought was great) -- as city librarians, they were prohibited from selling or giving away library property of any kind. They could only pass it on to other libraries or educational institutions -- and of course every other such body was busy getting rid of its own newspaper files and wanted no more. The solution changed my life. I immediately applied to the IRS and the state to establish a non-profit research library dedicated to the preservation of actual newspaper print files "and their contents." This, of course, was the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, which you all know and love. It took government bureaucracy a while to grant my application, but the city library was so eager to get rid of its newspaper runs that they turned them over to me as soon as I told them how I had acted to solve the release problem. They had an institutional name to cover their rears in dumping the papers and that was all that mattered. No one ever even asked later if I had been given non-profit status. In fact I became the guy they called whenever they had magazine runs to dispose of after purchases of microfilm dups: nobody on staff had to perspire moving hefty stacks of old magazines off the shelves, and all such material was, of course, welcome reference additions to the institution I had suddenly created. When patrons complained that the newspaper volumes they enjoyed looking at were gone, they were referred to the Academy -- with its two long library reading tables in the basement of an old Victorian in the Sunset district of the City, so my existence even took away much of the static the city library might otherwise have faced. It was a neat and exciting experience, surrounded by endless ceiling-high stacks of century-long runs of great old newspapers and their jampacked pages of comic strips all unread and waiting. But I had to find much larger quarters soon since the State Library had contacted me about taking on their staggering mass of out-of-state newspapers as soon as I possibly could. And the New York Public Library had a dozen paper runs they could only give to another, willing library. I was becoming a crucial dumping ground for all the nation's unwanted glut of newsprint papers which they could not throw away or pass on to other institutions. I had to move fast, and I did.

 

Two truck driver friends who were also comic buffs became crucial aides in picking up these distant, massive bodies of newsprint: Gale Paulson and George Cushing, both retired bus drivers who handled Ryder Truck loaners with ease. Both also gave vital help moving when I located an enormous old Sunset mansion which became the permanent capacious hq (headquarters) of the Academy, housing the endless influx of newspaper files in its cavernous basement maw and suites of upstairs rooms where I had seated local strip collectors who aided my crucially helpful wife, Barbara, and myself in clipping the tens of thousands of daily strips that had to be assembled into complete archival files suitable for reprint or reading access. (The Sunday pages prior to the 1950s were, of course, much less work intensive as they slipped easily out of their volumes in the wake of deftly moving box cutters.

 

The culled strip episodes were moved to file cabinets and walls of metal drawers in the basement and filed by artist, while the emptied newspaper volumes were initially sold or traded to back-date newspaper dealers in Los Angeles and New Jersey. Certain newspaper files, however, proved to be of such extraordinary graphic interest beyond their strip content that these were made permanent -- and important -- parts of the Academy collection. Obviously these were the sensational big city papers that unfurled garish (often multi-colored) headlines dealing with local murder cases, gang wars, and the like. Dillinger, Arbuckle, Capone, and their ilk swaggered and died spectacularly in these headlines above full page pictures of their rise and finish in bright-hued ink (all, of course, lost forever in black and white microfilm). Other papers featured page-high movie ads in one and two colors, some drawn by the papers' own staff and seen nowhere else. The Hearst papers were paramount examples of this sort of classically lurid journalism, as were the great tabloids of New York and Chicago, and all those I recovered came to form labyrinthine stacks of white, crisp newsprint corridored under metal-shaded lamps throughout the basement, towering over the tight rows of file cabinets being daily stuffed with an increasingly definitive clip file of the entire cavalcade of American newspaper comic strips as it emerged from the busy scissors and box cutters upstairs.

 

The growing strip collection early on served to fill the pages of previously impossible book collections of major strip art, from the 24-volume Hyperion Collection of many classic strips' beginning years, ranging from "The Bungle Family" to "Barney Google," through Woody Gelman's Nostalgia Press volumes to the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, all edited at the Academy during its first decade of operation and all opening many amazed eyes to treasures hitherto buried willy-nilly in virtually inaccessible bound newspaper files. Donations from cartoonists and collectors were welcome arrivals during this time, including such one-of-a-kind items as a fine collection of the 1890s Hearst Sunday comic sections from the New York Journal, bound together as the comics editor's own reference file and later discovered and treasured by the pioneering comic collector Ernie McGee -- a file which alone made possible the later definitive complete Yellow Kid book reprint. Some fine original art by Herriman, Swinnerton, Segar, Tuthill, Caniff, Crane, Wolverton, and others reached the Academy walls, as well as a stunning private collection of movie posters, ad and review pages from the forties and earlier, filling a half-dozen file cabinets and also adding to Academy decor.

 

On my own hook I expanded the range of the Academy coverage of comic art (using "comic" in the Greek sense of "popular") to include sizable collections of 19th century cartoon-illustrated novels, from Dickens to hackerey; Victorian and Georgian sensational fiction (Haggard, Hodgson, etc.); 20th century science fiction and crime fiction in both hardcover andpaperback avatars; pulp magazines (all of the sf pulps plus full runs of The Spider, Weird Tales, Black Mask, and the like); book collections of newspaper and magazine gag cartoons; early comic strip book collections from the 1930s and before, and extensive files of dime novels and penny dreadfuls, together with reference material on all of these items. Within the newspaper extracts, I assembled large files of graphic and textual data dealing with such subjects as editorial cartoons, columnists, Ring Lardner, and (!) Sherlock Holmes, the latter resulting in a sizable volume of illustrative art and pastiche called Sherlock Holmes in America, including multifarious comic strip usages of the Holmes image and persona. These files also aided in the preparation of such works as The Index to the Detective, Mystery, and Espionage Pulps and the Dictionary of Literary Biography, while the Academy itself is continually active in the editing and publishing of classic comic strip collections, currently focusing on the complete reprinting of George Herriman's comic strip oeuvre.

 

Eventually the rumbling arrival of truckloads of newspaper volumes from New York, Washington, Columbus, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Sacramento eased as the lodes were exhausted, and the Academy relaxed into full-time curatorial work in the collections, which in the case of the now complete file of nationally-syndicated comic strips from 1896 on consisted of comparing multiple copies of many episodes to find the best-printed andbest-colored episodes to make up the definitive files of each strip title. Many items from these files went to museum exhibits of classic comic strip art, offsetting the sometimes otherwise dull arrays of black and white original art with examples of the same work as published in color. Copies of long daily and Sunday strip runs were made for collectors at reasonable prices, as were duplicate copies, all duly bound with repro'd color covers, of memorable pulp magazines (which have now become collectible items in their own right).

In this headlong, hectic, desperate, coast-to-coast salvation of America's comic strip heritage from the jaws of institutional destruction, ironically emerged what could never have existed before -- a complete, nationally accessible collection of the American syndicated newspaper comic strip in its millions of daily episodes, organized by title and artist from its 1896 beginning to the present on crisp, long-lasting newsprint, in the best selected copy of each episode, an unparalleled treasure for the ages. All brought about, of course, by perseverance, dumb luck, and an undying love for the precious stuff held by a couple of dozen devoted students, collectors, and a handful of clear-eyed librarians who channeled their staff-doomed newspaper to our rescuing hand again and again.

 

It's all yours -- everybody's -- now, to read and copy and research by request at two temporarily separated locales. The first, and the largest repository with all of the newspaper files and the great bulk of the comic strip material, is located at Ohio State University Special Collections, Columbus, Ohio, under the dedicated supervision of Lucy Caswell, Curator of the collection, and the tireless, devoted organizational work of librarian Amy McCrory, who still faces truckloads of the Academy files remaining to be offloaded and merged with the enormous body of material already organized and accessible. (The movement of the Academy collection to Ohio State resulted from the inspired suggestion of Art Spiegelman to Lucy Caswell (thanks again, Art!); it was more than I wanted to handle and try to house as I entered my seventies, and the facilities and staff at Ohio State seemed ideal for the permanent home of the collection -- as they have proved to be.) The second, and now much smaller portion of the original collection, continuing to be housed at the SFACA center in Santa Cruz, California, is being curated by me until a number of ongoing strip reprint projects have been completed. As these reach fruition, the residual files are shipped to Columbus for formal integration with the main collection. Here at Santa Cruz can be found much of the pulp collection, primarily concerned with hero pulps, detective, and crime titles, and oddities of all kinds; the dime novel and penny dreadful volumes; children's books, and a number of comic strip runs, including "The Bungle Family," "Barney Google," "Thimble Theatre," "Dick Tracy," "Mickey Mouse," "Polly and Her Pals," all newspaper comic sections from 1896 through 1914, all daily and Sunday Herriman strip runs, "Little Orphan Annie," and others, feeding into a number of continuing reprint book collections and illustrating articles on crucial aspects of comic strip art. By 2010 the collection should be completely housed at the Ohio State research center, just 50 years after the San Francisco Public Library decided to clear away the unwanted detritus of a half-century accumulation of old newspaper files and sparked my application for the non-profit wherewithal to gather it all up for good old posterity. To echo Clare Briggs, it's been a grand and glorious feeling, all the way!

1 comment:

BeerbohmRL@gmail.com said...

Hello Mike, thanks a heap for providing a heads up on this piece by Unca Bill on his original mission. Most of this is exactly how I remember it all coming down at the time.