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Home > Letters to CR

Milo George On Bill Blackbeard
posted April 26, 2011
 

It's nearly impossible to oversell the man's importance to comics, which I'd like to think is the reason why he was so often taken for granted. Like the moon, his visible presence waxed and waned on the New Releases shelf but he will continue to have an indirect influence on nearly everything there. [While I'm trying to put a happy face on things: It is appalling that the Eisners and its supporters had seven or eight years to enshrine Blackbeard in life and never did, but I would argue it was a mercy to not subject the poor man to the hours of soul-pulverizing tedium that is the ceremony itself.]

Blackbeard had catholic but discerning taste, quiet integrity, an instinctive understanding of the form and a wife clearly blessed with infinite patience for what had to be a time- and space-devouring life's work -- the perfect ingredients to forge a Mendelssohn for entire generations of Bachs. If all movements really do begin with one person refusing to go along with the grand sweep of history and society, Bill Blackbeard is ours. He certainly didn't work alone, but he stood as a rallying point and/or a pole star for everyone else. He not only saved literally tons of comics' heritage, he changed how everyone thought of the medium itself, opening the door to concepts that had to seem positively revolutionary at the time: Packaging a finely curated, oversized, hardcover collection of some obscure comic strips would be a difficult sell in the bookstore-boom year of 2007, much less the post-underground/pre-direct market wasteland of 1977 -- not to mention his fine eye for reproduction and printing details, which was also a rare concern at a time when even iconic work like Binky Brown and Zap were printed on the cheapest paper available and Jack Kirby's art was engraved on crappy plastic plates to save a few bucks. Having helped to raise the comics book above cheap paperbacks/cheaper pamphlets as well as ground the medium with a sense of history that extends far beyond what was available in stores and in newspapers when you were age 5 -- now are the gifts he will give to every cartoonist, freelancer and critic who came up after him.

You can always tell when a new distribution channel for comics has sturdy legs by the stream of Blackbeard-connected strip collections using it; even with Bill now gone, I doubt that barometer will change much. Although: Considering the barely hidden atavism of today's bookstore-market comics moguls, we should all hold hands and hope that they don't descend into email/fax pissing matches and/or outright shelf wars over who has dibs on reprinting what public-domain strip now that Bill isn't around to give one project his input and seal of approval over a rival publisher's packaging of the same material. It's no coincidence that, the few times that two publishers have reprinted material from the same strip at the same time during his lifetime, the series that Bill worked on usually "won" the squabble. He earned his reputation the hard way, and "Blackbeard" probably beats out the names of most strip syndicates and many cartoonists when you ask readers to throw out words they associate with the phrase "classic comic strip," and with good reason. That selfless drive to preserve and present lost treasures in the best possible light may be Bill Blackbeard's greatest legacy, the one that people who seek to continue his work should embrace the closest.