Making the rounds via e-mail and online tributes this week is the sobering news that comics historian Bill Blackbeard recently passed away. It is without hyperbole that I say that were it not for Bill and The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, ComicArts would not be publishing the kinds of books that we do.
In 1977, Abrams partnered with Bill and the Smithsonian to produce this seminal overview of comic strip art. The book, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams, with a foreword by John Canaday, is an oversized 10 x 14" cloth hardcover with French flaps. It is also 336 pages and cost $29.95, which in those days was a lot of money for a book about . . . comics. But this was no ordinary book. Heidi MacDonald refers to The Smithsonian Collection in her blog as, “a protean document that was no mere argument for the beauty and power of comics—it was the proof itself, as water tight as any mathematical formula, in its oversized grandeur and unassailable contents.” However, even that assessment feels like an understatement.
Without dropping names, it seems that every single comics creator I have ever visited at their studio has a dog-eared copy of this book on the shelf above their desk. And I’ve had many conversations over the years about the book and its production quality, from the paper and binding to the reproduction and printing. Working for the same publishing company producing books on the same subject matter, it’s hard to escape the shadow this book casts on the work all of us do in documenting the history and medium of comics.
The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics was acquired and edited by our esteemed Editor at Large, Margaret Kaplan, who worked with Bill and the Smithsonian to pull this comprehensive collection together. Even though it came out four years after the hugely successful The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch, Margaret recalls that people in house as well as buyers in the market were “miffed that Abrams was getting away from the straight arts. However, the book did wonderfully well, and was extremely successful. We went back to press many times and it was around for a long time.”
Even its more diminutive spin-off from 1981, A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Heroes, which Blackbeard’s co-editor Martin Williams worked on with Michael Barrier, remains an indispensable addition to any comics library, reprinting complete comics stories by Eisner, Krigstein, Kurtzman, and Barks in a handsome hardcover I still refer to constantly.
It’s important to note that over thirty years ago, comics were not considered “Art.” And to have a book appear on the same shelf alongside the work of Norman Rockwell and Richard Avedon, published by the preeminent art book publisher Abrams, was a watershed moment. Bill Blackbeard elevated the medium, and provided us with a template for how to present comics, and he did so without having to apologize or beg for indulgence.
But don’t just take my word for it. Check out any of the glowing, unsolicited comments about The Smithsonian Collection on Amazon. And if you don’t have a copy, it’s worth tracking one down.
An aggregate of great links about Blackbeard can be found here on Heidi’s blog.
It’s easy to fall into the routine of life and work and lose sight of those who came before us—the ones who provided the foundation for our career. Inevitably, it takes their passing to cause us to reassess and take notice.