I have enormous respect of the comic strip as a potential story and art form, although far too few of its productions have realized their potential. If those few, however, could be gathered into some sort of complete collection, the effect on those who have scorned the comics as a whole might well be devastating…
– Edmund Wilson from a letter to Bill Blackbeard, 1966
Bill Blackbeard passed away on March 10, 2011, but me and almost everybody else in comicdom didn’t get wind of it until this past week. If you didn’t know who Blackbeard was, that’s OK, but know this: he was instrumental in the preservation comic strips. His love of the strip is evident in his work with San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, which, according to his Wikipedia entry, hosts more then 2.5 million clippings. That, in of itself, may not sound like a lot in 2011 with everything digitally reproduced for you fingertips to search on, but consider that Blackbeard collected strips when no one else did – including the publishers themselves! His foresight has not only led to the medium, critique and study of comic strips (and comic books), but he was the early forerunner into what we know as the Collected Edition.
True enough comic books started out as reprints of comic strips and others made comic books what they are today. Add to that, there have been collections of strips and comic books throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s but no book has made an impact, and continues to make an impact, like Bill Blackbeard’s The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977, Smithsonian Institution Press and Abrams). What Blackbeard set out to do was to showcase not only the best that comic strips had to offer but the most important and worth preserving for future generations. Originally priced at $29.95, it has had multiple printings (I own the 1985, 5th printing), is 10.5” x 14.5”, and has 336 pages with over 750 strips and panels from a multitude of titles (the ones listed below are just a sampling of what to expect) . Edited by Blackbeard with Martin Williams the book is broken down into down eight major parts:
- Folklore Figures in the Early Sunday Comic Strip, 1896-1916; featuring The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Naughty Pete, and Mutt and Jeff
- Popular Images in the Early Daily Comic Strip, 1907-1927; featuring S’Matter Pop?, Mutt and Jeff, and The Family Upstairs
- Long-Lived Stars of the Comic Strip’s Second Two Decades, 1916-1936; featuring Polly and Her Pals, Blondie, Bringing Up Father, Krazy Kat, and The Bungle Family
- Anecdote and Narrative in the Daily Comic Strip, 1917-1933; featuring Barney Google, Wash Tubbs, and Moon Mullins
- Anecdote and Narrative in the Sunday Comic Strip, 1930-1941; featuring Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Popeye, and Alley Oop
- Extended Narrative in the Daily and Sunday Comic Strip, 1928-1943; featuring Barnaby, Secret Agent X-9, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie
- Comics Miscellany, 1928-1950; featuring Li’l Abner, Felix the Cat, Pogo, and Casey Ruggles
- The Return of the Funnies; featuring Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, B.C., Boomhilda, Momma and Doonesbury
There is also a very nice Foreword by John Canaday, a leading American art critic; and it contains introductions to each chapter and has annotations throughout the book by Blackbeard and Williams. In the back there is comprehensive material for the completest including A Selected, Introductory Bibliography of Books and Articles on Newspaper Comics and An Annotated Index of the Comics. It should be pointed out that Jerry Robinson’s The Comics: An Illustrated History of the Comic Strip (1974) is listed among the bibliography and you may already know that book was just updated and published with Dark Horse a few weeks ago.
With that in mind, The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics spawned a companion book edited by Martin Williams with J. Michael Barrier called A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (1982) and you guessed it, it focuses on Comic Books and if you have picked up Dan Nadel’s Art In Time and Art out of Time, you’ll want to have this one beside them on your bookshelf. That book got an update in 2004 with The New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories: From Crumb to Clowes edited by Bob Callahan. As expected it’s a bit more contemporary with a look at work by Alan Moore, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Art Spiegelman to name a few. I don’t own it, but perhaps I’ll pick it up someday. As far as both Smithsonian originals go, nobody should be without them. They are indispensable resources.
Finally, if you have stumbled upon the podcast and blog this week you’ll notice that I have a bit of a comic strip theme going. I interviewed Brain Walker who has updated his own two books The Comics Before 1945 and The Comics Since 1945 into one The Comics: The Complete Collection. Next week I’ll have an interview with Pete Maresca, Sunday Press Books, and will talk about his relationship with Bill Blackbeard and how he has helped him out through the years.
The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics HC
Edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams
$29.95, 336 pages, 1977, Smithsonian Institution Press and Abrams
Collects selected newspaper comics strips from 1896-1974
The Lexicon of Comicana by Mort Walker