May 19, 2011:
May 19, 2011:
Timothy J. Susanin's book Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years, 1919-1928, arrived in the mail this week. Published by the University Press of Mississippi, it lists for $35 in hardcover (no softcover yet), but you can order it from amazon.com for only $23.10, a bargain price for such a handsome and well-filled book. There's also a Kindle edition for $19.25.
I've written about this book before, and I can do no better now than quote the blurb I contributed for the dust jacket (where I share space with such Disney-history eminences as Didier Ghez, J. B. Kaufman, Leonard Maltin, and Dave Smith):
Walt Disney was a man in movement, someone whose exceptional energy and curiosity permitted him to create great animated features and the extraordinary Disneyland park. Tim Susanin gives us our closest look yet at Walt when he was just starting to become that great visionary of the middle of the twentieth century. Susanin's book is a chronicle of Walt Disney in the 1920s, when he was just starting up Hollywood's ladder--whose lowest rungs happened to be in Kansas City. We meet many of Walt's friends and colleagues, too, people who have been little more than names in earlier biographies and studio histories but whose stories are told here in unprecedented detail. This book does a superb job of tracking the restless young Walt Disney through the decade of triumphs and trials that preceded the great turning point in his life: the creation of Mickey Mouse.
I was in touch with Tim constantly as he worked on Walt Before Mickey, and I gladly shared with him many of the notes I made and the documents I copied during my many visits to the Disney Archives in the 1990s, as well as the transcripts of some of my interviews. Tim has made excellent use not just of that material but also of much more that he found through an assiduous mining of resources of other kinds, especially online. The result is a book that takes us through Walt's life in the twenties in extraordinary and highly accurate detail. I learned a great deal about Walt, about his growth as a person, an artist, and a businessman, as Tim and I exchanged ideas and sources, and you will, too, when you read his book. And if you care at all about Walt and his works, you'll have a very good time.
There's another new Disney-related book that I can recommend without qualification, even though I haven't read it yet. It's Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers, and Artists, by Don Peri; it's available through amazon.com in softcover for $15.86. This is Don's second book of such interviews (both published by University Press of Mississippi); the first was Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Animators. Don is an excellent interviewer, and his new book includes sixteen interviews, some with familiar names (Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis), others with people who turn up much less often in print (Lance Nolley, Lou Debney, Gilles "Frenchy: de Trémaudan). I'm looking forward to spending a few hours with all of them.
From Vincent Randle: Oddly enough, I just ordered both of these books yesterday in order to prepare for a much needed summer of reading. I really enjoyed Peri's prequel (Working with Walt) to his latest release and anticipate the same for this volume of "goodies." In addition, I find Susanin's new book inspiring considering that his interest in Walt Disney was discovered while on a trip to Disney World not so long ago. It's always a comfort to know that there is still room for someone to research and share new information on the life of Walt Disney. Based on what I have read, I feel confident that Susanin's coverage on such a cultivating time in Disney's career will be accepted and referred to by many. Not to sound too biased, but being an individual that lives just west of Philadelphia, I'm proud to say that an author and expert on Disney lives so close by. Happy reading!
[Posted May 20, 2011]
While I was in Florida earlier this month, I worked on my 1989 interview with John Freeman, Milt Kahl's assistant in the late '40s and early '50s. Converting the original transcript from an obsolete word-processing program to MS Word turned out to be relatively easy, but when I compared the original with the version that John revised, I found that he had made far more changes than I remembered. John is no longer with us—he died last year—and it's tempting to publish the very colorful unrevised version, but I don't think that would be fair to his memory. So it'll be a while before I can get that transcript into publishable shape. In the meantime, I'll try to find some other transcripts that don't require so much massaging to be publishable.
Speaking of interviews: I've realized that when Lynn Karp talks in that interview about having to move to New York to continue working on the Dell comic books for Western Printing , he was most likely mixing up his publishers. I think that what he had in mind was what happened when Jim Davis's "shop" on the West Coast stopped producing stories for Ben Sangor's ACG line (Ha Ha, Giggle), sometime in the late 1940s. As best I can tell, the cartoonists involved had the choice of moving to New York to work directly for Sangor and his editor, Richard Hughes, or finding some other source of income. This was when California-based ACG stalwarts like Jack Bradbury began contributing to the Dell titles, whereas Karp moved to New York and apparently worked for both ACG and Western while he was there, as well as Pines. He was presumably right about the move, but almost certainly wrong about which publisher instigated it.
Bill Blackbeard, the great collector who almost singlehandedly saved the early American comic strip from oblivion, died last March 10 at a California nursing home, a few weeks short of his eighty-fifth birthday. Sadly and a little strangely, no one in the comics community seems to have been aware of his death until well into April, when Bob Beerbohm learned of it and began spreading the word. Of the tributes published online, two of the best are by R. C. Harvey and Jeet Heer.
I pulled the files of my correspondence with Bill after I learned of his death, and I've been reliving my long acquaintance with him. My earliest letter from Bill came in October 1968, although we had corresponded before that through CAPA-alpha (the "comics amateur press association"). When I made my first trip to California in June 1969, I stayed for a few days with Bill and his wife, Barbara, at their home in San Francisco. They lived then at 2077 Golden Gate Avenue, a few blocks west of the Civic Center and a few blocks north of Haight-Ashbury. Not the most serene neighborhood, as I recall, especially since San Francisco was still wallowing in the backwash of the Summer of Love. Bill moved his home and his collection west to a large house at 2850 Ulloa Street, in the Sunset District, a year or two later.
I never saw the inside of the Ulloa house. After agreeing on a time with Bill by phone—this must have been in November 1973—Phyllis and I took the bus out to the Sunset District, only to find no one home. We hung around for an hour or so before giving up and heading back to our hotel, having wasted about three hours total. I left a note for Bill at the house but never heard a word of apology or explanation. Our correspondence just picked up as if nothing had happened. I learned later that the same thing had happened to Bill's (and my) editor at Oxford Unversity Press, Sheldon Meyer. I have no idea what Bill was thinking.
Bill was often described as a "scholar" or "historian," but he wasn't either of those things, not in any significant way. He once told me that he wasn't interested in pursuing the actual authorship of the strips—that is, in identifying the "ghosts" responsible for many of them—and he wrote in a letter that he didn't care to interview surviving cartoonists. (When I was about to interview Winsor McCay's assistant John Fitzimmons in 1976, and I asked Bill if he had any questions for Fitzsimmons, he devoted two long paragraphs to expressing skepticism about such interviews—before coming up with a half dozen good questions.) I remember reading a draft for the introductory chapter of his never-finished comic-strip history for Oxford; in it, he did not so much celebrate the virtues of the strips he loved as berate long-dead critics for their failure to be as perceptive and admiring as he was. I was dismayed by the draft's hectoring tone.
It was no surprise to me that Bill never finished the Oxford book, and there's no reason to regret that he didn't. His important work was not in writing but in collecting, and he did that superbly. Like all great collectors, he was intensely focused, first, on building his collection, and second, on finding the resources that would permit him to collect. I can only imagine what a splendid institution he might have created if he had been lucky enough to inherit or marry wealth. His "San Francisco Academy of Comic Art" was no more than the shadow of such an institution. It was a dodge, a respectable front Bill created so that the libraries that were microfilming and then, idiotically, destroying their irreplaceable bound newspaper volumes would give them to him instead. I was a willing party to that benign deception, as one of the Academy's "directors."
Bill stayed with me a couple of times in the '70s when he was in Washington, scooping up newspapers that the Library of Congress was foolishly discarding; he would have stayed more often, but Phyllis refused to hear of it. He was, alas, the kind of guest who tries to ingratiate himself with his hostess by telling her how expertly she cut apart the sections of his breakfast grapefruit. Poor Bill made it all too obvious that he regarded Phyllis and me less as friends than as a convenience.
Besides putting him up, I also supported his collecting in a very modest way by paying him for reviews he wrote for Funnyworld—not much, but my audience was one he wanted to reach, and fifty dollars for a review wasn't quite a pittance thirty years ago.
I jumped ship from Funnyworld just before it sank in the early '80s, and my correspondence with Bill petered out soon after that. (Funnyworld's proprietors at the time, Mark Lilien and Pam Clement, tried to donate the magazine to Bill's Academy, but he was justifiably suspicious of their motives, and nothing came of their offer.) I wrote to Bill twice in 1989 but received no reply. We were never in touch again. My usefulness to his collecting had ended, and with that our twenty-year acquaintance.
I think Bill's powerful instincts as a collector failed him in one instance. Bill and Martin Williams co-edited the enormously successful Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics (1978), which was made up of comic strips taken from Bill's collection. Martin told me that he wanted the book to be dominated by long runs from a relatively few outstanding comic strips, to show the medium at its best; Bill, a collector eager to display his rarities, wanted the book to offer examples of lots of obscure and forgotten strips—I remember Martin's mentioning one by Dr. Seuss—and the disagreements evidently became severe. I think Martin had much the better of the argument, and the book as published reflects his preferences more than Bill's; naturally enough, since it was Martin who actually worked for the Smithsonian Institution. Bill finally got the kind of book he wanted when Kitchen Sink published The Comic Strip Century as a two-volume boxed set in 1995; Bill co-edited that set with Dale Crain. It is exactly the kind of unfortunate hodgepodge that Martin resisted making of the Smithsonian book.
Because his collaboration with Bill had become so unpleasant, Martin turned to me as his co-editor for A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (1982). I don't know that Bill resented my participation—I don't find any traces of resentment in our correspondence—but he surely would have liked to receive more royalties from the Smithsonian. When he volunteered to lend comic books to be photographed for the new book, I told him of several that we needed. He never responded, and I wound up borrowing the comics from other collectors.
Bill edited many other books reprinting comic strips from his collection, some of them, like Fantagraphics' "Krazy & Ignatz" series, models of their kind. In 1997, with the Ulloa house in serious need of repair and his landlord unresponsive, Bill sold the collection to Ohio State University and moved to Santa Cruz. The collection was by then so comprehensive—seventy-five tons of paper!—that six moving vans were needed to transport it to Columbus. In the years since, even as Bill's own involvement waned, the collection has been an indispensable resource for other excellent reprint series, like Fantagraphics' complete Popeye by E.C. Segar and Drawn & Quarterly's "Walt and Skeezix" reprints of Gasoline Alley. Interest in classic comic strips will inevitably wax and wane, but thanks to Bill Blackbeard, the comic strips themselves will be available when posterity decides they deserve a fresh look.
The San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection at OSU—which really, if justice were done, would be called The Bill Blackbeard Collection—is the kind of monument only a few benefactors of great museums have left behind. Anyone who cares about comic art must be forever grateful to Bill that we have it.
From Joshua Jackson: Just wanted to thank you for the write-up on Bill Blackbeard. I had read some of his comments in several collections of Winsor McCay books, which had seemed dismissive of the industry in which McCay had worked, his employeers, and his son Bob McCay. While he made some good points, he often seemed overly critical & negative towards these people. Your write-up clarified why this was so. Thank you.
From Joshua Wilson: I appreciate your candid and fascinating remembrance of Bill Blackbeard. It was through that very Smithsonian collection you discuss that I was introduced to many of the great newspaper strips of the past. My dad had bought a copy, I presume through some mail order book club, and I would pore over it for hours as a kid. I first discovered my great love for Segar's Thimble Theater in that book. You can imagine my grateful wonder when Fantagraphics finally began reprinting a comprehensive, affordable, and easily accessible set of these treasured works. I had no idea that even these current publications owe their completeness to Blackbeard the collector. It was also in that Smithsonian volume when I first read Gottfedson's Mickey Mouse (I can't wait for the first reprint of that to come out this year!) and Winsor McKay's Nemo. I suppose it's not surprising that a person dogged and single minded enough to amass such a collection of what many treated as trash would have some personality quirks. It is interesting to now know something about this man, who indirectly introduced me to a world of comics that I dearly love now. I suspect that I was not the only one of my generation (I am now 31), and probably the generation before me that were first introduced to these comics through the Smithsonian book. I have now been able to share these masterworks of popular art with my children as well thanks to the legacy of collected reprints partially sparked by that publication. Thanks for your reminiscences—they are valuable to someone like me who never met the man.
[Posted May 21, 2011]
From Jeet Heer: I was grateful for your memorial essay on Blackbeard. I always wondered about the division of labour between Blackbeard and Williams, so your comments were helpful and make sense. When I was writing my Blackbeard appreciation I did ponder writing more about Williams but didn't know enough of the details to make a plausble comment. At some point I should write more about Williams. Aside from the two Smithsonian books, he wrote a few brief but very smart and suggestive essays on comics (as well as a much greater range of popular cultural criticism). In some ways, Williams should have been the one to write that definitive history of comics.
I enjoy a few of BB's essays—the ones on Segar and Gottfredson—but he was too idiosyncratic a writer to be a good critic or historian. And as you suggest, he was too quick to get into pointless squables with other writers.
MB replies: I struggled with the Blackbeard piece, because I wanted to give Bill his due, but I also wanted to correct what I thought were misunderstandings about the roles Bill and Martin played in assembling the Smithsonian book. Jeet is right—Martin did write some very good stuff about the comics and other aspects of popular culture, and he deserves more attention than he has received in the almost twenty years since his death. He was truly a critic, though, and I doubt he could have written a full-scale history of anything, even jazz, which was of course his specialty. Not that he lacked the ability to write one, but he would have gotten bored very quickly with the kind of research that I relish. He was baffled that I was taking so long to write Hollywood Cartoons, and I’ll always wish that he had lived long enough to read that book, whatever he might have thought of it.
From Robert Latona: Your piece on Bill Blackbeard tickled obscure memory circuits into flashing faintly, and formulating a thought that when I go, the following anecdotal codicil to your reminiscence might vanish with me into oblivion. No big deal should that happen—I don’t think I had any contact or correspondence with Bill to speak of and having stayed at his home in the late 1960s, you probably know all about this already…but hey, it’s one of these stories that has to be rendered in words before it can be filed and forgotten.
Summer of 1969: I was working at Bethlehem Steel, a huge set-up that occupied a fair segment of the circumference of Lake Erie, trying to scrape together enough money to survive my upcoming year in Spain. It was a pretty tough place (Bethlehem Steel, I mean, but I guess the same could be said of Spain in 1969) a tough job (parts of it extremely and unnecessarily dangerous, by union connivance) for tough people, absolute hard hat heaven, still a long way to go before it was all consumed by rust and imported Asian steel. Just to set the scene.
Scattered through this agglomeration of foundries, rolling mills, blast furnaces etc. were these lunchrooms stocked with vending machines and picnic-type wooden trestle tables. A sheet of plexiglas was affixed to each tabletop to make wipe-ups and crumb sweeps easy. Between the plexiglas and the table’s surface, all manner of pinups clipped from the sex magazines of the period had been inserted, girlie stuff galore, classic Elvgren calendar hotties, Playmates of the month, teaser shots, you name it. Along with a minority of “full frontal” stuff which, back in 1969, had to be marketed in the form of innocuous naturist magazines earnestly pitching a healthy, full-frontal outdoors lifestyle. A variant of this catered to the "swinger” lifestyle, aimed at somewhat older couples anxious not to miss out on the fun and games enjoyed by the younger crowd (this was the sixties, after all)—like Cavalier and its clones, only "explicit "and NOT for sale at newsstands. Both variants offered non-photoshy practitioners who never seemed to be in the least bit middle-aged or overweight or unattractive. In fact, they looked a lot like models. Stoned out of their sad little heads. But the then-fierce postal laws saw to it they did not get into any mischief.
At one of these tables, my eyes were caught by this item on the sophisticated San Francisco swinger’s scene, highlighted by this couple having two other couples over for drinks, all of them then shucking off their clothes. They host was described as a connoisseur of fine whiskies and expensive spirits. He was also—wait a minute, hold the presses, whoaaa there: it says he is a collector of vintage comic strips such as—Boob McNutt? Yes, lord almighty, that’s what it says and look, he’s holding one up and the other people are examining it. There were four or five more photographs in the sequence in which, the host character (whose name was given as "Long John," gee, ya think?) proudly shows off the highlights of his vintage comic strip collection to the others, all of them as buck naked as himself. I’m sure the photographer was grateful to have a "storyline" to follow and not just have them stand around with a drink in their hand.
What were the odds of someone who knew about Bill Blackbeard and his collection stumbing across that little bit of pious pornography, I wonder? What I thought was hilarious then and still do was, jeez, now there’s the true collector for you. Right in the middle of a pornographic photo shoot, he can’t resist showing off the choice items in his collection.
And that’s my punchline-free Bill Blackbeard story, may he rest in peace and with thankfulness from me. Like everyone’s been saying, we owe him bigtime for having carried his passion to acquire and preserve to the extremes that he did. Others will see to the scholarship, analysis, and critical synthesis.
MB replies: I had all but forgotten about Bill's second life as—what? Free-lance pornographer? Naturist? Chronicler and participant in the nudie scene? I remember being sort of aware of it when I was staying with him in 1969, but it was not a major topic of conversation. My memories of that trip run to things like visiting Gary Arlington's very funky comics shop, hearing Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore, and smoking my first-ever joint with George Metzger in someone's apartment in the Haight, an apartment furnished with nothing but boxes of comic books. And then there was the huge snake—python? boa constrictor?—that some friend of Bill and Barbara's brought to their apartment. Ah, youth. I gotta post some of my snapshots from that trip.
Bill's unusual second life was, no doubt, how he raised the money to build his comics collection. I don't think much money was coming in from anywhere else—certainly not from Bill's wife, Barbara, who was working then for the post office.
[Posted May 25, 2011]
From Eddie Fitzgerald: Nice article on Bill Blackbeard! It was nice to be reminded of Martin's contribution to the Smithsonian book, and the shedding of light on Bill's eccentricities only served to increase my interest in the man. I wonder if Bill had Asperger's?
MB replies: If you've forgotten the symptoms of Asperger's (and I had), there's a refresher course at this link. The symptoms sound all too familiar, don't they? "Problems with social skills," "Unusual preoccupations or rituals," "Communication difficulties," "Limited range of interests"...um, well... Sort of like standard-issue behavior for comics and animation geeks, myself included, although I prefer to think that my own symptoms are still within the range of normality (but that's what crazy people always think, isn't it?). As for Bill Blackbeard, I have to wonder what his fellow participants in that nudist photo shoot thought about his collection. I picture them standing around buck naked, peering at Bill's original "Boob McNutt" strip with feigned interest, and thinking to themselves, jeez, Long John is one strange dude, and could someone turn up the thermostat just a tad?
[Posted May 26, 2011]
From Eric Noble: Wonderful article. It seems that Bill Blackbeard was an interesting fellow to say the least. I am very thankful for his contribution to the preservation of newspaper comics. Now the work of such geniuses as George Herriman and E.C. Segar are available for generations of collectors and cartoonists to come. It's also very funny to hear about his actual job as a "naturist." Humanity never ceases to make me laugh.
[Posted May 29, 2011]
From Jeffrey A. Goodman: I just came across your website while looking for information about your magazine Funnyworld and was delighted to find your fascinating obituary about Bill Blackbeard.
In the early to mid-1990's my wife and I were running a used bookstore around a mile from where BB lived with his wife on Ulloa St. He came into my store often and while at first I had no idea who he was, having never seen a photo of him, I was always impressed by the books this gentleman bought from me out of my Film and Humor sections, which happened to be right next to each other at the front of my store. We got to talking one time about some books that had just come into the store, (two odd little true crime paperbacks with L. B. Cole covers, published by Lev Gleason that I had obtained in a collection of many comic and cartoon related books) and he told me who he was and how he had never seen the books before and felt they might have been some kind of trial or dummy type samples for what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt of the publisher into branching out into more mainstream markets. Having been a collector of comics in all shapes and sizes his name was very well known to me for all the usual reasons. We had a nice chat and he'd come in every couple of months and usually pay me by checks that were drawn on an account under the name of his institution. One time, however, the check bounced. In 15 years of business we only had at most five checks bounce, and only one we couldn't collect on. BB's was not that one, but it was difficult to get ahold of him to make the check good. We spoke on the phone at least five times where he promised to come in and make good but didn't. I think it was the sixth time where he asked me if I would like to come to his house, see "The Academy" and he would pay me. Also, he said, he had some books he wanted to get rid of, and thought I might be interested in them. I said sure, as it wasn't that far and I figured that judging by what he bought from me, he'd have better than the book club junk I was used to seeing making house calls in that somewhat conservative neighborhood he resided in, the Sunset.
His house was something else, even from the exterior. I don't know how it looked when you first visited, but by 1995 or thereabouts that house stood out with elaborate palm trees and a design that reminded me almost of a Masonic Temple. On the inside was the most amazing library of books related to comics, strips, pulps, mysteries, film, tv and all other popular culture that I have ever seen, including just about any library I've ever been in. He took me out to his garage where he had a small path through piles and plies of raw newspaper stacked like you'd see in a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. It was somewhat unnerving being in that room in the heart of earthquake country. He showed me around the various rooms of the house including a portion that was covered in plastic sheets due to a leak in the roof somewhere. I had no idea he rented the house, as it certainly appeared that he had to have owned it and couldn't afford to have the roof fixed. It was only in reading some of the other obits about BB that I learned he had rented this place all those years. With the amount of stuff he had there it's really odd to think that at some point some landlord could kick him out for whatever legal reason and BB would then have to figure a way to move it all. The place was truly mind-boggling.
He paid me for the bounced check, but ended up getting it all back due to me buying a great batch of books that included many nice first editions like Slaughterhouse Five, and some Heinlein 1sts among other rarer and more obscure SF and mystery books. We met a few more times afterwards when he stopped in my store on West Portal, but then he seemed to disappear. It was only later that I found out he had sold his collection to OSU and moved to the Santa Cruz area. A friend of mine that worked at another book store knew BB and had seen him right before his move, so he had all the details.
In recent years I came across a book titled Kiss, Screw, Pleasure and Sex written by William Teach which I've heard and assumed was BB under a pseudonym, the real name of Blackbeard The Pirate. Have you ever seen a copy of it, and can you confirm it was a title by BB? What makes me more certain is the revelation in your comments section about BB's swinging years and his work as a bit of a pornographer which I had not been aware of. The book is quite well written and features a lot of illustrations from the world of Underground Comix. I currently have a duplicate copy for sale on line and am working under the assumption that it is indeed a work by BB. Perhaps you can confirm this or not, but either way I just wanted to throw in my two cents about BB. He did come across as aloof at first, but seemed to warm up once he sensed you dug what he did...of course showing off his collection could have been the catalyst, as well as his wanting to sell me something. At first I was a bit weirded out by him, but after that impression, I was glad I had met the man. I even briefly met his wife, but she struck me as even odder than he, and there didn't appear to be much going on between them...more like a roommate situation than a marriage. But my glimpse was indeed fleeting, so I can't really say for sure.
In closing let me just say that I've enjoyed Funnyworld since I discovered it in my teens, and every once in awhile attempt to fill in the gaps in my collection. I really like the work you do, and I hope to be reading material by you for many years to come.
MB replies: I had completely forgotten about that book by "William Teach" until Jeffrey Goodman mentioned it, but when I went looking for it in my box of small-format underground comix and related stuff (like R. Crumb's card sets), there it was. It is a weird book, a serious (if not exactly solemn) examination of '60s sex papers and underground comix interrupted by inserted sets of color photos that are...well, if "obscenity" has any meaning any more, these photos are obscene. "Explicit" hardly says it. I don't remember knowing for sure that Bill Blackbeard was the author (although that seems highly likely), neither I do remember how I came to own a copy of the book (it was published after I saw Bill in San Francisco in 1969, so I don't think he gave me a copy). It's a real time capsule, a relic of the sexual revolution that now seems almost quaint...or would, if there weren't quite so many photos of genital organs.
[Posted June 14, 2011]