Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From Weird Tales to Hogan's Alley

Bill Blackbeard, who passed away 10 March 2011, is rightly remembered as the man who saved the comics, but he was also a writer of no mean ability who wrote articles incessantly for pulps, fanzines and hardcover books. His prose language drew on Victorianisms, army slang, atrocious puns, beat prosody, the poetry of George Herriman and the wild imagineerings of Elzie Segar. He often took off on wild flights of fancy, image stumbling over image in wild endless exuberant sentences. In his correspondence he would use archaic phrases like “more anon,” “prithee,” and “ninnavent.” One letter to me began with “A good, loud Jack Benny “Yike”!” Even his titles reflected his reading, such as: “The Doom that Whirled toward Minnie; or, Mickey Mouse and the Phantom Artist,” from The Riverside Quarterly Vol. 6 No. 1, 1973, evocative of the Victorian penny dreadful.

The following list isn’t meant as an exhaustive listing of all Bill Blackbeard’s works. I imagine a complete list would be huge. Leaving aside most of his introductory articles for hard-cover book collections I’ll just talk about a few articles I do know of.

I don’t know when Bill B. (born 28 April 1926) started his writing career but it may have been with the November 1943 Dorothy McIlwraith edited Weird Tales story “Hammer of Cain,” collaboration with a regular contributor, James Causey. I lose sight of his writing at this period although he seems to have been directly involved with “first fandom” at the time. “Pipsqueak Prometheus,” a “devastating dissection” of L. Ron Hubbard appeared in Shangri La, # 20. Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, 236 ½ North New Hampshire, Los Angeles 4, Calif., at 15¢ each. The article was reprinted in 1962 (see below). A review can be found HERE.

Bill can be found in 1956 with Famed Los Angeles fan centre close's doors forever,” in Fantasy Times no. 249:FTM3-FTM4, June (2) 1956, and SF and Fantasy,1941-1956,”in Fantasy Times No. 254:25-27, September (1) 1956.

He next appears as a contributing editor to The Riverside Quarterly, begun on August 1964 (Vol. 1, No. 1). The sf/fantasy zine was edited by Leland Sapiro, associate editor was Jon White, and Red Boggs and Arthur Jean Cox were also contributing editors. Drawings were by Charles Schneeman and layout by Bjo Trimble. I didn’t find any articles by Bill in the first or second issues but there is a note in no. 2: “…finally to Gus Wilmorth, originator of our ancestral Fantasy Advertiser...” It is possible that Bill wrote for the Fantasy Advertiser which ran in its original form from April 1946-June 1963. The editors were Norman E. Gus Wilmorth, Roy Squires, Ron Smith and Jon White. This second issue of RQ the address moved from Los Angeles to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Tipped by Huib van Opstal about his Riverside Quarterly contributions I wrote Bill and asked him a few questions.

“The editor of RQ was Leland Sapiro, an old sf fan friend and math professor who was in Thatsacatchyone seeking tenure; I had written some articles (in CA) for books I had edited that he wanted for his zine. Leland was not Canadian: he hailed from LA, where he grew up as a nephew of Igor Stravinsky and the grandson of the Aaron Sapiro who took on Henry Ford for a series of anti-Semitic articles in the Ford Co magazine, and won: a landmark case in law.”

Bill began writing a regular column about comic strips and popular culture in Vol. 4, No. 4, Mar 1971 beginning with a negative article about Woody Gelman’s Krazy Kat hard cover collection (1969). The article in Vol. 5 No. 1, July 1971, “From a Corner Table at Rough-House’s,” is one of his most personal, opening with a statement quoted from Jim Harmon’s The Great Radio Heroes which is then used as launching point to ramble on with childhood reminiscences and experiences with “the arts,” a critique of current comic strips, magazines, pulps and comic books. A reading of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes brought out a protest that “every last one of the ill-drawn, ill-written colour pages… makes my gorge rise in revulsion precisely as it did in those otherwise wonderful childhood days when I first looked at the early Detective Comics and Action Comics, or even their odder, cruder predecessor More Fun Comics. I didn’t think they were worth a dime then… I still don’t. Yet I continually took them down off those dawn age comic racks with ever-fresh (but always shafted) interest and hope.”

In Vol. 5 No. 3 he wrote for the first time about “The Bungle Family,” Vol. 5 No. 4 was about “Krazy Kat” and Gilbert Seldes. A substantial 12 page article appeared in Vol. 6, No. 1, 1973, it was the aforementioned “The Doom that Whirled toward Minnie; or, Mickey Mouse and the Phantom Artist,” which would later appear in All in Color for a Dime (Arlington House 1970). In Vol. 6, No. 3 there was an excerpt from his ‘work in progress’ (possibly the introduction to the unfinished work) “The Endless Art Warped with Fancy, Woofed with Dreams: the Literature of the Comic Strip.” He cites Krazy Kat, Thimble Theatre, Polly and The Bungle Family as “easily equal to the work of Chaplin and Keaton in the cinema, or to that of Waugh and Lardner in fiction (certain of the characters swaggering and rambling through the epic poetry of E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre are, in fact, so stunningly realized that they can be measured without embarrassment against the best of Dickens’ figures)…”

As far as I can tell Bill Blackbeard wrote 9 articles for The Riverside Quarterly, some short pieces, some long pieces and a few book reviews. “The Eighty Year Shaft; the Grand Scam of Comic Book Reprints since the Turn of the Century,” started in Vol. 7 No. 2, March 1982, and was continued in Vol. 7 No. 3 as “The Eighty Year Shaft Part II: Grab-Bag Packages.” His last contribution (last I know of, publishing was irregular) was “A Saga for Sagendorf’s Sake,” to Vol. 7 No. 4, a negative review of Popeye: the First Fifty Years (1979).

I think The Riverside Quarterly ended with volume 8, No. 4, August 1991. During this period, judging by the list of address changes, Sapiro published the zine from 1964-1991 from Los Angeles, Saskatoon, Sask., Lake Charles, La., Gainesville, Florida, Garden City, N.Y., Hartzville, S.C., Plano, Texas, Waco, Texas, Lake Charles again, and finally Regina, Saskatchewan.

Bill Blackbeard wrote a science fiction story called “The Recruits” for Winter (not sure if that's the title of a magazine or a zine) in 1963. Another classic title is “Pipsqueak Prometheus: some remarks on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard,” from Inside No. 1: 23-31. October 1962. Inside may have been a tabloid or a zine.

One book that has been attributed to Bill Blackbeard is Kiss, Screw, Pleasure and Sex which was published by Greenleaf Classics in San Diego, 23 December 1969. It was advertised in Ramparts magazine in 1969 for $1. It is listed in the University of California’s Catalogue of banned publications, cinematograph pictures, and records from 1st August, 1968 to 30th June, 1980. Greenleaf Classics published a number of “scholarly” books about s-e-x, but so far there is no proof that William Teach was a pseudonym used by Bill Blackbeard. You can find some discussion of the matter HERE.

Much of the early criticism and discussion of comic strips that appeared in hard-cover books earned Bill’s scorn for slipshod research but he did find hope in many of the “competent strip researchers” like Mike Barrier, Denis Gifford, Maurice Horn, Jim Ivey, Dick Lupoff, Donald Phelps, Martin Williams, and Don and Maggie Thompson “some of whom have been forced to write, for lack of editorial imagination elsewhere, in an exuberant weedpatch of amateur publications devoted to the excessive celebration of comic book superheroes…”

Undoubtedly further Bill Blackbeard articles filled the pages of numerous other fanzines (comment below if you have any titles to add.) In June 1985 Bill B. was a contributing editor of Fantagraphics late, great NEMO: the Classic Comics Library edited by Richard Marschall. That first issue had a marvelous BB article on “The Forgotten Years of George Herriman,” introducing an early Kat-like fantasy to the world in the form of “Gooseberry Sprig.” No. 2 featured “Another Origin: the Comic Strip,” tracing the history of young Randolph Hearst. In Volume 3 Bill B. wrote about what must have been his favorite comic character in “E.C. Segar’s Knockouts of 1925 (and low blows before and after): The Unknown Thimble Theatre Period.” NEMO no. 10 had “Bill of Fare: Mutton Jeff -- Mutt and Jeff’s Family Album.” There was a long stretch with no Blackbeard until NEMO 22 where Bill reviewed Harold G. Davidson’s Jimmy Swinnerton: the Artist and his Work as “The Man who Grew up with the Comics.” Unless I missed something this was his last contribution to NEMO.

In later years Bill was writing for Hogan’s Alley, one of his last articles was about Harry Tuthill’s “The Bungle Family”. I tried ordering that number online but unfortunately they don’t ship into Canada so I missed it. (*Note: the previous sentence would seem to be a false memory on my part -- they do ship to Canada -- see comments.) A list of Bill’s many introductory articles to various book collections would fill a book. I’ll just mention a few of my favorites. “Desperate Measures: How Harry Hershfield Hung a Cliff a Day in 1913” appeared in Dauntless Durham of the U.S.A.: the complete strip, 1913-1914 (Hyperion Press 1977).

Flying Buttress Classics Library's Tarzan in Color series Vol. 1 featured one of those long titles Bill loved so much “Artist of the Absurd a Pained and Amused Look at Rex Maxon’s Six-Month Stint on the First Twenty Eight Tarzan Sunday Pages (Which are Not to be Found in this Book), and Other Crucial Matters.” I recall writing Bill B. an email twitting him about wasting so many pages on an artist he professed to despise, which he took with great good humor. In Vol. 2 it was “Tarzan’s Foster Father; Notes on an artist and an Era.” Vol. 7 had “Burnished Bronze: Tarzan a la Mode De Hogarth.” There were probably more but these are the only copies I have.

Fantagraphics published Popeye Vol. I I Yam What I Yam! in 2006, Bill contributing Black Laughter Comments on the Grimly Comic Development of a Major American Epic of Witchcraft and Fisticuffs as Refereed by J. Wellington Wimpy.

Outside of the realm of comic strips Bill also wrote “Pulps and Dime Novels” in The Handbook of American Popular Literature (Edited by Thomas Inge, Greenwood Press, 1988.) Bill informed me that his extensive revision, “Pulps, Penny Dreadfuls, and Dime Novels” would be included in a new Greenwood volume due out in 2002. I have never found the revision and am not really sure if it ever saw print. Bill contributed “That Nonpareil All-American Boy reaches age 80,” to the Smithsonian Magazine, June 1976. The All-American Boy was, of course Gilbert Patten’s Frank Merriwell.


When Bill Blackbeard began chronicling the comic strip there was no appreciation of comic strips by academics and institutions. Comics were still an untouchable subject for adults. The study of comic strips was considered to be the domain of morons and illiterates. Most critical articles on the comics, as Bill noted more than once, appeared in the lowly form of the zine, with low distribution and a small readership. Bill Blackbeard considered the best of the comic strips to be the equal of great art, cinema and literature, and spent his highly productive life trying to convince the world that the subject was worthy of their attention.

I’ll let Bill have the last word, to take us back to the beginning, from “Mickey Mouse and the Phantom Artist.”

“Flat against the cold, mossy stones above the green-jawed depths of the crocodile pit, arms outstretched to either side of his wall-clinging body, edging cautiously along a narrow ledge away from the trapdoor entrance, the little guy calculated his chances of making it to the distant end of the ledge before one of the lunging saurians just below snapped its hungry jaws about an ankle and jerked him down into the black, threshing waters. It was 1933, and a hundred thousand readers had turned to the comic page to find out what would happen next…”

Photos top to bottom:

“Comics, cartoons win favor in collection” Montana Standard 13 Dec 1970

“12-Room House is Crowded Comic Museum” Capital Times 21 Jan 1972

“He sets up academy for laughs” Evening Capital, 16 Feb 1981

***A great interview from Jeff Levine's Destroy All Comics no. 3-A, dated August 1995, HERE.

***Bill Blackbeard, disguised as Popeye, in his own strip HERE.



2 comments:

  1. Nice tribute, John! I might add a couple of things regarding Bill's Hogan's Alley contributions...he wrote about the Bungle Family, as you mentioned, but his last article for us (and, as far as I know, one of his last published articles, period) was in issue #15, about Hearst's introduction of the "topper" strip.

    And wot's this about us not shipping to Canada??? We have many Canadian subscribers (and many other countries). It costs more for mailing, but we sure enough fulfill anywhere we're wanted!

    Thanks again for putting together a fine overview of Bill's unparalleled body of work!

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  2. You mean I was dreaming? Must have been.

    ReplyDelete