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Treasures of comic strip art

An exhibition of rescued comic strip art
An exhibition of rescued comic strip art 06:05

One person's trash is another person's treasure. And for the late Bill Blackbeard, the treasure that he'd stored from floor to ceiling in his San Francisco home was maybe the largest, most comprehensive private collection of American newspaper comics ever assembled.

"He was single-minded," said Caitlin McGurk, curator of comics and cartoon art at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. "He felt a calling to preserve this type of material that no one else really cared about. I mean, comic art is kind of an underdog of the art world."

The library is currently displaying just a sample of the trove of cartoons (some 2.5 million pieces in all, dating as far back to 1893) that Blackbeard amassed over 30 years of collecting. The exhibit is called "Man Saves Comics." 

Curator Caitlin McGurk and correspondent Luke Burbank observe the exhibit "Man Saves Comics!" at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio.  CBS News

Among the cartoons on display: "Little Nemo in Slumberland" by Windsor McCay, one of the earliest fantasy comics by one of the greatest cartoonists in history.

An original of "Little Nemo in Slumberland" from 1906. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

And there is also a complete run of "Hugo Hercules," from 1902. "It's essentially Superman 30-plus years before Superman existed," said McGurk.

"Hugo Hercules" (1902), written and drawn by Wilhelm Heinrich Detlev Körner, is considered the comics' first superhero, predating Superman by more than three decades. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

You might be wondering why it fell to one eccentric scholar to do so much of this preservation, and why it matters?

There was time long ago, before the internet, when things were not saved digitally, meaning a Sunday morning comic, with its vibrant colors and social importance, could be lost forever if no one saved that particular issue of that specific newspaper.

Burbank asked, "Why do you think newspaper comics maybe didn't get the respect that they deserve?"

McGurk replied, "People have historically viewed newspaper comics or comics in general as something that was just meant for kids, or made for the masses. It was kind of neglected from the start for that reason."

But they were important, for a whole variety of reasons, from early representations of same-sex relationships, to Black time travelers, to entertaining the kids on a Sunday.

In the 1905 series "Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye," the heroines' long kisses goodbye invariably cause mayhem, for themselves or others.  San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

There were, of course, libraries that were converting their collections of old newspapers onto microfilm, but microfilm is black-and-white, and that meant the rich colors of the Sunday comics would be lost to history.

And microfilm was fragile: "It gets covered in scratches, and just after a few uses by patrons can be rendered unusable," said McGurk.

During his lifetime Bill Blackbeard collected and preserved 2.5 million artifacts of comic art.  San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

Which is where Blackbeard stepped in. With his wife and some volunteer friends, he started traveling around the United States in a van, amassing discarded bound volumes of newspapers, so that he could clip the comics section out of them, which he saved in his house. "The only room that he didn't have newsprint in was the bathroom, because he was worried about how the water would affect the paper," McGurk said.

Decades later, Blackbeard was facing eviction from his California rental home, so he sold his collection to the university. But getting all that material to Ohio in 1998 was no small feat: his 75 tons of newspaper clippings arrived in six semi-trucks. And 25 years later, they are still taking stock. 

Jenny Robb, head curator of comics and cartoon art, is overseeing a small team tasked with cataloging and properly storing all of Blackbeard's materials. "We're at about 30 to 40 percent that has been processed," she said. "We have a lot of material that we still have to get through."

Burbank asked, "Are there boxes that haven't been opened yet?"

"There are boxes that have not been opened in decades!" said Robb.

Among the items that have been processed and stored at exactly 64 degrees for archival purposes? The entire 1931 run of "Blondie." And there are names you might be less familiar with, like Elsie Robinson, a single mother who created an editorial cartoon and syndicated column empire that ran from the 1920s through the 1950s.

"She was incredibly famous in her time," said Allison Gilbert, who co-wrote the first biography of Robinson. "She had more than 20 million readers. And just to put that in perspective, that's double the number of subscribers today to The New York Times."

And her cartoons took on subject matter that perhaps wasn't tackled in other parts of the newspaper, from feminism, marriage, gender equality and pay inequity, to racism and capital punishment.

A cartoon on sharing household chores by Elsie Robinson. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

Bill Blackbeard passed away in 2011, but not before his life's passion – the preservation of an ephemeral and often underestimated art form – had been safely transferred to a new generation … like something out of a superhero story.

Burbank said, "I have to imagine he'd be pretty excited to see that this is where it all led."

"We hope that he would be proud," said McGurk. "We've discovered such incredible things in [his collection], and we're so grateful for what he did."

Richard F. Outcault's "The Yellow Kid," from 1896.  San Francisco Academy of Comic Art

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Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: Emanuele Secci.

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