Robert Beerbohm was a comics historian who changed the course of original comics study and rewrote some of its missing pages

Michael TaubeRobert “Bob” Beerbohm, a well-known comics historian and retailer, passed away on Mar. 27. Although animation and comic strips are specialty areas, and I know some comics historians, this wasn’t the case with Beerbohm. We only lightly knew each other through Facebook and had exchanged a few small pleasantries.

I had recently decided to conduct a short interview based on his fascinating role in rediscovering America’s first comic book. Sadly, my decision was made less than one week before his death and never occurred.

My hope had been it would have been similar to an interesting interview I had early in my career with German comics historian Wolfgang Fuchs.

Fuchs first came to my attention as a contributor to comics historian Maurice Horn’s The World Encyclopedia of Comics. He was one of Germany’s earliest experts in recognizing comics as an art form. He translated comic strips and comic books into his native tongue, including Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, Winsor McCay’s Little Remo in Slumberland and Jim Davis’s Garfield. He wrote forewords to German-language editions of Carl Banks’ Donald Duck comic books, and was an editor for Germany’s Peanuts magazine. Fuchs also scripted two advertising comics, including Berry der Plantagenbär (Berry the Plantation Bear) for the cocoa drink Kaba with his childhood friend, comic artist Reinhold Reitberger.

Robert Beerbohm comics

Robert Beerbohm
Photo courtesy Kathryn Beerbohm Young

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With the aid of Horn’s publicist, I spoke with Fuchs on the phone. He was a pleasant individual and extremely knowledgeable about comics. I made a short reference to Fuchs in a Jul. 26, 1999 piece I wrote for The Weekly Standard about infrequent crossovers in comic strips.

I was going to include Fuchs in a second piece, but the project was abruptly cancelled. We lost contact for more than a decade. I came across his name on Facebook in late December 2019 and tried to reconnect. Alas, he passed away on Jan. 20, 2020. I established a Facebook connection with his daughter, Anna Schulz, a talented cartoonist and illustrator in her own right, which remains to this day.

Beerbohm’s life and career was obviously different from Fuchs’s. He co-founded Comics and Comix with Bud Plant and John Barrett, which was the first comic book store chain in the U.S. and had a publishing division. He also founded the comic book store Best of Two Worlds and sold original work through Robert Beerbohm Comic Art, among other things.

At the same time, his work and research were groundbreaking in their own right. Beerbohm changed the course of original comics study multiple times and rewrote some of its missing pages.

One of them had a Canadian connection.

He played an integral role in rediscovering Toronto-born comic book artist Jerry Shuster’s pencil drawing of the first Superman cover. According to a Feb. 1, 2023 Facebook post, he received it from EC Comics publisher Russ Cochran, who had previously acquired it from EC Comics co-editor Bill Gaines. The cover art had been “discovered in his father Max ‘Charlie’ Gaines desk jammed up behind one of the drawers where it had sat for many years.”

It turns out that it “had sat untouched since the boating accident in August 1947,” according to Beerbohm’s 2012 entry on the ComicArtFans website, where he sold his artifacts, and he “came home with these four torn fire-singed pieces” from Cochran in exchange for $100 in vintage comic books. Shuster later confirmed this was his original work, drawn in 1933 with Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel for Humor Publishing Company.

The other was the rediscovery of America’s first comic book, The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck.

In a Jul. 19, 2022 Troy Media column, I mentioned one of the earliest known 19th-century European cartoonists, Rodolphe Töpffer. He created a text comic/sequential picture book, Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, in 1837. The book was reprinted in England as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in 1841. The U.S. publication Brother Jonathan also reprinted Töpffer’s classic tale in 1842 and under the same title in 1849 to become the first comic book ever published in the U.S.

Yet, it wasn’t until Beerbohm’s rediscovery that the American connection was firmly planted in history.

Comics historian James R. Thompson’s Apr. 18 tribute to Beerbohm in The Comics Journal summarized it eloquently. “The story, as Bob told it, began with a 1941 comic book thread by Lovecraft publisher August Derleth in American Notes and Queries, a journal where someone would ask a question and then a few months later somebody else would supply an answer. In January 1946, Gershon Legman, cultural critic and author of Love and Death. A study in censorship, responded to that Derlith thread from five years prior, mentioning The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck as the very first American comic book, and listing dozens of other 19th century comic prototypes.”

“From there,” Thompson continued, “Bob started typing names of these titles into Usenet. Six months later, Bob received word from a young single mother in Oakland, California, who then sold him a first edition of Oldbuck that had been in her family for seven generations. And the rest is history.”

Hence, it was innate curiosity that led to these important discoveries. Much in the same way, Beerbohm told comics historian Jeet Heer on a comics Listserv that he was “accumulating photos of George Herriman without his hat.” This played a central role in helping Heer and several other scholars determine whether the late cartoonist who had created the comic strip Krazy Kat actually had Black ancestry. “Collecting photos of Herriman sans chapeau might seem an odd thing to do. Focusing on his hair could be seen as equally odd,” Heer wrote in his TCJ tribute. “But out of small details are mighty issues settled. Bob and I were only doing early detective work.”

Beerbohm’s life, work and legacy will be remembered for decades to come. His research skills and inquisitive nature deserved to be told to a wider audience, too. While I regret that I couldn’t speak with him in time, I’m glad I got to do it in this small way.

Rest in peace.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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