The Secret Origin of Barnacle Press
Back in 2003, two old friends, Thrillmer and Holmes!, started going to the Chicago Public Library to look at comic strips. We’d spend hours at the microfilm machines paging through old newspapers, elbowing each other to come look when we found something good. Eventually, we had the idea to share them online, though it was slow going with the methods we had available. We’d convinced the librarians to let us bring a printer into the lab, and we’d print out sheets of comics, then go home and scan them into a digital format.
Happily, there were online newspaper archives starting to come online at the time, and we quickly moved to downloading PDFs and cutting them apart in Photoshop. We posted them separately to our individual blogs for a couple of years, with Thrillmer generally posting adventure comics and Holmes! doing more of the funny stuff. In 2005, we finally, inevitably, joined forces and created Barnacle Press.
The name comes from an anecdote about Harry Hershfield, the creator of Abie the Agent. As he told it, there was a point in the early 20th century when newspapers started adopting the use of bylines institutionally. He approached his editor, Arthur Brisbane at the New York Journal, and asked if that meant he could start signing his work. “My strips appear in the paper; doesn’t that make me a newspaperman?” Brisbane snarled back, “Is a barnacle a ship?”
After porting over the content from our individual blogs, the first new comic we posted was The Outbursts of Everett True. We’d found a reprint of the 1907 collection at Chicago Comic Con (then Wizard World), and fell in love immediately. The internet did, too; it made a pretty big splash, with posts on Boing Boing, Digg, Fark, StumbleUpon–the biggest names in social media, circa 2005! It was a good start, and we kept it up for some years pretty consistently. But then other stuff got in the way, wiener kids and jobs and the like, and the site was neglected for a lot of years.
Now in 2020, we’re back, sharing these strips we love so much. Hopefully this is the start of another long run, as long as society doesn’t collapse.
The Barnacle Brothers
Thillmer and Holmes! met in high school, joined by a mutual love of punk rock. We played in bands together until Holmes! graduated in 1990 and took a five-year vacation in North Dakota, courtesy of Uncle Sam. But as soon as he moved back to Chicago, we started a band again. We played together for years, finally breaking up for good in 2002. But we still hung out and made stuff together, like experiments with stop-motion. Then we started digging up comics…
In addition to comics, we still love punk rock and other music, along with old movies, professional wrestling, cartoons… All the Classicist Nerdly Arts.
Thrillmer is a law librarian in Chicago, living with his wife and their two kids named after characters from Peanuts and Harvey Comics.
Holmes! is a web developer turned barber, and has a one-eyed cat named after a John Wayne character. In addition to the aforementioned interests, he’s an ardent fan of Old Time Radio, ventriloquism, stereo photography, and board games.
Yes, Too Many of These Comics Are Horribly Racist, Sexist, etc., etc.
We love old comics and vintage culture in general, but wading in with both feet means your boots are going to be covered with a lot of shit. While we make no claims to a surfeit of wokeness, we’re both lefty types, fervently opposed to systems that oppress people by race, class, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. This makes digging in old papers a frequently maddening task, as newspapers of the era were firmly dedicated to upholding white male supremacy. Depictions of women and BIPOC were paternalist and condescending at best, and frequently outright evil. Even when you get a populist publisher like Hearst, you have criticisms of capitalism and the wealthy on one page, and some of the most racist comics you’ll ever see on the other.
This makes our mission of archiving the history of comics a fraught endeavor. We want to celebrate the creativity and wonder of this art form without bowdlerization or ignoring uncomfortable truths about our forebears, but we also don’t want to see any of our stuff passed around on neanderthal message boards as some tribute to the good old days when mocking people for their being was de rigueur. In the end, we leave the very worst stuff to languish in the databases, completionist inclinations be damned.
But that doesn’t mean that you won’t run into some material which is patently (and rightly!) unacceptable to modern mores. We make no excuses for these strips. Yes, they were of their time, but their time could be pretty awful. Ethnic humor was THE mode in the 19th and early 20th century, and the funnies are rife with it. Some we recognize as racist, like depictions of Blacks and Asians, but there are other stereotyped caricatures of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Italians, that aren’t recognizable as such, today. That’s a good thing. Look at these comics as examples of how far we’ve come, while acknowledging that we’ve still got a long way to go on the arc of moral history.
Are These Comics in the Public Domain?
Mostly, yes. As a rule of thumb, any work from before 1925 is Public Domain, though characters and titles may still be protected. We make absolutely no claims to ownership of these strips. We’re just pulling them out and showing them to you ‘cos we dig them so much we want to share them.
In addition, we try to be conscientious members of the greater comic community. That means that we avoid things that are actively being reprinted, today. That’s why you won’t find strips like Little Nemo on the site; while they may be public domain, we’re not trying to take the bread from anyone’s mouth. We may eventually post some samples for the sake of career overviews, but we won’t be making an attempt to catalog them in earnest. Comics are best read on paper, anyway. Support comic strip reprints!
We also don’t use comics culled and formatted by other sites, unless they’re proffered to us directly. It takes a lot of effort to do this work, and we only feel comfortable with what we’ve earned the right to post via our personal efforts.
That said, if you’ve got a project and you want to use material from the site, we’re totally cool with it. A note would be great, since we’d surely be interested in your work, and a shout-out is always a classy touch.
Hey! That Comic Belongs to Me!
If you believe that we’ve out-stepped the bounds of propriety in posting a particular comic, please contact us. No need to bother your lawyers to send a C&D, you’ll find us eternally amenable to reasonable conversation. We’re doing this for fun and edification, and aren’t looking to ruffle any feathers.