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A collector donated 75,000 comic books to Penn Libraries, valued at more than $500,000

The donation marks the single largest gift of comics the university has ever received. It will nearly quadruple the university’s growing Comics and Graphic Novels Collection.

For Gary Prebula, collecting comics has never been a mere obsession. It’s been a crusade.

And while the mammoth comic book collection he has amassed over six decades — from his childhood in Western Pennsylvania to his college days at Penn and a career as a producer and director — is worth a fortune, Prebula has never wavered from his ultimate goal. That one day he would give his comics away so others could get lost in their worlds.

Prebula has fulfilled his comic book dreams.

Prebula and his wife, Dawn, recently donated the entirety of his collection — more than 75,000 comic books and graphic novels — to Penn Libraries, the single largest gift of comics the university has ever received. It will nearly triple the university’s growing Comics and Graphic Novels Collection.

“It’s safe to say the Prebula collection blows everything out of the water in terms of size,” said Sean Quimby, director of Penn’s Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, where the books will be housed.

The breadth and depth

While still being appraised, the collection is believed to be worth north of $500,000, the university said. With issues dating back to the 1960s, it catalogs the birth of the modern superhero — capturing a time when comic books moved into the center of American culture.

Stalwarts like Superman and Batman grew weightier and more complicated. New creations like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and X-Men spoke to outsiders and young people hoping to see themselves in their heroes. In the collection, you can watch the medium come into its own as an art form — through long-forgotten back issues and some of the most-coveted collector items in the business, from the first Amazing Spider-Man to the first appearance of Black Panther, mainstream comics’ first Black hero.

Besides the men and women in tights, the donated books include a wealth of form-bending, boundary-pushing comics including renegades like the Philly artist R. Crumb and spanning genres from manga to horror, noir to erotica.

It’s this that makes Prebula’s collection, compiled week to week from newsstands and store shelves, such a prize.

“It enriches the possibilities of our research so much,” said Jean-Christophe Cloutier, associate professor of English and comparative literature and undergraduate chair of the English department, who teaches Penn’s “Making Comics” course. “A lot of these are the original issues that are otherwise really hard to get. Part of the beauty and value is being able to see the very first time something was published.”

For Prebula, who graduated from Wharton in 1972 and lives in Los Angeles, the gift represents a new life for his lifework, a chance of a new kind of immortality for books he once bought for 12 cents a piece.

“I fulfilled my dream,” he said, during a phone interview. “I did what I said I was going to do.”

A childhood vow

Growing up in Butler, a small city north of Pittsburgh, Prebula discovered comics at the age of 3. For New Year’s Eve, his parents had given him a copy of Superman.

“I read it so many times it fell apart,” he said. “I became addicted to comics at that moment.”

On Saturdays, Prebula and a middle school friend walked miles, scouring drugstore shelves for new issues. Containing tales of a wisecracking teenager bitten by a radioactive spider and mutants with superhuman strength, the books they found heralded a new dawn for comics.

“We knew this was a historic moment,” Prebula said. “We felt we had to preserve it.”

While at Penn, Prebula, who studied finance and communications, married Dawn, his high school sweetheart, and convinced the owner of a local newsstand to order loads of extra comics — and then bought them all.

“Rather than taking lunch, I spent my money on comics,” he said.

In Hollywood, where he embarked on a career producing and directing cable television content, Prebula bought comics at the famous Golden Apple comics shop.

He bought so many comics each week, the owners allowed him inside before the doors even opened.

“They told everyone I was a relative so the kids outside wouldn’t get too upset,” he said.

Prebula’s collection grew so large that he and Dawn had a special room built for it.

“It was filled with comics — literally floor to ceiling,” he said.

‘The strangest thing’

Four years ago, after turning 70, Prebula asked the Golden Apple owners, Ryan and Kendra Liebowitz, to help him ready his comics for donation (Prebula and the shop have since started a foundation to help preserve private collections).

Unlike many collectors, Prebula had never entombed his books in protective slabs or even sorted them. He just boxed them up as he bought and read them.

“It reminded me almost of geological soil layers,” said Quimby, recalling the first time he visited Prebula’s home and beheld his comics, “where there’s deposits every week, that kind of layer on top of each other. That was more or less his approach.”

Penn started its Comics and Graphic Novel Collection in 2008, just as many colleges and universities began to approach comics as serious scholarship, Quimby said. Its existing collection includes a copy of All Negro-Comics; a 1947 single-issue, small-press comic published in Philadelphia, the first comic book known to be written and drawn exclusively by African Americans.

Penn librarians are still cataloging Prebula’s collection, which includes two copies of 1963′s Uncanny X-Men #1, considered a holy grail of the comic book industry, worth a combined $35,000. Penn hopes to have the entire collection available for students and researchers later this year.

Although he never wavered from his childhood vow to give away his comics, Prebula said he endured many sleepless nights as the day grew close.

“It wasn’t the money,” he said. “It was like part of me was going away.”

He slept soundly, though, the night they were taken.

“It was the strangest thing,” he said. “That night was like the happiest night of my life. They were gone. They were in a safe place. They were going to Penn Library where they were going to last.”