Ohio man donates more than 140,000 comic books worth $2.5M to USC’s library

Marvel’s original Avengers comic and 143,000 other comic books will be sharing shelf space with Shakespeare, Hemingway, and thousands of other classics at the University of South Carolina’s libraries.

The collection, appraised at $2.5 million, includes the original Star Trek, the original DC Justice League (officially titled The Brave and the Bold No. 28), and comics where Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Spider-Man and Black Panther first appear, according to a release from USC’s libraries.

USC’s collection — which includes 20,000 magazines, 15,000 paperbacks and 5,000 pulp magazines in addition to the 143,000 comic books — will be open to the public and will be permanently housed in Columbia, USC libraries spokeswoman Nicole Carrico said.

“It’s every conceivable genre in comic book form,” said David Shay, a cataloger for the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Gary Lee Watson, of Columbus, Ohio, donated the collection. The school discovered Watson after USC librarian Michael Weisenburg saw a post on an online listserv for rare books saying someone had a comic book collection they wanted to donate. Weisenburg contacted that person, a friend of Watson’s, who put USC in touch with Watson.

USC wasn’t the only college that tried to get its hands on the books, Weisenburg said. Part of the reason USC got the comic books and other materials is because USC promised to keep the comic books together as a single collection, rather than break them up, which was important to Watson.

“He spent his entire life collecting this material,” Weisenburg said. “He didn’t want to see it broken up.”

It took literally hundreds of boxes to move all the comic books (the older comics were printed on cheaper paper so the boxes were lighter), Shay added. There are so many comics that the 143,000 number thrown out there is just an estimate, Shay said. It could take years for USC to catalog all of the books, Shay said.

The good news for comic book fans is that any member of the public with a photo ID can read the donated comics in the library.

Though, the comic books offer more to USC than just nostalgia.

“It’s not just a collection of comic books... this really is a collection of 20th century literature,” Weisenburg said. “Comic books responded to whatever was going on in pop culture.”

Having the original, physical copies of the comic books also has a value beyond the story itself, said Mark Minett, an assistant professor of film and media studies who teaches literature through classes based on comic books.

For example, the original Marvel comics included the “Bullpen Bulletin,” which was similar to a letter to the editor section for newspapers, Minett said. There, Stan Lee answered readers’ questions and occasionally threw a little bit of snark at some of the sillier questions.

The rarest of the comics will share in an underground safe with medieval manuscripts and original Hemingway writings, Carrico said.

“This was a lifelong pursuit and passion collecting these comics,” Carrico said. “We are so happy to have them in our library.”