It’s a Bird. It’s a Plane. It’s Gary Prebula’s Prodigious Vault!

Penn Libraries scores a comic book bonanza.

Gary Prebula W’72 has his origin story down pat. It starts with him reading his first comic book—Superman—at age three and continues with a pre-teen vow to become a hero in his own right by ensuring the survival of the medium. Now, he says, “I’ve fulfilled my childhood dream” and donated the 75,000 comics he’s amassed over the decades to the Penn Libraries. Valued at $500,000, they will reside at the Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

“I’m thrilled that they’re going to a safe place,” Prebula says, “and that they will survive longer than I will.”

Faster than he could say I’ve got an allowance, Prebula began collecting. He and his best buddy religiously trolled drugstores and newsstands in their hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania. He started with the DC universe of Batman and Superman. Then he fell hard for Marvel comics, whose settings resembled those inhabited by ordinary Americans.

“They were more relatable,” Prebula says. “At the beginning [of The Amazing Spiderman], Peter Parker is just a kid having a hard time in high school, he doesn’t really fit in. The fear of radiation was very prominent in the ’60s … and then he goes and gets bit by a radioactive spider. Comic books are very cultural,” the 74-year-old adds. “They explain us. It’s a subtle anthropology, but people can decipher it. These stories shaped the way I view society and the way I think.”

After his time at Penn, Prebula and his wife, Dawn, moved to Los Angeles so he could pursue a career in cable television and film production. His collecting accelerated and he started spending hundreds of dollars a week on new releases, while also filling in gaps. Soon, according to Dawn, “Our closets were stuffed with comics, and Gary’s office was filled from floor to ceiling.” In 1994, in the wake of the calamitous Northridge earthquake, the couple was compelled to build a “vault” under their porch to better house and protect their fragile treasures.

When Kislak Center director Sean Quimby traveled to meet the couple, he was amazed at the “breadth and depth of the material. With decades and decades of collecting, there can be almost complete arcs for, say, Superman—and we also get to see the introduction of characters like Black Panther, who first appeared in Fantastic Four in 1966.”

A comic book fan himself, Quimby says that revisiting the hobby of his youth was a case of “fandom colliding with professionalism. I mean, I would have passed out as a kid at the idea of handling the first issue of The X-Men.”Prebula’s collection includes two copies of that 1963 Marvel comic. They aren’t especially rare, though, nor are Prebula’s in mint condition. In 2022, a more pristine copy of the issue fetched its highest price yet at auction—$872,000. Prebula’s pair have been collectively appraised at $35,000.

Because Prebula was intent on buying up and stowing away for posterity as many comics as he could, he didn’t put a premium on practices like placing the books in protective sleeves or organizing them in any fashion. “He just tossed the newest ones he’d bought on top of a pile, so digging through them is like going through sedimentary layers of time,” says Quimby.

Seeking help to organize the material for preservation, Prebula turned to Golden Age Comics, the legendary Los Angeles purveyor that bills itself as a “Comic Shop to the Stars.” For years, Prebula had been treated like a celebrity there, given pre-opening access to roam the aisles on his own.

Intrigued by the idea of working with Prebula on his donation, Golden Age’s owners established a 501(c)3, Golden Apple Comic & Art Foundation, devoted to pairing donors with libraries and museums. It took responsibility for getting Prebula’s comics wrapped, catalogued, appraised, and boxed into 150 or so containers.

Prebula’s huge collection is a significant contribution to a relatively new area within the Kislak Center, comics and graphic novels. Kickstarted in 2008 by a donation from Steven Rothman C’75 [“Open Treasure,” Mar|Apr 2009], such works are of interest both contextually and materially, according to Quimby. “The comic industry really changed over time,” he says. “My father grew up in the ’40s and ’50s and thought I should have aged out of them by the time I was 10.” Yet the medium grew up as the 20th century progressed. By the 1980s, comics were metaphorically and directly referencing contemporary issues like apartheid, the AIDS epidemic, power dynamics, race and class, and crime and vigilantism. Moreover, adds Quimby, “visual and material culture is a growing area of interest for Kislak, so we’d be negligent not to include one of the most prolific formats of the 20th century. Comic book universes have become a mythology—a lingua franca.”

Quimby expects Prebola’s comics to be used by students taking one of several courses on the medium taught by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, an associate professor of English and comparative literature and the undergraduate chair of the department, as well as by other researchers. There’s also programming potential—including exhibitions and events—once the material is fully integrated into the holdings.

“Penn made me who I am today,” says Prebula. “All of my success was because of them, so I’m returning a favor. At first, I felt like I was losing part of me, then I realized that I am taking care of part of me.”

 —JoAnn Greco

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