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Penn Libraries News

Avid Collectors Gary and Dawn Prebula Donate More than 75,000 Comics to Penn Libraries

Collection of single-issue comic books valued at more than $500,000.

A collection of vintage comic books displayed on a flat surface. The four comic books are The Amazing Spider-Man, The X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Zap Comix. Each comic book cover is richly colored and displays the title of the comic series and issue number.

Gary Prebula, W’72, can pinpoint the moment he became a lifelong comic book fan.

“I was about 3 years old,” he says. “Before they went out, my mother bought me my first comic book. It was Superman, and I had just started reading. They went off to a New Year’s Eve party and I read the comic maybe 20 times, and I was still up when they came home because it made me think.” It also sparked an interest that would grow and develop throughout Prebula’s life, leading to a home that is virtually stuffed with comics and graphic novels, industry magazines, action figures, and other memorabilia.

Now he and his wife Dawn Prebula hope to spread the love for comics – and generate study and scholarship on the artform and industry – with a donation of thousands of single-issue comics and graphic novels to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. The comics run the gamut of genres, publishers, and topics. They vary in monetary value from mass-produced issues worth about $20 to a first issue of X-Men valued at $22,572, with the total collection, which is still being appraised, valued at more than $500,000. The entire collection will be housed in the Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

A vintage comic book cover featuring Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, with action-packed illustrations and bold texts highlighting the exciting content within. Spider-Man is prominently featured in the center, surrounded by a web-like design. Below Spider-Man, there are illustrations of four characters representing the Fantastic Four. An explosion of flames appears behind one of the Fantastic Four characters.
The first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, published in 1963, is a highlight of the Prebula comic collection.

"We are honored and delighted that the Prebulas chose to entrust the Penn Libraries with their cherished collection. These exciting new items build on the Kislak Center’s strong Comics and Graphic Novels Collection and will bolster the robust community of scholarship in Comics Studies already established at Penn,” says Sean Quimby, Associate University Librarian, Director of the Kislak Center, and Director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies.

The gift is made possible in part by a partnership with the Golden Apple Comic & Art Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles whose mission is “to preserve, safeguard, and showcase private collections to ensure that comics, books, art and collectibles are secured for future generations to enjoy.” The foundation is providing expertise and labor to ensure timely processing of the collection and as a result, reducing the wait time for public viewing.

Ryan Liebowitz, owner of Golden Apple Comics, explains, “Gary’s collection, as vast as it is, unfortunately, was never stored properly and was never organized. It was basically kept chronologically.”

The collection was built over the course of decades: every week, Gary would pick up newly released comics, read them, and then add them to boxes in his basement. Thus, preparation was needed to get the collection in shape for the donation. Liebowitz continues, “Our foundation is organizing, bagging and boarding, alphanumeric, and cataloging – all of that stuff, in multiple tiers.”

His wife and co-owner, Kendra Liebowitz adds, “We started the foundation with this collection. We really wanted to give back to the comic book industry ... and do more for future generations.”

Origin story

Prebula began intentionally collecting comics with an idea of preserving them at a young age. In elementary school in Butler, Pennsylvania, he met fellow comic book fan, the late Walter Bleil, and they became fast friends.

“Walter and I would spend Saturdays going to every store that sold comic books in Butler,” he says. “We were right there at the beginning of the Marvel revolution. We started to discover all these Marvel characters, and we went into a frenzy buying them.”

At age 11, Prebula says he and Bleil had a discussion about the purpose of this hobby: “We were collecting comics in order to save them,” he says; indeed, this was just the start of a lifelong pursuit that would continue through his undergraduate experience at Penn alongside his wife, Dawn, and well beyond.

At the time, of course, comic books were not taken seriously as reading material or as an art form; the Penn Libraries only began collecting comics and graphic novels in 2008 with a donation from another Penn alum and comic enthusiast, Steven Rothman, C’75. Today its special collections house more than 20,000 comic books and more than 4,000 related materials, including graphic novels; compilations; works of criticism and history; and many smaller collections. In addition, the circulating collection includes more than 3,000 comics and graphic novels in English as well as many other languages, including French, German, Hindi, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and in East Asian languages including both Korean manhwa (만화) and Japanese manga (漫画).

Today’s Penn students can take courses on the theory and study of comics and graphic novels and even make their own. In the past few years, undergraduate offerings included Comics and Graphic Novels, The Contemporary Graphic Novel, and Making Comics, while the graduate program offers a Graphic Memoir course this semester (Spring 2024).The connection between these courses and  the Penn Libraries remains stronger than ever. Not only has the “Making Comics” course taken place at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center for years, but in 2015 author Charles Soule C’96 wrote a scene taking place in the library for an issue of DC’s Swamp Thing.

During this revolution in thinking about comics as objects for serious study – as Quimby puts it, “we have an audience here that is interested in comic books from both a pedagogical perspective and from a critical perspective as well” - Prebula continued the collecting he’d begun as a child. Over his many years working as a Hollywood director, writer, and producer, Prebula developed a strong relationship with Golden Apple Comics, known as the “Comic Shop to the Stars,” and its owners: first the late Bill Liebowitz and his wife, Sharon Liebowitz, and now the couple’s son Ryan Liebowitz and his wife Kendra Liebowitz. Many years ago, Prebula struck a deal with Bill Liebowitz, who allowed him to come browse new titles before the store opened – one that continues with Ryan Liebowitz as owner. Ryan Liebowitz estimates that Prebula has probably been shopping at Golden Apple for about 30 years.

"He's a weekly warrior, as we call it,” Liebowitz says. “We get 50 to 100 new titles every week, and Gary is one of those … awesome customers that comes in every single week. He subscribes to a lot of titles … He has accumulated a very large collection.”

Prebula says letting go of the comics was difficult at first, but now he’s glad he did so – and this isn’t the end of his collecting. Current and future titles added to his collection will all end up at Penn eventually.

“I’m a DC fan and a Marvel fan and an independent fan,” Prebula said of his taste; however, “I’m not reading superhero comics anymore. ... I’ve really been going away from superheroes for the last three years. Once I made the decision [that] I wanted to give the comics to Penn, it was sort of a crowning moment and I let go of superheroes.”

But whether or not his reading material includes superheroes, Prebula says his priority remains the same: “I want a great story.” Prebula, a film historian, has demonstrated his storytelling chops over the years teaching in the film department at California State University Long Beach and running the WideScreen Festival at the university. When asked what makes a comic valuable to him, Prebula responds, “I think it’s the story. Every character in the Marvel universe and the DC universe has a back story, and that’s the most important part of their character.”

Reboots and spin-offs

Story is just one element of what makes a comic book valuable. As Ryan Liebowitz explains, “A comic book has a market value, an actual dollar value, because of its rarity or its significance – it might be the first appearance of a character, or the condition it’s in might actually be significant. But a lot of comics [also] have what we consider research value or archival value.”

The comic in the Prebula collection with the highest monetary value is easy to identify: an edition of the first issue of X-Men with the first-ever appearances of Magneto and Professor X (The collection actually contains two editions of this comic, worth $22,000 and $13,000, respectively).

A vintage X-Men comic cover featuring the team in action against Magneto. The cover, priced at 12 cents and dated September, showcases five super-hero characters in dynamic poses, seemingly engaged in battle. Magneto, with white skin, manipulates metallic objects, while the other four characters fly or leap toward him. The background, a mix of red and yellow hues, conveys urgency and danger.
This copy of X-Men #1 is the most financially valuable item in the Prebula collection.

But determining the value of any one comic or group of comics in terms of research and study is much more difficult.

The field of Comics Studies is ripe for research, as many different aspects of a series, writer, or universe can be studied. Liebowitz gave the example of choosing one character to follow throughout history: “It’s fascinating to see the progression of a character and their story from the beginning until now. Depending on who wrote him, who drew him, who edited him, who colored him, really developed the character. Most of the big characters have been reimagined many, many, many times.”

Meanwhile, Quimby expects Penn scholars to consider the collection within the framework of material text studies, an area in which Penn has been a pioneer. Studying an item as a material text means analyzing the way in which its physical form shapes its meaning and reception; this is an area of strength within the Libraries’ collections and expertise, and offers a useful lens for studying comics. Comics can also be studied as modern mythology; as a business, particularly related to film and other explorations of comic book characters; and in terms of representation.

“As a medium, comics are so much more than the superhero genre and can be a powerful medium for telling stories,” Quimby adds. “They are the purest manifestation of popular culture – in that way I think they reflect the hopes and anxieties of previous generations. I think there’s great value in that.”

And thanks to the involvement of the Golden Apple Comic and Art Foundation, these comics can be explored and exhibited much sooner than they would be otherwise.

"The work they did to inventory this [collection] is extremely valuable to us,” Quimby says.

Kendra Liebowitz says, “Since Covid, we’ve wanted to give back to the comic industry somehow. Because we survived, thank God. A lot of comic shops didn’t.”

Once the Prebula collection has made its way to the Libraries in its entirety, the Foundation may assist with future donations or support the comic industry in a different way, such as through a scholarship fund. Perhaps gleaned from years of reading comics, the Liebowitzes are not afraid to aim ambitiously.

“We would love to see one of every comic book ever made in a library somewhere,” Ryan Liebowitz says, adding, “One of my really big dreams is to have a museum someday. We want to share the process of comic books.”

The Prebulas, meanwhile, have humble goals for their comic collection.

“We just want people to be able to access them,” Dawn Prebula says.

Gary Prebula adds, “I hope that in 100 years, some scholar’s going to be looking at my Spider-Man No. 1, which I signed at the back when I was 11, and go, ‘Who the hell’s this guy?’”

Featured image: Four of the first-issue comics that anchor the Prebula collection recently donated to the Penn Libraries.