There was a time when collecting comic books was seen as a low-brow investment. Now, though, not only has comics fandom reached an all-time high, with events like Comic-Con in San Diego standing as some of popular culture’s biggest news events, but the collectible market for comics can now be just as profitable as hoarding fine art.
The University of South Carolina would know. It received quite a gift from Ohio comics connoisseur Gary Lee Watson earlier this year, a comics collection that was appraised at $2.5 million dollars. The working-class Watson was aware of the value, but money wasn’t the objective when he looked to move his stash.
“Various collections get broken up and scattered across the country,” he tells Free Times. “All the time you spent collecting, and it’s all gone. Money was never a factor for me. My health declined over the years and I haven’t seen the collection in years. It’s been in storage.”
Watson’s collection landing at the university wasn’t his first choice, though.
“Ohio State didn’t want it when I contacted them originally in 2016,” Watson recalls. “University of South Carolina was the first place that said they would keep it together and name it after me. To the extent of these interviews and interest, I wasn’t expecting much of that. I just wanted a place where college students can have access and enjoy it.”
The new Four Color Fantasies exhibit was made possible by his charity. The display was curated by Michael C. Weisenburg, a reference and instruction librarian, and David Shay, a cataloger with the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. And it contains some amazing pieces.
“For us, David and I both grew up in the shadow of the superheroes, reading comic books from the ’80s and ’90s,” Weisenburg says, recalling the pair’s first trip to see the collection. “When we were standing in Ohio, just looking at the boxes, we were like, ‘Wait?! Here’s the first entire run of the Fantastic Four from the first issue to now!’ It’s pretty impressive.”
One other particularly attention-grabbing item is a copy of Amazing Fantasy No. 15, which features the debut of Spider-Man.
“We were just showing people photos of it, and they were freaking out,” Weisenburg says, going on to describe a recent visit from Columbia-based comics scribe Chuck Brown, who has written for both The Punisher and Black Panther, in addition to co-creating the titles Rotten Apple and Bitter Root. “We took him into the vault before we were setting up and he was like, ‘Oh my God! You guys have that?’ We were like, ‘Do you want to hold it?’ And he’s like, ‘No! I don’t even want to touch it!’ He was that awestruck. People really respond to that.”
Befitting the wide array of titles, the exhibit will touch on many themes — from civil rights to sci-fi and romance. In addition to Spider-Man’s first appearance, the collection also includes Star Trek No. 1, and first appearances by Hulk, Black Panther and more.
“Really we are just trying to cover broad strokes with the history of comics. Want to bring theidea that there’s more to comics than just heroes,” Shay says.
“So much people will know, but they are not going to know or think about romance comics, or Westerns or weird animal comics in the ’30s and ’40s. But all of that has a place in comics history as well and we’re trying to bring that out.”
This week’s opening festivities will also feature special guest Michelle Nolan, a comics historian and journalist that’s been writing about the artform for more than five decades. The exhibit will remain on view through late December, and the curators made sure to emphasize local talent alongside all the impressive archival pieces — for instance, featuring Bitter Root, by Brown and Columbia artist Sanford Greene.
“We’ll have some Carolina focused comics up front,” Weisenburg offers. “We do want to give shoutouts to local comics and encourage local artists to give talks.”
What: Four Color Fantasies
Where: Hollings Library, 1322 Greene St.
When: Aug. 29-Dec. 20
Opening event featuring Michelle Nolan on Thursday, Aug. 29, 5:30-7 p.m.