COLUMBIA — When the University of South Carolina received 180,000 comics and books from a collector in Ohio, the school brought in Chris Foss, a 40-year comic book industry veteran, to help sort through hundreds of boxes shipped to Columbia on four moving trucks.
"Every box was like a mystery," said Foss, who owned a comic book store in Columbia. "It takes a lot to stun me. This did."
The collection, worth an estimated $2.5 million, includes first editions and first appearances from the Avengers, Justice League, X-Men, Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Hulk as well as number of comics from the so-called Golden Age covering the 1930s through the 1950s.
The collection contains non-superhero comics from romances ("Boy Meets Girl") to religious stories ("He's The Greatest"), science fiction magazines and "Mutt and Jeff" books that date back to the early 20th century.
University library officials have gone through about 100 of the 500 long boxes donated by Gary Watson, a retired Columbus, Ohio, nurse who has never visited USC but whose life's work sits in a vault inside the school's library.
Formally cataloging the collection that Watson started when he bought a Zorro comic book for a dime in 1958 will take years, said David Shay, who works in USC's rare books department.
USC will put some of the collection's more notable comics on display for the public at the school's Thomas Cooper Library starting in late August.
Watson, 69, said he is "kinda glad" to let go of his comics so they can be organized in a way that he never had time to complete.
"I'm glad someone can take better care of them now," he said.
More colleges are adding comic collections, including Ohio State University, University of Florida and Michigan State University. Comics can teach students about art design, story structure and story character development, professors say.
Plus, comics engage students in an age when superhero movies like "Wonder Woman," "Black Panther" and "Avengers: Endgame" are large box-office draws.
"You get to see the historical basis for these properties," said USC English professor Mark Minett, who teaches two courses on comic book studies. "And see what a comic book looked like in the 1960s."
Comics also provide a window into past views on politics, gender and race. Most reprints don't include advertisements and editorial copy included in the originals, professors say.
"This gives us an idea of what people were thinking and doing back then," said Qiana Whitted, a professor in English and African American studies who specializes in comic books. "This was a primary form of entertainment for many people. It was a portable, cheap form of entertainment. I think it's worthy of study."
Waston, 69, could not estimate how much he spent on the collection he started when he was 8 years old, but said he had money for comics as a lifelong bachelor who earned a good living. He bought new comic books monthly through 2010 and traveled to comic book conventions to fill out his collection.
Watson likes Batman more than Superman and has a soft spot for Spawn, but he grew to love older comics from the early half of the 20th century. The comics taught him facts as a kid, like the height of Mount Everest. A comic featuring Turok, a Native American fighter trapped in prehistoric times, gave him with a love of dinosaurs.
"It gave me an appreciation of art, and the thoughts that they give you to get through life," he said. "You learn so much from comics."
Watson retired in 2010 and figured it was time to do something with the collection sitting in his home, garage and three storage units.
He did not want his collection broken up. That ruled out selling it privately.
Watson said he approached some colleges with comic collections, but they told him they would sell any duplicates.
After one arrangement went awry, a friend posted an offer on a booksellers email list and received a message from USC.
USC library officials took a trip to Ohio and liked what they found in the boxes.
"We all were just blown away," Shay said.
Watson is what's known in the comic book world as a "completist" — someone dedicated to finding missing pieces of the collection. He said he bought comics last week and will donate those and any others to USC to fill gaps in the school's collection.
"That's just what I do," Watson said.