Over the weekend, I traveled back to Columbia, South Carolina. It's the home of my alma mater, the University of South Carolina, but it is also home to the word's largest comic book collection. Donated by Gary Lee Watson, the massive collection of books, magazines, trades, and other items is comprised of more than 143,000 books and has an estimated value north of $2.5 million. Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dell Comics -- they're all there.
Walking through the impressive gallery of books ranging from the first appearance of Spider-Man to Star Trek #1 to a display dedicated to civil rights in popular culture including titles like Black Panther's first appearance in the Fantastic Four and Golden Legacy Vol. 11: Men of Action, there was one question immediately on my mind: How can I take home the first appearance of Thanos in Iron Man #55? It turns out, they have they book, too. It's locked away in a vault which requires a handprint to access, along with other high value milestone issues, but I did get to carefully flip through the pages as the book laid on a pair of foam blocks!
More seriously, I had another important question: Why were all of these books donated to the University of South Carolina? Watson, the donor, is from Ohio and seemingly has no ties to the school.
As it turns out, Watson flirted with the idea of selling with the collection, at first. As told to me by Associate Dean for Special Collections Elizabeth Sudduth, the difficulty came in trying to sell the massive collection as a whole. Although it has millions of dollars in value based on the sum of its individual books, Watson wasn't getting offers in excess of $50,000 because of the work it would require to filter through, store, and move the books. He then pursued schools closer to him like Michigan and Ohio State but neither was willing to take on the collection as a whole. Some high value, rare books would be kept while the rest would be sold, dividing the collection. When the University of South Carolina offered to take on the collection in its entirety, Watson agreed to donate the books -- more than 250,000 total items.
Now, 500 long boxes are stored beneath an additional wing on the school's Thomas Cooper Library, accessed by an elevator which requires a key card to function. Check out some photos I snagged while inside the Gary Lee Watson collection (known to the University of South Carolina as Four Color Fantasies) display below!
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The world’s largest comic collection at the University of South Carolina! . More than $2.5 million worth, 143,000 books, some nearly 100 years old. Plus, I got to flip the pages of the first appearance of Thanos! My life flashed before my eyes at the thought of damaging it. . Huge thanks to @uofsc for the special tour!!
The gallery is open to the public for free. Those who wander into the realm of historic books are greeted by images of iconic super heroes plastered on the library's front windows with the gallery's name: Four Color Fantasies, with Gary Lee Watson's name appropriately stamped at their top. They are greeted by a banner on the floor, featuring the cover Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, before glass cases of iconic books stand before them. While many of the titles are based on pop culture icons like Avengers, Batman, or Spawn -- the majority of the collection is comprised of books completely without super heroes. Remember: comics started as comedies and they include romance novels, history lessons, and other means of entertainment for audiences nearly 100 years ago.
Students of the University can also flip through some of the books under supervision. A reading room outside of the gallery is accessible during staffed hours, allowing students to request certain books which they can read while in the room. Given the massive size of the collection, it's an amazing opportunity to access books which would otherwise be wrapped in hard plastic with a number on its top corner, attributing a certain amount of financial value to it but stripping it of its ability to be read.
While the collection is nothing but impressive, the curators David Shay and Michael Weisenberg admit that there a few notable books missing -- such as the iconic Action Comics #1 (their collection does have #2, but they're itching to get their hands on that first appearance of Superman) or more recent popular titles like The Walking Dead. Since Watson's massive donation, four other donors have contributed to the University's collection, something those involved hope to see continue as the inevitable hope for otherwise seemingly impossible completion sets in.
In short: if you find yourself in the city of Columbia, South Carolina, head over to the Thomas Cooper Library and take a look at some of the best kept, most iconic comic books in history.