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Slippery Rock golf course owner donated 80,000 comic books to Penn Libraries

Comic book collection no laughing matter
Gary and Dawn Prebula pose in front of the golf course at Slippery Rock Golf Club and Events Center. They bought the course in 2019. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle

SLIPPERY ROCK — What started as a bribe turned into a bounty.

Gary Prebula, 74, a 1968 Butler graduate who married his high school sweetheart, Dawn, joined her in buying the former Oakview Golf Course — now known as the Slippery Rock Golf Club & Events Center — in 2019.

But Prebula was a proud owner of something else long before buying the golf course just north of his hometown.

Comic books.

Lots of them.

Thousands of them, actually.

“It all started as a bribe,” Prebula said, laughing. “I was 3 years old, and my parents were going out for New Year’s Eve. They bought me a Superman comic book to occupy myself with while I stayed with my grandparents.

“I looked at that book from front to back, over and over again. When my parents came home, I was still looking at it. I was hooked.”

As a child, he and friend Walter Bleil bought superhero comic books from Butler News, drugstores and “wherever we could find them,” Prebula said.

“We’d walk for miles,” he said.

The collection grew quickly. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Thor, Black Panther, etc. … If it was a superhero comic book, Prebula and his buddy bought them.

“I used to take my lunch money and spend it on comic books,” Prebula said. “When we were 11 or 12, Walter asked me what we were doing here? What is the purpose of getting all these comic books?

“All I could say was: ‘We want to save them for the future.’”

Gary and Dawn met when they were in junior high school. Dawn was in seventh grade, Gary was in eighth.

“I knew about his collection,” Dawn said of the comic books. “I figured he’d give it up eventually. But he never did.”

The Prebulas moved to Los Angeles in 1972. They return to the Butler area about nine times a year “because we’ve got family here, and a home right on the golf course property,” Dawn said.

But her husband kept buying the comic books — and the books kept piling up. Prebula kept them in stacks. They were taking up book shelves in their home and filling rooms from floor to ceiling. Gary eventually built a storage area underneath the family’s back patio that the couple affectionately referred to as “the vault” to store the books.

The number of comic books reached 80,000.

“They practically became a fire hazard, all of that paper,” Dawn said.

Her husband agreed.

“I knew we had to get rid of them, but I was torn. They are such a part of my life,” Gary said.

Both mainstream and more obscure titles are included in the massive comic book collection Gary Prebula donated to the University of Pennsylvania’s Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Hollywood, horror, political and other genre of comic books round out the collection. Photos courtesy of Penn Libraries

A former University of Pennsylvania student, he contacted Penn Libraries to see if it would be interested in taking the collection as a donation. Gary spoke with Sean Quimby, director of the campus’ Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Prebula’s collection dated back to the 1960s. Comic books cost 12 cents each when he began his collection. He pays $4.95 per issue today.

His collection was valued at more than $500,000. One 1963 copy of X-MEN was valued at $22,572 by itself.

“For a while, I figured that collection would set us up in retirement,” Dawn admitted. “We did get a $300,000 tax write-off for the donation.”

“I wanted to do what I always said I would do — save the books for history,” Gary said.

That process did not happen easily.

Prebula had never stored his books in protective sleeves or sorted them in any way. He just boxed them up when he was done reading them.

“It reminded me almost of geological soil layers,” Quimby was quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Enquirer.

It took Penn librarians more than two years to catalog Prebula’s collection, but the job got done after three truckloads of comic books were transported from Los Angeles to Penn Libraries.

“They’re in a safe place now, where they will be preserved forever,” Gary said. “Finally knowing that was one of the happiest nights of my life.”

Prebula eventually embarked upon a career in Hollywood, doing video “press kits” for 300 movies from 1980 through 1995.

He now buys his comic books at the famous Golden Apple comics shop, where numerous celebrities shop for comic books.

“I became such a frequent customer there that they let me in through the back door before it opens,” Gary said. “They do the same thing for (movie star) Keanu Reeves, who rides his motorcycle right up to that back door.

“Depending on what they have, I may buy five comic books on one visit there, I may buy 50. I’ve never stopped buying them.

“Putting the Dodgers game on TV on a Saturday afternoon, listening to the sound while cracking open a comic book … that’s my slice of heaven,” he added.

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