Jon Berk was on summer break from law school at Boston University in the early 1970s when he spotted a Spider-Man comic on the racks of a local store. The sight startled him, and brought him back to his youth.
“I said, ‘They still have Spider-Man?’” he recalls. “I opened it up and saw an ad for old comics and I said, ‘What? They sell old comics?’”
“I started buying,” he adds, meaning the new ones and the old. A hobby was born.
Once he got started, he couldn’t stop. “I got into the art, the stories. Then I got into the history of comicbooks. I freely acknowledge it’s an addiction of sorts. But it’s stood me well.”
Berk, who had invited me into his Cromwell home to talk about his passion and his decision to auction off most of his collection — which is more than 16,000 comicbooks and 250-300 pieces of art — insists the proper usage is “comicbook,” not “comic book.”
“It’s not a comic book, not a funny book,” he explains. “It’s a comicbook! I’m not meaning to be pedantic. But I bug people all the time about it.”
Why, at age 67, has Berk, who is an attorney, decided to sell off the thousands upon thousands of comicbooks and related artwork he labored so diligently to acquire over the past 40-plus years?
“There comes a time,” he says, “and the time is now. My kids are out of the house. I had a lot of comicbooks. I didn’t know where I was going to store them.” For decades he kept them all in his basement, in “The Comic Room.” But now many of those shelves are empty.
When word of Berk’s decision to sell his collection began to spread among other comicbook collectors, there was great excitement.
“This is one of the coolest collections I have seen in my 30 years of dealing in comics,” says Vincent Zurzolo, chief operating officer of ComicConnect and Metropolis Collectibles. “What is truly impressive about it is how early it starts, how rare many of the comics are and the vast number of incredibly high-grade comicbooks there are in the collection.
“The groundswell of interest is like nothing we’ve seen before,” he adds.
Berk says he’s embarrassed by all the attention, especially Zurzolo’s statement that this collection is one of the most important in the world. “They’re just comicbooks,” Berk tells me. “Somebody else said, ‘This is a museum-quality collection.’ Yes, it is. That I will accept.”
“I just feel fortunate to have acquired these books,” Berk says. “I’ve been to the top of the mountain. The hobby’s been very good to me and now I can be good to the hobby. I’m happy I can pass it on to somebody else.”
Berk says people who know about his decision to part with his collection are remarking, “Gee, you must be sad.” But he replies, “No. Why should I be sad?”
The money he receives from the sale certainly ought to make him happy. Included in his collection: Action Comics No. 1, from June 1938, the first appearance of Superman. In its day it sold for 10 cents; Zurzolo’s company purchased one of them from somebody else for $3.2 million.
Berk paid $20,000 for his copy. “I got a phone call one day,” he says when asked how he obtained it. “I’ve probably had it for about 15 years.”
“It’s the grail,” Berk says. “You feel you’ve been validated if you have Action No. 1.”
And yet Berk, unlike most collectors, had no worries about taking that gem out of its plastic protective cover and passing it around among his friends. “I didn’t care because I had total confidence they would handle it fine.”
But Superman could never compete for Berk’s heart when compared with Spider-Man. “When the new age of Marvel came in, 1964-65, I was at Hotchkiss School. Do you know how old Spider-Man was then? Fifteen. Do you know how old I was? He was a character my age, doing all those things.”
But he also adored Spider-Man at age 7. “That’s why I first got into comicbooks.”
Berk still has in his basement a copy of his favorite story of all: Spider-Man No. 33, February 1966. In that saga, our hero saves his aunt from a villain. Flipping through the pages to show me the dramatic story line, Berk got a little choked up. “If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, I don’t know what will.”
But among the framed artwork on the walls of his “Comic Room” one can see what Berk calls “my favorite book artistically from the Golden Age” (1938-1945). It’s Mystery Men No. 3 (October 1939), drawn by the great Lou Fine. “It’s just beautiful,” Berk says softly as he holds it up. “Lou Fine had a flair for composition. It’s lyrical. He brought motion to the stagnant.”
Berk stopped buying comicbooks about four months ago. “I knew it was over when I closed the (auction) deal.” But he’s holding on to about 40 comicbooks, including 10 early Spider-Mans and that No. 33. Nor can he bear to sell a Spider-Man artwork by Jack Kirby. “I couldn’t let ‘Spidey’ go.”
Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.