Last March, Jon Berk ’72 began selling off his collection of comic books and comic art. It was no ordinary collection: The Jon Berk Art and Comic Collection, as it was known, consisted of more than 18,000 items that spanned the history of comics in America. And it was no ordinary sale—ComicConnect was handling the sale, with the auction preview at the Metropolis Gallery in New York City until June 2, 2017, and online auctions offered in five sessions later that month.
Asked how he began collecting comics, Berk noted that “collecting” is much different from “reading and acquiring,” which is what he did as a boy, buying DC comics from the local five-and-dime. He also noted his preference for spelling “comicbook” as one word, much as one would write “notebook” or “casebook.”
As a teenager, away at Hotchkiss for boarding school, Berk got interested in Marvel comics—new characters he’d never heard of, with stories that left the reader dangling until the next issue—from the boys who lived on the second floor of his dorm. His Wesleyan years followed, then law school at Boston University, and somewhere along the way, his parents jettisoned those childhood boxes of comic books.
During a law school summer in Boston, Berk saw “one of those old spinner-racks of comics”—with Spiderman books, his favorite. “They still make these?” he thought. There in the back pages, he saw an ad for collectors—an opportunity to buy vintage comic books. “They sell old comicbooks?” With that, he was hooked and became a student of the genre: following the major publishing houses, the artists and their superheroes, and the social and cultural forces that shaped the stories that unfolded in those colorful pages.
He began with the urge to collect a complete set of the Marvel Comics Silver Age, in the early 1960s. “That would be the Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk,” he says. “And once I collected those, I saw that someone had a Human Torch, a comicbook from the 1940s, by Timely.
“Then I discovered the Golden Age books, and even Pre-Golden Age—that was before Superman came out in June of 1938, when forces coalesced and we were given a superhero universe not known before this time.
“It opened up a whole new world for me; I was very interested in tracking down the early publishers, like Everett Arnold and Harry Chesler,” he explains. “I’d always been interested in, ‘Where did things come from? Where did things start?’ So I got into those superheroes and looked for their predecessors. I was interested in the history of this American mythology.”
However, “I just felt the timing is right to sell them,” said Berk, 67, an attorney with Gordon, Muir and Foley. “I’ve had fun, I’ve met great people, I have no regrets.”
And in that stage of divesting rather than collecting, not only did he reconnect with others who shared his interest, he offered a whole new level of excitement to those who continue in the hobby.
The cofounders and owners of Metropolis Comics spoke on the importance of the Berk Collection (“It’s funny to hear myself addressed in the third person,” notes Berk) in a video.
Stephen Fischler, cofounder and CEO of Metropolis Comics said: “Jon’s collection is particularly special because of the appreciation that he had for what he was putting together. He wasn’t looking for collecting the newest trend and the hottest books. He was a sort of visionary and a comic historian who wanted to put together the history of comic books. He had a broad selection; he had superhero books, he had science fiction books, he had things that appealed to him and things that he loved.”
Vincent Zurzola, cofounder and CPP of Metropolis Comics, noted, “Between the comic books and the art, this is one of the best collections ever assembled. What makes the Jon Berk Collection so unique…is that it has incredible depth to it. To give you an idea—we had to process this to put it into our database, and often, when we entered a book, it was the first one we’ve ever had. Metropolis Collectibles has been the largest buyer of vintage comics in the world for over 30 to 40 years—so we’ve had pretty much everything. When I’m seeing, ‘Does not exist in database’ over and over again…I know we have a very, very special collection. It was incredibly educational and mind-boggling to see books that I’ve never seen before.”
“I sold off 99.5 percent of my collection,” says Berk, whose keys hang out of his pocket on a Spiderman keychain. “But there’s always that 0.5 percent. Maybe everyone will see those some time in the future.”