By Chelsea Edgar
Jon Berk '68 likes to say that the obsession began during his lower-mid year at Hotchkiss, when he would spend Saturday afternoons sprawled on the floor of John Titcomb and Jeff Wenk's double on the second floor of Coy, engrossed in the escapades of Sgt. Fury and the Fantastic Four. At home in Roslyn, Long Island, comicbooks (Berk insists that "comicbook" is one word, not two, as it's commonly written) were forbidden; his parents threw out his collection while he was at camp the summer before he came to Hotchkiss. But that didn't stop him from sneaking the occasional copy of Batman or The Amazing Spider-man from the local five and dime — and, over the course of his life, amassing what's widely regarded by prominent enthusiasts and appraisers as one of the best collections of all time. Quips Berk: "If it weren't for parents like mine who threw out all those books, they wouldn't be the prized collectables they are today."
Berk, an attorney in Rocky Hill, CT, first became serious about collecting while he was in law school at Boston University. He lived near Boston Square, which had a comicbook store that sold hard-to-find vintage editions. When he saw that he could get his hands on these rare comics, he was hooked.
"I'm a geek," he says matter-of-factly. "I was always interested in the things that were obtuse and not well-known."
Berk was a serial collector: he'd start with one superhero, like Spiderman or the Hulk, and find everything he could within a particular era, then move on to another character. Part of the excitement, he says, was tracking down the books — which, in the pre-Internet age, required a considerable amount of sleuthing.
"I wrote a lot of letters," he says. "People would advertise in the comicbook buyer's guide, and you'd write. You didn't know what they looked like. I didn't even know what the covers looked like. You found books by luck. You networked, went to conventions."
Berk wasn't only interested in the books; he was also fascinated by the stories behind them. About 15 years ago, he came across a copy of Mystery Men that held a clue to its previous owner: a coupon slipped between its pages with the name "Lamont Larson," a renowned collector, sketched on it in pencil. Determined to find out whether the book had once belonged to Larson, Berk embarked on a fact-finding mission that concluded with a call to Larson's 91-year old mother in a nursing home in Wausa, NE, eventually confirming that the book was, indeed, a Larson original. (Says Berk: "She was very nice!") Gradually, his collection morphed into a mini-museum, consisting of nearly 18,000 books, pieces of art, and other memorabilia, that took over his entire basement. According to Vincent Zurzolo, co-founder of Metropolis Comics, Berk's collection is unmatched in its breadth and depth.
"Between the comic books and the art, this is one of the best collections ever assembled," Zurzolo said in an interview. "We had to process this to put it into our database, and often, when we entered a book, it was the first one we'd ever had. Metropolis Collectibles has been the largest buyer of vintage comics in the world for over 30-40 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."
For decades, Berk thought he'd hold on to his comics forever, but at some point, he realized that he'd reached the pinnacle.
"It was time to pass on the hobby," he says.
Last June, Berk divested himself of most of his collection, selling off more than 17,000 items in a four-day auction. He won't get into what the pieces sold for, but one source that tracks vintage comic sales reports that a 1940 copy of Fantastic Comics #3 fetched $243,000. The few pieces Berk can't bear to part with are some of his personal favorites: the Larson copy of Mystery Men, some Spider-man illustrations by Jack Kirby, and original drawings by Lou Fine, Berk's favorite comicbook artist. Now, he seems at peace with his decision to downsize, but some days, the sight of his near-empty basement makes him sad.
"But I don't have any regrets," he says. "I simply redistributed some of the books, so they're out there for someone else to collect and assemble."
Old habits die hard, though: "Have I since accumulated a few inexpensive comics? Well, yeah."
This story appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.