Philanthropy Focus: A Marvelous gift

Alumni duo donates large collection of vintage comic books, aiming to aid research on topics including gender studies and pop culture

Jim Gunderson, left, and Peter Coha, dropping off their first batch of comics at Special C

Jim Gunderson, left, and Peter Coha, dropping off their first batch of comics at Special Collections. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)  

Undergraduate student curators selecting materials for the Marie Severin exhibit in the Sp

Undergraduate student curators selecting materials for the Marie Severin exhibit in the Special Collections reading room. (Photo by Elisabeth Remak-Honnef)  

Long before they were both Banana Slugs, Jim Gunderson and Peter Coha were childhood friends who collected comics together when they were growing up in San Diego.

Now the dynamic duo has pooled their resources to donate a large collection of vintage Marvel comics to the UC Santa Cruz Special Collections and Archives.

The comics come from the so-called "Silver Age" of the art form, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.

"This is the first superhero-focused collection in the country that has scholarly energy behind it," said Gunderson (College Eight '77, philosophy), an international corporate governance, compliance, and management consultant and attorney.

Gunderson and Coha (Kresge '78, mathematics) first became aware of comic books' strong hold on the popular imagination when they attended two of the earliest Comic- Con conventions in San Diego in the early 1970s and saw attendees dressed as their favorite superheroes. The conference-goers were so enthusiastic, they ended up in the pool wearing their full costumes, Gunderson recalled.

They also saw that comics, once denounced as "junk reading" by concerned parents, were having their moment; certain volumes were becoming cultural treasures. And though they were still in high school, they sensed the artistic as well as the monetary value of these works.

"We saw that comics from the 1930s and 1940s were going for high prices," Gunderson said. "We saw the investment potential and decided to buy as much of the Silver Age comics as we could."

When Gunderson and Coha went off to college the comic books remained behind—mostly forgotten, lying around in boxes in closets in their parents' homes.

A few years ago, Gunderson decided do something with those old boxes. "I ran across an article about the extraordinary prices these Marvel comics were getting at auction," said Gunderson.

He began to look at those vintage volumes as an "endangered species" that had to be saved and stored properly to protect them from future damage. Gunderson said he never really considered selling his comics to a private collector.

"My goal was to find an institution that would take proper care of them and make them accessible to people," he said. "UC Santa Cruz Special Collections is perfect for both those goals."

Gunderson approached Elisabeth Remak-Honnef, head of Special Collections at UC Santa Cruz, a treasure trove of artifacts, papers, and volumes, including medieval manuscripts. Remak-Honnef was enthusiastic, and so was Gunderson's friend, Coha, who agreed to donate his comic book holdings as well.

"It puts them in a good environment where they'll be well cared for," said Coha, who retired from Intel after 35 years.

The 345 comics the friends have donated so far are worth about $35,000.

These days, comic books are much more fashionable and in the spotlight than they once were, with "graphic novels" winning fans as well as mainstream respectability. Looking back at comics from long ago "shows what was going on from a literary standpoint and how comic books fit into the development of that genre," Coha said.

Student enthusiasm for the collection is overwhelming, Gunderson said. Several students were invited to see some of the collection and meet Coha and Gunderson last spring. Some had their picture taken holding one of the gems—Vol. 1, No. 15 of Amazing Fantasy, which introduced Spider- Man to the world. That issue was appraised at $10,500 before Gunderson donated it.

"The students were so excited that the comic books were physically there, and that they could touch them," said Gunderson.

The collection is timelier than ever. Marvel is having blockbuster success with films such as the Iron Man trilogy. This summer, Guardians of the Galaxy brought in $94.3 million during its opening weekend. The art-book publisher Taschen is now selling a lavish Marvel-themed book for $200.

Meanwhile, Special Collections is already gearing up for an exhibit from the Gunderson-Coha collection, which opened in February and features the art of Marie Severin, who flourished in the traditionally male-dominated comics industry.

Severin was the primary artist behind Dr. Strange and also worked on The Hulk and Sub-Mariner, among many others.

Gunderson has commissioned a catalogue for the exhibit in the style of a comic book. He is also raising grant money to index the collection and make sure it can be used for research purposes on topics ranging from gender studies to popular culture.

"The comics Peter and I are giving are important from an historical perspective," Gunderson said.