A few weeks ago, on Free Comic Book Day, Bob Bretall came back from his local indie comic shop with about 480 new comics. It was a monster haul, sure, but you have to see it from his perspective. When you own the world's largest personal comic book collection, with well over 100,000 individual issues, no purchase, short of maybe buying an entire comic book shop, is going to seem particularly monumental.
The 56-year-old computer engineer averages about 120 new comics a month, making his FCBD haul little more than a slight uptick buoyed by freebies. Comics are more than a light hobby for him, no doubt, but not an unmanageable one. Bretall likes to put it this way: he doesn't watch sports, and it takes him just about 10 minutes to read a single comic. During the hours someone else might have spent watching ESPN, Bretall will have made a lot of headway on his pull list.
"If I would watch two ballgames on a weekend, that's about 35 comic books," Bretall says in a new episode of The Fandom Files podcast. "If I spend five or six hours a week reading comics, I could easily read what I buy in a week."
The math checks out, and if you extend the equation to nearly five decades of collecting, so does the sheer size of his library. Bretall displays his most valuable and treasured comics and collectibles in a large showcase room in his California home, with the rest in a three-car garage filled with long boxes — 391 at the moment, along with some 50 short boxes, 30 magazine boxes, 45 diamond boxes, 10 bookshelves and two spinner racks.
All told, he's got about 105,000 comics at the moment — over 3,000 more than when his record was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2014. Remarkably, he's assembled the collection largely by purchasing single issues. That said, he has been at it awhile, as the shopping stretches back to 1970, with The Amazing Spider-Man #88. Written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita, the comic featured the return of Doctor Octopus and promised a showdown so exciting that an eight-year-old Bretall just had to pluck the book off the rack.
"What I like about Spider-Man, in general, is that Peter Parker's supporting cast takes just as much a role in a lot of those stories as the super-heroics," Bretall says. "That one had J. Jonah Jameson, Gwen Stacy, and Professor Warren. And at the end, we had not a complete cliffhanger, but Spider-Man was trying to get Doc Ock, who was hijacking a plane, and when the plane blows up, Spider-Man was like, ‘but can I be sure Doc Ock is dead?'"
That uncertainty brought Bretall back the next month — spoiler alert: Doc Ock lived to fight another five decades — and after that, the kid was hooked. Every month, he bought the new issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, and soon enough, discovered the back-issue book Marvel Tales, which exposed him to some of the wall-crawler's older stories (though Bretall had no idea, as a kid, that they were reprints). A couple years later, he picked up a Daredevil book, and then followed Spidey into to the Marvel Team-Up era, which paired the web-slinger with the publisher's other heroes.
"That introduced me to these other Marvel heroes and then pretty soon I picked up Captain America and Fantastic Four and Avengers, etc. I started reading most of the Marvel books," Bretall recalls. "By the time I'm 10 or 11 years old, I'm full-on Marvel zombie, buying anything with the Marvel logo on it."
That was the beginning of his massive collecting habit, though he didn't exactly start out by bagging and boarding his books. The whole first year that he read Spider-Man, Bretall would cut the characters out of the comics, constructing collages and DIY playsets. It would be years before he'd buy new copies of those early books; later, he'd get that Amazing Spider-Man #88 signed by Lee and Romita. It's one of his prized possessions, even if it's not technically one of his most valuable books.
Bretall is reluctant to talk about the value of his collection, though he undoubtedly has some very pricey books. He could score a fortune just for his Stan Lee-signed copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, the issue that marked the first appearance of Spider-Man. His comics display room is filled with original art, rare toys, and autographs.
Selling them could certainly bring back the bulk of what he's spent over the years. But that's not the point — never has been. A career as a computer engineer, beginning back in the day of punch cards and room-sized processors, has afforded him a very comfortable living. He never aspired to work in comics, so he's always seen them as a passion, not research material for a career change. And he certainly never thought his collection would impress his parents.
"Even once I was an adult, I'd see them after I'd graduated from college, had a good job, was married and had kids, and they'd be like, 'Are you still reading those comic books?!'" Bretall recalls, laughing at his parents' lifelong indifference to the hobby.
Nerdiness is now a bonding point for new generations of the Bretall family. Bob's wife helped construct the database that helped Bob earn the world record — he used to collect all the information on index cards — and his two sons are now avid comic readers, too.
Only about a third of the comics that Bretall buys per month are still superhero books; he also loves Saga, Astro City, Manifest Destiny, Harrow County, among many others. Then there are the one-off indie comics he finds at local stores and conventions nationwide, stories with fresh perspectives that he hasn't encountered in any of the books in his massive garage.
That may be why, unlike a lot of old-school fans, Bretall isn't resistant to change — when you read that many comics, heroes and villains who never really die start to get real old, real fast. So instead of offending any tightly held personal ideal of a superhero, Bretall is all for new characters assuming the capes, cowls, and armors of his favorite icons. He blogs about them at his site, Comic Spectrum, but avoids being part of any kind of typical backlash.
"Some of my favorite books are the ones that have really pissed off a lot of other grey-bearded, old-timey comic book collectors," he says, laughing. "I love Riri Williams as Ironheart. I love Squirrel Girl. I love Jane Foster as Thor. And I am really, really happy whenever I open up the letters page and I see little girls or little boys with a picture of themselves in a Squirrel Girl costume. I love that they're doing something that gets kids excited about reading comics and growing new fans."
Nostalgia is less seductive when you're always focusing on what's next — and even less so when the past is indexed in your garage. "I don't sit back and say 'Gee, in my day, Iron Man was a white guy,'" Bretall says. "I've got probably a thousand Tony Stark Iron Man comic books. I don't need to have them print another one of those for me."
Though if anyone was to have a new custom comic, it would definitely be Bretall.
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