From Richard Outcault’s first “Yellow Kid” newspaper strip, capturing life in the tenement ghettos of New York City in the1890s, to Peter Bagge’s “HATE” series that so accurately and sarcastically depicts the Seattle grunge scene in the 1990s, it’s clear that comics are doing more than telling stories- they’re unwittingly documenting our cultural heritage. By combining descriptive powers similar to those of photography and novels--be it a historical event or a personal tragedy captured in a minicomic--what comics can represent about ourselves and our society is boundless. And with the wild insurgence of comic-adapted films, indie-conventions popping up in more cities than ever, and sequential art being taught in colleges worldwide, there’s no arguing that now more than ever comics have become serious business. With that in mind, as librarians, educators, and devoted lovers of the form, it’s crucial that dedicated time and attention is paid toward the preservation and maintenance of comics and graphic novels in our collections to aid in resounding their enduring significance.
Before we discuss preventative methods, it’s important that we understand a little bit about the deeper make-up of our materials. We’re all familiar with that thin, yellowy look that pre-modern age comics wear so well, and be it aesthetically pleasing in an esoteric kind of way- that little novelty hue is the harbinger of sickness in our collection. Up until the mid-1980s when EPA regulations changed the acidity content in paper, comics-like all other “pulp” material- were printed on cheap wood pulp paper, brimming with highly photosynthetic lignin and cellulose. Just like a flower soaking up sunlight to grow, these plant compounds are by nature hungry for the elements, oxidizing with their exposure to air and light, making them a ticking time-bomb from the moment of their creation without any help from us. However, this internal war is waged mostly within the pages of golden and silver age comics, as most comics produced in the past 20 years are printed on high quality glossy paper which has been chemically de-pulped, and coated with an alkaline buffer to better protect against environmental pollutants that cause acid hydrolysis. Regardless, all paper degrades over time, and the external key factors of deterioration remain the same: light and air pollutants, handling, storage, and upkeep.
Now that we’re aware of the internal menace lurking in the very fibers of our books, our only means for gaining control is preventative action! It may seem like a no-brainer that comics should not be stored within the reach of sunlight, but what not all collectors realize is that paper is affected by all kinds of light. Be it natural light, fluorescent bulbs, or even incandescent- all of these contribute some degree of UV or infrared light, quickening the process of decay. Luckily, there are a number of vendors out there offering UV protective tube guards for fluorescent lights at a fairly inexpensive cost, averaging about $7.00 per cover, and typically guaranteed to last up to 10 years.
However, if light fixture renovations aren’t in your budget, simply using the right storage materials for your collection will do the trick. Sites like www.comicsupply.com, as well as Gaylord Brothers (www.Gaylordmart.com) offer acid-free storage boxes in a variety of sizes. Pay close attention while shopping around for these materials that the products you choose are in fact archival quality and acid free- those coated with a calcium carbonate buffer will maintain a steady pH content, avoiding contamination from the wood pulp in ordinary cardboard boxes. Be sure to double-check your dimensions as well, as shoving silver-age books into boxes specified for modern age sizes will not only damage the material, but any obstruction of the lid is easy exposure to pollutants, let alone vermin or bugs! Boxes should be watertight, and stored vertically in cool, dry, dark environments. Silica gel packs can work long lasting wonders as well, and Gaylordmart also specializes in tiny Desiccant Canisters with color-changing indicator gel, which can be places inside each storage box and are reusable for life by baking them in the oven once they’ve been saturated.
An item of frequent debate and confusion is the proper sleeves to store comics in, as polyethylene and polypropylene bags are typically the cheapest and easiest to find. In terms of longevity and superior quality though, uncoated archival quality polyester film, more commonly known as Mylar® bags, are by far the best option. These bags will outlast other plastics by hundreds of years, as polyethylene and polypropylene products are manufactured with solvents and additives that break down over time, causing premature aging in the paper. Stiff, acid free backing boards made of cotton rag or wood and cellular fiber should be inserted in each bag behind the comic as well to prevent bending and cracking. These will also have a calcium carbonate buffer, and can be purchased in bulk from any comic book supplies store. I would recommend Thin-X-Tender brand, as an inexpensive and high-quality option. You will also want to invest in tape to seal the flap of each sleeve with, settling for nothing other than acid-free products as the off-gassing of old tape can cause serious damage to your books over time.
Now that you’ve gathered all of your proper storage weapons of prevention, one item worth looking into is MicroChamber interleaving paper. This product is your one sure bet for combating against the unavoidable internal-aging process occurring within the pages of your comics. MicroChamber technology uses lignin-free and sulfur-free material that actually absorbs air-borne pollutants and acidic by-products of degradation. Upon interlacing one sheet inside of the back and front covers of your comic, these sheets immediately begin working to actively soak up the hazardous toxins being released from the book, as well as preventing the ink from transferring from one page to another. MicroChamber paper only needs to be replaced every 7 years, and has been used by the CGC for every comic they grade.
Now, if the comics or graphic novels you’re maintaining are receiving high circulation and handling, and these technical details are beyond consideration, the same basic principles for care of any book apply. The low-grade paper that older comics were printed on is highly susceptible to grease and oils, so always handle with clean hands and an eye for brittle pages. I’ve found that loosely packed rotating racks are the best for displaying comics, although they can become quickly unorganized. Another quick and easy option for storage is three-ring binders with sealable sleeves, which can also be found in age-specific sizes made from archival materials.
Whichever route you take for maintaining your comics collection, do it economically and sensibly. If you’re using MicroChamber paper, be sure to not counteract it with acidic storage boxes. There are more options on the market for these products than ever before, so shop around, be sure you’re getting the best for your buck, and always acid free! Be it for business or pleasure, consider yourself a guardian of comic book history, and remember- with great power comes great responsibility!
Caitlin McGurk self publishes the zine and mini-comics series Good Morning You, and is currently finishing her MLIS degree at the Palmer School in New York City. She has worked to build and maintain the collections for Marvel Comics, The Schulz Library at The Center for Cartoon Studies, and the Bulliet Comics Collection of Columbia University. She aspires to promote the advancement of comics research by broadening their accessibility in the collections of universities and libraries worldwide.
Where to Find Preservation Materials:
Conservation Resources International
Bill Cole Enterprises
E. Gerber Products