The Art of Comic Book Conservation

Fans of comic books will go to great lengths to keep their collections in top condition—storing comics in clear plastic or vinyl bags, buying an additional copy of an issue (reading one and leaving the other untouched), even sending away comics to be sealed in hard plastic shells. Yet, as Chloe Houseman, an intern in the Weissman Preservation Center’s paper conservation lab, recently explained at a presentation on the preservation of comics, most single-issue comic books were not made to last.

Comic books bagged and boarded.

“The evolution of comic books into a collectible phenomenon has been a challenge,” Houseman observed. “They weren’t meant for that; it was considered a disposable media.” Most comic books consist of stapled booklets made of wood pulp paper, similar to newsprint. Poor-quality paper becomes yellow and chalky over time and the iron staples used to bind vintage comics can rust, further discoloring or damaging the paper. Even the original artwork from which comics are produced has long been treated as disposable. Comic artists often had to work quickly and with low-quality materials. A single mistake was not a good enough reason to redraw an entire page, and an artist might simply paste in a correction using rubber cement. “Original comic art,” Houseman explained, “also comes in many stages. Comics were always collaborative. It was uncommon for the same person to do the drawing, lettering, and coloring for the same comic.”

Speaking to an audience of conservators and librarians, Houseman discussed the culture and preservation practices of private comic book collectors. “Private collections are often stored poorly, or in a poor environment. Many collectors will keep their collections in a basement or attic to accommodate storage needs.” Typically, comics are “bagged and boarded,” placed in either a polypropylene or polyester (“mylar”) bag with a rigid board support. Collectors and comic store owners will then place bagged comics in cardboard boxes (vertically oriented, with titles on top for easy browsing).

Collectors also have their own standards for evaluating the condition of older comics, often relying on “comic grading” performed by companies such as CGC. “The comic book industry has standards of condition for resale,” Houseman noted, “and these may be misaligned with conservation standards.” The standards of comic grading consider how close a comic is to the condition of its original printing, not necessarily what will best prevent further damage to the issue. For example, conservators would likely replace a missing iron staple with a stainless steel staple that is more resistant to rust. According to comic grading standards, however, any replacement other than another so-called “vintage comic staple” would result in a downgrade in rating (and thus a lower re-sale price for the collector). “Something we could do as conservators is to address this difference in knowledge that can cause damage to collections that people care about,” said Houseman.

And Houseman has been hard at work producing new knowledge about the effects of different storage methods on comic book collections. While pursuing graduate study in art conservation at Queen’s University in Ontario, Houseman conducted a novel experiment. Using a collection of donated comic books from the 1960s and 70s, she sliced each individual issue into thirds and placed them into an oven designed to simulate aging conditions. The top third was placed in a polypropylene bag, the second third in a polyester bag, and the last third was left unbagged. She kept the comics, fifty in all, packed closely together and vertically oriented to simulate typical storage conditions.

Polypropylene bags waved and crinkled in response to the heat, yellowing in the area occupied by the comic. Polyester bags didn’t crinkle, but in areas of darker inks, some of the pigment transferred from the comic to the bag. Houseman’s conclusion for comic collectors: better to store those beloved or valuable comics in polypropylene bags that may crinkle than risk losing color and value from ink transfer to a polyester bag. It is just this sort of information that Houseman wants to share with comic collectors. “Collectors have come to a lot of good ideas on their own without conservators’ help,” she stated, “but everyone would benefit from greater communication between conservators and collectors.”

By Thomas Dodson.

See also: Conservation