Collecting Dust: A Guide to Preserving Comic Books [1985]

Sunday, August 18, 2019
1985. The year I bought my first personal computer: The original 128K Apple Macintosh—a model that, as I used to say, had the processing power of a lightbulb. (Less, if you compare it to 21st Century smart lightbulbs.) It wouldn’t run until you inserted a 400K floppy disk—which wasn’t floppy at all, but which contained both an operating system and whatever meager application and text files could fit thereon.

And there, at the dawn of an era that promised eternal digital life for creative content, I wondered about the lifespan of books on paper. Specifically, comic books on paper. So—armed, as I was, with curiosity and my first personal word processor—the timing was good for editor Mike Gold to assign me to a third series of features for Evanston-based First Comics.

“Collecting Dust: A Guide to Preserving Comic Books” was the first substantive writing I undertook on that meager Mac. In those days before widespread email, Gold and I would send a 400K floppy back and forth by U.S. mail. I’d ship him my first draft, and he’d send the edited version back to me on the same disk. We’d repeat for each successive installment.

Text files are mercifully small, so you could fit the whole four-part series—and the edits—on a single disk, with room left over for my interview notes and one of my early MacPaint exploits: A logo that, mercifully for all concerned, didn’t make it into print.

Ironically, the comics I was collecting in 1985 have fared far better—are far more easily read—than the digital files I created to write about comic book preservation. (See my note at the end of this post on the technical challenges in recovering this series.)

With that, here you go.

Part 1 (Published in comics cover-dated October 1985):
Where do they go?

“In tropical countries … a whole shelf of books can be eaten through the center without a bug ever stepping out on the shelf and getting zapped.”

Sounds like a bibliophile’s nightmare, doesn’t it?

The bugs in the United States tend not to be so literate, but your book collection faces a swarm of problems that, in the long run, can do just as much damage.

If you collect anything on paper, you are fighting a losing battle. Your collection faces an enemy from within: The paper is decaying. If you live a full life, you may one day find you have collected an impressive mound of dust.

EVEN IF YOU NEVER touch the comics in your collection—if you handle your comics once with linen gloves, only to put them into plastic bags—they may not last more than 50 years, after which you won’t be able to turn a page without breaking it.

According to the paper conservator at Chicago’s Newberry Library, Cathy Atwood (whose vignette I invoked at the start of this column), 50 years is the useful life the U.S. Library of Congress projects for most books published these days.

Those who hope to leave a legacy of comic books face a legion of enemies: Heat, humidity, dust, vermin, light … even air.

Comic books are made of some of the thinnest, cheapest paper available. The pulp used to make it comes from trees; it’s full of lignin, which holds the fibers together. Exposed to air, lignin turns brown and releases acid, which eats away at the fibers that hold the paper together, making the paper turn brittle.

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ANY LIGHT CAN fade colors and provide energy that accelerates the chemical reactions that destroy paper. Ultraviolet light is particularly bad, according to Atwood. If you’re obsessed, you’ll read your books only in rooms where the lights and windows have been treated with ultraviolet filters.

High humidity promotes the growth of mold; low humidity can dry out paper, making it brittle. A 50% relative humidity is a good compromise, according to Atwood.

Paper does well at low temperatures, under moderate humidity. By one estimate, the lifespan of paper doubles for every temperature drop of ten degrees Fahrenheit. But most comics are supposed to be read, coveted and enjoyed by people, who don’t fare too well below freezing. An abrupt change in temperature from subfreezing storage to room temperature can trigger the condensation of moisture, which combines with chemicals in the paper to form acid. Atwood says it might be better to keep a collection constantly at room temperature.

You can do a few things—small, simple things—to delay the inevitable.

To begin, you can store comics upright, spines vertical. Books stored flat, one on top of another, tend to crush the items on the bottom.

WHERE DO YOU KEEP them? A spare room in the living quarters of your home may be ideal. But for most collectors, that would mean kicking out a human; the choice is usually the attic or the basement.

Atwood calls it an “impossible choice.” But she chooses the basement, “because in the attic, it’s just plain too hot. With paper, once it gets dried out, it will never again pick up as much water as it once had. This is permanent damage; whereas, if something’s been wet, you can dry it out to its optimum condition again.” In the basement, she recommends a dehumidifier, to hold moisture at bay. Another precaution: Keep books away from outside walls to avoid temperature shifts.

Dust may seem a minor nuisance, but it promotes mold. Atwood recommends dusting the collection once a week and running a fan frequently. Atwood says books in a humid room with a fan may fare better than those in a not-so-humid room without a fan.

THEM PESKY COCKROACHES have been around longer than humanity, and they’ll probably outlast us and our comic books. If they work their way into your collection, there’s not much you can do.

More than 70 varieties of insect would enjoy lunching on this book. “The most effective insecticides have been banned,” Atwood says. “To some extent, any pesticide is also harmful to people, so you can’t work directly on a collection you intend to read. It becomes a matter of pesticides on the shelf, waiting for a bug to walk out of a book.” As you now know, that can be a long wait.

The key is to avoid infestation in the first place. Ideally, Atwood says, you wouldn’t eat near your books. And you’d spray regularly around the perimeter of the room in which they’re stored.

AND SO WE have your collection well protected from the environment. It’s in a cool, dark place, away from food and outside walls—the air circulated by fan and maintained at a 50% relative humidity. You’ve placed UV filters over windows and lights. You patrol regularly for insects, endangering your health with pesticides. And you dust once a week.

If that leaves you time to read the next installment of our series, you will find a look at the pros and cons of plastic bags. Until then, keep your comics out of tropical countries, hmm?

[Charlie Meyerson reports the news on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago. He credits inspiration for this series to a Chicago Reader article written by Flora Johnson Skelly.]

Part 2: November 1985
Plastic rap

For those of you joining us late, here’s what you’ve missed. Informed that even the best-preserved comic book may not outlast its owner by more than a few minutes, we’ve concluded that the best environment for storing comics—allowing for the possibility that a human being may occasionally want to read them—is a cool, dark place, away from food and outside walls. For most of us, that’s a place known as “The Basement.”

This month’s topic: Accessories.

ONE OF THE BIGGEST businesses to spring up to support the comics collecting boom is the comics bag industry. And one of the captains of that industry is a guy named Gary Colabuono. He presides over Moondog’s, Incorporated, which runs three retail stores and a wholesale bag service. Colabuono says he’s sold more than 60 million bags in three years. By his estimate, as many as 20% of the 20 million comics sold every month wind up in plastic bags.

At wholesale prices of about $l5.00 per thousand, that puts the retail market comics bag industry in the million-dollar-a-year bracket. Is it necessary? Would Baggies do the job?

Maybe. Colabuono says he once came across a group of Marvel Comics from the early ’60s, “taken right off the rack, put into Baggies that were taped shut. I was the guy to open them, l5 years later.

“And the comics were perfectly preserved. The Baggie in no way harmed them at all. The tape was yellowed, the bags were filmy … and the comics inside were absolutely perfect white.”

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ARCHIVISTS HAVE FOUND plastic attractive for the same reason environmentalists hate it: It isn’t biodegradable; bacteria can’t destroy it. Plastic garbage is (almost) forever. But some plastics change over time. And the changes can harm the contents of plastic bags.

Cathy Atwood, the paper conservator at the Newberry Library in Chicago, says many plastics shrink. Vinyl, for instance: “It was very early and very popular because it’s clear and stiff and people think it protects things. But it doesn’t take very many years before it warps and shrinks,” damaging the contents.

Most of the comics bags sold every year are made of polyethylene. But “poly-bags,” as they’re also known, pose threats of their own.

BILL COLE, WHOSE Massachusetts firm is the granddaddy of the comics bag business, says polyethylene bags contain chemical additives to ensure their clarity. “What is in that poly-bag will degrade and migrate onto the comic paper and start eating away.”

Cole says polyethylene is fine for the short run—“anywhere from one to six months. Anything over six months, we generally say ‘Save it, preserve it with archival quality polyester film.’”

Atwood and Colabuono agree: The best plastic for storing comics is polyester, sold under the trade names Mylar and Melinex. Polyester is one of the most inert plastics. Unlike polyethylene, it won’t fall apart, and it won’t contribute to the natural deterioration of comic books.

Cole, who says he sells a million polyester bags a year, swears by them: “Archival quality polyester film is the only material used or recommended by the Library of Congress to store paper documents.”

Atwood: “I’ve seen a lot of comic-book stores where they want to protect the stuff only until they sell it; they’re not necessarily thinking of customers who want to keep it for the next 40 years. They just want to protect it while it’s in their stores. For that, you could use polyethylene.

“But if it’s something you value and want to keep for your lifetime, I’d use polyester. And you can’t just stay ‘Mylar,’ because Mylar is used in different applications. You want to make sure there have been no surface coatings, no additives, no opaquing agents. That’s usually a Mylar type D or Melinex type 5l6.”

SURPRISE! MYLAR IS much more expensive than polyethylene. For the price of 40 Mylar bags, you can buy a thousand polyethylene bags. And many comics shops give away polyethylene bags with purchases.

Cole: “Some people can’t afford to purchase Mylar. I say: Do something to protect [your comics]. If you’re not going to do anything state-of-the-art, at least put them into a box of some type. You can go one step further: Put your books in a [polyethylene] bag. It does give you some protection, at least from the elements.”

Colabuono: “If you’ve got a collection of Spider-Man, for instance, I’d put issues 1 through 38 in Mylar. After that, put them in poly-bags and save the dough.” You can also save some money, he says, by putting two comics in each bag … although Atwood cautions that if the fit is too tight, doubled-up comics may bend around each other.

DOES PLACING A comic in a plastic bag just allow it to “stew in its own juices”—trapped with the by-products of its own decay? Atwood says she doubts that polyester, at least, contributes to deterioration. But she says another kind of container may actually help slow deterioration: Acid-free, alkaline-buffered envelopes, which libraries use to store manuscript collections. “Any acid produced at the interface of a comic book and the envelope will be neutralized by the envelope. The envelope is helping the comic book.”

The envelopes run about $15 per hundred—about half as much as polyester bags and about a tenth as much as polyethylene bags. But Atwood says you’d also need to make an acid-free sling for each envelope—a folded piece of paper designed to guide your comic in to and out of the envelope without snagging and ripping the edges.

To a lesser extent, acid-free storage boxes can help prolong the life of your collection. Bill Cole says non-acid-free cardboard boxes—even many of those designed to hold comics—can contribute to the decay process. “You’ve got the dredges of wood and materials not used to make paper. You’ve got coloring and you’ve got bleach that goes in there. That could possibly attack the comics.”

Although Cole says any box is better than no box, he says the best way to store comics is to place them in Mylar bags, putting the bags in acid-free boxes. “Then you’re about 95% home free.” And if you take those steps immediately, he says, your comics may last hundreds of years.

As for the other five percent: Be here next time to learn about restoration and deacidification.

[Charlie Meyerson reports the news with acidic wit, weekday mornings on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM), Chicago.]

Part 3: December 1985
Acid reigns

So far this series has examined ways to preserve your comics by managing their environment: Storing them in plastic bags and acid-free boxes or envelopes, keeping them away from heat, light, humidity extremes and food. Meanwhile, ticking away within your comics is the time bomb known as “inherent vice”—the chemical instability of most paper used for comic books.

The tree pulp used to make most comic-book paper includes lignin, which holds tree cells together. Exposed to air, lignin turns paper brown and releases acid. The acid, eating away at paper fibers, makes paper turn brittle and crumble.

The experts agree that once paper reaches that stage, you’re too late. You can take preventive action, but it’s not cheap.

DEACIDIFICATION CAN neutralize the acid in pulp paper. Jim Saunders, a chemical engineer who’s been treating comic books commercially for about two years, notes that the materials are generally available to the public. He says he uses Wei T’o products: Sprays and solutions that neutralize acids and leave behind an alkaline buffer to prevent further decay.

“The active ingredient is magnesium carbonate,” he says. “I prefer the spray. It dries a lot quicker and there’s less chance for the ink to run. If I’m going to dip a comic in solution, I’ll test it—on a little spot on the back of the cover or something. Then I look at the color of the remaining solution, and if I see a little red trace, I know it’s leached out some of the red ink, and I don’t use it.”

One of the earliest scholars of comic book preservation, William Sarill—a physicist who now works under the title “Conservator of Ephemera”—warns that deacidifying solution can “greatly damage covers if it’s not applied the right way.” Sarill says he’s found a way around the problem; but, he says, “Nobody who has not been trained by me should attempt it.”

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IF YOU DO ATTEMPT it, Bill Cole Enterprises is offering a can of deacidification spray for about $15, but it’s only enough to treat a few pages. To treat large numbers of books, Saunders says, “you’re going to need a compressor, a spray gun, and some sort of commercial space. It makes a mess. The organic solvent is somewhat toxic. You don’t want to be breathing it or using it inside your room. You want to have a spray booth or some sort of a hood.”

At Chicago’s Newberry Library, paper conservator Cathy Atwood says that, for all but the most valuable items, deacidification may not be worth the trouble. Depending on the method, the difficulty and the size of the job, costs per page can run from 10 cents to about a dollar for Sarill’s services.

Deacidification will help protect your collection against the ravages of time. But has time has already taken its toll? Have the front and back covers begun to separate? Has the cat used your books as a scratching post? In youthful enthusiasm for comics collecting—did you reinforce the spine with (sigh) Scotch tape? You may want to consider the art of restoration.

“THE WORST THING you can do is use Scotch tape to repair a tear,” Saunders says. “The whole area where the tape has been will just turn brown.”

Another common mistake, according to Atwood, is using a dilute solution of Elmer’s Glue to make a worn cover look glossy. “It does put some gloss back in your cover, but even in a very thin solution, it’s going to become brittle. Then your cover’s going to crack up a lot.”

Doing restoration yourself is not advised. Sarill says, “I still see a great deal of the damage done to books by people attempting to make their own repairs. It’s better to leave a book unrepaired than to do a bad repair job.”

HOW DO THE experts handle it?

Holes in the cover? Saunders: “First, you try to pick the right paper for repairs, something with the same overall background color. I mix up a batch of paper pulp and sort of work it into the hole and let it dry. Then, I’ll re-ink it by hand, to try to match the original artwork. But there are some things I can’t reproduce. I can handle Mickey Mouse’s foot. But really small lettering, in an advertisement or something—that gets out of control. Sometimes, if there’s a great big piece missing, gosh, you don’t know what’s there!” (Sarill says he’s developed a photographic technique for replacing small lettering precisely.)

Ripped page? Atwood: “We repair it with a long-fiber, hand-made Japanese paper and a conservation adhesive.” Even then, the patch may prove stronger than the surrounding material, causing a fragile page to crack.

Of course, expert restoration doesn’t come cheaply. Saunders says repair and deacidification of a typical comic book—with say, a torn spine, a crease-marked cover, rounded corners, a loose centerfold page—could run as much as $60. For restoring a comic afflicted by mold, surface dirt, discoloration, tears, missing pieces, rusted staples … Sarill’s charges can run as high as $2,000 a book.

IF YOU’RE SERIOUS about this, Sarill offers private instruction in restoration of old comics: $1,500 for five days.

Once you’ve restored and deacidified a book, you may want to isolate it from a harsh and uncaring world once and for all. Bill Cole Enterprises has just the answer: It’ll seal your comics individually in polyester bags, for prices ranging up to $3 per book, depending on the number of books and the thickness of the plastic. Under development: A process that would seal comics inside bags and replace the air in the bags with an inert gas.

Of course, that makes comics impossible to read, which may explain why Cole characterizes demand as “very, very moderate.”

NEXT TIME: Fires, floods, earthquakes and nuclear holocaust.

Until then, you may want to contact the experts for more information:

Cathy Atwood, Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton, Chicago IL 60610
Bill Cole, P.O. Box 60, Dept. 595, Wollaston MA 02170
William Sarill, “Conservator of Ephemera,” P.O. Box 729, Cambridge MA 02139
Jim Saunders, “Restorations,” P.O. Box 1194, Minden NV 89423

 … or, your friendly neighborhood librarian

[Charlie Meyerson awakes each weekday at 4:23 a.m. to deliver the morning news on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago.]

Part 4: January 1986
Going nuclear

[An intro that didn’t make print.]
So: you want to preserve your comic book collection for your children. Your children will probably be no more interested in your comic books than I am in baseball, which has been a big disappointment for my father. Well, you’re entitled to your dreams.
If you’re just joining this series, here’s the score: The paper used for most comics is not long for this world. To keep them in good shape as long as possible, store them in a cool, dark place, away from food. Avoid extremely low humidity and sudden changes in temperature. (A good compromise: 70ºF, 50% relative humidity. You might be able to live in the same building!)
The consensus seems to be that individual comics are best stored in polyester bags—Mylar type D or Melinex type 516. Keep those in acid-free boxes.
If your comics are beyond preservation, restoration may be appropriate. But doing it yourself is risky and professional help is not cheap. (This is a recording.)
Now for some miscellany:


Somewhere, someone may have evidence demonstrating that the higher grades of paper increasingly popular for comics will last longer than the uncoated groundwood (newsprint) paper most commonly used. But the experts I’ve consulted—the plastic-bag moguls, the preservation wizards and the paper companies’ sales representatives—hesitate to make any promises beyond a few years.

The two most popular grades are Boise Cascade’s Mando and Great Northern’s Baxter.

A Boise Cascade sales rep says Mando tends not to brown as quickly as newsprint. But he says the functional lifetime is probably about the same.

At Great Northern, another sales rep says an experiment to simulate two years of natural aging concluded that Baxter lost only about half as much brightness as newsprint. Baxter carries a clay coating—an inert substance that retards and conceals the effects of aging. Fifty years down the line, Baxter may look better than newsprint, but it might crumble away just as easily. “It’s not for the archives,” he says.

Advice to those caring for “premium” comics: Grant them the same protection you give other comics.


An addition to our last installment: Deacidification can remove the agents of decay in comic-book paper. But doing it yourself is risky and professional help is not cheap. For more information on do-it-yourself deacidification, here’s an address: Wei T’o Associates; Dr. Richard Smith; P.O. Box 40; Matteson, IL 60443.

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...words to strike terror into the hearts of comic-book collectors everywhere. Plastic bags can protect your collection only so much. Beyond that, you’re at the mercy of your insurance policy. Do you need one?

If you own a home, you certainly should have some insurance. If you’re still dependent on your parents, you may be covered; check your folks’ policy.

If you’re renting an apartment, insurance is probably a good idea. (GEICO, the Government Employees Insurance Co., says one recent industry survey found almost four out of every five U.S. renters do not have their own insurance.) Your landlord’s policy—if he has one—probably doesn’t cover your possessions. You might be able to sue for damages related to a broken water pipe, but lawsuits are expensive, and let’s face it: You have no constitutional right to a jury of comics collectors.

A conversation with your insurance agent is a good idea; coverage varies from policy to policy. And if your comics do meet an untimely demise, your claim will probably be stronger if your insurance agent has heard of your collection in advance.

State Farm Insurance spokesman Dave Hurst had to check; he was surprised to learn that his company does insure comics collections.

He says the company generally trusts clients to evaluate their own collections; it doesn’t require professional appraisals, but it may compare claims to one of the price guides on the market. If you make a claim, photos of individual items or your collection en masse may come in handy. And having an appraisal in hand won’t hurt; it can also help you decide how much coverage you need. (Your local comics dealer may be able to conduct an appraisal.)

Clients can insure collections with what the industry calls “floaters”—additions to a general policy to cover specific, valuable items. Hurst says such coverage from State Farm would run about $1 a year per $100 in value of the items insured.

Hurst says comics also are covered under the company’s general policy for homeowners—at no extra cost. And those policies don’t put a limit on the value of comic-book collections, as they do on jewelry. The difference is that, unlike many general policies, a “floater” won’t stick you for a deductible in the event of a loss; and it would protect your investment in the event of flood, earthquake or war.


Sooner or later, your collection will turn to dust. But as Dave Newkirk of Warrenville, Illinois, noted in a letter to the Chicago Reader earlier this year, laser- and compact-disc technology has reached the point where books can be recorded in detail. One could record almost every aspect of a comic book except that addictive odor of newsprint-and-ink. (And Scratch’n’Sniff technology continues to make great bounds, so …) Embedded in plastic, as they are, discs have proven invulnerable to almost everything. Even chocolate.

The solution, Newkirk reasons, is to translate books to digital form for everyday use, keeping the originals in chilled, helium-filled rooms for review by the scholars who need them.


What about that ultimate destroyer of comic books—nuclear war?

At the Chicago-area headquarters of the U. S. Energy Department, spokesman Brian Quirke says radiation itself doesn’t pose much of a hazard to comics, but they can be contaminated by atmospheric fallout. If you keep them in a basement, that shouldn’t be a major problem. The major threat is fire; but that might be a problem only within a few dozen miles of ground zero. (Of course, a nuclear war could result in thousands of ground zeroes!)

Quirke says the major cause of death after a nuclear exchange would probably be widespread contamination of drinking water, which would lead to a massive outbreak of diarrhea. If so, a large, well-preserved collection of comic books could prove far more valuable than anything envisioned in Overstreet’s Price Guide.

[Charlie Meyerson lives in Oak Park, Illinois. His lawyer wife, Pam, advised him on the constitutional questions raised in this article.]

Notes on the resurrection of this series: Recovering these files from a 400K floppy proved far more complicated than the scanning process I used to digitize the text of two previous series I’d created (on a typewriter) for First: “Scapegoat in Four Colors,” a history of comics censorship; and “The Origins of Independent Comics.”

This one required heroic efforts to revive a Motorola StarMax 3000/200—reinstalling the last Mac operating system to read those disks and their outdated MacWrite files, System 7.6.1.

Further, because modern web-based email clients don’t run on System 7.6.1, liberating these texts required the antiquated AppleShare networking protocol to move them to a clamshell iBook G3 running Mac OS 9, where I used the dearly departed WriteNow word-processing software to translate them into the enduring Rich Text Format (RTF). I then rebooted the iBook into Mac OS X for emailing to a contemporary machine.

Thus ended the StarMax’s dying act. A few days later, it refused even to power on.

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(First Comics illustrations by Alex Wald and Rick Taylor.)

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