Comic Book Preservation: Tips from Our Conservators
Comic book covers from the collections of The Henry Ford. See them in our Digital Collections here.
Comic books, like all things, change as they age and not necessarily for the better. Whether from the golden, silver or modern age, comic books are all printed on paper that is made from wood pulp. Lignin (a substance found in wood) breaks down and causes the paper to become increasingly acidic, discolored and brittle. Those of you who collect comic books have certainly seen and handled extremely brittle and discolored books. Conservators refer to this the inherent instability of wood pulp paper as “inherent vice.”
If you wish to preserve your comics, you need to take measures to combat this inherent vice by minimizing factors that accelerate deterioration. Steps that you can take to fend off inherent vice include:
- Limiting exposure to high levels of moisture, either in the form of water or high humidity. Both can damage comics and accelerate degradation.
- Avoiding exposure to ultraviolet and visible light, which can cause inks to fade and paper to become yellow.
- Using inappropriate non-archival storage or display materials, such as PVC vinyl plastic bags or boxes, inexpensive wood pulp cardboard boxes, wood pulp mat boards, wooden boxes or wooden frames. Contact with these can cause discoloration.
- Avoiding frequent handling.
In this video, recorded live in the conservation lab at The Henry Ford, Chief Conservator Mary Fahey demonstrates how to store, display, repair, and preserve your comic books.
What can be done to preserve comic books?
Take measures to limit exposure to moisture by placing books in archival bags or sleeves made from polypropylene, polyethylene or polyethyleneterephalate (Mylar).
Never store comic books directly on the floor.
Avoid storing books in attics, basements or other damp areas. If no alternative is available, use watertight polyethylene or polypropylene boxes and add a few silica gel packets conditioned to 45-50% relative humidity. The packets will need to be changed periodically.
Limit exposure to light including visible and invisible ultraviolet light. If you wish to display your comics, consider display methods that limit light exposure by avoiding display near windows and turning off the lights when you are not in the room. If you choose to display your books in a lighted showcase case, LEDs on a timer are the best option since they emit minimal ultraviolet light and minimal heat. At The Henry Ford, we have noticed that Mylar covers appear to block some of the damaging effects of light, providing some protection from fading.
All books should be bagged and boarded or encapsulated (see image below) for storage, display and handling. This protects them from dirt and moisture, minimizes flexing and stress of the fragile paper, and protects from the oil and salt in people’s hands. The use of archival materials and methods for storage and display can have a big impact on the longevity of your collection.
The use of acid-free, lignin-buffered mat board, boxes and paper inserts are recommended. These products are made from cotton, and generally contain calcium carbonate, which helps to neutralize the acid that is formed in the comic books as they age. They do cost a bit more, but are well worth it. The Henry Ford uses a variety of display and storage methods for comic books. Some examples include:
- Plate stands (see image below) can be used to prop up covered and boarded comic books. I’ve seen nice ones online that have a continuous ledge. This method can also be used for comics that are in hard shell cases.
- One option for framing is illustrated below. A Mylar envelope is used to separate the book from the glass. The surface of the comic should not be in direct contact with the glass. High humidity could cause it to become stuck to the glass. Metal frames are preferable, as they do not contain any substances that can adversely affect the comic book.
- Hard shell cases are often used by collectors. In our current exhibit, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, a slabbed and graded edition of Marvel Comic #1 is displayed on a slanted stand. When these hard shell cases are sealed and made from stable materials, such as polyethylene or polypropylene, they should preserve your comic when stored in an appropriate environment.
Last but not least, non-archival tape should never be used to repair torn comics. If you feel that something really must be repaired and you can’t hire a conservator, I suggest that you use archival document repair tape (mending tissue and Filmoplast shown in the image below). Both are available from a number of conservation suppliers listed in our caring for collections fact sheets. It's best to cut a piece of tape that is just slightly bigger than the torn area, making sure that all the edges of the tear are lined up properly before you press the tape into place. Tweezers make this process a bit easier.
You can find more information in our conservation fact sheets, “The Care and Preservation of Archival Materials” and “The Care of and Preservation of Documents and Works of Art on Paper.”
Mary Fahey is Chief Conservator at The Henry Ford.
popular culture, conservation, comic books, collections care, by Mary Fahey