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:
One of the comic book titles that came under attack in the 1950s THF141540
The popularity of comic books has always ebbed and flowed. But there was a time when their very survival was at stake. Back in the 1950s, Cold War hysteria and the fear of Communist infiltration into American society led to a deep concern about, and intense scrutiny of, comic books. This was the one medium at the time that went directly from manufacturer to child, bypassing adult supervision.
An American psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham fanned the flames of adult concern at the time. Dr. Wertham worked with juvenile delinquents and found that the one thing they all seemed to have in common was their devotion to comic books. Beginning in 1948, he went on an anti-comic book crusade, writing and speaking out against the detrimental effects that he claimed comic book reading had on young people.
Dr. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent book, 1954 THF277193
Dr. Wertham summed up his arguments in his 1954 opus, Seduction of the Innocent. This 400-page indictment of the comic book industry warned parents and educators that comic books were not only a harmful form of popular literature but also a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. In the book, as in his lectures, he cited examples of violence, sexual themes, drug use, and other adult fare that he had found within the pages of actual comic books—asserting that reading this material encouraged similar behavior. According to Dr. Wertham, these examples were especially evidenced in the extremely popular crime and horror titles published by the EC comic book company at the time.
Comic books with covers like this one, showing violence and scantily clad women, were among those that Dr. Wertham denounced. THF141552
Seduction of the Innocent created a sensation, as Dr. Wertham put forth a potent combination of professional expertise and moral outrage. It confirmed the growing fear by many parents that their children’s attachment to comic books was permanently harming their willingness to conform to societal rules and hindering their ability to become law-abiding citizens in America’s democratic society.
1951 Superman comic book predating the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval THF141569
1965 Superman comic book with its Comics Code Authority stamp of approval in the upper right corner THF305329
The national attention focused upon the comic book industry led to a simultaneous U.S. Congressional inquiry in 1954. As things were looking bleak for the comic book industry, the publishers decided to band together and self-censor their own titles by adopting a new Comics Code Authority (or CCA). According to CCA regulations, each company was required to include a Stamp of Approval on the cover of every one of its issues as a sign that it had met compliance with the Code.
December 1954 issue of Mad when it was a comic book, just before it was converted into a magazine THF141567
As a result, EC titles were soon taken off the shelves. In fact, this company would have been completely wiped out except for its popular Mad magazine, which became highly successful in its own right. Even though the other comic book companies honed their stories closely to the guidelines of the Code, the damage had been done. Comic books were held in disdain for years to the point that, by the early 1960s, their very survival was at risk. We can thank, in large part, Marvel Comics’ new approach to stories and superheroes for their remarkable comeback.
Dr. Wertham was later discredited for “manipulating, overstating, compromising, and fabricating” evidence. And, before long, parents found that comic books were minor in their concern about harmful influences on America’s youth, as they seemed like nothing compared to the new Hollywood teenage films, paperback novels, and rock ‘n’ roll music! Only later did people better understand that teenage angst and rebellion were very normal parts of growing up.
Teenage movies like the one shown in this 1959 poster made comic books seem tame by comparison. THF109455
Through the ensuing decades, few comic books dared veer from the Code’s regulations that forbade depictions of graphic violence, advocated alignment with societal norms, and dictated that all comic book stories end on an upbeat note. But by the late 20th century, these norms had changed enough that the earlier regulations had lost much of their relevance. The two major comic book companies—Marvel and DC—finally dropped the CCA in favor of their own rating systems—in 2001 and 2011, respectively.
For a time, comic books went on trial. But they managed to survive and adapt. Ironically, later studies revealed that comic books actually played a positive role in enhancing literacy, inspiring imagination, providing new career outlets, and leading to lifetime hobbies.
DC’s superhero stories, like this 1961 issue of The Flash, invariably ended happily—with problems resolved and loose ends neatly tied up. THF305327
Marvel superheroes often questioned both their superpowers and their general existence, as suggested on this dramatic cover of issue#50 of The Amazing Spider-Man.*
The Flash, the Hulk, the Thing; Batman, Ironman, Spider-Man; the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy. On and on it goes. The list of comic book superheroes can seem almost endless. How do you tell them apart? To get you started, it helps to know their origin—their company of origin, that is. With a few exceptions, all comic book superheroes trace their origins back to the talented writers and artists who created them at only two companies—DC and Marvel. From their beginnings, these companies differed radically in their approach to superheroes, and these differences can still be discerned today.
Comic book superheroes originated back in the 1930s with Superman. This superpowered alien was the brainchild of two shy but talented teenage boys from Cleveland, Ohio—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Pooling their drawing and writing talents, they devised the story of a he-man they simply called “The Superman,” who crash-landed on earth from another planet. To keep his true identity safe, Superman needed to adopt a secret identity. Enter Clark Kent, a meek, mild-mannered reporter with a personality remarkably similar to the two boys who had created him.
Siegel and Shuster originally thought their character would lend itself to a great newspaper comic strip. But they had no luck selling the idea to newspaper publishers, so they reluctantly agreed to sell their story in 1937 to the just-formed Detective Comics, Inc. (later shortened to DC). Comic books—especially those featuring single characters rather than simply being collections of comic strips—were as yet an untested medium and both the young creators and the publisher took a risk. Superman first appeared in Action comics (published by National Allied Publications, another corporate predecessor to DC) in June 1938. Surprising everyone involved, he was immediately so popular that the publishers decided to feature him in his own comic book the very next year. This marked the first time a comic book was devoted to a single superhero character.
During the hard times of the Great Depression, Superman’s unprecedented popularity can be attributed to both his secret and his super identities. Clark Kent represented the regular, unassuming common man that people could relate to, while they could happily dream and fantasize about being as infallible and invincible as the larger-than-life Superman.
The formula was potent and durable. Superman established the essential vocabulary for all DC comic book superheroes to come. He, like superheroes who came after him, represented courage, humility, steadfastness, and a natural sense of responsibility to serving others in need. He placed lofty principles above personal advantage, seeking nothing for himself. As the Great Depression shifted to the patriotic World War II era, new DC superheroes like The Flash and Wonder Woman similarly placed the greater good above their own personal needs. They never questioned their role in defending American democracy. And, following the DC formula, they always triumphed in the end.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, young readers were more likely to purchase a comic book about the humorous adventures of teenager Archie Andrews than one about a superhero. THF141542
During the 1950s, sales of comic books declined, especially those about superheroes. Not only were adults concerned about the harmful effects of comic books on children, but superheroes seemed to lose their sense of purpose. During the war years, it had been easy to know which side they were on. What were they fighting for now? Who exactly was the enemy? Only Superman’s popularity continued apace, due to the popular TV series, The Adventures of Superman, which aired from 1951 to 1957. It was through this series that the American public came to know Superman as championing “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
The Legion of Super-Heroes, a group of super-powered teenagers who join together to fight villains in the 30th century, have been popular DC superheroes since 1958. THF305330
By the late 1950s, DC superheroes were making a comeback, with both new and revived characters and a host of new supervillains for them to face. New stories were created to fit the times, usually focusing either on scientific advancements (always seen as a positive force) or science fiction. DC superheroes were competent, in control, and single-minded in their devotion to simply being heroic. They solved any problem they encountered in a well-ordered world—a world that, for each character, had to be internally consistent. Stories were comforting, positive, optimistic, reassuring, rational, and moral. Superheroes used their powers responsibly, inevitably siding with established authority.
This DC series, which started way back in 1941, featured Superman and Batman teaming up to battle villains.THF305328
The popularity of DC superheroes continued through the 1960s, spiking again with the trend-setting Batman TV show (which aired 1966-68), as well as their being featured on Saturday morning cartoons, in Broadway productions, and through related merchandise. By this time, DC had settled on a standard and successful formula for its superhero stories: colorful and dramatic covers that grabbed kids’ attention, then a focus on plot development that would inevitably lead to a happy ending. Little room was left for developing individual characters. The editors at DC felt that this formula appealed to kids and young teenagers—their core market. Why mess with success?
Tales to Astonish #60, from 1964, featured two stories of classic Marvel superheroes: Giant-Man (introduced in 1962 as Ant-Man) with his female partner the Wasp, and The Incredible Hulk, re-introduced after his own series had been cancelled the previous year. *
In the late 1930s, following quickly upon the success of Superman over at DC, Timely Comics (later to become Marvel) introduced The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. The ultra-patriotic Captain America followed them during the World War II era. But Marvel superheroes truly came into their own in the early 1960s.
The Comics Code Authority stamp of approvalTHF141590 (detail)
The public attack on comic books in the 1950s had put a damper on the comic book industry, forcing several companies to go out of business. It was risky even being in the business at the time. But partly because he figured he had nothing to lose at that point, talented Marvel writer (and later visionary editor) Stan Lee tried a new approach to superheroes that would change the course of comic books forever. He decided he could work within the constraints of the industry’s new self-censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, while at the same time dealing with more serious topics and stories.
This Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics from 1965 marked the first time that early classic Marvel stories were reprinted—in this issue, Fantastic Four #2 (January 1962); The Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July 1963); the Ant-Man story from Tales to Astonish #36 (October 1962); and Journey to Mystery featuring The Mighty Thor #97 (October 1963). *
The new superheroes that Lee created had relatable personalities, human flaws, and real-life problems. Their stories were purposely aimed at a new audience of older teenagers, who were wrestling with their own insecurities and feelings of alienation. These stories also questioned the scientific advancements of the Atomic Age that DC had embraced as positive forces in people’s lives. What if science ran amok? What if things went horribly wrong? What if there were dire consequences? Many Marvel superheroes, in fact, gained their superpowers because of horrific scientific accidents.
Even though the Human Torch and the Thing were both members of the Fantastic Four, in this issue of Strange Tales from 1964, a villain named the Puppet Master manipulated them into fighting each other. *
It started with the Fantastic Four in 1961—Lee’s answer to an assignment to come up with a team like DC’s recently created and very popular Justice League of America. Lee had long thought that typical superheroes were too perfect, that “the best stories of all…are the stories in which the characters seem to be real. You feel you know them, you understand them, you can relate to them.” This “Fantastic” superhero family had four distinctive personalities. Furthermore, they did not act like the polished, restrained, polite superheroes with which comic book readers had long been familiar. They argued, mistrusted each other, had tempers, expressed opinions, led complicated lives. Rather than the public cheering them on in the stories, people feared and were suspicious of them.
The Fantastic Four were a revelation—like no other superheroes that had come before. Older teenagers—for whom DC superheroes had come to seem shallow and one-dimensional—found them original, realistic, exciting. One fan remarked that turning from the Justice League and Superman to the Fantastic Four was like “stepping through a gateway into another dimension.”
The Green Goblin, one of The Amazing Spider-Man’s most hated enemies, planned to reveal Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world in issue #39 from August 1966, but in the process, he dramatically revealed his own true identity. *
Marvel quickly followed the popularity of the Fantastic Four with The Incredible Hulk (1962), who not only turned into a brutish monster as the result of a nuclear accident but didn’t even look, act, or sound like a superhero. In 1963, Marvel introduced its most quintessential superhero—The Amazing Spider-Man, an ordinary teenager beset by ordinary teenage problems who, having acquired super-powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, only reluctantly sets out to fight crime and villains.
Dr. Strange, introduced in Strange Tales in 1963, gained his own title in 1968 and made regular appearances across the Marvel universe. *
A quick succession of superheroes followed, each character with his or her own manner of speech, personality, values, and quirks. By the late 1960s, Marvel had woven together an integrated mythology of all its superheroes, in which stories continued, superheroes made guest appearances in others’ stories, and characters could be heroes one day and become villains the next (and vice versa).
Marvel’s The Silver Surfer was introduced as a tortured soul, permanently exiled to Earth on a surfboard-like craft as punishment for betraying the evil Galactus on his home planet. *
The Marvel formula, as laid out with Fantastic Four in 1961, became the standard. Stories and characters often focused on alienated and even neurotic individuals with character flaws, inner struggles, and personal grudges. Endings weren’t always happy or satisfying. Superheroes didn’t always get along or leverage their powers to help others. In Marvel superheroes, readers recognized their own failings, struggles, and anxieties. As opposed to DC’s black-and-white world, the Marvel world was gray—more like the real world.
This DC comic book series, about a group of misfit and alienated superheroes, was conceived in the Marvel mode but was never as popular as Marvel’s stories of similar outcast groups of superheroes like The X-Men.THF141602
Since the 1960s, most superhero stories in comic books have become darker, more complex, and more serious—often tackling social issues with a gritty realism. This trend has brought DC and Marvel stories, characters, and mythologies closer together in content and tone, though the differences between them are still definable because these are so deeply embedded in their DNA.
The King Kon Comic & Fantasy Convention, which ran from 1984 to 1986, was the first regular comic book convention in the Detroit area after the demise of the multi-genre Detroit Triple Fan Fair (that had run from 1965 to 1977). King Kon was a predecessor to the current annual extravaganza, Motor City Comic Con, which began in 1989. *
Superheroes can now be found pretty much everywhere, from Comic Cons to an expanding array of movies, TV shows, mobile games, action figures, and other merchandise. Their worlds are constantly growing, expanding, and changing. It’s easy to get confused. But don’t worry. If you’re trying to make sense of it all, start with the superheroes’ origins. Are they DC or Marvel? Knowing that will set you off on the right track.
Astonishing Tales, vol. 1 no. 29, 1975, featuring Guardians of the Galaxy - a reprint of their first appearance (1969) in Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 1 no. 18. THF305338
It started the summer I turned 14, when some neighbor kids told us they were moving and wanted to find a good home for their sizable stash of D.C. comic books. My four brothers and I had a hard time turning that down! The next thing we knew, several boxes of comic books arrived on our doorstep—opening a magical door into a world previously unknown to me.
Up until that time, I’d only read younger kids’ comic books—like Archie, Richie Rich, and Little Lotta. But these were different, these D.C. comics that recounted the exploits of such larger-than-life superheroes as Superman, The Flash, and my personal favorites—the teenage Legion of Super-Heroes.
Adventure Comics, featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, vol. 1 no. 343, April 1966. THF 305335
My Mom was rather horrified when she learned of our new “acquisition.” She pictured us wasting our summer away reading these comic books rather than doing things that were—as she called it—more “constructive.” I must admit that I did spend many hours that summer immersed in the pages of those comic books. But in no way would I call it wasting my time. Through those comic books, I learned about how stories can be told through a series of pictures, how pictures can illuminate ideas and feelings, and how all of this can fuel a young reader’s imagination.
First issue of Spider-Man I purchased, vol. 1 no. 88, September 1970 (author’s collection).
One evening a few years later, my comic book world shifted. My best friend introduced me to the backstory of Spider-Man—a completely different kind of comic book superhero created by Marvel, a completely different kind of comic book company. Spider-Man had problems. And flaws. And continual feelings of self-doubt. Here was a superhero who was reluctant, questioning, always feeling like a failure even when he just happened to save the world. On top of that, he was a teenager—just like me! Who couldn’t relate to that? I was forever done with Superman. So long, D.C.! Hello, Marvel!
Spider-Man, vol. 1 no. 96, May 1971 – an unprecedented issue at the time. It did not display the Comics Code Authority stamp of approval like virtually all comic books at the time because it involved a drug-related story (author’s collection).
I soon branched out to other Marvel comic books. I became especially enamored with the stories of Dr. Strange, whose mystical world fascinated me and whose page after page of colorful psychedelic graphics captivated me even without the stories. I also went through a Silver Surfer period, appreciating his feeling of alienation from all human beings who inhabited Planet Earth. I tried many additional titles, but Spider-Man remained my perennial favorite.
Dr. Strange, vol. 1 no. 171, August 1968, displaying typically striking graphics on the cover (author’s collection).
As I entered college, my passion for comic books came along with me. I rode my new 10-speed bicycle down miles of back roads to visit used comic book stores and attend the occasional comic book show. I joined a comic book enthusiasts’ group with fellow students, where we traded likes, dislikes, and back issues. I made inventories, kept needs lists, bought enthusiasts’ magazines, and traced the lineage of my favorite titles by searching for back issues. This was all in the days before the Internet, eBay, and Comic Cons, and most communication was accomplished through the mail.
Silver Surfer, vol. 1 no. 1, August 1968 (author’s collection).
When I began my job as a curator here at The Henry Ford in 1977, my interest in comic books finally waned. Maybe I didn’t need that brand of escapism or that kind of outlet for my imagination anymore. Maybe I was too busy to take the time to delve into the stories. Comic books themselves changed. I remember feeling frustrated by Marvel’s trend, during the late 1970s, with story cross-overs throughout the entire network of their comic book titles to encourage more comic-book buying. Who had the patience and perseverance for that? Or the money, as the price of comic books soared at that time, from 15 cents in the late 1960s to 40 cents by 1980? This is also about the time that Spider-Man went mainstream, with a newspaper comic strip (starting 1977) and a Saturday morning cartoon (premiering 1981), both aimed at kids much younger than me. It seemed weird that, suddenly, I shared a common bond with my little five-year-old nephew—although he acted suitably impressed when I pulled out some of my old Spider-Man comic books for him, which by then seemed like ancient relics.
I might have let go of my comic book passion for good, but some project at the museum would always pull me back. For example, during my writing of the museum book Leisure and Entertainment in America (1988), I acquired a group of early comic books for the museum’s collection.
Tales from the Crypt, vol. 1 no. 43, September 1954 - an early 1950s horror comic book title whose shocking content alarmed parents and helped lead to the comic book industry’s self-censorship board, called the Comics Code Authority. THF141540
When we decided to include a section on how people imagined the future in the Your Place in Time: 20th Century America exhibit, I acquired a range of comic book titles that focused upon futuristic themes.
Spider-Man 2099, vol. 1 no. 1, November 1992 – a futuristic re-imagining of the original character (note steep $1.75 price by this time). THF305334
Back when I was a kid, many parents (including my own) worried about the harmful effects that reading comic books had on youth. In retrospect, I’d have to say that they were completely wrong. For me, comic books expanded my world immeasurably. They encouraged me to read, to write, to draw, to tap into my imagination. Maybe this started with those early Archie comic books. It certainly grew when that stash of D.C. comics landed on our front doorstep. But it blossomed and permanently formed who I am today when I entered the Marvel Universe.
Happy 80th birthday, Marvel!
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.