Talking Pages and Paper
Whether you found some comics at a garage sale and you think you may want to start a collection, or you’re a big baller from back when old silvers were on the rack, there is something you need to know a couple of things about – paper, and how to preserve it. Your comics are made of plant material and wood chips and, like all things natural, they are trying to decompose right now, whether you are reading them or they are in a box in your closet. Understanding a few basic things about the paper’s composition, and making a few decisions about how you want to store them will make the difference between submitting “WP” and off-white page books down the road, and having employees at the grading companies laugh and use your name to make goofy memes about you which will last longer than your books will.
Comics are paper, and paper is plants. To make paper, plant fibers are made into a pulp, which is suspended in water, skimmed off and then matted into sheets. The fibers consist of cellulose, which is super-strong, lightweight and durable. An example would be cotton fibers, which are almost pure cellulose, and were used in the past to manufacture paper, clothes, nets, rope, etc. Today, however, the primary material used to manufacture paper is wood pulp.
There are two types of wood pulp used today, defined by their method of production: groundwood and chemical wood pulp.
- Groundwood is produced by shredding logs and beating them like Rhonda Rousey got beat after someone bet a month’s pay on a “sure thing.” Groundwood is inexpensive to produce, and is the primary component in less expensive paper like newsprint, older comics and paperback (pulp) books.
- Chemical wood pulp is made by digesting wood chips in a chemical cooker, and then separating and minimizing those materials in the pulp which can lead to eventual degradation. This pulp is used for more expensive paper like magazines, hardcover books, and stationery.
As we only really give a crap about paper production as it relates to maintaining our comic collections, we need to focus on one substance found in the plant fibers which eventually makes its way into the paper. That substance is called “lignin.” Lignin is found in and around the cells of all vascular plants. It serves to facilitate the transport of water in plants, and makes veggies crunchy and firm. It is lignin that provides what we call “fiber”in our food. Lignin is super-resistant to degradation in nature, forming very strong chemical and carbohydrate bonds. Unfortunately, it gives off acids as these bonds deteriorate, and will slowly destroy cellulose and other sensitive materials in close proximity. Picture your beloved comics turning tan, then brown, then crumbling in your fingers as you weep uncontrollably. Thanks, lignin! So, the more lignin removed from the pulp, the more solid bonds can be formed between fibers, and the stronger the paper will be. Now go back and re-read about “chemical wood pulp” production.
Comics are fragile bastards, no getting around it. From the moment they are printed, environmental conditions are working to destroy them. Attacks come from all sides, but the biggest enemies of your books are: oxidation and acid hydrolysis.
- Oxidation attacks cellulose molecules with oxygen, causing darkening and increased acidity. Lignin breaks down quick-like in groundwood paper through exposure to oxygen and ultraviolet light, leading to yellowing of newsprint.
- Acid hydrolysis is a process where cellulose fibers are actually cut by a reaction involving heat and acid, resulting in brown and brittle paper. This process is caused by the unavoidable degradation of lignin; also air pollution and various reactions of paper products to oxidation. The presence of “alum,” a potassium aluminum sulfate used with rosin to prepare the surface of paper to receive ink can also be a factor. Alum eventually releases sulfuric acid as it breaks down.
- When considering the relative acidity of paper, it helps to fall back on that one day you weren’t sleeping in chemistry class, when your teacher talked about pH. pH is measured on a scale of 0 – 14, with 0 being the most acidic and 14 being the most alkaline. 7 indicates neutral.
0 (acidic) -> 14 (alkaline)
- The scale is measured in powers of 10, so a material with a pH of 3 is 200x more acidic than something with a pH of 5. Fresh newsprint measures 4.5 or so, and will eventually drop to around 3 before it crumbles like excuses to your girlfriend after a night out with the boys. There are modern papers made acid-free, but most do contain some acidity.
- Some other villains out to destroy your collection are: dramatic temperature variations, humidity, mold, rodents or insects (i.e. goddamn silverfish) and improper handling and storage.
Alright, so now we know more than we ever wanted to about paper. The next question then is: “How the *@ do I take care of it already?!!” Fair enough. There are really only two things to worry about: where you keep your comics, and how you keep them.
- Your books crave a cold, dark space to hang out in. They want to be in an unheated room, if possible, and want to be 3-5 inches off the floor. Air circulation underneath will prevent mold & fungus from setting up shop. Humidity control is super important, and some sort of dehumidifier wouldn’t hurt the process at all.
- Use archival-quality storage materials. That means: quit being cheap when it comes to your bags and boards. What kind of bags you use should depend on how long you plan on keeping your books.
- Polyethylene – For many years, the standard for storage of comics was polyethylene, which provides adequate protection from dirt and pests (f-ing silverfish!), but contains plasticizers and other additives which can leach into the very books it is supposed to protect and can cause premature aging. Also, uncoated polyethylene has a high gas transmission rate, and it will shrink and warp under warm conditions. If you have to use polyethylene bags, try to keep only your $1.00 bin finds in them, and be sure to change them every 3-5 years.
- Polypropylene – More recently, the average collector or vendor has turned to polypropylene to store their books. Polypro bags are much stronger and more stable than polyethylene bags, however most do contain a substance called polyvinyl dichloride, which is added during production to heat-seal the material, and does run the risk of leaching into the paper down the road. Polypro bags should probably be changed out every 7 – 10 years or so.
- Mylar ® – The U.S, Library of Congress states that the best material for preserving documents is uncoated, archival-quality polyester film. As those guys are responsible for maintaining the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the original C.I.A. orders to kill JFK, they probably know what they’re talking about. The most recognized and respected polyester film by far is Mylar ®, produced by DuPont Teijin films. Mylar ® is exceptionally strong, transparent, and very resistant to moisture, oils, pollutants and acids. Mylar ® comes in various sizes and thicknesses, and should definitely be in your game plan when it comes to your older, more valuable books you plan on keeping for your kiddos. One negative to consider (aside from Mylar ®’s relatively high price) is the potential for Mylar ®bags to crack at higher temperatures. Also, the thinnest Mylar ® can tear if handled roughly.
BOARDS & BOXES
- Ordinary cardboard is pretty acidic out of the gate, and using it for storage is likely the leading cause of premature deterioration of comic collections. That was in italics. It’s important. Acid-free boards are absolutely essential for proper preservation. You can put a comic in a beautiful, clear, thick Mylar ® bag, but if you put it in with a standard, run-of-the-mill board, your book isn’t going to last as long as you would like. Following U.S. Government standards, backing boards should have a minimum pH of 8.5, and should contain a 3% calcium carbonate buffer throughout the board. Many manufacturers of backing boards claim their product is “acid-free” when they are actually only spray coated with an alkaline substance which makes them acid-free for a very short time.
- Non-acidic storage boxes are nice to use, but not absolutely necessary if good bags and boards are used. Go buy them anyway.
OTHER B.S. YOU CAN USE
- Microchamber Paper – Lignin and sulfur-free, many folks like to insert a piece or two (or more) in between pages of their comics before bagging and boarding them as further protection against environmental contaminants. Bringing up the pro’s and ‘cons of microchamber paper in certain circles or on certain forums is likely to start a fight that’ll make you think you walked on the set of Gangs of New York. Truth is, there’s no proof it helps one way or another, but if it makes you feel good, go for it.
- Deacidifying sprays and solutions – Wha?? These exist. Nope.
- Grading and encapsulating (slabbing). We'll leave that topic for another sunny day.
Alright, wake up – the bell rang. The crazy thing about this topic is that, although that was probably more info than anyone needed, there is still gobs and reams and mountains of facts and studies and snoooorrrre. If the stress of rethinking how to store your books has started to get to you – close your computer, grab a comic, and sit down and read it. That’s what we’re all here for anyway.
– William M. Cole P.E. – http://www.bcemylar.com/index.cfm
– Ellen McCrady/Alkaline Paper Advocate – http://cool.conservation-us.org/byorg/abbey/ap/ap04/ap04-4/ap04-402.html
– Brain G. Philbin – http://www.metropolisplus.com/comicsbasics.htm
– The folks at E. Gerber – http://www.egerber.com/aboutpreservation2.asp