A 6th century BC Chinese general, Sun Tzu authored an immensely influential book on military strategy which today is best known in the West as Sun Wu, the "Art of War". Possibly one of the best known maximes put forward by Sun Tzu is often quoted as "know your enemy". Not taking into account the many philosophical undertones the actual passage contains, it has become a nifty way of saying: if you do something, be aware of why you are doing it and what for.

This is, of course, just as true when it comes to storing comic books, where there is a current mainstream consensus that "bagging and boarding" a comic book is the way to go for safe storage. But what exactly is everybody protecting their comic book against? Do they know their collection's true enemy?

In the 1970s, the average comic book reader would probably keep his comics stacked in a simple pile somewhere. Although still seen today, the average comic book reader is now also an accidental comic book collector who handles and stores his individual comics with at least a certain amount of care.
The "traditional" loose stack has many disadvantages, the most obvious being that because the spine side of a comic book is thicker (accentuated by the two staples used to hold the comic book together) this can create a lopsided "U" which will eventually roll the individual comics into the very same shape (hence the term "spine rolling").

The change of attitude in the average comic-book-reader-turned-collector has become so pronounced that it has in fact more or less completely altered the traditional view of comic books. Originally seen as a prime example of ephemera (transitory printed matter which, as the Greek noun describes, lasts no more than a day and is not intended to be retained or preserved) just the same as newspapers (a parallel underscored by the use of the cheapest grade of paper for both), comic books are now understood to be items worth storing with care, i.e. collectibles, rather than a disposable commodity.

For many, the question therefore is not whether or not to think about storing comic books or not, but rather how to store them. This is mainly because virtually all published information on storing comic books kicks off with the bad news that any pre-1990s comic book is in a process of deterioration since the moment it went into circulation, due to the acidity of the low-grade paper (known as newsprint) used to print comic books prior to the early 1990s.

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If the situation truly is as bad as many expert collectors tell their audience, then surely knowing exactly what kind of dangers comic books face is imperative.


The main threat to comic books still is what it always used to be: raw physical damage. Paper is a vulnerable material which provides very little resistance and is thus easily deformed or even torn, and the covers and interior pages of a comic book will soon suffer if they are exposed to excessive and/or careless handling.

Unlike damage which is triggered by chemical processes, physical damage is usually instant, and the major element making comic books so prone to physical damage is their relative instability: they are usually thin (which offers little or no resistance to disformation) and held together only by two staples.

  The copy of Batman #253 illustrated here has suffered from such purely physical damage: the corner of the cover has been both creased and bent and then torn and ripped through handling - a commonly known defect in comic books and a typical sign of a certain age (and therefore extended tear and wear).

This kind of very direct physical damage is most often also inflicted by direct handling of a comic book. Another important source of physical damage is humidity - whilst sometimes less apparent, it is nonetheless just as permanent as a nick or a tear.

Whilst the circled areas numbered "1" of this page from Batman #253 show the already mentioned physical damage afflicted by careless handling (scuffed and ragged edges and bent corners), the circles numbered "2" show the damage done by humidity. In this specific case, the paper has started to curl slightly and displays the "wave" which typically occurs when paper comes into contact with e.g. water (right hand circle) whilst also displaying the stains (left hand circle) which remain when the paper has dried again.

Although contrary to the effects of direct physical impact the damage inflicted by excess humidity can to acertain degree be reversed (as per the emergency drying procedure suggested by the Library of Congress), the fragility of comic books (especially pre-1990) and the high absorbency rate of the paper used in their printing usually results in substantial damage - which can turn into a complete loss if exposure to humidity is high and prolongued as this will turn a comic book into a breeding ground for mould.

It is fairly obvious that in order to minimise the risk of direct physical damage, individual comic books need to be strengthened in terms of material stability and protected from physical impact. The now standard method of storing each comic individually in a protective see-through sleeve into which a cardboard backing board is inserted makes sense: it adds rigidity to the comic book and protects it from all but the most massive bending forces. As far as damage through humidity as well as soiling goes, the sleeve (mostly made from polyethylene and polypropylene) acts as a barrier, which when combined with sensible storage (i.e. avoiding spaces which are damp or prone to flooding) keeps dirt and humidity at bay.

However, there is one form of direct physical damage which protective sleeves can only slow down at best but not prevent: the attack by animals. Admittedly a far less frequent source than tear and wear or humidity, insects can do a surprising amount of damage - although this is nothing compared to what rodents can do to a comic book (or, as a matter of fact, any paper product).

The example shown here illustrates the rather peculiar and therefore easily identifiable damage rodents inflict (also known as mouse or rat "chew")- they literally take a bite out of your comic book, as the tooth markings on the spine and the indentations on the back cover of this copy of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #161 clearly show. Incidentally, this comic book came from a sealed comic pack, showing that plastic is neither a deterent nor a barrier. As the copy of Batman #253 used as illustration above was packaged together with Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #161, the humidity damage seen on the Batman issue could also be linked to the rodents - not a very nice possibility, which also illustrates that direct and indirect physical damage can degrade a comic book to the point where it once again turns into a piece of ephemera - i.e. something which is best thrown away.


An aspect not mentioned too often is the odour some comic books have taken on over the years. If stored in a smoking household, an otherwise (i.e. visually) well preserved comic book may have acquired a smell which is both unpleasant - and permanent in most cases. Again, plastic sleeves can act as barriers, but only to a certain point, as they will never be airtight. It is also interesting to note that there are several reports on the web that comics can be highly odorous even from inside a CGC slab casing.


The most widely discussed storage problem associated with comic books is the degradation of paper linked to its inherent acidity. However, this comic book enemy is not only often portrayed in wildly exaggerated ways, but also describing and taking the effects to be the cause - a classic case of mistaking the enemy.

It is now common knowledge that the paper used for printing comics was (up until the mid-1990s) of inferior quality; generally known and refered to as newsprint, it was used primarily for its low cost factor and its high absorbency, which was well suited to rubber plates used on high-speed offset presses.

  The drawback of the production process of newsprint paper is the fact that it results in very short fibres and high levels of lignin (which is a natural bonding element in plants that holds the wood fiber together but gives off acids as it deteriorates). This combination triggers rapid discolouring and oxidising (the paper turns brown), and also sets free acids which degrade the paper material even further - also a major concern for many books printed since 1850 (and most definitely so for mass market paperbacks from the 1970s).

However, the acidity (although built-in to the comic book) is only the catalyst, i.e. it requires a triggering agent to do its damage, which will then either result in acid-catalysed hydrolysis or oxidation.

Acid hydrolysis breaks the molecule chains and weakens the fibres, causing paper to become hard and brittle. Of far greater concern to comic book collectors (and hence the storage of their collectibles) however is acid oxidation which discolours the paper and makes it take on a yellow or even brownish colour. Both the cellulose (and its derivatives) and the lignin contained within the paper can be oxidised, but it is the lignin that is the main cause of photo-yellowing of paper (Seery, 2013).
Lignin has a chemical setup (specific chromophores and carbonyl groups) which absorbs light in the near ultraviolet (UV) spectrum of light. When this happens, these chromophores decompose into yellow-coloured ketones and quinones, i.e. they turn the paper yellow. However, since these yellow-coloured molecules themselves absorb visible light, they also act as secondary chromophores and can react even further, adding to the yellowing and degradation processes (Seery, 2013).

This makes it clear that the presence of light is more important than the presence of lignin and other acidic elements in terms of paper degradation - which occurs because light is radiant energy that causes irreversible change through its output of chemical energy and the resulting photochemical reaction.

The most potent source of this destructive energy comes from just beyond the limits of the visible spectrum of light, as ultraviolet rays (with their shorter wavelength and thus higher energy rate) are especially harmful and a significant catalyst for photochemical destruction.

The problem is that UV light is not only present in all daylight (and most abundantly in direct sunlight) but also in many fluorescent and metal halogen lamps.



There is some overlap in the forms of deterioration caused by visible light and UV, but as a generalization exposure to visible light causes fading and bleaching of colours in paper, whilst UV causes the yellowing (Vávrová, Kotlík, Durovic & Brezová, 2011) - the different types of damage typically caused are the result of the different photon energies of UV and visible light (Michalski, 2013).
  Fading mostly occurs on comic book covers when stored in conditions which subject them to direct (and often prolongued) exposure to sunlight (as illustrated above).

If the comics were stacked, this can result in the typical fading patterns found when only a certain part of the cover was exposed whilst the rest was covered by the comic book lying on top.

Browning will always occur predominantly on surfaces which are highly exposed to light, i.e. the edges. This is where the oxidation process is initiated, but with subsequent "bleeding" into interior areas once the photochemical processes take place. This often runs along the spine but can ultimately befall the entire page(s).

A chemical catalyst which can be the result of handling is lactic acid. As a component of human sweat, this can be transferred to paper surfaces during handling. and although a weak acid this can contribute to the deteriation.



Having identified the two main enemies which comic books are up against if simply left lying about, it is now time to think about adequate measures to fight those enemies. It is also, however, a good and sound advice to stay calm about this.

Why? Because having undergone the magic transformation from disposables to collectibles, comic books have also become the focus of attention of the collectibles market - a highly constructed environment which is as much about a hobby as it is about making money (cf. THOUGHT BALLOON #34). One of the most important elements which operates any collectibles market is the condition of an object (usually referred to as "grade") in conjunction with scarcity. In other words: collectors will usually prefer items in excellent condition to items of a lesser grade, and the fewer well-preserved objects available the higher the price which a collector can be expected to pay for it.

Combined with the fact that the world wide web is a marketplace as much as it is an information hub, this explains why so much information to be found on the internet today on comic book storage is actually, to all intent and purpose, concerned with long term comic book conservation. The difference may appear subtle at first sight, but in reality the two concepts are fundamentally different. Whereas storing comic books is an attempt to prevent major damage and degradation and thus preserve them in the best shape possible (i.e. accepting a few minor tell-tale signs of its actual age), conservation is aimed at preserving a comic book in its current material state, or in other words "freezing" the current condition for posterity.

In practical life, this difference draws the line between a collector and an archival museum - unless, that is, conservation is seen as a means of safeguarding and possibly raising a collectible's monetary value for future sales (ultimately, this approach to conservation may even bleed into restoration of comic books, which if used in conjunction with the intention to sell is frowned upon by most).

The speculative nature of the collectible's market has thus permeated information on storage and maintenance of comic books to the point where the differing priorities of collectors and speculators often become blurred and confused. The resulting advice given to "all collectors" is more often than not over the top, simply because most collectors with no speculative investment interest will accept some minor degradation occuring after 30+ years, whereas a perfect grade conservation guarantee up to the year 2100 only makes sense if later generations are taken into account. However, even the idea of leaving behind a profitable inheritance - again planted by the forces which drive the speculative collectibles market - is made questionable by the simple fact that almost any comic book published since 1990 will be in excellent supply both in terms of numbers and grade for decades to come (cf. THOUGHT BALLOON #34).

Sometimes the advice found on comic book storage makes it seem as though a large percentage of comic book collections worldwide is just about to turn into brown crumbles and heaps of dust. Keep calm - that isn't so.



As mentioned, minimising the risk of physical damage to comic books is easy - by simply strengthening individual issues by inserting them in a protective sleeve into which a cardboard backing board is inserted: a well established best practice commonly known as "bagging and boarding".
  The variety of products offered and on sale is enormous, but the most commonly used materials are polyethylene and polypropylene. Both of these materials are manufactured with solvents and additives which break down over time, causing some experts to point out that only uncoated polyester film (known as Mylar[R]) will remain stable - however, all three of the mentioned materials have accepted photo activity test ratings which make them safe for long-term storage (Teygeler 2004). Polyvinylchloride (PVC) however should be avoided, as it can break down into hydrochloric acid over time.

All types of plastic bags have their own inherent problems: they can trap moisture (which may lead to mold growth), their static electricity can lift fragile, flaking surfaces, and plastic doesn’t provide any buffering protection against changes in humidity like paper can.

This latter aspect is another point in favour of backboards in general and acid-free backboards in specific, as nobody will want to add to the inherent acidity in the paper. However, "acid-free" signifies "at the time of manufacture"; any pronounced level of acidity in a comic book will eventually "bleed" into the backboard.

Possibly the most effective method of maintaining a comic book collection therefore are regular checks, which ultimately are more important than chosing the best archival-safe materials. Looking through the collection on a regular basis will reveal any possible problem in its beginning stages, before substantial damage has occured.

The real question now is - hardly ever raised in conjunction with the advice to bag and board comic books - whether or not it is sensible to apply this storage measure to all comic books in a collection.

Obviously, comic books which are known or believed or hoped to be worth a lot of money now or any time in the future should be carefully bagged and boarded - and then stored in a bank vault.

Sentimental importance and nostalgia is a valid criteria for any collector to store certain items with special care. For these comic books, bagging and boarding may make sense.

For the remainder of a comic collection it is at least worth pointing out that not boarding and bagging a comic book does not automatically make it doomed - especially post-1995 comic books, which are either printed on acid free paper (in line with a 1989 commitment by major US print publishers to utilizing ISO 9706 certified permanent durable paper) or on high quality glossy paper which has been chemically de-pulped and coated with an alkaline buffer to better protect against environmental pollutants that cause acid hydrolysis (Teygeler 2004). Generally speaking, better paper quality goes hand in hand with a more sturdy product which is less prone to tear and wear, although there can be huge differences. The current single issues from Marvel are at times printed on paper so thin that they can be even flimsier than Bronze Age examples, whereas DC has even started to use thicker grade paper (almost cardboard) for their covers in 2014. Archie Comics and Boom Studio have a similiar setup, and Dynamite uses fairly heavy paper stock throughout.

Bagging and boarding each and every comic book in a collection is not only a cost factor, it also adds two new collections to the comic books: one is plastic bags, the other backing boards - and both take up space.



Polybags and backboards will protect comic books against physical damage, but not against chemical degradation. The most important element to shy away from, as mentioned before, is light.
This makes it a logical conclusion that comic books should be stored in a dark place.

The traditional storing method addressing this need is the "long box" or the "short box", a standard strong cardboard box which holds comic books in an upright position. Using these boxes, comic books can be stored in the dark, which counteracts the main degradation source. Again, acid-free cardboard boxes are available from specialist sources.

Container devices used to store individual comic books in one place should not only provide an environment which is protective of light, they should also have a certain stability and be able to withstand a few undeliberate knocks. Although the stability of long or short boxes is probably underestimated by many, cardboard does have its limitations over time, especially when several boxes need to be stacked. Outward appearance, although completely irrelevant with regard to storage quality, also plays a part in many collectors looking for and turning to other solutions with more durable materials.


A typical example of a comic books short box (in this case from the Miller Hobby brand of comic book storage boxes)
[image is (c) Miller Hobby, used with kind permission]

It should be mentioned that exposure to light continues to have a degradation effect to a certain degree even during subsequent dark storage - a phenomenon known as post-irradiation effect (Vávrová, Kotlík, Durovic & Brezová, 2011). This also illustrates a fundamental dilemma: light is the main source of degradation to comic books, yet it is required to read and enjoy them. UV filters could be an option, although hardly worth the effort for most items in an average collection.

In addition to dark storage, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works advises to keep paper objects in a cool and dry environment, ideally maintaining a temperature below 72 degrees Fahrenheit at a relative humidity of between 30 percent and 50 percent. Climatic fluctuations cause papers to expand and contract, and warm or moist conditions should be avoided, for the reasons given above.

Bagged and boarded comic books are generally stored in an upright position. There is, however, ample and informed information available which dispells the myth of the absolute imperative for vertical storage. The Northeast Document Conservation Center (a non-profit regional conservation center in the United States, founded in 1973 and counting amongst its clients the Boston Public Library and Harvard University) advised that although vertical storage in office files or in upright flip-top archival document storage boxes is acceptable for legal-sized or smaller documents, any objects larger than 15" x 9" should be stored flat. This is due to the pull forces which documents stored in an upright position are subject to, and it is safe to assume that what is best practice for larger size documents works out well for comic books as well.



There obviously are huge differences between individual comic book collectors, and these differences spill over into just what kind of comic book collections these individuals call their own, both in terms of numbers and age of the individual comic books. The approaches to storage may therefore also differ, for reasons easily understood. One thing, however, remains a constant: the maintenance of any collection should be done sensibly. Counteracting, for example, the use of acid-free backboards with the use of acidic storage boxes not only defies the logic but the actual goal of the exercise. It may also be that not all individual comics from a collection merit elaborate storage, and regrets twenty, thirty years from now for having picked the wrong titles for "basic" storage (when all of a sudden the sentimental value of Zapman issues outweigh those of the Batman comics, even though it was completely the other way round at the time) should not be too harsh as any comic book stored subject to a small set of best practice rules should remain in more than just acceptable condition.

The following advice from the Shiloh Museum concerns photographs, but poses questions just as valid for comic books:

"Storing photos properly is expensive and time consuming. Before you start, determine if all of your photos are worth the effort. Ask yourself: which photos should be considered heirlooms? which are poor quality or redundant? which are the most fragile?"

It really is quite basic - individual comic books should be stored in a cool, dry and - most importantly - dark environment. Everything else, such as protection from soiling, protection from "acid leaking" from other material containing wood pulp, protection from other pollutants or protection from soiling or insects is really up to the individual collector and his individual storage situation and needs.


MICHALSKI Stefan (2013) Agent of Deterioration: Light, Ultraviolet and Infrared, Canadian Conservation Institute

SEERY Michael (2013) "Savin paper", in Education in Chemistry, March 2013, 23-25

TEYGELER R. (2004). Preserving paper: Recent advances, in J. Feather (Ed) Managing preservation for libraries and archives: Current practice and future development, Ashgate Publishing

VAVROVA Petra, Petr Kotlík, Michal Durovic & Vlasta Brezová (2011) "Damage to Paper Due to Visible Light Irradiation and Post-Radiation Effects after Two Years of Storage in Darkness", in New Approaches to Book and Paper Conservation-Restoration, Patricia Engel et al. (eds), Verlag Berger


First published on the web 9 March 2010
Completely revised and updated 19 July 2014


Content is (c) 2010-2014 A. T. Wymann