Iron Clad Comics Fights Time
The clock is ticking on the lifetime of your comic collection.
But you can fight back!
At the bottom of this article I share the secrets my Iron Clad Comics system, which I have used for more than a decade.
Comics are collectibles classified as “ephemera.” That means they are impermanent, fragile, and fleeting. Comic books are “limited edition” prints that owe their value to the demise of their brethren of the same issue. When comics die, the survivors become rare and therefore valuable.
If comic books were made out of cast iron, an Action #1 would not sell for $millions (and would be hard to read, too!)
I collect Silver Age comics which continue to increase in value.
Comic books are not made of iron
Printed on pulp paper, comic books literally eat themselves by creating acid that further breaks down paper fibers. The acid cleaves the long fibers into shorter and shorter pieces.
When fibers in paper become short enough, they cease to link together. In the final stages of acidification, paper becomes “brittle,” crumbling at the slightest touch or vibration, literally turning to dust.
When a comic book becomes brittle, it dies
The gradual process of comic acidification is irreversible and inevitable.
Acidification cannot be stopped, but it CAN be slowed.
The Iron Clad Comics system creates a form of “suspended animation” with the maximum mechanical and chemical protection for comic books. More on that later.
Along with time, these are immediate dangers for comic books.
Let’s take an inventory of the threats to your comic collection
The most dangerous “Arch Enemies” of Comics
Description: These otherwise kind beings have discarded and destroyed countless comic collections. They view comic books as trash, clutter, and a source of dust. Operating typically at times when the comic owner is absent, these agents of comic destruction are responsible for millions of dollars of comic wealth loss.
Power: Complete comic collection annihilation in one day of cleaning or “organizing.”
Shield: Information about the value of comic books. Publicity and the invention of e-Bay converted many mothers from comic destroyers into comic purveyors, some actually grossly overestimating the value of comics found in closets and basements. Let’s assume for the moment that your mother is not a major threat.
Description: Lower on the phylogenetic scale than mothers, rodents do not hate comics. They love them as chew toys, nest material, and rest rooms. Rodents operate mostly at night.
Power: A single bite from a rodent can drastically reduce the value of a comic book in a split second. Although not as powerful or fast as mothers, rats and mice can destroy entire collections.
Shield: Mechanical barriers composed of chew-proof material. Cardboard will not stop rodents.
Description: Still farther down the chain of life from mothers and rodents, insects love comics. As food and housing.
Power: Insects damage comic book paper by eating holes (silverfish) or soiling (cockroaches and others). Sneaky and insidious, they operate quietly, preferring darkness.
Shield: Mechanical barriers lacking any points of entry. Cardboard may serve as a deterrent but may be breached by another organism (see rodents).
Mold and Mildew
Description: Species of fungi that travel through the air as microscopic spores, mold lands and waits for humid conditions to grow on comic books.
Power: Creates stains known by comic book collectors as “foxing,” orange to brown spotting usually near the page edges of comic books, and on covers. The foxing mildew gets its name from (F)errous (Ox)ide which is a chemical name for rust. Powdery mildew is gray or white and indicates very high moisture levels. Mold emits a distinctive musty smell. It’s not the smell of rodent urine or acid paper, and it means the comics have gotten wet. Mold requires oxygen to survive.
Shield: Store comics away from moisture and humidity.
Description: This nefarious enemy of comics can take the form of a liquid or a penetrating vapor, condensing back into liquid when cooled.
Power: Even a few drops of water can cause ink to migrate, leaving permanent stains. Water also has mechanical effects of paper. Sources of water? Duh. Flooding, broken pipes, leaking roof, condensation — water is all over the place. But even if you’re smart enough to keep your comic boxes out of the rain, water comes in a more insidious form. Humidity. Water vapor actually fuels the chemical reactions that create acid in paper. And, of course, humidity works in league with mold and mildew.
Shield: Storage in waterproof containers. Climate control of humidity. Zero humidity is not good for paper. You want about 50% humidity, allowing for some leeway of about 10% in either direction.
Description: Light is an old enemy of art, fabrics, skin — you name it. The most energetic and damaging is ultraviolet light, the wavelength that causes sunburn. Certain fluorescent lights emit ultraviolet.
Power: Light causes fading of comic book colors and causes discoloration of paper. Some comics have a condition called a “dust shadow,” a dark strip along the edges of comics stored in stacks where a portion of the cover was not covered by the comic immediately above it. The “dust shadow” is not caused by dust but by exposure to light and air.
Description: Air pollution includes particles, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and ozone. But as far as paper is concerned, a most destructive “pollutant” is oxygen. Ironically, oxygen, the gas we need to stay alive, slowly kills comics.
Power: Air damages paper in multiple ways, over long periods of time. Since comics are typically stacked, their outer edges show the effects of exposure to air, even if they have been stored in the dark.
Shield: Anything that prevents air from making contact with comics: A bag, a box, an airtight container. Comics wrapped only in paper for decades have been preserved in near mint condition. There is a myth that comics need to “breathe.” They don’t. However, sealing comics away from air is not enough to halt deterioration.
Description: With few exceptions, heat accelerates chemical processes, in some cases, dramatically.
Power: Heat destroys paper by speeding up processes already underway. Oxidation is sped up by heat, and so is acidification. Heat, in combination with humidity, is used by the Library of Congress to simulate accelerated time for aging paper. Heat makes time go faster for paper. Heat is a destroyer of paper. At Fahrenheit 451, as noted by Ray Bradbury, paper burns. At lower temperatures, paper deteriorates less rapidly but still it “burns.”
Shield: Cool temperatures.
The number one threat to comics?
Description: A byproduct of comic deterioration is acid. This acid creates a vicious cycle that breaks down paper, releasing more acid.
Power: The power of acid to destroy paper from within is legendary. Paper otherwise protected from all other threats, including mothers, slowly dies. Pulp paper is especially acidic. Paper made mostly from rags, a common practice in the time of the American Revolution, survives better than pulp paper. Modern acid-free paper lasts. But pulp paper dies. It is the cause of the “brittle book” problem in libraries. It is the slow fire that consumes comic books.
Shield: There is no perfect shield against internal acid. Comics can be treated, at significant expense, to remove the acid. There are acid-free cardboard backer boards treated with alkaline substances that react with acid, at least the acid that comes into direct contact. There are acid-free comic boxes. At least acid-free backer boards and boxes do not contribute to the acidic environment. But they do not stop comics from eating themselves from the inside out. When you smell an old comic, you are smelling acid.
The Iron Clad Comics system is an economical combination of mechanical and chemical shields that counteract every one of these threats, excluding mothers. Bottom line it removes oxygen from comics while adding molecular traps for acidic gases.
The Iron Clad Comics System
1) The Box
The system begins with the ultimate comic book storage box. The S.A.W. or “fat fifty” surplus ammo box is the perfect size for storing Silver Age comic books. Especially important is that the box has an airtight rubber gasket seal. The ammo box plus shipping is by far the single most expensive component of the Iron Clad Comics system. If it preserve $25 worth of value for a stack of comics, it has paid for itself.
2) Oxygen Absorbers
Combined with the S.A.W ammo box, oxygen absorbers generate a nearly pure nitrogen atmosphere. The absence of oxygen slows acid formation.
3) Microchamber Paper
This the the special paper that is inserted between the cover and the pages when a comic is graded and “slabbed” by CGC. Microchamber paper is a zeolite molecular trap filled with microscopic pores that absorb acid gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. I use multiple sheets in high value comics, always with a sheet between covers and pages.
4) Backer Boards and Mylar Bags
To store Silver Age comics I use oversized (Golden Age) mylar sleeves and acid-free backer boards. Oversized sleeves and boards reduce the risk of damage during insertion, protect edges and spines. The combo deal below gets you 50 Gerber Mylite heavy-duty Fullback acid-free backer boards in combination with 50 2-mil Mylite mylar bags. Poly bags are cheaper but deteriorate over time. The thick backer board prevents flex which can damage comic spines.
I personally prefer the more expensive 4-mil Gerber Archives Golden Age-size sleeves due to the extra stiffness and lack of a flap which makes bagging easier. Given that the Iron Clad Comics system creates its own atmosphere, an open top is not an issue. I use them in combo with the Golden Age-size Gerber Fullbacks.
Here’s the Iron Clad Comics process.
- Begin by inserting the microchamber paper interleaved between comic pages. Use a letter opener to gently lift the cover and pages. Wash the oil off your hands before handling comics. Rubber gloves are another option. If the microchamber paper sticks out under the cover that offers additional mechanical support for the all-important edges. Don’t jam the paper too far into the spine except in the very center of the comic.
- Center the comic on a backer board and carefully slide into the mylar sleeve. Hold up the flap to make sure the book clears without snagging. Push in the backerboard, not the comic, which should ride along. Gently tap the bottom of the mylar sleeve on a surfce to seat the board and comic securely.
- Load the bagged and boarded comics into the steel ammo box. Pick a day when the humidity is low or run the air conditioner. Experts disagree on the precise optimal humidity for paper conservation but low humidity is good and the goal is between 30% and 50%.
- A fairly tight loading reduces the possibility of mechanical damage when the box is moved, reduces the total air, and makes the system more economical by storing more comics per box. I put in a few sheets of microchamber paper between the sides of the box and the comics. Loose Microchamber paper helps trap gases from the most acidic comics in the shared atmosphere.
- When the box is loaded the final stage is to add the oxygen absorbers. Do this fairly quickly after removing the oxygen absorbers from their sealed package. Store unused oxygen absorbers sealed back in their package in a spare ammo box. How many? You can carefully calculate the volume of the ammo box in cubic centimeters or just put in a handful of, say, 10 (they’re cheap). I place the oxygen absorbers on top of a piece of microchamber paper.
- Seal the ammo box. You’re done! Store the box in a cool place, not an attic. High temperatures are bad for comics and temperature changes are a negative for paper storage. The steel box acts as something of a thermal sink that smooths out temperature changes. On hot days you may hear the boxes flexing. That’s actually a reassuring sound because it’s proof that the rubber seal is holding tight.
What’s happening to my comics?
You will hear the rubber-sealed ammo box flex as the oxygen is removed and the internal pressure drops by 21%. Our atmosphere consists of Nitrogen – 78 percent. Oxygen – 21 percent. Argon – 0.93 percent. The gases left in the box are much less reactive than oxygen. That’s the secret of the Iron Clad Comics technique.
When you open an Iron Clad Comics box, you will hear the hiss of pressure as the box regains normal atmospheric pressure and ordinary air enters. You may notice that your comics have a fresher smell due to the microchamber paper. Make sure to add more oxygen absorbers before you re-close the box.
An oxygen absorber is nothing more than a packet of very fine iron particles — iron dust — that react with oxygen to form iron oxide, also known as rust. During this exothermic process the oxygen absorbers heat up and water condensation forms on their exteriors. That’s why I put oxygen absorbers on top of a piece of microchamber paper.
The iron powder of the oxygen absorbers in combination with the steel ammo box inspired the name Iron Clad Comics.
Since the total volume of gas is reduced by 21% and water vapor is not absorbed, the humidity must increase commensurately. I’ve been known to toss in a few silica gel packets depending on the initial humidity. They are cheap.
There you have it. I hope you try the Iron Clad Comics storage system!