The above title sounds like a thrilling comic strip story from ĎThe Victorí or Ď2000ADí. I wish it was. But unfortunately, this is a real threat, that is already here and itís threatening comics everywhere. The threat is acid deterioration of the paper our comics have been printed on. Depending on how the comics have been stored over the years, today they could be stained brown in patches, torn, brittle and possibly smelly. A report by the British Library on acid deterioration of paper explains how this situation has come about.
ĎThe core constituent of paper manufactured before the onset of the Industrial Revolution was rag fibre. However, even though the final product was successful, the processing of rag fibre was costly and generally small scale. The supply of rags for papermaking became insufficient to meet the demands for paper brought about by rapid population growth and increasing literacy during the second half of the 19th Century.
With the increased output potential of industrial machinery and the developing knowledge of the use of a wider range of chemicals, a major change in the approach to paper manufacture took place. This change was to seriously affect the finished product. Wood pulp, literally macerated tree fibre, was chosen as a more widely available source material. A range of chemical treatments were incorporated to process the raw fibre - to encourage it to break-up, and to ensure the smoothness and colour of the finished product. Chemical wood pulp, as it became known, was produced from both hardwood and softwood chips.
It is true to say that the benefit of cheaper and much more widely available printed material, was immediately felt by the consumer, and contributed to the spread of knowledge in the industrial society. This cultural change was to significantly increase the scale of the acid paper problem.
Unfortunately, a combination of the inherently unstable chemical composition of the wood pulp fibre, plus the further chemicals added to the paper making process, all conspired to affect the long-term potential of the product and kick started this cycle of decay. Once this new paper product was exposed to light, heat, poor storage conditions and the high levels of Sulphur Dioxide pollution produced by the industrial age, the process of decay was accelerated.
The naturally deteriorating compounds within the paper structure then started to react to synthesise acids. In turn these acids started to work on the paper fibres, already shortened and weakened by the production process. The result is a discolouration of the paper (a darkening brown), and an embrittled quality to the sheet (or page). Even careful handling causes further deterioration and the material soon becomes unusable. Unchecked, this chemical deterioration continues until the sheet is completely destroyed, leaving only a pile of brown flakes.
From (Mass Deacidification Feasibility Project Report : February 2001) British Library.
What is Conservation?
Extract from the ECCO Professional Guidelines I ( 2002); The Definition of the Profession.
'Preventive Conservation consists of indirect action to retard deterioration and prevent damage by creating conditions optimal for the preservation of cultural heritage as far as is compatible with its social use. Preventive conservation also encompasses correct handling, transport, use, storage and display. It may also involve issues of the production of facsimiles for the purpose of preserving the original.'
Methods of conservation
There are various methods of conserving paper print for example, anti-fungi spray, but they are all expensive and probably well beyond most readers and collectors wallets. So what if anything can we do as individuals to help preserve our comics? Various methods have been tried over the years for example,
Scanning of comic pages
Unfortunately, this is only a short term move, because of electronic storage advances. In five years time todayís electronic storage format maybe an obsolete storage medium.
"We donít know that digitisation is a preservation medium. We know that it improves access, but we donít know that it is a medium of permanence. We must be cautious and preserve originals first."
(Andrea Hinding, Professor and Curator of the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota, USA).
The good news though is that the British Library hold and conserve complete runs of many British comics from the 19th and 20th centuries. Please visit the British Library's website, comic collection for further information.
How to conserve your comicís life span. (compiled from various sources found on the web)
There is no self-adhesive tape currently available which is archival. Avoid all self-adhesive tapes as these will often fail or stain, and the adhesive becomes difficult to remove later. Old-fashioned brown-gummed paper is a more viable alternative as this remains reversible over a long period of time. If in doubt, or the work is of value to you, consult a paper conservator.
Never wrap rubber bands around the comics as the bands will dry out and stick to the paper, causing further damage.
Do not use paper clips to keep loose pieces of paper together.
NEVER glue or tape items on the page. Bugs love to eat glue and tape.
Comics should be stored in acid free enclosures, either paper or card, or Melinex (a clear polyester film).
Good housekeeping. Choose storage locations which minimize exposure of newspapers to dampness, heat, air pollutants, dust, insects and vermin.
Store the newspapers above the floor, to avoid damage from unexpected water.
Wear cotton gloves when handling all items. Oil and grease from your fingers can damage your comics.
Use acid free containers for storage. Make sure all envelopes, folders, boxes, and photo album pages are labelled ďAcid Free.Ē Even acid free paper may contain lignin, which over time will cause deterioration. A better choice is paper that is both acid free and lignin free.
Encapsulate photos and precious documents in mylar or polyester envelopes. Make sure the containers do NOT contain PVC (Poly Vinyl Chlorides).
Make copies by scanning or photocopying. The backup copies will keep the originals from damage and are quite valuable in the event of a disaster. But also keep in mind the points regarding the scanning of pages at the beginning of this article.
What are the brown spots on my print/book?
These spots are usually referred to as foxing. This description was given to the phenomenon in the 18th century, as the colour of the spots was said to resemble the colour of a fox's brush. They are a type of mould, often caused by metallic impurities in the sheet due to manufacturing. Foxing is an indication that the paper is acidiy. It causes further acidity itself, which causes foxing to develop further.
Can I get rid of them?
Yes. Foxing can be substantially reduced on prints, drawings and watercolours as well as books. This needs to be undertaken by a professional paper conservator.
The British Library
(National Conservation Museum, Liverpool website.)
Oregon State Archives.
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Ball / Guard xover.
© Adrian Banfield, 2018.