This article the first out of two parts about comic books and their conservation written by Eliane Gomes for iBookBinding. This time Eliane talks about collecting comics and the next part will cover the aspects of comic book conservation. To find the second chapter please click here.
Old books tell lots of stories and often have sentimental value. They also offer a challenge for conservators. But what about comics? They are no exception.
Many still have their beloved books from the age of bedtime stories. There is an emotional attachment to them, a certain nostalgia. I particularly love restoring children’s books and comics. However, it is a big responsibility as you are dealing with the profound emotions placed in these objects. Moreover, when it comes to comic books, there is much more to consider, and that’s not a child’s play.
Comics belong to the category called “ephemera.” And that’s a very special task for a conservator to deal with them.
Photo credit: “A turma da Mônica”- by Maurício de Souza (Brazil)
“Ephemera (singular: ephemeron) are any transitory written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek ephemeros, meaning “lasting only one day, short-lived”. Some collectible ephemera are advertising trade cards, airsickness bags, bookmarks, catalogues, greeting cards, letters, pamphlets, postcards, posters, prospectuses, defunct stock certificates or tickets, and zines.” (Wikipedia)
The Growing Presence of Comics
During my childhood, comic books were a kids’ thing. Nowadays, people not only save the old ones but collect them. I have my own modest selection ranging from new graphic novels to some old stories.
Before the 1970’s the trade in this niche-market had no specialized outlets. Nowadays you will encounter highly diversified businesses and shops, auction houses, websites, blogs, fairs, parties, and professional companies in charge of grading the physical condition of the comics; which determines the commercial value.
Just to give you an idea, in The Netherlands where I live, every two years, the “Stripdagen” happens in Haarlem, one of the largest comic books fair in North Europe which lasts up to 10 days. There are other similar events in the country: Strip Festival Breda, Dutch Comic-Con in Utrecht, and many other.
Comic books’ themes are eclectic: Donald Duck, Kuifje (TinTin), Tom Poes, superheroes, graphic novels, horror, sci-fi, erotica, etc. I have seen unbelievably beautiful art in some of them!
Indeed, “ephemera” is a serious business and you will find comic books in the collections of many important libraries like the Royal Dutch Library (Koninklijke Bibliotheek). In 2014 Meermanno Museum in The Hague, organized an exhibition focused on comic books and story-telling.
In Japan, comics are called manga, and they continue to influence art, cinema, video games, and other media. The exhibition “Cool Japan” organized by the Volkskundemuseum in Leiden (2017) and later at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam (2018) had a whole part dedicated to that influence.
In Groningen, north of the Netherlands, there is also a museum dedicated to this art form.
When you are dealing with comic books, the value of a vintage collectible is not the only factor. They are objects of art and witnesses of the epoch when they were produced. Comic books reflect a lot of the current popular culture, underground movements, graphic aesthetics and more.
Their impact is more profound than it may seem to a bystander, including their part in our psychological development1 and their influence on the virtual games’ industry. Let’s not forget all the movies based on comics!
The comics’ community has their glossary regarding comics book eras, parts of a comic book and a comic encyclopedia. I personally really like the Comiclopedia2 from Lambiek in Amsterdam. On their website, one finds a fantastic overview of the development and different eras of the comics’ industry, history, artists, and styles.
Some Trading and Collecting Aspects
Price of the first and rare editions can reach astonishing levels, but this market is not as clear and straightforward as the old books market has become in the recent decades. Let me illustrate the issue with this extract from the article from Comic Alliance, by Matt D. Wilson on February 24, 2014:
“The oldest surviving piece of original Superman art sold at auction for US$286,800. The cover to 1932’s Tintin in America, drawn by Tintin (Kuifje) creator Hergé, is the most expensive piece of comics art ever sold, at US$1.6 million.
A far more recent piece of art, Todd McFarlane’s cover to the 1990 issue Amazing Spider-Man #328 (that’s the one where Spidey is smashing the grey Hulk into a wall) sold for $675,250 in 2012.”
A large grading company will have a team of in-house “restoration detectives” able to spot alterations to the original work. These companies are established businesses with quite some influence on the trading market. They have their glossaries and terminology regarding comic books and their condition levels.
Graded comics generally come in a transparent acrylic holder. It is sealed and has a label attached. Their purpose is to protect the collectible from outer destructive agents and guarantee the authenticity of the object inside. It is purely, for commercial purposes. If you want to read it and admire its artwork, you must find a reading copy. I will talk about the acrylic holders in the next part of the article. Losing the grading will have a significant impact on the commercial value of the book. These industry players have a lot of influence in the trading practices.
Many specialized comic book’s shops will also be able to determine the value of your collectibles.
Comic Books’ Conservators and Traders: Worlds Colliding!
Comic books traders have a bit of a negative view on restoration and conservation work. Comics’ commercial value rules! It is not uncommon to find a certain comic book in poor condition being sold for more than one with some restoration work done. There is also a lot of misunderstanding regarding restoration and conservation work for this kind of books.
The conservation community is in constant interaction (not always smooth) with other disciplines and even other industries, re-evaluating actual procedures and learning new methods. The restoration practices common for the ’80s are no longer in use, for example. There is no easy way to say it, but one may get an impression that the comic books trading industry is using the old definitions regarding conservation work. Via the CGC website and their classification of what they consider to be conservation and restoration work, and what materials are to be used it clearly shows that the dialogue stopped a long time ago.
I have checked the CGC Comics restoration grading scale3, and I would like to mention the article on comics by Alice Cannon, conservator: “To conservators, this seems like reinventing the wheel. As conservator Tracey Heft writes: “[There are] definition[s] adopted and used by museums and museum professionals all over the world… it continues to amaze me that people are still trying to “alter” the definition to fit their situation.” (Heft 12/5/2006).”
We all work with certain parameters, but they are not written in stone, and we need to constantly review them, in view of best practices development. In Europe conservators and restorers will follow a Code of Ethics4 and according to ICOM-CC (International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation), conservation has different areas and each one a different application. Therefore, within conservation, you will have preventive conservation, remedial conservation, and restoration5.
At the same time, professional restoration and conservation services are not cheap and decrease profit margins for traders. It would be a pity to let a book go to ashes and not having it undergo a conservation treatment for the sake of trading. As a restorer and comics admirer (collector), I sincerely wish for more dialogue between trading and conservation. There is a great and a bit lengthier article written by Alice Cannon: “The conservation and display of comic books”6 – AICCM: Contemporary Collections State Library of Victoria – Melbourne 2006. (see references)
There are some other common practices and aspects of preserving comic books that are not at all good from the conservator’s point of view. This subject will be covered in the next part of the article.
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- Kraska, Jake – “The psychology of comic books: Why we worship superheroes” August 3, 2015, Art & Popular Culture, Issue 1 – http://www.lateralmag.com/articles/issue-1/i-need-a-hero-why-were-wired-to-worship-superheroes
- Lambiek Comix en Strips Amsterdam – Comiclopedia: https://www.lambiek.net/dutchcomics/1800.htm
- CGC restoration grading scale https://www.cgccomics.com/news/article/4084/
- European Confederation of Conservators-Restorer’s Organizations Code of Ethics http://www.ecco-eu.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ECCO_professional_guidelines_II.pdf
- For the definitions of each of the terms, please access this webpage: http://www.icom-cc.org/242/about/terminology-for-conservation/#.XEMqdFxKiUk
- Cannon, Alice: “The conservation and display of comic books” – AICCM : Contemporary Collections State Library of Victoria – Melbourne 2006 – https://aiccm.org.au/sites/default/files/docs/NatConf_2007/Cannon_NatConf2007.pdf