It’s one thing to have an inventory of what you’ve collected. It’s quite another to take care of your collection. Collection care can involve bagging, boarding, boxing—and even more.
Some challenges are easier to deal with today than they were in the past. Around 1950, my mom made gifts that consisted of a number of homemade “storage bags”: pockets made by trimming cellophane (or was it Pliofilm?), folding it, and then sealing the results with an iron. Hefty, Ziploc, Baggies, Glad, and, of course, Mylar—none of those protections were available for comics in the Golden Age. In fact, those of us who collected comic books for frequent rereading in the 1940s had limited storage options. Mom and Dad made a sort of comic book binder out of black matting board “bound” with “plastic-coated,” “self-stik,” “cloth”—Mystik Tape—and they’d then use rubber bands through each copy’s stapled centerspread to “bind” the issue into the holder. As you can imagine, those binders were not particularly gentle to the comics—but it protected them moderately well and kept series together.
Mind you, Walt Kelly’s Peter Wheat bread-premium comics offered a special challenge, because they didn’t have glossy cover stock as an extra protection. And more than one story was part of a serial. So Mom solved it the way book publishers did: She made each issue into its own sewn signature and bound the lot into its own volume.
That’s how it was. The Golden Age comics that bring biggest bucks today are those that—unlike my comics—were put away after one reading (or less), untouched, in one or another form of dark, dry, cool storage. The few Golden Age comics I still own from those early days suffered different treatment. They were much loved, much handled—and much damaged.
Moreover, even by the mid-1950s, there was no easy way to access comics without damaging them. To this day, I recall showing a friend a copy of EC’s MD—and cringing when the cover split up the spine as my friend opened the issue. Plus, I kept my comics standing on my bookshelf like other magazines: upright. Every time I took a copy out or replaced it, the cover scratched the other covers ever so slightly as it pushed and pulled against its neighbors.
Then, as time went on and comics collectors began to contact each other, they started to use plastic bags to store their magazines; a few manufacturers began to customize the bags to fit the different sizes of comics. And comic books turned out to be relatively easy to store that way compared to some other collected material. For example, the pulp magazines that provided the first story of such classics as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan (The All-Story, Oct. 1912) and Johnston McCulley’s Zorro (All-Story Weekly, Aug. 6, 1919) usually survive today only in tattered form. A look at the covers of the Fall 1947 and the Fall 1948 Planet Stories reveal a few of the disadvantages of the pulp magazine format. The pages and covers were untrimmed, and covers overlapped the pulp paper interiors, bending, creasing, and tearing. Some collectors actually cut the untrimmed pages. Some (shudder) reinforced the fraying cover edges with tape.
(Why would anyone care to preserve these issues? After all, judging from the covers, the most important contents of those two Planet Stories issues were clearly tales by Emmett McDowell, Erik Fennel, Vaseleos Garson, Bryce Walton, A.A.O. Gilmour, and Basil Wells. But, as it happens, that 1947 issue contains the first printing of the classic Ray Bradbury tale “Zero Hour,” and the 1948 issue includes the first printing of his similarly classic “Mars Is Heaven.” But it’s unlikely you’ll find any copy of either issue with a pristine cover.)
Comics, books and magazines are not, of course, the only creations that people collect today. Wax cylinders, Edison discs, shellacs, LP records, a variety of tape configurations, picture discs: Preserving each sound-recording format has its challenges. (I recall hearing of the horror experienced by a Cleveland collector of long-playing records; he had a “minor” house fire in the 1970s. The fire was quickly brought under control, and there seemed to be little damage. But the heat had been enough to seal his expensive plastic record liners to the discs. That was the end of his collection.)
Books, records, cards, original art, comics, or magazines—paper storage is all about the plastic. (Following a flood several years ago at the Eclipse Comics offices, cat yronwode commented that plastic bags had been more important to her collection than insurance.) Plastic lets collectors handle treasures with the least damage, even while it provides a barrier to bugs, dust, and jammy hands. And collectors whose focus is on investment, rather than rereading, even go after a third-party grading service for their most precious items so as to establish and maintain the finest condition.
Collectors began to increase protection of their comics by inserting specially cut cardboard into the bags. And, once bagged and boarded, comics could be clearly identified by labeling the bags, writing on the labels what would damage the comics if written on the cover.
(By the way, people who love books and reading are sometimes called “bookworms”—and Googling the term brings up word games, readers’ groups, and the like. There was even a British comics character (a boy who loved to read) that appeared in Fleetway’s Whoopee! in the 1980s. Chances are that most modern comics collectors have never even seen the damage caused by a real bookworm. After all, a plastic bag will keep the paper safe from the assortment of paper-chomping larvae that can otherwise tunnel through precious pages.)
Then, it’s just a matter of keeping comics away from the enemies of paper, from aging newsprint to shiny coated stock: heat, light, moisture, air, and acid. Each of those will activate chemical changes that attack the fragility of paper. And most of us also opt for putting our comics in boxes.
Don and I used to store some of our comics and other magazines in so-called “chicken boxes”: waterproofed cardboard boxes used to ship frozen chicken to grocery stores. As I recall, it was comics historian and artist Craig Yoe who called our attention to those devices, which were sturdy and easy to label, stack, and move. But in the case of boxes, too, specialized cases designed specifically for comic books and comics magazines became standard from sources of collectibles supplies. Collectors today can easily check catalogs and online listings for what will best serve their purposes. (I encourage you to keep in mind that so-called “longboxes” are not designed for easy lifting when filled with comics packed tightly. Hernias are no fun.)
Bags, boards, and boxes are part of the standard arsenal used by those who are determined to protect their collections. Insurance, secure storage sites, and similar considerations are bonuses for some, but almost all of today’s comics buffs look to plastic and boxes for peace of mind.
A variant form of boxing used to be widely used, and librarians around the country still mourn the loss of “Magafiles” (U.S. Pat. No. 2337607) made by The Magafile Co. of St. Louis. They haven’t been available for many years; we began buying ours more than three decades ago. But note: Patents are granted for a limited term. Utility patent rights are usually for up to 17 years from the granting of the patent; design patent rights are for up to 14 years from the granting of the patent. All of which is to say that (to my nonlegal mind) anyone should be able to construct these magazine files. There are probably still librarians out there who would love the opportunity to put their documents in these holders. (We stored our Silver Age comics in files size 4D—but they came in a variety of holders.) The design meant the files could safely store one comic book or many on ordinary bookshelves. Come on, folks! Who out there will be the first to bring back this sort of comics boxes?
No matter what, though, the motto for collectors might be: Just in case, encase!
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month on Toucan!