Out of the Vault – Paper and Ink

Late post coming in, not to talk about any specific comic, but about the changes in the physical product since I started buying comics in the late 1960’s. When I was a kid, comics were still considered a throwaway product. Every now and then, you had a story in the news about someone selling a copy of Action # 1 or Marvel Mystery Comics #1 at exorbitant prices, but there were three reasons the prices were so high.

First, most people threw comics away when they got tired of them, so there were few copies of those early comics still remaining.

And second, comics were flimsy items. Every time you read a comic, you imparted creases to the cover and loosened the cover against the staples holding it on. Storing comics flat crushed the folded sheets in one direction or the other, causing “spine roll.” Even the oil from skin could discolor pages and pull ink off covers.

And third, to keep costs down, comics were printed on cheap, acidic pulp paper, which was not durable in the least. So even if you didn’t throw your comics away, and kept them upright in plastic bags and acid-free boxes, they would still disintegrate over time.

When I do the scans for Out of the Vault, I color-correct almost every image to compensate for faded inks and yellowed paper.And no matter how gently I handle them, some of the oldest comics feel like they’re just disintegrating in my hands as I lay them on the scanner.

For instance, here’s a raw scan of a Superboy page from 1972 featuring pencils by the underrated Bob Brown (who was supplanted by Dave Cockrum as related in last week’s Out of the Vault) with inks by Murphy Anderson. This comic is 40 years old and showing its age. Cover price: 25 cents, soon to be reduced to 20 as they dropped back-up features and reduced the page count.

In the mid- to late 1980’s, both Marvel and DC began using brighter, less acidic paper, along with replacing their printing presses. The first results of this change were garish and awful, but eventually they worked out the bugs. The new paper and new presses made the product cost more, but also made the books more durable.

Here’s the raw scan of a scene from Legends #5, in which John Byrne and John Ostrander make fun of Marvel’s New Universe character, Star Brand (who was considered by some to be a simple rip-off of Green Lantern). Cover price: 75 cents (triple the price of the comic from 14 years earlier).

Not only are the colors brighter, but the book will likely survive longer, because of the lower acid content in the paper.

Next, we see a much more modern comic, Image’s Firebreather #4 from April 2003. See how bright and vibrant everything is. It’s not just the difference of 30 years, but also a result of Firebreather being printed on heavy, glossy paper stock with high-quality printing techniques. In another 30 years, there is no way the Firebreather comic will be as fragile and faded as the Superboy comic is now.

But that vibrancy and durability comes at a cost. The cover price for Firebreather? $2.95, almost 12 times the cost of that Superboy comic from 30 years earlier. And prices have only continued to increase since then.

And see, here’s the thing. When I was a teenager, I wished comics would get more respect and better treatment. I remember thinking how awesome it would be if DC and Marvel comics could be printed with the same expense and attention to detail as Heavy Metal magazine was. Teens today have what I could only dream of then: glossy, high-quality stock, expensive printing with amazing computerized coloring effects.

But when I was a kid, I could have bought Marvel’s entire line off the stands every month for the price of two comics today. And I’m not saying the changes in the market are entirely bad, but the changes in the price and the product reflect a fundamental shift in the market itself, what the product is and who it’s marketed to. And I’m kind of sad that my 11-year-old daughter can’t share that experience with me, of running to the corner store with a dollar and coming out with a soda and two or three comics to while away the afternoon.

God, now I feel so old.

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