When John Sindall talks about preserving comic books, he doesn’t mean so that your grandkids can read them. He means preserving them for the long future, 10,000 years from now, when you have to go back hundreds of generations to find anyone who’s ever heard of Batman.
Sindall is the sole force behind the “Q-Collection Comic Book Preservation Project,” which he runs out of his home in Concord. His goal is to preserve key comic books from the 1930s-1960s (the “Golden” and “Silver” ages of comic book production), which he says are rapidly deteriorating.
“Comic books are a part of our culture and heritage and they’re doomed, they’re absolutely doomed. Now is the time when something must be done,” Sindall says.
Preservation is a challenge for any kind of artifact—especially over the time scale Sindall has in mind—but the problem is acute with comic books.
Sindall explains that comic books have traditionally been printed on acidic, pulp paper, which reacts with oxygen, causing the pages to disintegrate in a span of decades. He collected comics as a child, but was motivated to begin the Q-Collection (so named because Sindall was living in Quincy at the time he started it) in 2001, a few years after he’d retired from an administrative career at Harvard University. That year, he acquired a 1939 New York World’s Fair Comic Book and was told by a restoration professional that he’d never be able to read it, because the pages were too brittle. Sindall realized that the same fate lay in store for all comics, even ones that had ostensibly been preserved.
“Even comics put into hard plastic are starting to fall apart,” he explains. “You need a vacuum. Otherwise, within 100 or 200 years, there will be no Golden Age or Silver Age comics that exist.”
Over the last decade, Sindall has worked on developing a better preservation method. After some trial and error, he settled on a laminating process that uses five-millimeter, UV-resistant Mylar. He removes the individual pages from the bound comic books with a cutting machine made in Germany, and then laminates them with the Mylar. The laminate melts right into the fibers of the comic, sealing the pages, while also keeping them supple enough to be flipped, just like an untreated comic.
Sindall has preserved 215 comics like this so far. He concentrates on acquiring comics with particular historical significance within the genre, like the first issue of a series, or the first appearance of an important new character. He has a 1939 Superman #1, a 1940 Batman #1, and the 1940 Detective Comics #38 in which Batman’s sidekick, Robin, is introduced, among many other titles that would stand out, even to non-enthusiasts. On his website, Sindall estimates his collection is worth over $4 million--that is, had he not covered it in melted plastic. His preservation method reduces the market value of the comics, but increases the odds that they’ll stick around and be read in the future, which is exactly what Sindall wants.
“I hate rich people that collect and never look at what they collect. There are very wealthy people driving the prices of these comics up for no reason. What I want to do is have all of these comics available to anyone [to read], for free.”
Sindall stores his laminated comics in plastic three-ring binders, which are hardly suitable for the millennia-long journey he envisions for them. He is currently working with a designer to create a more enduring vessel—a wooden binder that closes completely to the light and will be made out of three of the heartiest woods on earth, which he describes on his website as, “50,000 year old iridescent Kauri wood [from New Zealand], 1,200 [year-old] Alaskan cedar wood, and ancient desert-grown ironwood.”
He’s also looking for a permanent home for the Q-Collection. In 2011, he offered it to the Library of Congress, which already holds more than 100,000 comic books. His application was denied, he explains, because library personnel said they didn’t know how to maintain comic books that had been “plasticized.” Sindall plans to resubmit the Q-Collection to the Library of Congress this summer. Meanwhile, he has also approached the Comic and Animation Museum in China about displaying his collection there.
Even after Sindall's collection lodges in a museum, its long-term fate will still be uncertain. The most well-preserved artifacts still rely on conscientious stewards to carry them forward. Who would carry the Q-Collection out of the Library of Congress when it burns, or crumbles, or America is overtaken by robots, or we leave the earth altogether to live on another planet? 10,000 years is a long time. You'd almost have to have superhero powers yourself to make anything last that long.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.