Bag, Board, And Slab: Why You Can't Talk About Collecting Comics Without Invoking the Grim Spectre o : Monkey See Comic book collectors go to some great lengths to preserve their books. Some great, deeply weird lengths.
NPR logo Bag, Board, And Slab: Why You Can't Talk About Collecting Comics Without Invoking the Grim Spectre o

Bag, Board, And Slab: Why You Can't Talk About Collecting Comics Without Invoking the Grim Spectre o

The problem with preservation: This comic book recently brought a pretty penny, but at what cost do collectors court collectible prices? DC Comics hide caption

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DC Comics

On Monday, a copy of Action Comics #1 — the 1938 comic featuring the first appearance of Superman — sold for just over $317K in an online auction.

Most news reports couldn't resist the story's warm 'n' fuzzy aspects, of which admittedly there were a lot, including:

1. The seller purchased the comic in question back when he was nine.

2. At a secondhand shop.

3. In the early 50's.

4. For 35 cents.

But fewer noted this drier, vaguely bookkeeperish detail:

5. Only about 100 copies of the book are known to exist, in any condition.

Now, details 1-4 are potent stuff indeed; I get that. Reading them, you can't help but imagine a barefoot, tow-headed youth proudly sauntering out of the local malt shop with his new purchase, shoving it deep into the back pocket of his overalls — next to the slingshot — and joining his friends for a game of, let's say, marbles. Gee (you perhaps think to yourself) whillikers.

That more mundane, only-100-copies-in-existence detail? Well, it just doesn't have any of the same nostalgic, human interest, Dennis the Menace juice. Comparatively speaking, it's pure Mr. Wilson.

But it's really the entire point. It's the fact that so few copies exist that makes a $317K auction price possible. (Note, please, that I said possible, not understandable. Because, really people, $317,200? That noise is B-A-N-A-N-A-S.)

The other thing that makes it possible: The fact that the cohort of comic book collectors is essentially a deep turbid salty ocean of serious OCD.

After the jump: The collector's Sisyphean effort to seal his comics away forever in a safe, protected, unchanging and completely airless environment, which is not, like, symbolic or anything, and you really shouldn't go looking for any larger emotional truth about comics collectors anywhere in that. Because you won't find one. Because it's not there. So just shut up.

On the notion of comics-as-investment, I am on record as being on the Bad Idea Jeans side of the question. Color me dubious (yellow).

But even the collector with a clear-eyed understanding that his prized issue of Batman vs. Predator will never be worth much of anything will still dutifully bag it, board it, and store it away for later. Such is the depth and breadth and height that the collector's crazy can reach.

Bag and Board: The process of sliding a given comic into a thin clear plastic sleeve (to keep the book's paper from turning yellow and brittle from oxidation), inserting a sturdy sheet of acid-free cardboard (to keep the book from getting bent) and storing it away in an (acid-free!) cardboard box called a longbox (to keep the comics organized and away from direct sunlight.)

If it all seems a bit fussy: Well, yeah. But bagging and boarding is the norm, in funnybook circles. Some shops even sell their books already sealed in the bag, which is really taking the whole "This ain't a library, kid" thing a bit far.

And then there's slabbing.

Slabbing is the process of submitting a given book to a company that grades the book's condition on a scale of 1 to 10, and then .... well, I'll let the company explain:

After [a] comic has been graded ... [it is] taken from the Grading Department into the Encapsulation Department.....The comic is now ready to be fitted inside an archival-quality interior well, which is then sealed within a transparent capsule, along with the book's color-coded label. This is accomplished through a combination of compression and ultrasonic vibration.

Got that? People pay a sizable chunk of change to have their book sealed up forever (using SCIENCE!) inside a space-age polymer, thus ensuring that it will never again be touched by human hands, much less opened.

Or, heaven forfend, actually read.

Now granted, only hardcore collectors avail themselves of this process. People like the guy who just sold that issue of Action Comics #1 on Monday. Turns out Dennis the Menace grew up and got his book slabbed before putting it up for auction.

(In case you were wondering, that $317,200 comic? Had been given a pre-auction rating of 6.0 out of 10, or merely "Fine." The thing had scribbles on it!)

The company keeps track of the books it processes; According to their records, about 38 of the 100-or-so issues of Action Comics #1 have already been through this deeply, deeply weird procedure.

... I guess this is as good a time as any for a dose of full disclosure: I, your faithful comic-book blogger, neither bag nor board.

And slabbing a comic book makes about as much sense, to me, as electroplating ice cream.

Because I've never thought of myself as a comics collector. Me, I read.

What's more, I'm downright ungentle about it: I fold the covers of comics back on themselves. I crinkle pages, bend books to fit into coat pockets, crease corners to hold my place, and I do all this without a second thought. Which is to say: I treat comics like the periodicals they are.

And when I'm done I stuff the battered books under the bed, cram 'em into a desk drawer, or shove 'em in a closet.

What I don't do, however — what I can't bring myself to do — is toss them.

Not because I have any hope that they'll be worth anything someday — I know they won't. It's because I, like every lover of comics everywhere ever, envision a day in the not-too-distant future when I'll be able to bring them all out from wherever I've squirreled them, smooth their wrinkles, blow off the dust bunnies and reread them, all of them, for long, blissful, uninterrupted hours at a time.

It's a strong, simple and abiding belief, and it's one I share with my more fastidious bagging-and-boarding brethren. And I know that when that joyous day finally arrives, their painstaking custodianship and Byzantine cataloging systems will ensure that they get a good head start on me. I'm cool with that.

Especially because, when that day does come, the only thing the slabbers will have to show for their efforts will be an impressive collection of small yet festively colorful lunch trays.