That Ol' Comic Book Smell

By | Thursday, October 25, 2012 1 comment
You know the smell I'm talking about, right? That old book smell. It comes from the paper decaying with age, particularly the chemicals used in making the paper in the first place. The cheap newsprint often used in older comics decays quickly because there's a pretty high acid content in the paper -- acid that was used in helping to break down the wood so that it could be pressed flat as sheet. Here's a two-minute video from AbeBooks that gets a little more into the chemical process...
But why, then, do newer comics smell differently?

A couple of reasons actually. First, and most obviously, they're newer and thus haven't had time to start to decay yet. Secondly, publishers tend to use a higher quality paper than they used to. The higher quality comes from less acid being used in the paper's production. Of course, this comes with a higher price tag, which is part of where many of the price hikes that really began in the 1980s come from.

Third, and perhaps least obvious, is that the paper the comics are printed on are given a coating. When comics used to be printed on cheap newsprint, the ink was placed right on the paper. The paper then absorbed some of the ink, and it would spread through the porous material. So even new comics back then looked a little fuzzy, since the ink would bleed away from where it was initially put. In more recent years, the paper has been given a thin non-porous coating so that the ink technically never touches the paper; it sits on top of this coating just above the paper. Because the coating is non-porous, the ink doesn't have anything to bleed into and looks more crisp. So we can see more detail and get brighter colors.

The coating that's used is generally a substance called kaolin. The name is derived from Kao-ling, a village in China where the substance was found in abundance. Because of this location, that's why it's also sometimes called China Clay.

Yes, clay. As in, the same type of stuff you made that ashtray out of in grade school. It's a slightly different type of clay, and typical has a whiter appearance, which adds to the crisp look of the paper that it's coating.

But it's still clay, and still smells like clay. So, now, if you open a long box of mostly newer comics, it smells more like a pottery than a library.
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Jeff said...

I think that DC did a pretty good job with their Wednesday Comics publication a few years ago - it was printed on newsprint, but they kept the colors from bleeding and diffusing into the surrounding areas. I wonder if that was just because of newer, better, more accurate technology, or if they did something else to the paper before or after the printing occurred.