I Love the Smell of Old Comics in the Morning

By | Friday, March 19, 2021 4 comments
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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Billy Hogan said...

The first comic book store I went to as an adult had that smell. Even my son likes that smell. If it could be bottled as a perfume or cologne I would probably buy it.

Here you go...

Matt K said...

Huh. I was already aware that coated paper is made more or less with clay. (Someone's derisive reference years ago to "clay-coated sheets" stuck in my memory.) I had not considered that this would lend a fragrance. I tend to think of ink being the main component of how newly printed material smells…

Also, I'm pretty sure that fine-detail printing on uncoated paper is entirely possible with quality modern paper and printing. The key word probably being "quality." It has always struck me as counterintuitive that coated paper seems to be less expensive, but in addition to economies of scale, I can imagine that the overall cost of using a coating to permit fine-detail results is less than the costs of producing quality uncoated paper and printing.

A few of my long boxes are primarily newer comics and, if I take the top off after it's been on a while, you definitely get a distinctive clay odor. That's a large art of what prompted me to research/write this.

Cost-wise, I expect it's comparable to other industries. Chicken nuggets are cheaper than chicken breasts. Press board is cheaper than virgin pine. Leftover bits held together with glue and slathered with a superficially pleasing veneer are almost always going to be cheaper than a quality version its being substituted for, and the vast majority of people won't know (or perhaps care about) the difference.