To what extent should a comic book (or item) be restored; artifact integrity

This time around, I thought it interesting to examine the concept of artifact integrity in relation to comic collecting. This is a bit of a deviation from the "preservation" theme of the previous four columns, but I feel that such an investigation is both timely and relevant since an understanding of artifact integrity will ultimately lead to answering two difficult questions; when is it appropriate to restore a comic book and to what extent should a comic book be restored?

In the world of conservation (and related museum studies) the concept of "artifact integrity" is used to protect an object from any treatment(s) that will in some way alter it's current condition. The concept of "artifact integrity" governs the actions of the conservator and prevents the conservator from improving the aesthetic appearance of the object through needless or excessive treatment(s). Used interchangeably with "historic integrity", the term indicates that the item in question has a value that extends beyond the original and alludes to any changes or incidents that have occurred to an artifact since it's creation.

The addition of foreign elements such as pressure sensitive tape, writing on the document, or other similar blemishes might be considered as historically important as the object itself, since significant information about everyday usage, societal value and even ownership, can be gleaned from the extraneous material.

Consider the Mile High and Larson pedigree copies, two collections containing high grade examples of Golden Age comics, in some cases the best known copies in existence. Most of the covers on these books have been marked by their original owners, either with numerical codes or with a signature. These signatures have become increasingly important to people because they are now used to indicate authenticity (especially in the absence of a centralized ownership registry) and provide an additional clue to the distribution of comic books during the period. Removing the damage inflicted to these books would be unwise, not to mention irreparably harmful to the artifact's integrity.

There does come a time, however, when the need for conservation over-rides the historical integrity of the piece - especially if the document is degrading because of the addition of harmful substances (i.e tape or pen inks), poor storage or improper handling. Therefore, an item should ideally be restored when the condition of the object demands intervention. In the museum world, any major artifact is given a regular treatment in order to protect and preserve it for the use of future generations. The same might hold true for comic books, especially if the last few copies of a comic are in danger of being destroyed by the ravages of time.

However, names, miscellaneous writing, store stamps, date stamps and other non-threatening alterations and additions to the original condition of the comic book are removed daily. This is in addition to the removal of spine rolls and replacement of missing pieces. All of these changes (by previous owners) to the original comic book, have bestowed the item with an historical value that is of arguably more importance than any high grade restored copy could be - especially if high grade examples already exist.

As suggested earlier, information regarding the development of an object or it's usage by society, can be considered (by some) to be of greater historical importance than perhaps even the item itself. For this reason, books or collections that can be traced back to a single person or owner that in some way influenced the development of comic books themselves or the hobby of comic collecting, (either directly or indirectly), are gaining in popularity and consequently, value. "Ashcan's", comics used in court cases and file copies from the original publisher, all testify to the development of comic books as an art form, as well as the growth of a multi-million dollar industry.

Another example of artifact integrity can be provided by comics that were at one time possessed by Mr. Harvey T. Hollinger. An article (by Tim Hessee) printed in the then current Overstreet Price Guide (#12) goes on to tell of "Pop" Hollinger and his unique contribution to comic collecting and fandom during it's infancy. What makes the Hollinger story relevant to the concept of artifact integrity is the radical alteration of the original comic books through the addition of tape and re-stapling, which he termed "rebuilding" and Mr. Hollinger's development of an extensive mail-order system for used comic books in the late '30's and early 1940's.

While the story of Pop Hollinger is interesting in itself, his books have become an historical record of the period and of the burgeoning comic collector hobby. From a museological point of view, their characteristic evolution (while regarded as damage by most) is an irreplaceable testimony of the attitudes then current in society, and each one of his comics has an "historical integrity" that is arguably more important than the comic itself, even if the comic is a Walt Disney Comics and Stories #1, or an All Flash #1 or even an All Hero #1.

If all the evidence of Mr. Hollinger's treatments were removed, and the comic in question restored to it's original appearance, the integrity of the artifact would be violated. Once an object has undergone restoration, it's integrity is changed and the historical record represented by the artifact is destroyed or altered, perhaps forever.

While it is a major part of the conservator's job to carefully document the condition of an item before undertaking any treatment, this is not always the case. This documentation prevents the loss of information that might be considered extremely important at some time in the future and can be referred to (after treatment) in case there is a question about the history of the artifact, a reproduction of the original is desired or perhaps even aid in the return of the original back to it's previous condition.

There is a trend in all collectibles away from total restoration of an object especially as costs increase. Instead, consideration is being given to reproduction since after extensive restoration, a severely damaged object is basically re- created - leaving little of the original. Conservation and preservation of the original, in it's original state is another trend that seems to be developing. Restoration is then used as a technique to help reestablish "usability" to an item, so that it can be handled and manipulated without fear of total destruction. This also preserves a portion of the artifacts integrity, allowing the collectible to retain the elements that make it unique. In both cases, a balance is sought before restoration is to begin; restoring the item so that it can be used and appreciated by everyone, and at the same time - retain as much of the original as possible.

Restoration, is a complex issue, and like all things it has a time and a place when it should be done. Many feel it is important to also consider the preservation, for future generations, of the historical record that comics can provide in order to prevent the loss (perhaps forever) of valuable and relevant historical information. Alteration of the artifact's integrity becomes questionable when information about the object's past is in danger of being altered and/or lost forever and a choice must be made before restoration is to begin; what to keep and what to change.

By Tracey Heft

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