Timothy Young | Essays

Comic Books and Inherent Vice

True story: Two summers ago, a neighbor and I joined forces to purge our homes of knick-knacks, old clothes, and materials for never-to-be-completed projects and held a tag sale. It was a major step, as both of us are dedicated collectors. The most difficult decision for me was to sell off some of my old comic books. Not the really old ones, mind you, but the utilitarian ones like Richie Rich, Little Dot, Little Lotta, along with various productions from the Walt Disney Company. In my youth, I read these like the daily paper: consuming and then quickly forgetting them. I haunted garage sales with my mother, who would allot me a couple of dollars for a stack of used comics. So, some thirty years later, I was shocked that hardly anyone even looked at the comics. I hawked them like a sideshow barker: “Five for a dollar! What a bargain!” But in the end, the only taker was a neighbor whose three-year-old daughter picked up a Mickey Mouse comic. As the mother moved to take it from her daughter’s hands, I intervened: “Take some! As many as you want, free!”

That child grew to so love Mickey Mouse that I brought her another batch of comics a week later. I was delighted that those bits of childhood time-wasting had found a younger audience. At the end of the summer, at our annual block party, I saw the mother again and asked her: “How are the comics holding up?” She smiled broadly and hesitated to answer. Finally, she broke it to me: “Well … my parents were visiting and they saw the comics. They told us that the ink contains lead. We, um, threw them all out.” 

The facile association of comic books with child endangerment was the biggest blow. Being a champion of “serial graphic narratives,” I am always ready to counter any form of attack on comic books—that they weaken minds, put dangerous ideas into children’s heads, turn them towards violence or delinquency—but the charge that they are literally poisonous was deeply disturbing. 
I remained gracious and gave my neighbor a forced smile. But after the encounter, I was determined to find the source of what I saw as an urban legend: that comic book ink contained lead. I started searching and quickly found out … that it was quite possibly true.


Lead has been added to pigments because it adds opacity and durability and certain lead compounds produce vibrant color—specifically yellows and whites. The terrifying downside of lead is that when ingested, it can cause a number of serious health problems. The ancient Romans had a strong suspicion that lead—widely used in plumbing and the preparation of drinks—was the source of illness, but the usefulness of the metal kept it readily available for centuries. 

In the modern era, the use of lead in the production of inks and paints became widespread during the industrial revolution. At the end of the nineteenth century, doctors in Australia diagnosed lead poisoning in children—and by the time the United States recognized the reality of the situation—in the early part of the twentieth century, there was a common realization that a significant form of exposure for children was due to ingesting paint chips—from household surfaces, toys, and cribs. Why would a child eat lead paint chips? The same reason the ancient Romans used a concoction containing lead acetate to make their wine more palatable—it tastes sweet.


The story of how the dangers of lead were recognized—and the convoluted, complicated tale of how certain parties in the United States fought actions to ban it in consumer products is perhaps not Design Observer’s wheelhouse, but suffice to say, it is an entire drama in itself.

One of the many propaganda tactics used by the paint industry in the twentieth century to convince the American public that lead was not only safe, but beneficial to our way of life, was the distribution of comic books and coloring books for children—featuring bright, vivid scenes that looked like they could not possibly cause harm. The irony of this tactic is that the printing inks used were often formulated with pigments derived from heavy metals—in the same manner as house and product paints. However, because the conversation about lead centered mainly on paint and gasoline, printing inks ands the printing industry were largely unbothered by calls for reform until the 1970s (for the printing industry at large, there were more obvious occupational hazards, such as lead type and solvents). 

A study published in 1975 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, “Chromium and Lead in Colored Printing Inks Used for Children’s Magazines,” expanded on a short article from 1973 published in Clinical Pediatrics: “Lead Poisoning from Colored Printing Inks. A Risk for Magazine Chewers,” which had investigated inks used in popular magazines in the United States. The 1975 study, though, seems to have been the first to specifically look at comic books—from the United Kingdom and several European countries. The results of this investigation were that nearly all of the comics tested contained lead ink, with just less than half of them being in a dangerous range. (However, in an important footnote, the authors pointed out that publishers who produced several of the comics tested had voluntarily switched to lead-free ink during the course of the study.)

Reports such as these led to the ban on lead in products for residential use in the United States in 1978 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). However, the ban on lead in paint did not apply to printing inks. 

Because of changes in the printing industry—due to greater concern for worker safety and an acknowledgement of the dangers of heavy metals in pigments—many printers of books began to phase out inks that contained lead well before the 1978 legislation, so it can be argued that almost all comics and children’s books printed in the past forty plus years are free of lead. However, between 2008 and 2011, as the federal government worked out the finer points of the product safety act and the general public began to think about the implications of regulation, an air of panic arose around older books. In February, 2009, the CSPC stated that some categories of products intended for children under twelve were unlikely to contain lead—notably books printed after 1985.

In the court of public opinion, though, this information was not readily available. The result was high anxiety for anyone dealing with older children’s books. There were reports of libraries discarding shelves of books; used bookstores warehousing older stock; thrift stores refusing to accept donations. The American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Book Manufacturers’ Institute and other advocacy groups lodged vocal complaints. Major exceptions were made for “ordinary children’s books,” effectively clearing books printed before 1985.

But comic books? For most of those printed using offset four-color process, the possibility of lead content – even in Golden Age classics (who in their right mind would let a baby chew up a copy of Action Comics #1?) is low. Glossy covers, though, might be an exception to this view. 

In the end, I am confident that I wasn’t violating federal product safety law by hawking my old comics for 25 cents each. And, according to most accounts, those colorful panels showing the antics of talking mice and dogs, bow-tied rich kids, and glandularly compromised little girls were not reeking of poison.

I should be less snarky, perhaps, especially because I had been on the other end of the equation years ago when I first began working at a rare book library. Among the random tasks I was assigned was packing a collection of Tibetan Buddhist Kanjur texts for a move. It was an easy, if boring task, but after I had finished, my supervisor laughed and congratulated me on my survival, since the books were printed with arsenic. The joke was lost on me, but I smiled in acquiescence. A while later, I looked into the history of Tibetan book production and discovered that there was a bit of truth in the story. Tibetan canonical texts traditionally had their edges painted with arsenic sulphide – to protect the books from insects – and possibly nosy librarians?

Comments [3]

Great post Tim. I read DC comics in the late 50s and 60s, constantly. Now I understand finally—why I had trouble in math.
John Foster

exceptionally cool helping resource for a needy information.
Taposy Rabeya

Truly an inspiring story for a reason that it covers the elements of thought processing in a direction which we often neglect. I do work for a resume firm (see here) and hence I can understand the perspective you used to connect the facts surrounding the subject of writing. I have recently worked for a resume with a comic writing job position requirement and the research I have done during that project makes it even easy to go smoothly with your core ideas in this particular writing. Anyway, good read and thanks for sharing it with us.
Joe Baiden

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