On Business: The Gift Economy

By | Monday, May 25, 2015 1 comment
I've been reading comics since before I can remember. From what I've been able to piece together, my parents were visting with some friends shortly after their second daughter was born. My brother was still an infant, and I was about four. Evidently, to keep me entertained (i.e. quiet) my parents' friend handed me a stack of maybe 50 comics he had lying around. They dated from about five years earlier when he would occasionally buy one to read on his lunch break. Well, they obviously had me pretty mesmerized as I'm still reading comics several decades later.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #1
I bought what comics I was able throughout my childhood, but obviously a child's limited income meant I was picking up much. I think I managed to get somewhere around 500 comics by the time I was sixteen. And then the brother of a good friend passed away unexpectedly, and my friend decided it was time he grew up and pack away his childhood. So one day, he showed up on my doorstep with a pair of suitcases filled with his comics collection. There was a lot of X-Men and Avengers, plus the incredibly valueable (from an intellectual capital perspective) Marvel Handbook. My collection roughly doubled overnight.

Cut to around a decade-and-a-half later. I'd been in the work force for several years, and had some more disposable income to put towards comics. I'd gotten my collection up to around 6000 issues. In talking with my father, he noted that he was trying to clear out his basement and wanted to get rid of a lot of his comics. He was going to keep some that he really liked to re-read, but he figured he could get rid of the stuff that he was certain he'd never look at again. He offered them up to me. A couple of cross-state car trips later, I found that my collection had roughly doubled once again, this time with a lot of smaller press books from 1980s.

Early last year, Dad mentioned he was doing another basement clearing and offered me all of his graphic novels. That doubled my graphic novel collection. Another friend of mine came across a box full of late Golden Age books in his mother's attic that he offered up to me. A couple weeks back, I mentioned the six long boxes I found on the curb; what I didn't mention here was that I found another six boxes the following week.

Where I'm going with this is that, if you include books that I received for birthdays and holidays, as comp and review copies, and as things I've won in contests, I think I've only paid for around 30-35% of my entire collection. Of course, the precise number is always in a state of flux -- a month ago, before I found those comics by the curb, it would've been more like 45% -- but since Day One, I've always had a noticeable chunk of my collection that had been gifted to me.

I still actively pursue and buy comics with my own funds. Naturally, if I had never shown enough interest in comics to spend what money I could on them, people would have stopped giving me comics ages ago. But it obviously wouldn't be very reliable to count on comics as gifts, much less expect to get the stories I'm most interested in reading. And I try to do at least some level of reciprocation. I often give out comics at Halloween instead of candy, and a number of relatives have gotten comics of one form or another for their birthdays and/or Christmas over the years.

But I find myself wondering how much of the comics industry is built on gifting? Clearly, there's a high level of purchasing going on. Even if I personally didn't buy most of my comics, someone paid for them. But I'm reminded of the old notion from the 1940s where kids shared and traded comics with one another. To the point where publishers frequently claimed their readership was 3-4 times higher than their sales numbers. I'm seeing a different dynamic going on now, with infrequent exchanges of larger collections rather than weekly exchanges of single issues, but the idea isn't dissimilar.

How much comics gifting is going on today in 2015? Are your collections made up with decent chunks of comics you've received for free? Have you donated parts of your collection as you made space in your home? How isolated/unique are my experiences here? I'd love any input.
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Matt K said...

I think nearly all of my pamphlet comics have been purchased. I may have gotten a couple dozen from my brother, many years ago, when he lost interest; many of those have since left my collection, I think.

Squarebound comics are a bit different. A number of those have arrived as birthday or Christmas gifts… scanning my shelf I suppose maybe as much as 25%, perhaps a bit more.