The Gift Economy

By | Thursday, September 22, 2022 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.

I bought what comics I was able throughout my childhood, but obviously a child's limited income meant I wasn't 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.

My dad later also gave me his collection of Heavy Metal issues dating back to 1977 as well as all his graphic novels. Earlier this year, a friend of mine died and had willed me his comics collection of a few thousand comics. 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. I found another 20-some long boxes of comics on the curb a few years ago. The personal comics library I built in 2014 specifically with room for expansion has grown to the point that I've had to stack a dozen or so "overflow" boxes in the living room.

Where I'm going with this is that, if you also 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 20%-25% of my entire collection. Of course, the precise number is always in a state of flux as I accumulate more comics 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. Not to mention just gifting chunks of my collection when I wind up with a run of duplicates or something.

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 2022? 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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Billy Hogan said...

As a child I would sometimes visit an aunt, and her youngest son was in high school when I was starting elementary school. He always had some comic books, and I would read them during the visit. He wasn't always there when my family visited, but that didn't stop my aunt from letting me take one if I really liked it.