One of the hot topics that's been kicked around the blogosphere and the messageboardiverse over the last few years is the state and fate of the indie comic book, or "pamphlet" (as opposed to its currently robust sibling, the indie graphic novel). I follow what gets said as it's long been a topic of interest and it accutely pertains to my book, Injury. Here are a few unsubstantiated thoughts.
Just to clarify, by indie comic, I'm referring to books usually created by single artists working outside the superhero genre such as Tales Designed to Thrizzle, Crickets, Lucky, Uptight, etc. The superhero fans have their own set of discussions going about the fate of the comic book as it pertains to them. Some of them, horrifyingly, refer to comic books as "floppies."
I don't think the indie pamphlet comic will ever die (as is often declared/predicted) unless people stop reading and making printed books altogether. They're just too appealing and easy to make. At worst, the disbursal of these things will just maintain a state of moribund decrepitude. Short of some kind of comic-pocalypse there will always at least be self-produced minis as well as genre-defying books from the larger comics companies (just kidding!). As it stands now, it just seems like selling them in general is an uphill climb.
So why are these things still around? Any of this material can be made available in more accessible formats - paperbacks, pdfs, jpegs etc. And that's where many of the indie comics have gone, leaving the pamphlet comic book to fend for itself in mostly hostile comics shops between such titles as Immortal Iron Fist and Invincible Iron Man. The main reason for publishers to put this kind of book out is advertising. Instead of putting out nothing for 3 years, artists continue to get their work out there and stay in circulation, hopefully building anticipation for a forthcoming and more lucrative collection of work.
The thing is, we could put out a PDF or post everything to Flickr and probably get a similar result. I'm sure many of the same places would review it. You'd have the issue of people not wanting to read stuff on screen, but you already have the issue of people saying they don't like hunting for the book in comic shops (or trying and not finding it), or they don't like paying for the pamphlet, or they don't like reading things that are only 40 pages long. Not to mention the difference in price between print and electronic. So, the negative form factors almost cancel each other out.
I've almost actually convinced myself to just make pdfs. But - as far as that goes, I think the on screen reading experience is pretty crummy. I read stuff on screen like old scanned comics or scanlations, and I usually find myself just breezing through them. I've yet to see a screen that I don't mind staring at for very long. And paperbacks are great, but you have to crank out a ton of work before you can collect it all. I guess that's alright if you don't have a day job.
And there's still quite a few of these books being made. The main problem with comic books is distribution. That's where the creativity needs to be applied. It will be interesting to see how the new publisher-owned comic shops (D&Q, Fantagraphics, Picturebox) pan out. Stores like these, as well as forward-thinking traditional comic shops, are friendly markets for indie comic books. That's still a pretty thin market, though. It'd be great if there was a website that specialized in marketing these kinda books. Indie comics, minicomics, etc. I could see that working really well, but there's a lot of expense tied in with that kind of venture. It'd be a huge pain to operate and the profit margins are already razor thin. You'd pretty much have to also be selling porn or weed or right-wing propaganda like the Catastrophe Shop used to do (wink!).
On the other hand, not that long ago bookstores like Borders were pretty harsh climates for graphic novels. Now that those kinds of books are selling, you've got people coming out of the woodwork making graphic novels. The same could become true of indie comic books if next-generation comic shops drum up a market for them. I would also add though, that artists also need to push to make these things (meaning more books out there - a critical mass). And I apologize for using the term next-generation.
You hear reference to the early 90's being a golden age for indie comics, and there were indeed some great books out at the time, but I feel like the shops were much less sympathetic to those types of books than they are now. Most places I went to would dump Eightball or Dirty Plotte in a box or drawer with the porno comics. These days at least some shops and their customers seem to be open to different stuff. There's definitely more indie/arty stuff out there in general. But paper prices and the overall economy is much different now. I guess that's the main difference - I don't know.
Regarding webcomics - man, let's just not go there for now. That's a whole other RGB-soaked ball of wax.
One thing to think about, your larger book companies that are getting into comics don't seem to see any need for the "pamphlet sells the paperback" thinking. Maybe now that non-comics people are more accepting of graphic novels, there's not as much need to drum up business with the comics cognoscenti by cranking out pamphlets. Maybe when artists are producing books that connect with people in ways other than making character-based adventure stories, it's not as necessary to do the song-and-dance of pamphletizing them. Books about growing up in Iran, or loving the band Queen will find their own audiences.
One sad thing about the state of indie comic books, I feel like if they dry up as an option for artists, it hurts the art of comics in general. If these books are out of the equation as a viable way to develop your stuff, you don't have that graduated step between messing around with minicomics and doing a full blown graphic novel. As an artist, I've got much more incentive to work in 30-40 page chunks rather than to grind away at a 200 pager.
I'm not alone in wishing there were more indie comic books out there. I mean, seriously, what would you rather do, pick up a new issue of Injury, or download a PDF of it and "fan" us on Facebook? As much as I like making these books - I'll do whatever makes the most sense getting the stories and art out there. I'm hoping we never have to go straight to squarebound or digital, and at this point I don't see an immediate threat of that happening. However, just to cover our asses, watch this space for news about downloading a sick PDF of Injury #1, I guess!