So, this began as a mere response to's thread, which posed a fairly simple question. However, I do nothing simply (especially when someone says they're asking for research purposes), and I got to the point where I decided this was WAY too long to be a comment on a thread. Ergo, here we are. Go grab some chimichangas and a lot of water...this may take a while ^_^
What do you think is the current state of the Graphic Novel industry, and how do you think it could be improved?
I just recently got into comics, a little over six weeks ago. As such, I know nothing of how the industry once was, only how it is now.
My collection consists almost entirely of two things: digital comics and physical trade paperbacks. The latter doesn't say a whole lot about current industry state, but it's relevant in that it's how I've done the majority of my "catching up" since getting into comics, and explains how despite the fact that I'm so new I'm very knowledgeable about a few older characters and runs. The former is very important, because if it weren't for digital comics I would not be talking to you right now, because I would never have gotten into reading at all. The nearest comic shop to me is over half an hour away, and is closed all but sixteen hours a week. When I went in, in an attempt to get some advice and maybe pick out some new books to follow, I got almost nowhere. The manager was very standoffish and said he didn't even carry independent books unless they were specifically requested. I tried another shop a week or so later, about 45 minutes from my house, and despite having spent a good half-hour there browsing shelves and doing my best to look like I needed help, none of the employees so much as acknowledged my existence.
The point of that is: I appreciate that comic shops have created a very tight-knit, familial feel over the years with their devoted friends, but as an outsider I feel very unwelcome in most physical shops. This isn't a hard and fast rule, of course; I had the chance to pop into Midtown Comics in NYC recently and the people there were helpful, if a little amused at my naivete. But that's a nationally-known shop, with a huge reputation. The fact remains that the small shops, which I would otherwise be trying to help stay open, aren't exactly proving worthy of the extra effort and time.
And so I read digital comics. It's great to be able to read comics as soon as they come out, without having to leave your bed, let alone your house. For a person like me, who is concerned with just reading stories, the absence of a collectable or rare physical artifact is hardly worrying. What is worrying is that I'm paying the same amount as I would have for the physical, collectable version. I already have enough trouble believing that 20 pages is worth $4. The idea that 20 .jpegs are also worth $4 is laughable, especially since they're not even .pdfs or something I can keep on a hard drive, but are in-app objects which could disappear instantly if A. Comixology goes out of business or B. there's a dispute and my account gets deleted (i've seen the latter situation with people's Amazon book libraries, so it's not an unreasonable possibility). The music industry in particular seems to have gotten this right: generally it is cheaper to buy digital music, and (more importantly) you get the file on your own computer, and can back it up or replicate it or whatever you need to do to ensure that, just like those CDs and cassettes and vinyls you may have stacked up, you will still have the music you buy today accessible to you in the future. Due to the way digital comics are currently being done, there is no such security, yet the price provides no compensation for that (or for the lack of physical object). That really can't be a long-term solution, in my opinion.
And as the current model is unsustainable, I'd say the current state of the industry is in flux. It's trying to figure out how digital works into its distribution and revenue models, and being met with mitigated success. If they don't nail this transition, they will have a lot of difficulty staying relevant. The gaming industry is in a similar situation and its transition has been anything but smooth. As always, it's a balance between copyright protection and giving your paying customers something of equal or better quality than what people who steal are getting, and the fact that a pirate who downloads an entire run of a comic line has a preserved and easily-accessed copy of something you need an internet connection to download and a special app to open, well... like I said, that's not sustainable.
Content/quality-wise, I think it's a bit of a mixed bag. I have found DC's New 52 to be extremely accessible, and have tried out a half-dozen books and stuck full-time with three of them, with a few others I am thinking of following in trades or eventually (when the money's there) catching up to and following up-to-date as well. Marvel's decision to go with a soft reboot, leaving continuity intact, has proven more confusing than anything else, and has done nothing to tackle the problem of there being far too many titles with far too many characters for a new reader to absorb any easier than he or she could have absorbed prior to the reboot. There are a handful of standouts but overall the whole program, while perhaps more satisfying for older readers, has not really won me over as a new reader. And that fidelity to older fans is an important problem with New 52. I've come to love quite a few characters and have been saddened to discover the versions I've come to love are often mere husks or gross distortions of those characters prior to the reboot. Entire relationships and characters, not to mention decades' worth of development, seem to have been completely cast aside, and that's got to be destroying some readers' ability to enjoy these books.
That destruction of continuity plays into the deaths you've mentioned, their lack of permanence to the point where actual death has become a joke. I came about that concept firsthand when, shortly after getting into comics, I discovered that one of the Marvel NOW books was set to kill off -- ostensibly for real this time -- the few characters I had come to love through reading those older TPBs. So I have found myself in an odd predicament: furious at the company for creating a series for the purpose of killing off characters as part of its image reboot, and hoping that these deaths are meaningless as all other comic deaths so that the characters I love are not killed for financial reasons (because I'm sorry, but there's no narrative argument to made for those deaths). I think the fact that a book like Avengers Arena exists is itself indicative of at least Marvel's current situation, though what that indication is depends on which side of the divide you're on. Supporters of the book say it's high time American comics started treating death like it matters -- a sentiment you've suggested. Yet there are plenty of folks like me who think that if the only trick Marvel has up its sleeve to make comics relevant to new readers is that shock of death, then they've already failed as a creative endeavor.
I think you hit on a very important point earlier when you noted the lack of pleasure reading in general in the US. There's a thread on the Off-Topic board here which actually just asks whether people read books or not, and a lot of folks actually don't. Even I, holding a B.A. in English, rarely read these days, but I have found plenty of time for other entertainment (and am actually pursuing higher education in the video game medium, so that tells you something right there). For the comics industry -- as with any industry -- to survive, it needs to attract new readers. One way in which it is trying to do this is by branching into other popular media as a hook; we see a more aggressive push for Hollywood comic adaptations in the past five years than any real time before, and that trend is only expanding. Is it translating to higher sales? Who knows. It might be. It might not. I doubt it's converting non-fans into lifelong readers, at least not many. I think to an extent Avengers Arena is also part of this grab for new readers, its marketing and tone a clear reference to The Hunger Games franchise which has seen incredible popularity in books and films over the past year. While it's a pastiche of plenty of other stories, I think the tie to that particular franchise is the most important, and the one most relied on to pull in people who weren't already Marvel fans (or fans of the characters in the book, at the very least). However, while all of these things may contribute to brief spikes in interest, I think the overall trend will continue to be a decline so long as visual, and particularly video media remain the dominant form of entertainment media. Meanwhile, the stigma of comics being for children continues to pervade (I've had to explain that yes, I'm serious, I am just getting into comics at 23 years old to more than a few people), probably worse than it does with video games because at least that industry is clear in its marketing about making things explicitly for adults.
At any rate, this has been much longer than probably anyone will ever want to read, but to summarize how I think it might improve:
1. Accept that comics are not going to be the dominant form of entertainment media, and rather than using gimmicks for expanding the market find a way of making the existing market as high quality as possible. If done correctly, the overall product may be more attractive and attract some new readers by default. But if your product continues to suffer in quality, your current customers will lose interest and will be less likely to try to convert friends or relatives over to being part of the readership.
2. Make digital comics much cheaper (or make subscriptions more accessible/worthwhile), and compensate for the lack of physical product. This may entail moving past the aversion to piracy and actually selling files that your customers get to keep and not worry about vanishing when your service changes, is attacked, or dies.
3. Ramp up the incentive for physical comic purchases, beyond rare variants. This may include playing up the art angle (as has previously been mentioned). Tying back in to point one, the only comics that are really worth having physically are the ones which have transcendent and memorable stories which you value for their own sake, not as objects to be saved or sold. The better the comics are, the more people will feel compelled to have a long-lasting version to cherish, reread, and pass down.
4. Respect your readers. Independent creatives already have a good sense of this, as do many artists and writers working in the industry. But from a corporate standpoint it seems the actual wishes and desires of readers are often completely disregarded, as is evidenced by the great many choices and large-scale "events" which tarnish the better part of the last decade of comics publishing. One would presume, looking at the backlash against events like AvX, that the head honchos of these companies, particularly Marvel, are completely out of touch with their customers, and unless financial interests truly are at odds with the happiness of readers, that disconnect can only last so long before it causes the company to collapse under its own pretension.
5. "Embrace change" in a way that makes sense. There are a lot of absurdities about mainstream American comics, and a lot of inequalities, which frankly make the whole industry, to an outsider, look very backwards. From the blatant absence of women in the creative space to the gross overexaggeration and sexualization of most characters, but especially females, the whole thing gives off a rather chauvinistic aura. There are very few colored, disabled, or LGBTQ characters in comics; the ones who are in comics are either unimportant or completely blown out of proportion, which is hardly balance. Part of this issue stems from the fact that all the characters ever made have lived forever, so it becomes difficult to introduce new characters (from any of those other categories) without making a big deal about it and having to figure out an excuse for why, say, a deaf Native American lesbian is in a book instead of Wolverine (I totally made that up, by the way; there is almost definitely not an actual deaf Native American lesbian superhero...yet). It's important to note that I'm a straight-edge, almost hardcore conservative, and even I feel uncomfortable for how straight, white, and oversexed comics are.
There are probably lots of things I wanted to say but forgot to, but this has already been preposterous, so I'll stop talking now.