I don't just mean saved as in, Can they keep selling? Sure, they will. The market will adapt.
The real question being posed by that question is, can comics become relevant again? Every year, the audience that actually READS comics, not just collects them, gets smaller. I was talking with a friend of mine, an industry pro, about Quantum Redshift. I specifically wanted to know if he thought I had a fighting chance in the market. After all, in order for the book to be a hit, it has to appeal to regular comic readers. Not only does he read lots of regular comics (he's very much a fanboy, even though he's about seven years older than me), but he makes them professionally. Therefore, if anyone has instincts about what could work, it would be him, right? Wrong. Not only did he dismiss the idea that he has some sort of insider knowledge, but he pointed out he hadn't even been in a comic shop in years. In fact, aside from the comics he gets from me (he thinks Melody in Sound Waves is adorable), he hasn't read a comic book in ages. By dint of that, he thinks he knows nothing about the current state of comics.
This is sad.
I mean, this is something the guy loved so much, he became an industry pro and continues to work as an industry pro. But it turns out he's just not interested in the output anymore. He doesn't need to know continuity, he just draws what the script tells him. I don't buy he doesn't have time to read comics (after all, he does read mine), he just hasn't seen anything that makes him want to start following things again.
He's not the only one, either. Wizard World gets a lot of attendence from people there for the pop culture aspect of things, comics are incidental. C2E2 is the closest to a comic convention the Chicago market has seen in years, and they didn't pull in the crowd they were anticipating. This is what you see with a lot of sci-fi writers. They become a hit, and stop pushing themselves. They start writing stories along a specific path that appeals to their established core audience. But as that core audience falls away, there is nothing to bring in new readers, and eventually, the following dies out. Comics is doing the same thing -- there are no new readers coming in.
Now, obviously, the first step to getting new readers is to make stuff they want to read. I've said it before, I'll say it again -- you want to save comics? Make good comics. All the new eyes looking over your stuff don't mean anything if they don't start picking the stuff up and following it. You will be a display, so many pageviews, anything other than building an audience. And with the interconnectedness of fans and web sites nowadays, things can really revive comics in general and indie comics in particular if something would just happen. But who? Who can save us?
The answer is actually playing out in another medium -- movies.
Think about all the movies you've seen lately that have really resonated with you. Yeah, the Transformers films make a ton of money. But what are the movies people talk about? The ones they can't wait to share with other people? The ones they help recruit others to experience this wonder on the screen?
The Dark Knight. Inception. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. King Kong. The Spider-Man movies. Pixar. The Simpsons. Black Swan. Burn After Reading. School Of Rock. The Living Dead movies.
Now, what do these things have in common?
All of these are the result of the vision of people who got their start OUTSIDE the established studio system.
Christopher Nolan cut his teeth in indie cinema with Memento, one of the best crime noir movies ever made. Peter Jackson started off in Australian B movies with movies like the classic and revoltingly hilarious Bad Taste. Sam Raimi started off with B movies and exploitation flicks like Into The Woods, which eventually became Evil Dead. The people who founded Pixar and the producers of The Simpsons got their start with Ralph Bakshi, who famously eschewed corporate interference. Black Swan was from the director of the equally trippy Pi. Burn After Reading is the Cohen Brothers, who started off with Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Richard Linklatter started off with indies like Before Sunrise and Dazed And Confused before going big time. George Romero, 'nuff said. Jon Favreau worked with his buddy Vince Vaughn on Swingers and Wedding Crashers before coming into his own with the Iron Man movies.
Since then, studios have attempted to capture the flavor of these things because the audience comes away from them with an emotional involvement, something that stays with them after the credits have rolled. And they can't. How many fantasy franchises have been launched and failed (Narnia, Golden Compass, Percy Jackson, Sorceror's Apprentice, Eragon, etc.)? How many studios think computer animation is all you need to be a hit (Planet 51)? The trippiness of movies like Pi and Black Swan was attempted to be harnessed in The Number 23, which flamed out spectacularly and helped end Jim Carrey's ego driven career. Studios give those people like Raimi et al work because they need them. They can never create what they do. Because they all got there start without the infinite resources of the studios. They had to work around their limitations, come up with something that worked despite no money. Raimi attached a camera to a rope and used a lot of POV shots. They needed something else to build their audience since they didn't have access to money. So they used their creativity. They used their talent for engaging the audience. They did the very things film school reduces to a checklist and cliches. They didn't suggest interesting characters and tense situations, they actually made them through the lens of the camera instead of through the audience's memories and pre-conditioned responses.
In a way, it's ironic. The first real Hollywood revolution came when the film school grads, the Spielbergs and Lucases and them, graduated and started moving into the business. There was still the indie/exploitation route, but you now had a route that guaranteed respectibility and a testimonial that you knew what you were doing ("I have a degree, that makes me an expert!"). But with indie cinema being swallowed up as a subgenre and co-opted out of existence, the path that the Roger Cormans and the Samuel Zarkovs took is no longer there. You need to package things before you can even think of making a move.
This isn't to say anyone who starts off in the indie field will automatically become a great filmmaker. But it is boot camp, and the people that have the drive go on to make movies that remain relevant to fans for decades.
Maybe this is the future of comics.
Editorial teams have colluded. You need to be an insider, a buddy, to get work. And the resulting work fits with market research instead of actually engaging the readers. But this group can't last forever. Sooner or later, they start to fall away and need to be replaced. Editors will want people with actual experience who can meet a deadline. And they'll be looking at the indies. Where else can they look?
And you'll get these people who cut their teeth on trying to get the audience's attention right off the bat, trying to keep things accessible so that readers can pick up an issue and follow along. On connecting with their readers. And as a bonus, since their indie instincts are still strong, they'll keep making their own separate projects. People will start talking. People will stick around.
People will come back.
It will take time. It always does. But the fact is, the tighter the grouping and the faster it spins, the harder it is for the center to hold. As Professor Wickwire said, "Man must adapt. It is a law of nature. Adapt or perish. Change is the only constant. Flux is inevitable...
"...and I, for one, enjoy flux."