You’ve probably heard of Kickstarter, the website where people post pitches for creative projects and invite the public to contribute money to fund those projects. You’ve probably heard that comics material is a popular category on Kickstarter. If someone told you that Kickstarter funded roughly the same amount of comics material as DC Comics’ Vertigo Imprint, you’d look at them like they were crazy.

And you’d be wrong to do so.

In May, Kickstarter funded ten books and five additional projects in single-issue format. Vertigo solicited 7 books and 10 single issues for May. Kickstarter has the edge in books (10-7), Vertigo has the edge in overall items (17-15). There’s not a lot difference in output volume.

The comparison highlights the way that Kickstarter has become a much larger source of funding for comic book projects—larger than some established indie publishers. Even with a slow January, Kickstarter averaged just over $81,000 per month in funding for various comics-related projects. In May, the funding broke six figures with $102,110 split over 15 projects.

What gets funded on Kickstarter? In 2011, an average of 13.8 projects per month. Projects are split fairly evenly between books (graphic novels, reprint collections, hardcovers, etc) and the monthly issue format (including multiple issue mini-series and newspaper formats) with 7 books per month to 6.8 issue projects per month. Add in a comics app for tablets and a newspaper comic strip archival project and you have over $400,000 worth of funding in the first 5 months of 2011.

Charitable and not-for-profit works seem to have particular success with projects like “Girls Making Comics: A Midsummer Night’s Dream” taking in $7,292 from 196 backers for a print edition of work from a comics workshop for teenage girls and “The TRANSMETROPOLITAN Art Book” taking in $46,690 from 638 backers for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Heroes Initiative.

Where would Kickstarter fall in terms of content production when compared to the independent publishers of the Direct Market? Not that high up for single issue projects, but higher than you might think for books.

If you make a list of how many books were solicited for May by the top direct market publishers that follow DC and Marvel on the sale charts and insert Kickerstarter into that list, this is what you get:

Dark Horse: 15 Books
IDW: 15 Books
Kickstarter: 10 Books
Image: 6 Books
Boom: 5 Books
Dynamite: 5 Books.

The number of projects funded by Kickstarter in a given month does vary quite a bit, as does the format of the projects. And some of those same funded projects are eventually published someplace else, often at a publisher like Image.

It perhaps isn’t natural to look at Kickstarter as a publisher. Functionally, it exists somewhere between a direct-to-consumer pre-sales program and a PBS/NPR pledge drive. Consumers are pledging money to projects they’d like to see completed and if they pledge in sufficient amounts (in most cases) they get a copy of the finished work.

Consider that the following projects were funded off the same site:

A graphic novel by A-list artist and New York Times bestseller Tony Harris that already has a publisher in place. Harris is requesting donations to fund his page rate for producing it.

A hard cover print collection of existing strips from theShadowgirls webcomic.

Aaron Hazouri just wants help getting the materials and printing costs to put together his first comic.

These projects couldn’t be more different. Is this the triumph of grass roots support, an indictment of the comic publishing industry’s ability to provide advances for independent projects, a crowdsourcing update of when artists have patrons or an illustration of what happens when niche audiences are empowered? Quite possibly, Kickstarter represents all of the above. And really, if this is what it takes for comics consumers to get the projects they want and consumers are happy with the arrangement, who’s to say it’s a bad thing?

One thing that these projects all have in common is using Kickstarter to mitigate the fiscal risk of self-publishing. Harris wishes to be compensated for his time creating the comic, as opposed to waiting for sales-dependent backend payments. The Shadowgirls collection needed a little more funding past the preorders from the webcomic’s website. Hazouri needed materials and printing help. In a direct market environment where people are much more hesitant to self-publish than the indie glory days of the ‘80s and 90s, we are seeing Kickstarter emerging as a variation on self-publishing.

Shadowgirls is very similar to a PBS/NPR pledge drive. You can donate a little bit of money just to help the project get printed or if you donate $50 you get a premium: the hard cover collection the project is funding. Since that same book is list for pre-order for $24.95 on the Shadowgirls website (though not signed), it lends the flavor of an artist’s patron. And that extra support moves this past merely being a pre-order system.

Is it possible for artists to work out a price they need to create and then print each issue or graphic novel, then put the project’s price tag on Kickstarter, offering a copy of the finished work to everyone who pledges the cover price and then selling the product in the direct market? That’s not far off from what’s happening right now. The emphasis here is on shorter print runs and on more dedicated fans doing the heavily lifting with larger pledge amounts.

The idea would be to combine Harris’ cost of creation price tag with the printing tab of a short print run like Shadowgirls or Hazouri’s project. Say, 2,000 to 3,000 copies for something offered in the direct market as a single issue or 500-1000 copies of a graphic novel, with an option for the casual fan to just get a copy of the work for the cover price (or cover price plus shipping). Offer some extras and rarities for those who want to do the heavy lifting. It would merely tweak the current Kickstarter model and it’s not far removed from how Web comics have done pre-orders in the past. Where the Kickstarter model expands is by creating more of a floor for the independent creator to compete in the direct market without worrying about taking a complete loss on a project, as opposed to keeping the projects to very small print runs. It’s just a cleaner way to have someone else hold the money until a project is financed.

Any way you choose to interpret it, if you look where comics material is being funded, Kickstarter is playing with the big kids in terms of the volume of material it is funding.

[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and former adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. He also writes the Division & Rush webcomic. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics World.]