What is a graphic novel? The definition of a graphic novel is not universally agreed upon. A comic book, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward. A comic book is essentially a short serial that uses art in multiple panels on each page to tell a story with word balloons. The first comic books were compilations of newspaper comic strips, but by the in the 1930s in the United States, the introduction of Superman in Action Comics No. 1 gave birth to the modern comic.
Typically, these comics are fairly slender books typically released weekly, monthly, or quarterly to their fans. This form of the comic book is still created today and sold today in stores and online.
Where did Graphic Novels come from?
Graphic novels are a much more recent phenomenon. Richard Kyle coined the term graphic novel in 1964 in an article entitled “The Future of Comics” in the fanzine Capa-Alpha. Kyle suggested that the term could be used to describe an “artistically serious comic book strip.” He thought that this would be an appropriate term for comic books breaking out of their traditional role as a work of fiction for children. Comics were changing and overtly appealing to more adult audiences, and they needed to be given a separate identity to fit their more mature aspirations.
The first self-identified graphic novel was Beyond Time and Again, by George Metzger. Metzger’s work was clearly not for children. It was a counterculture work that combined “high fantasy with prescient views of science, climate change, and political authoritarianism.” Metzger’s book was a compilation of his west coast newspaper comic strip Beyond Time and Again.
Despite Kyle’s early use of the term, it did not catch on until Will Eisner (pictured above in his studio) popularized the term when his graphic novel A Contract with God was published in 1978. Eisner’s novel was a collection of three short stories from Dropsie Avenue. Dropsie Avenue was a stand-in for the street where Eisner grew up in the Depression-era New York City. The first story includes the stories of several residents living at 55 Dropsie Ave. The second story follows a protagonist based on Eisner and his struggles in New York City in the mid-20th century. The final story explores what has happened on Dropsie Avenue over 4 centuries. A Contract with God is considered a revolutionary and serious work that showed graphic novels’ potential to be seen as literature.
Eisner’s graphic novel made it clear that it was possible to create long-form innovative work that targeted an adult audience. But his book was just the first salvo. It wasn’t until 1986 that graphic novels fully arrived. Gene Kanneberg, Jr. argued that it was the almost simultaneous release of three of the most acclaimed graphic novels (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchman and Maus) that fundamentally changed comics’ perception created a demand for high-quality graphic novels.
Since 1986, the comic book business has ebbed and flowed. Even as traditional comic book sales have fallen, demand continues for all different types of graphic novels. For example, children’s graphic novels written by Raina Telgemeier or Dav Pilkey are incredibly popular and litter almost every middle schooler’s room. Japanese Mangas now occupy as much space in some book stores as traditional graphic novels. More importantly, the stories created for graphic novels have moved from the bookshelves to the cinemas and televisions. Even though comic book companies currently face difficult economic circumstances, the impact of graphic novels continues to grow.
What makes a graphic novel a graphic novel?
Neil Gaiman has identified some key components that make graphic novels that make them distinct from comic books: They are longer, contain complete narratives, and often contain more “complex characters with detailed backstories.” According to Gaiman, graphic novels from a narrative perspective are more akin to a traditional novel than a comic book. They only differ from traditional novels because they use images and art to convey their message. Otherwise, they have a “clear beginning, middle, and end,” “thematic messaging,” thoughtful dialogue and narration, and stories that show “character development and personal journeys.” Essentially, Gaiman describes what both Kyle and Eisner wanted to see develop over time in comic books.
Today, most graphic novels fit into two categories, a series of comic books that are combined into a single collection or a long-form novel that was designed to be a singular work that tells a complete story. For example, The Watchman graphic novel was originally released as a series of comic books, but Alan Moore was focused on telling a single story during its serialized run.
Moore’s story meets all of the criteria outlined by Gaiman. While some folks may quibble that it is not a true graphic novel because they were originally a serialized comic book, most of Charles Dickens’s books were also first serialized in magazines before publication. I think everyone can agree that even though Dickens works were serialized, they satisfy the requirements of a traditional novel.
Increasingly, even superhero comic books are often focused on telling complete stories. Authors are mapping out their stories so that they can be completely told over 6 or 7 comic books and compiled as a single graphic novel. The only drawback to that approach is these stories will sometimes include narratives from previous stories that go unexplained in that graphic novel.
The rise of graphic novels has allowed for the creation of numerous complex stories that have been beautifully told through stunning artwork in every genre. Today graphic novels run the gamut from traditional superhero stories, horror, science fiction, crimes, and even non-fiction. Graphic novels have turned into an art form that should be celebrated.