Friday, June 3, 2011

Comics and Graphic Novels: What's the Difference?

In my previous posts I’ve been using the terms comic book and graphic novel pretty much interchangeably. From now on I’ve decided to just stick with the term “comics” to collectively mean anything comic booky in nature (including comic books, graphic novels, and manga,) unless there is a reason to differentiate between them. Hopefully it will make things less confusing. But what is the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel? Is there even a difference? We’ve already talked about Manga, which are Japanese comic books that read right to left, instead of left to right. (More about Manga in a future post).

So, let’s discuss the differences between a comic and a graphic novel. For the most part there is only one difference. A comic book looks like this:

And a graphic novel looks like this:

As you can see the difference lies in the binding. A comic book comes in the monthly magazine format, while a graphic novel is bound like a book. The problem comes when a comic book like this:

Is bound like this:

Is it a comic book? Is it a graphic novel? Technically it is a called a collected edition or a collected reprint, as well as a trade paperback, or trade for short. The Eisner Awards, the awards given for excellence in the comic medium, has two separate awards for “graphic novels.” They are “Best Graphic Album: New” and “Best Graphic Album: Reprint.” Are you confused yet?

You might be wondering where the term graphic novel even comes from. Most people think that the term is relatively new. In fact, the term “graphic novel” was coined by Will Eisner (the same Eisner the awards are named after) in 1978. In the forward for A Contract With God, the first graphic novel, Eisner writes:

“In 1978, encouraged by the work of experimental graphic artists Otto Nuckel, Franz Masareel and Lynd Ward, who in the 1930s published serious novels told in art without text, I attempted a major work in a similar form. In a futile effort to entice the patronage of a mainstream publisher, I called it a “graphic novel.” It was a collection of four related stories, drawn from memory, which took place in a single tenement in the Bronx.

I’ve spent a long career – spanning eight decades – combining and refining words and pictures. My early work in newspaper comics and comic books allowed me to entertain millions of readers weekly, but I always felt there was more to say. I pioneered the use of comics for instructional manuals for American soldiers, covering three major wars, and later used comics to educate grade school children. Both were heady responsibilities that I took very seriously. But I yearned to do still more with the medium. At an age when I could have “retired,” I chose instead to create literary comics, then a decidedly oxymoronic term.”

Throughout their history, comics have had a standard constricting format. Most comics have a limited amount of pages, around 20 per issue, and are therefore organized in panels to maximize the amount of action per page. They look a little like this:

Graphic novels, having a longer format, have a lot more freedom in how they organize words and pictures. Eisner, in fact, doesn’t even feel the need to use panels on certain pages:

The graphic novel introduced the idea that the comic medium could go above and beyond the structure of a typical comic book. In the years following the “invention” of the graphic novel, comics began loosening their structure and taking ideas about placement of words and pictures from graphic novels. Today, if you only look at the inside pages you may be unable to tell the difference between the two.

The term graphic novel adds a sense of prestige to the comic medium. As Eisner said, he created “literary comics.” The problem with this statement is that is assumes that other types of comics are not literary. Some comic writers, notably Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, two of the most notable writers in the business, dislike the term in reference to their own work, preferring the generic term comic. To them, even though their work may be innovative and literary it is still part of the comic medium and should be treated as such.  Comics have come a long way. Some of the formatting differences once used only by graphic novels are appearing in the monthly magazine comics as well. Which is why any comic bound like a book is a “graphic novel” regardless of the structure on the inside.

In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” This defines a comic book, a graphic novel, manga, etc. They are all comics. And regardless of what you call them they all have the potential to be literary and as important as any other medium. 


  1. Nice post. I kinda wonder though, even though a comic is a comic and they all have their own genre do certain mediums within comics lend themselves to a specific genre? Like graphic novel to drama, manga to teen romance, comic strip to comedy, etc. Or do you think its just that those are the most popular genres for those mediums not that the medium is better for it.

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  3. I would have to say yes and no. Comics are generally written in the superhero action genre, but that doesn't mean that's the best genre for them. A graphic novel could easily cover teen romance or superheroes just as well as manga or monthly comics. I think what you listed are just trends. People read comics for superheroes, so nobody writes anything else. Graphic novels have more freedom so they tend to be about more literary genres or ideas. In Japan, Manga is for all ages and covers all genres. Over here it just happens to be popular with the preteen age range.

    I would say though that a comic strip does lend itself to comedy, in the fact that jokes are short and can be understood in as little as one panel. Technically, one panel comic strips such as family circus aren't actually considered "comics" because they aren't “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence." Keep in mind too that it is only in todays papers that we see only comedy strips. Before the comic book was even invented characters like The Spirit started in strip comics.

    Its hard to tell whether the fact that certain comic mediums seem to carry certain genres is because they fit the medium better or because of popular demand. Personally, I would lean toward popular demand, but you could argue differently. I'll be doing some articles about the structure of comics vs. manga, so you might be able to argue that some stories would fit one over the other.

    You could also look at it not in genres, but in story structure. Comics are more akin to television whereas graphic novels could be seen as film. Film and TV cover the same genres, but in different ways. Comics and TV shows are made up of short episodes whose story is told over a long period of time. Film and graphic novels, however, are longer than a single comic/TV episode, but tell one complete story in that time frame.