Comics Primer: What is a Graphic Novel?

500 Essential Graphic Novels coverGraphic Novel. I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before, haven’t I?

It’s a phrase that says, very clearly, “These aren’t just comics. They’re for ADULTS too!” It’s a phrase that’s been used with increasing frequency over the last thirty years. But what the hell does it actually mean?

Good question. And aren’t we just talking about comic books, anyway?

If you believe your local bookshop section, then the answer is yes. After all, most Graphic Novel sections in bookstores are full of books that can safely be described as comic books – but there’s an insane variety. Unless the section has been shelved by someone who knows their stuff, it’ll probably be shelved in alphabetical order. Which is an understandable way of doing things… but is also completely and utterly crazy.

Why crazy?

Well, just imagine a bookstore where all the books are shelved alphabetically. All of them, regardless of subject matter, tone, whether they’re for younger readers or adults only. Manga will usually be shelved separately, but as far as divisions go, that’s usually it, and while the experienced comics reader will know where to look, for newcomers it can be downright bewildering. Added to that, not everything that’s in the Graphic Novel section is technically a graphic novel.

Alright then – stop beating about the bush. What is a Graphic Novel?

Okay – technically speaking, a Graphic Novel is a work of sequential art (i.e. comics) that’s self-contained (or which consists of several self-contained stories) and which is published all in one go. Technically speaking, anything which was originally published in a monthly/bi-monthly/quarterly issue format and was then collected together into a paperback/hardback edition should be referred to as a Trade Edition. (That’s where the now rather common phrase “Waiting for Trade” comes from, in comic circles – people who forgo the monthly wait, and want to get the story in the nicely bound collected edition).

So – my copies of Superman: They Saved Luthor’s Brain and Spider-Man: The Clone Saga V1 aren’t actually graphic novels?

Technically, no. If it was published first in issue format, then it technically doesn’t count. They’re trade editions all the way.

It’s really that simple?

Watchmen coverWell… actually, no it isn’t. If you make the distinction precise, then you know what isn’t a graphic novel? Watchmen. The most graphic novel of all graphic novels wouldn’t count, simply because it was originally published as twelve (semi-monthly) issues. Same with works like From Hell, and especially The Sandman – its status as a 75 issue story means it’s incredibly difficult to make strict definitions stick, especially when it’s very much a self-contained work that, for the most part, showcases the kind of structure, planning and execution you’d find in a Literary Novel.

‘Graphic Novel’ is, more than anything, a marketing tool. It’s been used since the mid seventies as a way of trying to prove that comics can stand on their own as a genuine art form, rather than simply being regarded as something rather juvenile. And, especially over the last fifteen years, there has finally arisen a market for genuine, artistic and risk-taking graphic novels that step outside the barriers set by mainstream perceptions (i.e. “All comics must feature men in spandex fighting”) and head in remarkable directions all of their own.

Care to name some titles?

Certainly. Alice in Sunderland. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth. Asterios Polyp. Persepolis. Ghost World. Palestine. Parker: The Hunter. And many, many more.

So, where did the name ‘graphic novel’ come from?

A Contract with God coverThere are actually examples of graphic novel-like editions going back to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that things really started happening, with both Marvel and DC experimenting with different formats, and adult comic books flourishing in mainland Europe alongside the collected editions of strips like Asterix and Tintin. Then there’s Blackmark, by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, which has been retro-actively called the first graphic novel, although it wasn’t referred to at the time. There’s a handful of other works which could technically fall under the banner (including Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman and Father Christmas), but the first genuine graphic novels are usually looked upon as three books published in 1976 – Bloodstar by Richard Corben,  Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger (even though it was a collection of serialized strips) and Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko. However, the first self-proclaimed graphic novel, and the first work which truly defined what a graphic novel could be, was A Contract with God by the famed comics artist Will Eisner in 1978 (Eisner often gets described as the ‘inventor’ of the graphic novel, despite the fact that he never claimed to be, and simply didn’t realise the term hadn’t been used before). It wasn’t until the mid-Eighties, however, and the arrival of both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that the term really caught on. But of course, not everyone likes using it…

Really? Doesn’t it mean that comics are all grown up and adult now?

Yes, but some writers feel that ‘graphic novel’ is trying too hard for prestige and seriousness, when there isn’t anything wrong with works being described as ‘comics’. The best quote to go to is probably from Neil Gaiman, who was once informed that he didn’t write comics, he wrote ‘graphic novels’ – according to Gaiman, “all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

Anyhow, so how do you tell if something is or isn’t a graphic novel?

Length is a good guide to go with. If it’s a work of artistic intent and a story with a beginning, middle and end that can be bound in one edition, then you can pretty much view it as a graphic novel (the wonderful Bone by Jeff Smith, for example, is just over 1400 pages long in its one-volume-edition, and collects over ten years worth of comics, but is still one continuous and contained story). Once you get beyond one volume, it gets tricky (and once you get to manga, the whole thing gets really complicated), but honestly, the best guide is artistic intent. There are plenty of grey areas, but most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell. For example – the Jack the Ripper saga From Hell is a dark and disturbing tale of murder that also acts as a chillingly intelligent dissection of the Victorian era, while the superhero event comic Blackest Night is (no offence, DC fans) a bunch of people in spandex vs Space Zombies.

Could you recommend some places where I can learn more?

Certainly. There’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide by Gene Kannenberg Jr, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life by Paul Gravett, Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk, and the absolutely peerless Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, all of which will give you a brilliant grounding in the kind of remarkable comics that are out there, and exactly how they do what they do.

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