Graphic Novels; What the Heck are they Anyway?

What the heck are graphic novels? I had to do a little research into this topic as I didn’t have a clue as to what they are, at first. I’d never heard of them when I was gobbling up comic books in my youth. These types of novels have become very popular in the comic book genera.

Well, the term Graphic-Novel has most typically been referred to as a long-form comic book, i.e. the comic book analogue to a prose novel or novella. It has typically applied to works, which were previously published in a serial or periodical comic book format, or to comic book works, which had been written specifically to be published in a book type format.

There are varying degrees of difference among publishers as to what content length constitutes the use of the term “novel”. Some say that books of as few as 48 pages can be classified as graphic-novels. Others tend to use the term "graphic novella" for works that have a single, well-developed story, but are less than 100 pages in length. The fact that books in this range can be published either as a perfect-bound, like a typical novel or saddle-stitched, like a typical comic book, adds to the disagreement of whether the term should apply.

There are also some that refer to publications of several hundred or even thousands of pages, printed in multiple volumes as a single graphic-novel. A couple of examples are “Cerebus the Aardvark” and “The Sandman”. Others refer to each volume in such an extended work as its own graphic-novel.

Particularly in the book trade, the term is sometimes extended to include material that would not be considered a "novel" if produced in another medium. Collections of comic book issues that do not form a single continuous story can be considered a graphic-novel. Anthologies of short loosely related pieces by a single creator can fall into this category. Libraries and bookstores typically stock these works as graphic type novels.

Other roughly synonymous terms, preferred by some to avoid the disturbing implications of the word graphic, are "drawn book" and "visual novel". The term "graphic novel" is commonly used to disassociate works from the juvenile and/or humorous connotations of the terms comics and comic book. It implies that the work is more serious, mature, or literary than traditional superhero or funny animal comics. The term is also used sometimes in contradistinction to "trade paperback", to emphasize that the work was created as a single, complex, but finite narrative, and not just collected arbitrarily from an ongoing melodrama. So it really depends on who you are and what particular work or publication you are referring to as to whether you think it a graphic-novel or not.

A Little History on Graphic-Novels

Apparently this term was popularized by Will Eisner after it appeared on the cover of the trade paperback edition of “A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories” (Baronet Books, published October 1978). This was a mature, complex work, which focused on the lives of ordinary people in the real world. This graphic-novel label was intended to distinguish it from traditional comic books, with which it shared a storytelling medium. The critical and commercial success of A Contract with God helped to establish the term "graphic novel" into common usage, and many sources have incorrectly credited Eisner with being the first to use it.

The term had been used as early as November 1964 by Richard Kyle in CAPA-ALPHA #2, a newsletter published by the Comic Amateur Press Alliance. It was again used in Kyle's Fantasy Illustrated #5 (spring 1966). The term was also used several times throughout 1967 to 1976 by various other authors of note.

Since the term came into use, it has been applied retroactively to various works which did not use the term but fit (or nearly fit) the popular modern usage. One often cited example is Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species by writer Don McGregor and artist Paul Gulacy (Eclipse Books, October 1978). Calling itself a "graphic album," it marked the first time that an original heroic-adventure character in the American comic book tradition was conceived expressly for the graphic-novel form.

Now how has graphic novels infiltrated into the comic book world of today? Continue on to my next page of graphic novels Graphic Novels and I will enlighten you a little on what I discovered down at my local comic book shop. And if you want to keep up on Graphic Novels, then feel free to sign up for my newsletter “Comics Galore” in the form below.

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