Graphic Novels vs. Comic Books - Book Week


Will Eisner, one of the premier writers in the graphic novel format, at the 2004 San Diego Comic Con. Photo by Patty Mooney.

When it comes to articulating the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book, it’s difficult to do without coming off as a pretentious dweeb. Amid the stifled giggles, eye rolls, and affirmations that your friends still love you in spite of your nerdish tendencies, you try to explain that there is no way that the 416 page illustrated saga Watchmen can be simply dismissed as a flimsy “comic book.”

Admittedly, that does come off a tad elitist, but considering that TIME magazine listed Watchmen on their top 100 Novels since 1923, it’s clear that graphic novels are garnering attention outside the realm of geeks and fanboys. Taking a closer look at the list, Watchmen is in good company among classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher In The Rye, and A Clockwork Orange.

Such distinction for a graphic novel as a great literary work prompts the debate: when does a stack of pages with illustrated panels cease to be just a ‘comic book?’ Luckily, the writers from the blog Nerd News and Reviews were in town this past weekend, for New York’s Comic Convention (or “Comic-Con”, as it’s better known as) of all things, and took a break from all-things illustrated and animated to sit down with BTR and give us their take on the matter. Normally hailing from either the Jersey or DC area, they simply go by John, Wade, Chris, and Jon on their site and as college friends who originally started the blog to continue the hours they would spend talking about comic books and video games, they were only too happy to oblige.

Many graphic novels,” says Chris, “are compilations of individual issues of things that might be called comics. Now there’s a larger distinction there, but at a very basic level, that’s what it is.” End of story, right? Well, “It gets a little confusing. When comics are issued, they release them on a weekly or a monthly basis in smaller, 20 page issues. Now, when those are compiled together, they call them ‘trades,’ but people also call trades ‘graphic novels’ as long as there is a contiguous story arch across the whole thing.”

So, the physical definition of “graphic novel” could be boiled down to “a book-length comic book,” which in fact was exactly how the author of the TIMES list put it.

John adds, “The first time the term ‘graphic novel’ showed up was with Will Eisner, who wrote what is considered the first graphic novel, A Contract With God.” The 1978 soft cover opened up the possibility for other comic authors to expand their storylines beyond the traditionally episodic 20-page issue and into larger scale works. Still, is it fair to say that a graphic novel is really just a very long comic book? In the physical sense, maybe, but NNAR writer Wade also suggests there is a qualitative difference between the two.

I think a lot of it is perception. Something doesn’t necessarily have to differentiate itself in the way it’s put together or how’s it’s released to be a graphic novel,” Wade says, and suggests that merely a very long comic book does not necessitate a graphic novel, as the form could start as a series of comic issues.

Watchmen was released over a series of 12 comic issues in twelve months, and it’s now considered a graphic novel.” As the explanation wavers on memories of geometry lessons on how squares can be rectangles, but rectangles cannot always be squares, Wade clarifies, “Whether it’s released as a set of issues or not, I would say a graphic novel is a completely separate story, one that is distinct and isn’t episodic.”

Even though graphic novels are different from comic books in both their presentation and plot, the confusion between the two remains at large. Wade believes that guilty parties of such prejudice exist on both frontlines of comic book lovers and mainstream critics alike.

Again, it plays into perception,” says Wade. “Comic books are not ‘cool.’” At this, all of the fellow NNAR members give Wade a quizzical look. “I mean, I think they are cool, but in the grander scheme of things, comic books are not ‘cool.’ I think graphic novel is a thing that we’ve sort of invented to hide that you’re reading a comic. I think that at times people try to justify reading comics, when they don’t need to, really.”

The root of any skepticism towards graphic novels being taken seriously as capital “L” Literature comes from the notion that comics are for children or readers who would rather look at the pictures that read the words.

In fact, that notion was once a writing guide comic book writers themselves, Chris explains,

Comic books were originally for kids, but they grew an adult audience way back in the ’50s. Then they went through this whole period where violence was banned and adult things were banned, and comic books were actually censored.”

Comic book writers were directed to keep story lines simple and not use words with more than two syllables. Even Stan Lee, the “Father of Marvel Comics,” originally had to follow these guidelines when he started as a writer.

There was a sort of subset of the English language he was limited to because it was assumed that the readers were either children or unintelligent, simple-minded adults…” the boys explain. “The more explosions and action you can get in, as he was told, the better.”

It was like the Michael Bay approach to comic writing, and from this self-confining perception that the idea of comic book as a ‘child’s thing’ stuck.

I think ‘graphic novel’ is an attempt to say ‘this is not a kid’s thing,’” says Chris, echoing Wade’s suggestion of the term being slightly apologetic, but also defiant in that an illustrated work can stand alone as a great piece of literature.

Audiences, then, also come into play when considering whether something is a graphic novel or a comic book. However, there were authors who found talking down to their audience just because there were pictures in a book insulting to both the writer and the reader. Stan Lee, for example, opened up during a panel a Baltimore Convention that Wade and Jon had been to a little while ago.

He hated being told ‘Do not be complex with your themes. Do not use words longer than two syllables. Do not do character development.’ And he was the first to say ‘We can be more than this’ and that’s when the Second Silver of comics age sort of started,” says Wade. Once Lee started writing the way he wanted, Jon says there was no holding back. “People say when they read his comic books as kids, they used to have a their comic book in one hand and a dictionary in the other.”

As the storylines and content of comics evolved, so did audiences. In fact, NNAR says that Stan Lee observed in that same Baltimore panel that the comic conventions of the 1970s were filled with children who had managed to drag along their parents. Now, it’s a reversal as parents are dragging their kids to conventions because they can’t find a baby sitter.

Or it could be that parents are proud to pass on the tradition to their children!” Wade insists.

Some original comic formats have evolved, and the graphic novel Prey, for example, features the classic vigilante Batman. As audiences grow older, but continue to love comics, graphic novels are a way to keep readers intellectually stimulated as well as entertained by characters they recognize from growing up.

Construction, conception, and perception all come into play when highlighting the differences between a graphic novel and a comic book, and even the tablet revolution is taking notice. Amazon announced that they will be exclusively offering DC graphic novels on the Kindle Fire and while publishing companies are going grey over the fact that Amazon is becoming an autonomous publisher, comic giants like DC and Marvel can also bank on their readers wanting both a digital copy on their tablets as well as a cherished physical copy. It is very possible that the fans of the genre will be the ones to laugh last, because there’s nothing cooler than being able to read your copy of V For Vendetta on a sleek new tablet.

Written by Mary Kate Polanin