The Sunday Salon: The Graphic Novel vs. Comics

I’ve been growing uneasy about the term “graphic novel”. Having read Fun Home and The Influencing Machine, both works of nonfiction, the fact that the phrase refers specifically to works of fiction rubbed me the wrong way. I began to consider adding “graphic nonfiction” as a category to cover all eventualities, but then I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. In it, he briefly touches upon, in one particular vivid panel, he mentions how the term “graphic novel” privileges a few works while denigrating the entire medium it comes out of. Framing the argument this way reminded me of the term “genre fiction” (oh, it burns!) and has led me here—to a state of taxonomic crisis.

If you know me at all, you know that I like to be specific. The term “genre fiction” earns my ire just as much for dismissing entire genres as incapable of producing great literature as it does for being a frankly silly turn of phrase. (How on earth can a piece of literature be completely without genre? That’s some avant-garde stuff right there.) This is exactly why I was growing uncomfortable with the “novel” bit of “graphic novel” even before reading Understanding Comics. But Understanding Comics explains that comics is a specific medium. While, obviously, related to the mediums of art and literature, it’s a beast all its own. The term, then, becomes problematic because it assigns a form of literature to a different medium.

However, the term is reached for so often because what is often called a graphic novel is different from traditional comics. Jeff Smith, the writer of Bone, says as much in this 2008 interview:

I just recently read Douglas Wolk say, when people ask him what the difference is between a graphic novel and a comic book, he says, “the binding.” Which, I kind of like that answer. Because “graphic novel”… I don’t like that name. It’s trying too hard. It is a comic book. But there is a difference. And the difference is, a graphic novel is a novel in the sense that there is a beginning, a middle and an end. I don’t consider a collected story arc of Spider-Man a graphic novel. It’s not. There may be superhero stories that are.

Here, Smith is making a logical distinction between “graphic novels”—comics with a clear beginning, middle, and end—and “comics”—serialized comics. Essentially, it’s the difference between films and television, which are different uses of more or less the same medium (albeit with vastly differing budgets). This logic makes complete sense to me, and it even comes with a handy rule of thumb based on publication and structure.

But the term is still privileged; we can see it with Smith, who adds the idea of a superhero story being capable of being a graphic novel as an afterthought in that comment. For instance, one of my favorite comics is The Unwritten, a fantastic deconstruction of Harry Potter that also examines the nature of fiction and our relationship to it. Based on Smith’s logic above, The Unwritten is a comic—it’s released in monthly installments and, while I have complete faith that Carey is steering the series in a particular direction, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. But the ambitious content causes many people to class it as a graphic novel, although each trade paperback release of the series, being systemic collections of five or so issues, lacks a proper beginning, middle, and end. The term is being used to separate “worthy” works from “unworthy”, which is not the work the label for a medium is supposed to be doing! To quote McCloud, we must learn to “to separate the form of comics from its often inconsistent contents” (199); a similar argument for video games is made in Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives.

And yet, there’s further complication. On the one hand, the development of the medium with a term that separates it from traditional comics broadens the context and brings people to the table who may never have sat at it—but I don’t think for a moment The Influencing Machine would have occurred in a world where all comics were treated the way superhero comics are. And if we stick to publication history as definer of medium, it gets complicated in the world of comics. How should I label a comic miniseries? It’s serialized, but it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Argh!

It’s easy for me to go in circles—on one hand, I loathe the practice of privileging certain works out of a much maligned genre or medium, but on the other hand, there is a difference between a volume of The Unwritten and Fun Home. Ultimately, I’m going to compromise in my categories here on the blog and list “graphic novel”, “graphic nonfiction”, and “serialized comics” all under the heading of “comics”—sub-mediums, if you will, based only on format and publication history. I’ve also cleaned up some other categories, but that’s the main problem.

Well, it’s been a busy but otherwise unremarkable week. The story of my life, really. I read Huntress, Understanding Comics, and X-Men: Magneto Testament this week, and continue to make my way through The Vicomte de Bragelonne and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’m actually between books at the moment—I’ve got A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Vintner’s Luck at home. I’m going to go pick up Goliath from the library today, but I think I will read A Visit from the Goon Squad next. is giving away two ARCs of The Thirteen Hallows until Tuesday. Author John Lenahan is giving away 20 free digital copies of Shadowmagic to The Literary Omnivore readers; details can be found here. Author Jaye Wells is giving away a truly remarkable bundle of supernatural fiction—all books are signed and the contest is open internationally until Halloween. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of the term “graphic novel”, especially in this context?

  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. 1993. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

19 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Graphic Novel vs. Comics

  1. I have debated these things so many times, and you explain it all SO WELL. I also hate that “graphic novel” is used as privileging term (a phrase that is sure to drive me to MURDEROUS RAGE [well, inside my head, that is] is “That’s not a comic, it’s a graphic novel!” said in a superior tone). And yet you’re right that there’s a difference between self-contained and serialised works. I went for the lazy solution on my blog and use “Comics and Graphic Novels” as a single tag, but I really like your idea.

    • What makes it more complicated is that the term is useful, even though it’s privileging and frustrating. I’m thinking of adding another category for comic miniseries, having just read one, but I think this will last me a while.


  2. Category labels are so vexing, aren’t they? Especially when they mean different things to different people. I tend to be lazy about the categories on my own blog, just because I know there’s no way to fine-tune the distinctions perfectly. Jenny and I have gone with a few broad terms, instead of making fine distinctions, but even with broad categories, I’m uncertain how to label some books. (I might add “comics” to my “graphic novels” label, just to catch everything. If I can be lazy and accurate, that’s all to the good, LOL.) And I agree that labels shouldn’t be about quality but about medium.

    I really like that movies and TV distinction you make here. It’s easy to see the difference and to see how quality doesn’t really enter into it. A TV show can be far more sophisticated and complex than a film, just as a comics series can be more layered and complex than a standalone graphic book.

    • My need for categorizing and specificity (no wonder I’m thinking of becoming a librarian!) makes me want to make sure the categories are apt but nonjudgmental.

      Exactly! It’s a different approach—the difference between short form and long form (on a continuum of length, of course).

  3. As with the whole “literature” argument, I feel that intent and context are vital when considering something as a graphic novel. If you’re using it as a form of distinction from comics in that it’s a self-contained story rather than collected issues of a series, then that’s something I can agree with: if, however, you’re using it as a form of distinction from comics in that it’s worthier of intelligent and intellectual consideration, then I profoundly reject that definition. As you say, the difference between films and television.

    On the privileged aspect of it, I think it’s a case of taking the phrase back: just because it has been misused doesn’t mean it should be jettisoned outright. After all, supposedly high-minded literary types sought to distinguish 1984 and Brave New World from science fiction, because science fiction was apparently just a bunch of nonsense about aliens and rocketships: does that mean we should avoid the tainted term science fiction? Of course not: if anything, it should be embraced!

    • Absolutely! Comics is comics is comics; graphic novels are a kind of comics, not superior comics. (I’m getting flashbacks to Mystery Science Theater 3000, when the ‘bots protest that their comic books are graphic novels…)

  4. Was there any mention of the “trade paperback” term in _Understanding Comics_? That seems to me to be a useful way to distinguish bound comics comprising a single dramatic arc (either in a continuing line or a one-off) from the weeklies, without prejudicing the term.

  5. My attitude has shifted over the years. I’m old enough that “graphic novels” were really, really rare back when I first bought comics. People talked about Will Eisner, who I think brought the term into common use, but that was about it. “Comics” was the way to go. Then, as I got older, I began seeing “graphic novel” used as a means of privileging certain texts. This is deep, meaningful literature, so it’s a graphic novel. We’ll just forget it was originally published monthly, just like those comics over there. The term became so ubiquitous that I assumed it had become the widely accepted way to refer to any hardcover or perfect bound graphic text. I used it accordingly.

    But more and more, I find myself drifting away from “graphic novel” and using “comics” to mean, well, any work of sequential graphic storytelling. This is partly a reaction against the idea that “comics” don’t have anything worthwhile to say while “graphic novels” are the bee’s knees, and partly because, as you mention, many graphic novels aren’t novels. They’re nonfiction.

    To my mind, “comics” is inclusive. It’s monthly books, self-published stuff people copied at Staples, perfect bound paperbacks, hardcovers, fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, realism, mystery, horror… the works. “Graphic novel” can be useful to distinguish between ongoing series and self-contained works, but it opens a whole new can of worms in certain contexts. I still use it in my blog tags, but I’ve been considering a total shift to “comics.” It’s the term I use in conversation, after all.

  6. I am a fan of comic books/graphic novels and I appreciate how you have addressed the distinction (and lack of distinction) here. In a way it reminds me of Dragon*Con where a multitude of genres coexist on tracks but somehow get all thrown together into one big weekend. Certainly adding Understanding Comics to my reading list and also The Unwritten. I did try to follow your link to that, but it didn’t work for me.

  7. I think that the distinction between comics and graphic novels is probably best addressed in terms of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Just taking a serialized approached, the most popular graphic novel ever, Watchmen, is immediately eliminated since it was serialized.

    And while I agree that most comic book arcs aren’t graphic novels, those arcs where the entire story can fit into a single volume would, in my opinion count, but those occasions are few. A good example would be X-Men: Messiah CompleX, which features the entire story of how the X-Men deal with the first new mutant birth.

  8. This is very well-written and thoughtful, Clare. I agree that privileging certain genres through terminology is ridiculous.

    But on to more important and eloquent things: GOLIATH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AH!!!! YESSSSSS!!!!!!!

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