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Graphic Novels: What are Graphic Novels?


What is a graphic novel?

Graphic novels are freestanding narrative works which use images, usually in combination with text, to advance the story.

Graphic Novels and Comic Books

Graphic novels and comic books are closely related forms. The line between the two genres is often blurry and at times, the terms are used interchangeably.

There are a few distinctions often made to distinguish graphic novels from the comic book format from which they emerged. These include the following:

  • Graphic novels tend to be stand-alone works, while comic books are ongoing serials;
  • Graphic novels take on a wider variety of topics, including darker and more serious themes, while comic books often stay close to superhero or comedic motifs; and
  • Graphic novels often include more sophisticated artwork than the typical comic book and are printed on higher quality paper.

While these distinctions help to identify the rise of the graphic novel out of comic book history, modern comic books and graphic novels vary greatly in theme, mood, and audience. Serials with more mature themes and sophisticated artwork might be referred to as comic books or as graphic novels. The rise of the graphic novel represents a trend in visual literature, but many works produced today will fall between the two extremes of superhero comic and grim philosophical graphic novel.


Manga refers to Japanese comics, which have become distinguished from comic books through their popularity and the use of a particular style. Manga gained in popularity throughout the second half of the 20th century, although the form is influenced by earlier Japanese artistic traditions.


Although storytelling through illustrations has been in practice since antiquity, modern comics and graphic novels owe their beginning to the proliferation of newspaper cartoons during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of these were stand-alone topical illustrations, while others featured ongoing storylines and regular characters. As these comic strips were more frequently collected in book format throughout the 20th century, comic books became a more and more popular format.

In the 1970s, the publication of comic books with more mature themes led to the development of the term "graphic novel". Will Eisner is often noted as the father of the genre, with the publication of his book "A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories in 1978 listed as the date of origin.

Precursors to Modern Graphic Novels:     Significant Graphic Novels since 1978

* Books with links are either available online at Project Gutenberg or owned by Holy Spirit Library.



Comic Books And Graphic Novels. (2005). In Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. Retrieved from

comic strip. (2013). In The Columbia Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

graphic novel. (2001). In The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English. Retrieved from

Graphic Novel. (2011). In Keywords for Children's Literature. Retrieved from

graphic novel. (2012). In The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers. Retrieved from






"a drawing in a newspaper or magazine intended as a humorous comment on something ...

First Known Use: 1671"

Cartoon. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2013, from


Comic Strip

"a series of cartoon drawings that tell a story or part of a story"

First Known Use: 1920

Comic strip. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2013, from strip



Comic Book:

"a magazine containing sequences of comic strips —usually hyphenated in attributive use"

First Known Use: 1941

"Comic Book." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2013. < book>.



a Japanese comic book or graphic novel

First Known Use: Circa 1951

"Manga." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <>.


Graphic Novel

 "a story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book"

First Known Use: 1978

"Graphic Novel." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 June 2019. < novel>