A graphic novel is a book made up of comics content. Although the word "novel" normally refers to long fictional works, the term "graphic novel" is applied broadly, and includes fiction, non-fiction, and anthologized work. It is distinguished from the term "comic book", which is used for comics periodicals.
The term "graphic novel" was first used in 1964; it was popularized within the comics community after the publication of Will Eisner's A Contract with God in 1978, and became familiar to the public in the late 1980s after the commercial successes of the first volume of Spiegelman's Maus, Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen, and Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Book Industry Study Group added "graphic novel" as a category in book stores.
The term is not strictly defined, though one broad dictionary definition is "a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and presented as a book." In the publishing trade, the term is sometimes extended to material that would not be considered a novel if produced in another medium. Collections of comic books that do not form a continuous story, anthologies or collections of loosely related pieces, and even non-fiction are stocked by libraries and bookstores as "graphic novels" (similar to the manner in which dramatic stories are included in "comic" books). It is also sometimes used to create a distinction between works created as stand-alone stories, in contrast to collections or compilations of a story arc from a comic book series published in book form.
Whether the Japanese form manga, which has had a much longer history of both novel-like publishing and production of comics for adult audiences, should be included in the term is not always agreed upon. Likewise, in continental Europe, both original book-length stories such as La rivolta dei racchi (1967) by Guido Buzzelli, and collections of comics have been commonly published in hardcover volumes, often called "albums", since the end of the 19th century (including Franco-Belgian comics series such as "The Adventures of Tintin" and "Lieutenant Blueberry", and Italian series such as "Corto Maltese").
As the exact definition of graphic novel is debatable, the origins of the artform itself are open to interpretation. Cave paintings may have told stories, and artists and artisans beginning in the Middle Ages produced tapestries and illuminated manuscripts that told or helped to tell narratives.
The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck is the oldest recognized American example of comics used to this end. It originated as the 1828 publication Histoire de M. Vieux Bois by Swiss caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffer, and was first published in English translation in 1841 by London's Tilt & Bogue, which used an 1833 Paris pirate edition. The first American edition, in 1842, was published by Wilson & Company in New York City using the original printing plates from 1841 edition. Another early predecessor is Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags by brothers J.A. and D.F. Read, inspired by The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck. The United States has also had a long tradition of collecting comic strips into book form.
1920s to 1960s
The 1920s saw a revival of the medieval woodcut tradition, with Belgian Frans Masereel cited as "the undisputed king" of this revival. His works include Passionate Journey (1926). American Lynd Ward also worked in this tradition, publishing the first wordless, woodcut-picture novel, Gods' Man, in 1929 and going on to publish more during the 1930s.
Other prototypical examples from this period include American Milt Gross' He Done Her Wrong (1930), a wordless comic published as a hardcover book, and Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), a novel in sequential images composed of collage by the surrealist painter Max Ernst. Similarly, Charlotte Salomon's Life? or Theater? (composed 1941-43) combines images, narrative, and captions as in later graphic novels.
The 1940s saw the launching of Classics Illustrated, a comic-book series that primarily adapted notable, public domain novels into standalone comic books for young readers. The 1950s saw this format broadened, with popular movies being similarly adapted. By the 1960s, British publisher IPC had started to produce a pocket-sized comic-book line, the "Super Library", that featured war and spy stories told over roughly 130 pages.
In 1950, St. John Publications produced the digest-sized, adult-oriented "picture novel" It Rhymes with Lust, a film noir-influenced slice of steeltown life starring a scheming, manipulative redhead named Rust. Touted as "an original full-length novel" on its cover, the 128-page digest by pseudonymous writer "Drake Waller" (Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller), penciler Matt Baker and inker Ray Osrin proved successful enough to lead to an unrelated second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha by pulp novelist Manning Lee Stokes and illustrator Charles Raab. Presaging Will Eisner's multiple-story graphic novel A Contract with God (1978), cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman wrote and drew the four-story mass-market paperback Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (Ballantine Books #338K), published in 1959.
By the late 1960s, American comic book creators were becoming more adventurous with the form. Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin self-published a 40-page, magazine-format comics novel, His Name is... Savage (Adventure House Press) in 1968—the same year Marvel Comics published two issues of The Spectacular Spider-Man in a similar format. Columnist and comic-book writer Steven Grant also argues that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales #130–146, although published serially from 1965–1966, is "the first American graphic novel". (Similarly, critic Jason Sacks referred to the 13-issue "Panther's Rage" — comics' first-known titled, self-contained, multi-issue story arc — that ran from 1973 to 1975 in the Black Panther series in Marvel's Jungle Action as "Marvel's first graphic novel".)
By 1969, the author John Updike, who had entertained ideas of becoming a cartoonist in his youth, addressed the Bristol Literary Society, on "the death of the novel". Updike offered examples of new areas of exploration for novelists, declaring "I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece".
Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin's Blackmark (1971), a science fiction/sword-and-sorcery paperback published by Bantam Books, did not use the term originally; the back-cover blurb of the 30th-anniversary edition (ISBN 978-1-56097-456-7) calls it, retroactively, "the very first American graphic novel". The Academy of Comic Book Arts presented Kane with a special 1971 Shazam Award for what it called "his paperback comics novel". Whatever the nomenclature, Blackmark is a 119-page story of comic-book art, with captions and word balloons, published in a traditional book format. It is also the first with an original heroic-adventure character conceived expressly for this form.
European creators were also experimenting with the longer narrative in comics form. In the United Kingdom, Raymond Briggs was producing works such as Father Christmas (1972) and The Snowman (1978), which he himself described as being from the "bottomless abyss of strip cartooning", although they, along with such other Briggs works as the more mature When the Wind Blows (1982), have been re-marketed as graphic novels in the wake of the term's popularity. Briggs notes, however, "I don't know if I like that term too much".
First self-proclaimed graphic novels: 1976–1978
In 1976, the term "graphic novel" appeared in print to describe three separate works. Bloodstar by Richard Corben (adapted from a story by Robert E. Howard) used the term to define itself on its dust jacket and introduction. George Metzger's Beyond Time and Again, serialized in underground comics from 1967 to 1972, was subtitled "A Graphic Novel" on the inside title page when collected as a 48-page, black-and-white, hardcover book published by Kyle & Wheary.
The digest-sized Chandler: Red Tide (1976) by Jim Steranko, designed to be sold on newsstands, used the term "graphic novel" in its introduction and "a visual novel" on its cover, although Chandler is more commonly considered an illustrated novel than a work of comics.
The following year, Terry Nantier, who had spent his teenage years living in Paris, returned to the United States and formed Flying Buttress Publications, later to incorporate as NBM Publishing (Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine), and published Racket Rumba, a 50-page spoof of the noir-detective genre, written and drawn by the single-name French artist Loro. Nantier followed this with Enki Bilal's The Call of the Stars. The company marketed these works as "graphic albums".
The first six issues of writer-artist Jack Katz's 1974 Comics and Comix Co. series The First Kingdom were collected as a trade paperback (Pocket Books, March 1978, ISBN 978-0-671-79016-5), which described itself as "the first graphic novel". Issues of the comic had described themselves as "graphic prose", or simply as a novel.
Similarly, Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species by writer Don McGregor and artist Paul Gulacy (Eclipse Books, August 1978)—the first graphic novel sold in the newly created "direct market" of United States comic-book shops—was called a "graphic album" by the author in interviews, though the publisher dubbed it a "comic novel" on its credits page. "Graphic album" was also the term used the following year by Gene Day for his hardcover short-story collection Future Day (Flying Buttress Press).
Another early graphic novel, though it carried no self-description, was The Silver Surfer (Simon & Schuster/Fireside Books, August 1978), by Marvel Comics' Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Significantly, this was published by a traditional book publisher and distributed through bookstores, as was cartoonist Jules Feiffer's Tantrum (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979) described on its dustjacket as a "novel-in-pictures".
Adoption of the term
Hyperbolic descriptions of longer comic books as "novels" appear on covers as early as the 1940s. Early issues of DC Comics' All-Flash Quarterly, for example, described their contents as "novel-length stories" and "full-length four chapter novels."
In its earliest known citation, Richard Kyle used the term "graphic novel" in CAPA-ALPHA #2 (November 1964), a newsletter published by the Comic Amateur Press Alliance, and again in an article in Bill Spicer's magazine Fantasy Illustrated #5 (Spring 1966). Kyle, inspired by European and Japanese graphic albums, used the label to designate comics of an artistically "serious" sort. Following this, Spicer, with Kyle's acknowledgment, edited and published a periodical titled Graphic Story Magazine in the fall of 1967. The Sinister House of Secret Love #2 (Jan. 1972), one of DC Comics' line of extra-length, 48-page comics, specifically used the phrase "a graphic novel of Gothic terror" on its cover.
The term "graphic novel" began to grow in popularity months after it appeared on the cover of the trade paperback edition (though not the hardcover edition) of Will Eisner's A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories (October 1978). This collection of short stories was a mature, complex work focusing on the lives of ordinary people in the real world, and the term "graphic novel" was intended to distinguish it from the traditional serialized nature of comic books, with which it shared a storytelling medium. Eisner cited Lynd Ward's 1930s woodcuts (see above) as an inspiration.
The critical and commercial success of A Contract with God helped to establish the term "graphic novel" in common usage, and many sources have incorrectly credited Eisner with being the first to use it. These included the Time magazine website in 2003, which said in its correction, "Eisner acknowledges that the term 'graphic novel' had been coined prior to his book. But, he says, 'I had not known at the time that someone had used that term before.' Nor does he take credit for creating the first graphic book."
One of the earliest contemporaneous applications of the term post-Eisner came in 1979, when Blackmark's sequel—published a year after A Contract with God though written and drawn in the early 1970s—was labeled a "graphic novel" on the cover of Marvel Comics' black-and-white comics magazine Marvel Preview #17 (Winter 1979), where Blackmark: The Mind Demons premiered—its 117-page contents intact, but its panel-layout reconfigured to fit 62 pages.
Following this, Marvel from 1982 to 1988 published the Marvel Graphic Novel line of 10"x7" trade paperbacks—although numbering them like comic books, from #1 (Jim Starlin's The Death of Captain Marvel) to #35 (Dennis O'Neil, Mike Kaluta, and Russ Heath's Hitler's Astrologer, starring the radio and pulp fiction character the Shadow, and released in hardcover). Marvel commissioned original graphic novels from such creators as John Byrne, J. M. DeMatteis, Steve Gerber, graphic-novel pioneer McGregor, Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, Walt Simonson, Charles Vess, and Bernie Wrightson. While most of these starred Marvel superheroes, others, such as Rick Veitch's Heartburst featured original SF/fantasy characters; others still, such as John J. Muth's Dracula, featured adaptations of literary stories or characters; and one, Sam Glanzman's A Sailor's Story, was a true-life, World War II naval tale.
Writer-artist Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1986), helped establish both the term and the concept of graphic novels in the minds of the mainstream public. Two DC Comics book reprints of self-contained miniseries did likewise, though they were not originally published as graphic novels: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), a collection of Frank Miller's four-part comic-book series featuring an older Batman faced with the problems of a dystopian future; and Watchmen (1986-1987), a collection of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 12-issue limited series in which Moore notes he "set out to explore, amongst other things, the dynamics of power in a post-Hiroshima world". These works and others were reviewed in newspapers and magazines, leading to increased coverage. Sales of graphic novels increased, with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, for example, lasting 40 weeks on a UK best-seller list.
Criticism of the term
Some in the comics community have objected to the term "graphic novel" on the grounds that it is unnecessary, or that its usage has been corrupted by commercial interests. Writer Alan Moore believes,
It's a marketing term... that I never had any sympathy with. The term 'comic' does just as well for me... The problem is that 'graphic novel' just came to mean 'expensive comic book' and so what you'd get is people like DC Comics or Marvel Comics—because 'graphic novels' were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel...."
Author Daniel Raeburn wrote,
I snicker at the neologism first for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a 'sanitation engineer'—and second because a 'graphic novel' is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine.
Writer Neil Gaiman, responding to a claim that he does not write comic books but graphic novels, said the commenter "meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But 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."
Responding to writer Douglas Wolk's quip that the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book is "the binding", Bone creator Jeff Smith said, "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."
Some alternative cartoonists have coined their own terms to describe extended comics narratives. The cover of Daniel Clowes' Ice Haven (2001) describes the book as "a comic-strip novel", with Clowes having noted that he "never saw anything wrong with the comic book". The cover of Craig Thompson's Blankets calls it "an illustrated novel." When The Comics Journal asked the cartoonist Seth why he added the subtitle "A Picture Novella" to his comic It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, he responded, "I could have just put 'a comic book'... It goes without saying that I didn't want to use the term graphic novel. I just don't like that term".
- Artist's book
- Collage novel
- Comics studies
- Graphic nonfiction
- List of award-winning graphic novels
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