Comics Vs. Graphic Novels: Semantic Showdown

Graphic Novel
If you walk into any bookstore or library and want to read a comic, what label do you look for? It’s “graphic novel”. Unless you’re in a comic book store, comics (specifically in America) sit under the label of “graphic novel”. They are situated as a category or genre of English prose, like “Western” or “Fantasy”. That is not a fair categorization of comics and it needs to end.

The term graphic novel is a poorly defined one. The most common elements of the definition are:
1) It is a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end
2) It is intended for a mature audience (i.e. not children)
3) It possesses literary merit.
4) It is typically longer than a comic book and better bound
That may not be a very satisfactory definition for the word, but it’s really as good as it gets. For the sake of comparison, let’s apply a standard “comic book” and compare it to the term “graphic novel” to see if the definition creates a clear difference. In this case the example will be Animal Man #5, also titled “The Coyote Gospel”.

That cover possesses more merit than most "graphic novels".
That cover is worth more than most “graphic novels”.

It is a single issue published by DC Comics and written by Grant Morrison in 1988 as part of the ongoing title “Animal Man”. For all intents and purposes, it is a comic book, not a “graphic novel”. It also contains a self contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. It also is intended for a mature audience, as is most of Grant Morrison’s work. It also possesses more literary value than most novels in a given library, exploring themes like the role of fictional characters upon our lives, the effects of religious belief, and martyrdom. The only way in which it differs from the characteristics of a “graphic novel” is that it was stapled in a pamphlet-like format. That’s it. The term “graphic novel” as it is commonly defined is, at best, a way to differentiate between forms of binding.

There’s no way to properly define comics in a column this short and without the attention of many experts. There is a very good starting point to use, however. Scott McCloud, the creator of “Understanding Comics” and world renowned comics-expert, began the aforementioned title by proffering this definition:

Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader.

It’s not a perfect definition. It excludes single panel comics like “The Far Side” and “Family Circus” and focuses more heavily on the artistic merits of comics than the literary ones. Yet it does establish, for the most part, what is inside and outside the comics medium. It fits alongside definitions of “prose” or “sculpture” in making clear what is a part of the medium, without taking artistic merit or other outside objectives into consideration. McCloud’s definition focuses on what defines the medium, and nothing else.

The term “graphic novel” is not used to clearly define its subject matter. If it were, then it would be inept in its purpose. Even taken at its most literal meaning, it fails, considering a novel is generally defined as a “fictitious prose narrative…” The important word is “prose”. Comics are not prose, and they can’t be because they are more than a written language. They require the inclusion of art. “Graphic novel” would be a phrase better attributed to a (sexually) graphic novel, like “Fifty Shades of Grey” or a novel featuring graphics, like “The Hobbit” with lots of pictures inside.

Its purpose is not to define though. It is to provide legitimacy through association. There is a long-standing history of comics being dismissed as childish fare, distractions, or a threat to civil society. Check out “The Ten Cent Plague” by David Hadju to get an idea of what a raw deal the word and its associated materials have received in recent history. So when truly great, literary works like “Maus” and “Watchmen” met the mainstream consciousness in the 1980’s, publishers attempted to add legitimacy by deeming them “graphic novels” (the term was technically first used in the 1970’s, but this is a very condensed history). Afterwards, it was applied to all large-scale bindings of comics, whether they bore any literary merit or not. It’s a word that was born, not out of necessity, but out of a desperate bid for acceptance. Decades later and comics are being taught in classrooms and winning literary awards. They still aren’t widely accepted as a peer to novels, drama and other forms of story-telling, but the public’s perception of them is much improved. And when you consider that “Twilight” and the aforementioned “Fifty Shades of Grey” are both technically novels, it seems like the term “novel” could use some borrowed legitimacy of its own.

There is nothing good about this, unless you really dislike women.
There is nothing good about this, unless you really dislike women.

The effect of the word “graphic novel” on comics may have been (emphasis on may) beneficial before I was born, but now it’s a detriment. It pleads a special case for some comics, attempting to separate between the valuable “graphic novels” and valueless “comic books”. All you need to do is read “The Coyote Gospel” or thousands of other comic books to understand what a farcial difference this is. It also places comics in a position of submission to novels. Rather than their being separate studies of novels, drama, poetry, and comics, it provides no room for comics to grow into their own study. Art Spiegelman (Maus) recognized this in an interview with The Economist where he said,

I prefer ‘comics’ because it credits the medium. ‘Comics’ is a dumb word, but that’s what they are.

Comics are currently considered a subdivision of the novel in most English courses where they are lucky enough to be taught. Simply put, that’s not good enough. There’s too much value, too much unique language, too large a library of fantastic literature to keep comics as an understudy to novels.

So please, call comics what they are: comics. Comics is a medium possessing a unique language, entirely separate from other mediums of storytelling. In order to ensure their continued advancement in classrooms and amongst readers, its important to be clear about what they are and what they are not. They are comics. They are not graphic novels.

You wouldn’t call a poem a rhyming novel, would you?

Published by chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.

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  1. Chase, this is easily one of your best columns so far. I really like the language you are using to seek out a way to elevate comics and how you also explore the history of legitimacy in the medium. It’s something I feel also crosses into a topic of genre similar to the struggle fantasy is undergoing in the literary pantheon. I like the idea of owning the term “comics” in an effort to legitimize the medium on its established merits. Your writing here is a great start for that process. -NG

  2. Really fantastic essay! You bring up a very valid and under-discussed point and make a strong argument. I would really like to post a link to your essay on my blog, please let me know if that would be alright. Thanks!

      1. I think the most obvious recommendations to someone new to comics are “Maus” and “Watchmen”. It’s almost stereotypical, but that’s for a good reason. I would also add “We3” by Grant Morrison and “Pride of Baghdad” by Brian K. Vaughan to that list. All of these books are self contained and show value as both literature and comics pieces.

        I think there’s a lot of value in experiencing different methods of reading comics, so it might be worth recommending some new ongoing series. In my opinion the best monthly comics currently being published are:
        “Saga” (I cannot describe how much I love this book)
        “The Manhattan Projects”

        Hope that helps some.

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