Essay-What defines a Graphic Novel?

A contributing aid for my FMP will be an essay that will relate to our project. In my case, since I’m thinking of making a graphic novel of some form I thought it would make sense to research what defines a graphic novel and explore why they are different to comics.

Here is my current essay:

The graphic novel is typically regarded as a type of book that is constructed in a similar or identical fashion as a comic book but many experts and enthusiasts regard graphic novels as a different media that is not to be confused with comics. Others even sum up the graphic novel as a picture book that can be entertaining for older audiences and not just children.

This essay will explain what specifically makes a book a graphic novel in comparison to comic books.


A graphic novel is regarded as a format rather than a genre. In comparison to comics they both rely on the use of imagery put into a sequential fashion to tell a story. Comics usually focus on popular and widely recognised characters, typically superheroes, and they are often distributed as a series of issues on a regular basis. However, graphic novels are usually stand-alone stories that are about the same length as a book. Collections of short stories that have been published as individual comics are also considered to be graphic novels. (Caufield, Dan,, 12/2/16) On the topic of storytelling in graphic novels, the types of stories you would expect to find in graphic novels are essentially the same kind of the stories you would find in books. The stories of graphic novels are sometimes told as a single narrative, continuous from the first to last page and sometimes they are told as short stories or individual comics. Because of the name, comics are sometimes misunderstood as media that is intended to depict humour but in reality both comics and graphic novels explore and emphasise on themes of drama, adventure, character development, romance or politics rather than just comedy. (, 12/2/16)

In comparison to comics, readers are not just limited to reading stories related to comedy or superhero escapades, graphic novels cover a variety of genres and sub-genres in fiction and non-fiction. Popular examples include manga, personal narratives and superhero stories. (, 12/2/16)


While the familiarity of comic books has been around for a much longer period of time, the emergence of the term graphic novel started since 1964. American magazine publisher Richard Kyle imported comics from Europe and Japan, showing fascination for their unique presentation and content in comparison to typical comics created in the States, he therefor used them as evidence that creating visual stories in this medium had strong potential regardless of the traditional uses of comics. He first came up with “graphic story” which eventually evolved into the term “graphic novel” to encourage readers and writers in America to aspire to similar ambitions while sticking to the sophistication of the content and presentation found in European and Japanese comics.

(Gravette, Paul, 2005, p.8, Graphic Novels: Everything you need to know, Collins Design)



While the first graphic novel ever created is not clearly defined, many regard A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories as the first important early example of the graphic novel. Created by Will Eisner, it filled the demand for sophisticated comics targeted towards adults, this resulted in a boom of classic graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. This period of creativity also resulted in a formal control over the comic book medium which included sophisticated control over the use of panel transitions, layout, and so on to achieve certain narrative effects, coupled with artistic innovation and a literary quality in which each author announced their own unique style. It’s because of these traits that these books became distinct from traditional and mainstream comics at the time. However, despite the differing story content and the media hype around them, there was very little that was new about these books. These books still got attention from the press for their different story material in comparison to what would normally be found comics intended for children, but it was the assumption from the general public at the time that comics were merely for children, which created confusion. Yet in the turn of the 21st century graphic novels gained recognition and awards beyond the usual reception of comic books; they have been achieving complexity and density comparable to novels while transcending the novel’s limitations with artwork that has become an integral part of the graphic novel medium, rather than just being illustrative of the plot. They have also been expanding their content by associating themselves with themes and genres including theatre and even more creative freedom and free publishing is permitted to aspiring illustrators and graphic novelists thanks to the web. (Christopher Murray,, 15/2/16)


Unlike the presentation of traditional comic books, there is a lot of variety when it comes the presentation styles of graphic novels. One particular trait is the decision to not include text or dialogue, this is where the genre of the wordless novel emerged. Before the graphic novel was defined and having taken inspiration from woodcuts from the medieval ages, early examples of the genre originated and were popularised in Germany during the German Expressionist movement of the 20th century, where artists would use relief printing techniques such as woodcut to create work to express angst and displeasure at social in justice. (, Woodcut printing (1900 onwards), 16/2/16)

One such artist to popularise the genre included Frans Masereel, who gained world acclaim for expressing socio-critical content using his woodcut series. (, 16/2/16)

Since after the Second World War, examples of wordless graphic novels became increasingly rare. Interest began to revive in the 1960s when the American comics fandom subculture came to see wordless novels as prototypical book-length comics. In the 1970s, the example of the wordless novel inspired cartoonists such as Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman to create and popularise the graphic novel format and the rise of the graphic novel would reignite the interest of wordless novels. Such artists and authors to take part in the trend included Eric Drooker, Peter Kuper, Thomas Ott, Brian Ralph, Masashi Tanaka, and Lewis Trondheim.

And recent examples of wordless graphic novels include Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. (, 16/2/16) and Jim Wondering’s The Frank Book (Gravette, Paul, 2005, p.136, Graphic Novels: Everything you need to know, Collins Design, 16/2/16) In relation to comics, this unique genre is what gives graphic novels a defining characteristic with its distinctive art styles and content that would not be found in comic books.


In relation to comic books and despite their differences that set graphic novels and comics apart, they both make use of sequential art to tell a story. Before the graphic novel was defined, the creation of comics trace their roots to the early ages where the first mediums of sequential art were created before the comic book was defined. Such early examples include pre-Columbian picture manuscripts discovered by Cortes in 1519. Yet hundreds of years before Cortes began his collection of comics, France produced work of similar resemblance called the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long tapestry depicting the details of the Norman Conquest of England, beginning in 1066. In comparison to comics of the modern age, these tapestries are read from left to right in one continuous strip of parchment rather than pages within a book, and instead of using panel borders to separate scenes they relied on the change of subject matter to divide scenes. And before the creation of tapestries, there were Egyptian hieroglyphics which first relied on the use of basic symbols until they evolved into clearer images. Unlike they ways in which tapestries and manuscripts were read, Egyptians read in a zig-zig fashion; starting from reading from left to right, moving upwards to the next sequence to read from right to left and eventually finishing the story once the reader reaches the top of the painting.

(McCloud, Scott, 1993, p.10-15, Understanding Comics, William Morrow)

While the origins of where and when comics is also not clearly defined, the invention of printing raised the sophistication of the picture-story, reaching high standards with the works of William Hogarth, a notable example of his work includes his six-panel picture-story “A Harlot’s Progress”. Published in 1731, it told a story in pictures that were rendered high quality detail and designed to be viewed side-by-side in sequential order. In the mid-1800’s, what would be regarded as the first modern comic to be created was Rodolphe Topffer, featuring the first independent combination of words and pictures.

(McCloud, Scott, 1993, p.16-17, Understanding Comics, William Morrow)



In conclusion, a shortened dictionary definition of the term graphic novel is simply a novel presented in comic-book format but the term is not strictly defined since it holds qualities that set the graphic novel apart from the comic book. One notable example includes the story contents and materials- traditional comics will usually focus on comedy and stories about superheroes while the content of graphic novels can be anything. Other notable examples include the use of imagery, art styles and techniques- comic books generally have similar art styles, whereas the art styles of graphic novels have more variety ranging from simplistic black & white drawings to detailed illustrations created using either or both traditional and digital methods. And a final defining trait is the genre of wordless novels, a genre that can be found in the graphic novel medium and rarely found in traditional comic books.


In relation to my work in graphic design, I am aspiring to create graphic novels in the future, I therefore wanted this essay to explore and clarify what defines a graphic novel in comparison to comic books. I have learnt from my research used for the making of this essay that that focusing on the graphic novel medium would be beneficial for my style of illustration techniques; the story content and material can be of my own imagination along with a drawing style that fits with all the drawing styles and techniques that I have learnt so far. I am also passionate about illustration and the graphic novel medium depicts varied styles of illustration techniques, this ranges from simplistic, cartoony character design to realistic looking figures. This is especially relevant to my style of illustration combined with some experimental techniques such as blending digital and traditional methods for creating illustrations. In addition, I am also planning to create a short graphic novel for my Final Major Project in HND2 Graphic Design, while collecting research for my essay I discovered a particular graphic novel called The Arrival which relies solely on its use of images to tell a story without the use of text or dialogue. My decision is not set in stone but I have considered creating my graphic novel in a style similar to this as it could be fitting for the content and material that will be depicted within it- it’s intended to be illustrated in a surreal manner and the wordless novel direction could be a fitting decision to make. Although aside from my main idea for my Final Major Project, I have recently considered other ideas that would not explicitly involve making a typical graphic novel but it would still rely on the use of sequential images to tell a story. Once again I got these ideas while collecting research for my essay, in which I was researching the origins for using sequential images to tell a story, which dates back way before the comic book or graphic novel was defined. This includes William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress in which he used six deeply illustrated paintings to tell a story, I’m considering going in this direction for generating other ideas for my Final Major Project. As for the subject matter for my project, it will be closely related to a graphic novel project that I have been working on in my spare time and I currently have intentions for my Final Major Project to be considered as a “preview” for what I have in mind so far for the graphic novel that I am currently working on, during which I will be using everything that I have learnt during my time in HND Graphic design so far to help me create it.


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