Graphic Novels

History and Basics

  • History & Basics
  • Relevant Websites
  • Print Resources
  • What is a graphic novel? Are graphic novels and comics the same thing?
  • Why are graphic novels so popular now?
  • How long have graphic novels been around?
  • What traditions do GNs come from?
  • Who were/are the big innovators in GNs? What would be in the GN canon?
  • Where can you get GNs?
  • Who reads them?
  • What different kinds of GNs exist?

Graphic novels are, simply defined, book-length comics. Sometimes, they tell a single, continuous narrative from first page to last; sometimes they are collections of shorter stories or individual comic strips. Comics are sequential visual art, usually with text, that are often told in a series of rectangular panels.1 Despite the name, not all comics are funny. Many comics and graphic novels emphasize drama, adventure, character development, striking visuals, politics, or romance over laugh-out-loud comedy. The popularity of graphic novels is only growing as more people become familiar with works in this appealing and diverse format. A thriving market for graphic novels and rich cross-cultural influences mean that more experimental, innovative, high-quality stories and art are available now than ever before. Readers have a wide variety to choose from, so readership is no longer limited to fans of superhero escapades or slapstick humor. In addition, greater access to graphic novels—such as graphic novel collections in public and school libraries—certainly contributes to their current popularity. Visual parodies, satires, political cartoons, and straightforward funny drawings have been around for centuries, but it took the rise of the newspaper industry in the late nineteenth century to bring comics into everyday American households. From newspaper funny pages rose magazines devoted entirely to comics and superhero stories, and from these magazines rose book-length collections of previously published comics. However, most comics historians agree that the first real graphic novel was Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories published in 1978.2 Decidedly adult in its images, themes, and language, Eisner’s book spoke to the generation that had first grown up with superhero comics in the 1940s and 1950s. Underground comix artists like Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb inspired the early graphic novelists. (Comix, by the way, is an alternate spelling of comics that deliberately differentiated these artists from the respectable, Comics Code-obeying, mainstream comic books.3) Many later graphic novel writers and artists got their start at places like Marvel and DC Comics drawing and writing superheroes like The Fantastic Four and X-Men. Comics writer Stephen Weiner considers Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986), Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1990), Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets (1994), and Avi’s City of Light, City of Dark: A Comic Book Novel (1993) to be among the 100 great graphic novels public libraries should consider.4 These authors and titles, however, are just a taste of the numerous treasures lurking in a graphic novels collection near you.

Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories Watchmen graphic novel Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns Art Spiegelman’s Maus

1 D. Aviva Rothschild, Graphic Novels: A Bibliographic Guide to Book-Length Comics. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1995, p. xiii. 2 Stephen Weiner, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel. New York: Nantier-Beall-Minoustchine, 2003, p.20. 3 Reference to Wikipedia article on Underground Comix for further discussion. 4 Stephen Weisner. 100 Graphic Novels for Public Libraries. Northampton: Kitchen Sink Press, 1996. :: comics at the Library of Congress :: history of comic art :: Wikipedia article on graphic novels :: New York Public Library research guide :: Grand Comic Book Database :: Comics Research Bibliography :: Michigan State University’s comic art collection
American Civil Liberties Union. Censorship of comic books: a statement. New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 1955. Barker, Martin. A haunt of fears. London: Pluto Press, 1984. Benton, Mike. Science fiction comics: the illustrated history. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1992. (part of the series The Taylor History of Comics) The Comic-book book, edited by Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973. Crawford, Hubert H. Crawford’s encyclopedia of comic books. Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David Publisher’s, Inc., 1978. Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press, 1994. Estren, Mark. A history of underground comics. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing, 1993. The Funnies: an American Idiom, edited by David Manning White and Robert H. Abell. London: Collier-Macmillan, 1963. Gifford, Denis. American comic strip collections, 1884-1939. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990. Goulart, Ron. Ron Goulart’s Great history of comic books. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1986. Histoire mondiale de la bande dessinee, edited by Pierre Horay. Paris: P. Horay, 1989. Kurtzman, Harvey. From aargh! to zap!; Harvey Kurtzman’s visual history of the comics. New York: Prentice Hall Press,1991. The New Comics Anthology, edited by Bob Callahan. New York: Macmillan, 1991. Rothschild, Aviva. Graphic Novels: A Bibliographic Guide to Book-Length Comics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Co., 1995. Smithsonian book of comic-book comics, edited by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981. Those were the terrible, shocking, sensational, appalling, forbidden…but simply wonderful HORROR COMICS of the 1950’s, edited by Ron Barlow and Bob Stewart. New York: Nostalgia Press, 1971. Waiter, Stanley and Bissette, Stephen. Comic book rebels: conversations with the creators of the new comics. New York: Donald Fine, 1992. Weiner, Stephen. Faster than a speeding bullet: The rise of the graphic novel. New York: NBM Publishing Co, 2004. Weiner, Stephen. 101 Best Graphic Novels: A Guide to This Exciting New Medium. New York: NBM Publishing Co, 2003.