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What are Graphic Novels?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Graphic novels are sometimes called long comic books. They usually cover fictional material in comic book form — through the use of sequential illustrations. Unlike the traditional comic book, however, these books are longer and tend to cover a story from start to finish, instead of ending with the traditional cliffhanger endings of comic books. In some cases, though, a graphic novel is a compilation of several series of comics that begin and end a particular story arc.

Some of the first examples of graphic novels in the United States were comic book classics, published first in the 1940s. Novels like The Three Musketeers were put into the traditional framework of a comic book, whereby they were thought to be more easily digested by young readers. Though greatly abridged, this treatment of novels was popular among the young, and many look back on these books with fondness.

Today, there are graphic novels suited to all ages, and some that are particularly unsuitable for the young. Graphic can mean more than “accompanied by illustrations.” Certain titles, like those written by Frank Miller, are rife with violence and very realistic depictions of sexual behavior. They do have a market, and Miller’s Sin City was adapted into a film, which starred A-list actors and won considerable critical praise.

Works like Miller’s are often influenced by the popular Japanese comic form, manga. Manga relates to all graphic novels, comic magazines and cartoons, and is sometimes confused with the term anime, which is animated. Its current style was developed during World War II, and much of Walt Disney’s work influenced manga drawing. Manga can be written for small children, or constitute complex political and social satire, and virtually no subject is taboo.

While a graphic novel produced in the US with typically feature characters with very different faces and names, manga characters have distinctive features. Most characters have very large eyes, small noses, and lined mouths. Though some Japanese artists do not follow this character form, most Japanese illustrations that make it to the US have traditional manga faces. Manga can be intensely inappropriate for young children, and they are not rated as US graphic novels are. The anime sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a good example of the lengths to which manga may go as an art form.

Some graphic novels offer terrific ways to educate children. Since they are full of illustrations, they are often attractive to young readers and can communicate stories about morals or events in history. Some are just pure fun, and enhance children’s appreciation of and skill in reading.

Since the best selection is frequently at comic book stores, parents may want to do some reading to find appropriate material for their children. Some large booksellers place graphic novels in the children’s section to make selection easier. For adults who love the form, its popularity continues to increase, so they can be assured of an evolving collection of interesting material.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Ted41 — On Sep 05, 2012

I much prefer graphic novels over comic books. As the article said, they're longer, and usually finish the story rather than ending in a cliffhanger. I really hate cliffhangers! Also, graphic novels are usually much sturdier than comic books, and you can actually keep them and re-read them, whereas comic books often get ruined.

I've also noticed that lately, some graphic novels are available as ebooks and you can read them in color on a tablet. I think this is a cool trend, and I hope it continues.

By starrynight — On Sep 04, 2012

@ceilingcat - I've noticed that some television shows do new graphic novels now also! For example, I know that two Joss Whedon shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, were continued as graphic novels after they went off the air. It's not quite as good as seeing them on television, but for some fans, it's enough!

By ceilingcat — On Sep 04, 2012

@SZapper - A lot of movies that have come out in the last few years have been inspired by comic books and graphic novels. Sin City is one, and of course there's all the movies that are based on Marvel comics, like Spiderman and the Hulk.

One other trend I've noticed in publishing graphic novels is that sometimes authors who write regular novels will come out with a graphic novel tie in to their series. I think this is a cool idea, and it helps expose their work to a wider audience too!

By SZapper — On Sep 03, 2012

I had no idea Sin City started out as a graphic novel! I remember seeing the movie when it first came out, and I thought it had been inspired by comic books because of the lighting and the way the film was shot. It makes perfect sense that it actually was a comic book before it was a movie.

By calpat — On Mar 23, 2011

I just love graphic novels! I didn't like to read much as an adult until I discovered graphic novels. The pictures make them so much more enjoyable for me to read.

Plus, it doesn't take that long to read one. I don't have a lot of free time. So, if a book is too long, then I never get around to finishing it. Graphic novels are the perfect solution!

By heath925 — On Mar 23, 2011

I never thought that I was a graphic novel reader, but the more I think about it, maybe I am. I loved reading Peanuts comics when I was a kid. My mom had some old books that were thick just like a chapter book, but they were full of Peanuts comics.

These old books were all black and white, but I have purchased some of my own as an adult that have color pictures.

Would these compilations of Peanuts comics be considered graphic novels?

By write79 — On Mar 21, 2011

Not too long ago, I read my first graphic novel. I had seen multitudes of them in the bookstore for quite some time, but they just never held any appeal for me. I never read comic books as a child, and as an adult I still prefer traditional books.

However, my favorite story of all time was recently put into graphic novel form. It was the same story as the original novel, but told in the point of view of a different character, which made it very interesting.

I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. But I think I'll still stick to traditional books, unless the same author writes any new graphic novels. If that were to happen, I would definitely read them.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor, Tr...
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