On first assumptions, the answer to the question may appear to be obvious. If it is a story told in images, is longer than a periodical comic book would normally be and is a single release, it is a graphic novel. Right?
The question of whether a book with a story told through pictures is a graphic novel is actually a very difficult one to answer. For example, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman is a story told exclusively through pictures, so may be considered a reasonable addition to the graphic novel section in a bookstore or library based on that criteria alone. However, unlike virtually all books generally referred to as graphic novels, The Snowman features no text at all – not even dialogue. The Snowman is commonly referred to as a children’s picture book and perhaps rightly so. So does that mean that whether a book is a graphic novel depends partially on its target audience?
1: Target audience
It has often been argued that though comic books can and very often do contain very mature and adult themes, graphic novels tend to be targeted primarily at a more mature readership.
Personally I do not believe this is true. Certainly there are some comic books which are targeted towards children and young teenagers. However, judging by my experiences of visiting comic book stores, I strongly believe that at least in current times most comic book readers are adults. As such, most comic books are written with it in mind that the majority of their readership are in fact of adult age.
However it is important to note that while comic books tend to be in the genres of science fiction or fantasy, graphic novels can be of literally ANY genre of fiction or narrative non-fiction.
It is common opinion, and reasonably so, that the only real difference between graphic novels and comic books is the binding.
Like magazines, comic books are saddle-stitched with two staples vertically on the spine. Meanwhile graphic novels are bound either like paperback or soft back books.
One difference between comic books and graphic novels is their availability. Comic books are predominantly available in retail through comic book stores, while graphic novels can generally be found in most bookstores.
Also, comic books are printed and released in a serialised format. While graphic novels are released as any other books are, as completed stories and with reprints as the publishers sees fit and isbn numbers etc.
Therefore, this could be seen as one major difference between the two. The closest analogy may be that comic books are to graphic novels what a magazine is to book.
Graphic novels go into greater depth in their narratives because they have the length of a whole book to do so. Meanwhile, a comic book has only a fraction of the space to tell part of the wider narrative that can also possibly function as a standalone story to avoid alienating newcomers to the series. In this regard there is a difference between comic books and graphic novels. However, the greatest comic books will make great use of the limited space available to them in order to develop plot and character.
5: Artistic Merit
Some argue that graphic novels differ from comic books in their artistic merit. It has been argued that graphic novels tend towards more mature, intellectually stimulating and artistically valid storytelling.
Put bluntly, I believe this to be a highly pretentious stance. One would not claim that films are automatically more deserving of artistic merit than television shows, or that novels are automatically more deserving of artistic merit than poetry, or that a piece of music is automatically more deserving of artistic merit than a play. There are all levels of standards of storytelling to be seen in all mediums of storytelling. Graphic novels and comic books are no different in this regard.
Simply put, comic books are intended to be read in serialised form while graphic novels are intended to be read as completed works.
However, if a comic book series has several issues compiled into a graphic novel (as is almost standard practice nowadays), it can be read as a completed work. But it is important to note that like a collection of short fiction by a named author that is then released as a book (i.e. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), a collection of comic book issues was not originally intended to be read as a completed work. Therefore on this issue alone there is a clear difference between graphic novels and comic books.
As periodicals, like magazines and newspapers, comic books feature advertisements. As books, graphic novels do not.
8: My opinions / Conclusion
Having considered these factors for the purpose of writing this blog post, I myself have come to the conclusion that there are very few differences between comic books and graphic novels in terms of their depth, target audience, and merit. The major differences are binding and availability.
However, I do also believe that collected sequential issues of comic books put together into a graphic novel format are not truly producing a “graphic novel.” I believe this would be akin to suggesting that a dvd of a television series can be called a film because it has several episodes on one disc, or that a collection of short stories with shared characters, back-stories, plot elements and themes in one book (i.e. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) can be called a novel because it is released in the same medium as one.
A true graphic novel, in my opinion, is very simply a story in comic-book format that is initially released as a book rather than in serialised form as with generic comic books. The majority of comic book derived graphic novels can in fact more accurately be seen as collections of short stories that are comic-book format.
I myself read mostly the latter (comic-book collections) in terms of “graphic novels” and am a huge fan of comic books generally. I am not as well versed in graphic novels as a whole outside of superhero fiction, but what I have read in the graphic novel format I have greatly appreciated.
Although there are clear differences between graphic novels and comic books, in everyday life I still consider that binding and depth is the only factor that really makes a difference to me.
I do really enjoy reading comic books. However I do more greatly enjoy the feeling of reading a completed story that one gets from a graphic novel. Therefore I often prefer to read comic books in a graphic novel format rather than as segments and sub-plots that make up a wider story. For this reason, although I do read both comic books and graphic novels, most of what I have read in comic books has been in graphic novel format.
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