Graphic Novels

by Theresa Flynn, May 20, 2011

What is a graphic novel?

It is a story told through both pictures and words.  Graphic novels are usually original work, but are sometimes taken from pre-existing text.  It is important to remember that graphic novels are a FORMAT not a GENRE.  Graphic novels can be mystery, adventure, romance, historical, even nonfiction.

How is it different from a comic book?

Graphic novels tend to have an arc – beginning, middle, end.  They tell a story.  Comic book collections, such as Far Side, Simpsons or Zits, tend to be more focused on humor within a single group of panels.  In comic books, the characters may develop, but that is not the primary focus of the writing.

What about Superman, Batman and other DC & Marvel Comics?  Don’t they have story arcs?

Yes.  When the “superhero” comics are compiled to tell a tale, they are called graphic novels.  This is one area where the comic book and graphic novel markets overlap.

What other types of graphic novels are there?

The creativity of the graphic novel creators is endless.  The artwork can be black and white drawings, artful watercolor, or even photographs.  Manga, a Japanese style of comic animation, is a highly popular form of graphic novel.

Are graphic novels good literature?

MausLike any other type of publishing, there is a full spectrum of quality in graphic novels.  Maus, a disturbing Holocaust tale, won the Pulitzer Prize.  Other titles so closely approximate computer games that only a 13 year-old could appreciate them.

Good news:  Most graphic novels have the same amount of text as a “real” novel.  Additionally, reading a graphic novel requires a high level of thinking skills. This is because the reader must have strong visual literacy skills and be able to integrate the text with the pictures.

Bad news:  Traditional book reviewers are still getting used to evaluating books where images are integrated, and comic book reviewers don’t generally review text, so finding reliable reviews of Graphic Novels can be challenging.

Who reads graphic novels?

Graphic novels are simply the hottest thing to hit the teen market since Harry Potter.  What started out as a niche market for younger teenage boys has exploded into widespread popularity across all ages, genders, and types of readers.  Graphic novels are an excellent choice for reluctant readers, often bridging the gap during that time when teenagers tend to shun books.  They are also popular with students who have a difficult time focusing.  One student reported that she enjoyed reading graphic novels because the picture format allowed her to reorient herself quickly when she was forced to read the book in short segments, rather than in one or two sittings.

What’s the bad news?

There are several challenges for parents to be aware of with graphic novels.  The major one is that students tend to assume all graphic novels are the same in terms of reading level and appropriateness.  The fact that graphic novels are shelved right next to comic books like Peanuts tends to reinforce this view.  As mentioned earlier, graphic novels are a format, not genre, and can (and do) include any subject matter and any reading level.  There is a growing group of graphic novels being published primarily for adult audiences.  They may look like comic books, but the situations and language used in them may be too mature for some readers.  Another issue, now being addressed by publishers, is a tendency to objectify female characters through drawings that are more “Barbie” than reality.  Lastly, many of the younger male readers enjoy the “Shonen” type of Manga, which often uses violence to resolve conflicts.  The violence can be as mild as Road-Runner cartoons, or as explicit as computer games.  Both the level of violence, or the use of it as a problem solver, is objectionable to many parents.



Popular graphic novel titles at HBW include Bone; the Manga series Ranma ½ and Inu-Yasha*; superhero titles like Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, and Justice League; and comic books from the The Simpsons and Calvin & Hobbes.

(*More bad news – if your teen enjoys these, they are expensive, and the series are never ending…so go to your local library!!!)

Mature, but worth the read: Maus, Pedro & Me, Sandman.

Links to popular publishers:

DC Comics
Viz Communications

For more information, read:

  • “Manga is Here to Stay” by Reid Calvin, Publisher’s Weekly, 10/20/03
  • “Getting Graphic at the School Library” by kat kan, Library Media Connection, April/May 2003
  • “Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacy” by Gretchen E. Schwarz, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, November 2002
  • The August, 2002 edition of School Library Journal, which includes a cover story and related articles on Graphic Novels
  • Steve Raiteri’s monthly column on graphic novels in Library Journal