When wandering through a bookstore, it is routine for me to stop by the graphic novel section and flip through some of my favorite classics, “Sin City” and “Watchmen,” before skimming the new items. After telling people I read graphic novels, a common response is, “I didn’t know you were into comic books.”

It’s difficult to describe how frustrating it is to answer to that response. Although I do enjoy a good comic now and again, I am quick to respond with a, “No, no, not comics, graphic novels,” elongating the g-r-a-p-h-i-c n-o-v-e-l-s in hopes that the listener will understand the difference — alas, they rarely do.

Yet reading one or the other is a great way to escape the heavy reading of textbooks or classic novels. It can be a fun way for studying students to escape into a world less concerned with finals and essays.

So, it is time to give you my opinion on what separates two very wonderful forms of literature. And yes, they are literature.

“Maus,” a graphic novel created by Art Spiegelman, was the first comic/graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Additionally, comics have been inspiring, read, cherished and used for marketing and propaganda in America since the 1930s. This, I believe, qualifies both as true-blue literature.

They have a few things in common that make it easy to mix the two. They are both works of fiction and have panel-style illustrations that do a large part of the storytelling. They are often tied to superheroes and villains, although many modern comics and graphic novels are experimenting with different story lines. But what sets them apart?

Many enthusiasts use binding as the determining factor in whether something is classified as a graphic novel or comic book. Comics, as many of you are familiar with, use traditional saddle stitching — meaning they are held together with staples in the spine. Graphic novels are bound either in hardback or tradepaper (soft cover) like a book, with a thick spine glued to hold the pages together.

Although this simple explanation is satisfactory and points to a clear physical difference, it is not sufficient. What do we do with a series of “Spider-Man” comics that are bound in a single book? This is where I make a distinction between comic books and graphic novels, and why I tend to read one and not the other.

Comic books are periodicals. They are produced monthly and usually have a good amount of action that progresses the story line forward to the next issue. Graphic novels are read like a book. They delve deeper into the story lines of characters and history, not just action, and they complete the full arch of a narrative by the end of the novel.

This dive into the story and history of characters and events is what sets graphic novels apart. Intricate story lines are, of course, told in comic books, but it can take months before a certain history is explained from a past issue, and it’s easier to introduce and remove characters without much consequence to the overall story line.

Graphic novels have to focus on character development and consistent details, giving me, as a reader, a more satisfying experience.

Absolutely, both forms have their merit, and many readers sway from one to the other occasionally. But for those interested in entering the world of comics and graphic novels, it’s important to recognize the differences and pick the right form.

Is there a key component to graphic novels or comics that make them what they are that is missing here? Comment online and share your opinion.

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  1. Hi. My name is Emanuel. For a time I’ve had this same problem, about how to separate comics from graphic novels, and the same answer was giving to me; one has a thicker spine the other has none, or almost nothing. As a reader you can get a different vibe from that of a comic. But, what about the art in it? The style in which it is presented or reader Dr form? The detail in which is shown and stuff like that. Don’t know if I’m explaining my doubt very well.

    Sincerely, one how wishes to do one day a graphic novel.

  2. Graphic novel was a term the industry began using in order to cultivate respect for the art form and medium, however in this day and age by holding to such terms, you’re actually belittling the artform. There is no practical distinction, as so few graphic novels have their genesis outside of periodically issued collections of sequential art, and frankly it is an arbitrary one at that. The question of where to draw the line is a meaningless one, graphic novel, one shot, ongoing that gets canceled after issue 2 and winds up a 6 issue mini, a planned 6 issue mini, a limited series, new ongoing creator owned property…?

  3. In summary, there are many diverse classifications of comics in a variety of genres, but generally there are good comics, and bad ones

  4. I don’t agree with your definition, because it suggests that using action to movie a story forward is somehow less deep than having characters talk more.

    Frankly, my problem with “graphic novels” is that there’s too much BLOODY exposition, which wouldn’t be so bad — if the writing were really good. I’m reading Lady Mechanika, and I love all of it except some of the writing, where there is, yes, lots of backstory, but it’s hamfisted, clumsy, and tedious. In this way, I say if you’re going to have mediocre writers, you may as well just drive the story forward with action, and there’s nothing shallow about that.

  5. My impression is that Comic books are more drawings telling the story with text added (you could almost understand the story without the text), while Graphic Novels are more telling in writing but supported with lots of pictures to make it all more fun and accessible, but you can not necessarily understand the story from the pictures alone..

  6. I used to read whatever gets my attention without putting categories in my priorities, now after I was looking for the difference between Graphic and Comic novels I realized that I have been jumping around here and there so thank you all for your contribution to illustrate the differences among literature work!

    • But still just read what tickles your fancy with no apologies ever! 😊

      I, so far, don’t enjoy either of those forms (just curious about the difference, is why I’ve been reading this). Liked “the funnies” in the paper, way back in my dad’s day lol. But I love to read and love even more to see a love of reading spread among others — whatever motivates. Pass it on!

  7. I would say putting it simply, graphic novels are published by book publishers, comic books are published by comic book publishers. Comics are periodicals and graphic novels are read like novels. I would highly recommend, the Comic Book History of Comics Books by Fred Van Lente! He explains this concept!

  8. You say that Maus is a Graphic Novel, yet it was published in stages, as multiple pieces and not a complete story. I agree with the above statements concerning the belittling of the art form. Read Scott Mcloud and Eisner’s theories and the distinction becomes non-existent except in a classist/derogatory “i’m better that this” way. Comics do not wholly focus on action, and japanese comics especially have very drawn out exposition and moment to moment panels. Since the dawn of modern comics (1886), the form has been adopted by more than just the single action centered plot to create amazing in depth stories reflective of the world in it’s most modern form. Please feel free to correspond, I am currently writing my postgraduate thesis on comics, and would love to hear your argument developed further, to see if the distinction between comics and graphic novels, if there is any, can be justified in any way. –

    [email protected]
    Cambridge, UK

  9. As the saying goes, “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time.” The same is very true with categorizations and definitions. Purists will always argue why you simply cannot categorize an art form–whether it’s music, graphic art, or literature (including comics and graphic novels). I don’t subscribe to that line of reasoning, however, and believe calling The Sex Pistols punk, and Kendrick Lamar West Coast hip hop and rap is just fine. (And someone will probably skewer me for labeling Kendrick… which is fine 🙂

  10. So I have Charles Schults original comics you can read the comics as brief stories so grafic novels are stories. If we follow that way of thinking why then is not Charles Schultz grafic novels. Still confussed.

  11. I would like to make an ebook or webcomic type story that has illustrations and traditional comic book and graphic novel elements such as the word bubbles and thought bubbles, however, I would also like large sections that are structured like a book where the story can really be told. It seems like graphic novels aren’t really like novels and I would like for my work to be like an illustrated book and I think posting a large percentage online for free and charge right when it gets to the good part would be a good business model. Any advice or thoughts?

    • I have been considering the same thing. I was thinking of using a motion book medium, as it would allow you to move the text forward when needed and pull the pictures to the front when character (using speech bubbles) to talking and back to text when moving on. I am still experimenting with it to see how practical that approach is.

  12. I find it awesome that you said that comic books are monthly issues that progress while graphic novels delve into the full narrative of a story, resembling a book. Reading this gave me an idea of what to give my son for his fifth birthday. Any tips on where to find a store that sells first-edition comics of Spiderman?


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