"Comics" vs. "Graphic Novels"

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2263


The terms “comics” and “graphic novels” both describe works that use sequential images to tell stories. However, they also refer to different formats in which comics are published; the former implies monthly magazines, the latter a book. Calling comics graphic novels lends the medium literary worth; however, equating the two terms has been controversial because some feel the latter term suggests that comics should aspire to be like novels.

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Comics have been increasingly recognized as a major form of literature, and related terminology is fluid and frequently debated. The terms comics and graphic novels are interchangeable when they refer to the medium of using pictures to tell stories. However, they can also refer to different ways in which the medium is presented. Comics brings to mind amusing newspaper comic strips or thin monthly magazines, whereas graphic novels refers to thicker books that have a kind of literary gravitas.

The link between comics and humor comes from the first newspaper comics published in the late 1800’s, which were called “comic weeklies” and later simply “comics.” Later illustrated stories have been called comics even though they may be neither humorous nor published weekly. In discussions of motion pictures, “films” refers to films in the plural and “film” can refer to one film or the entire medium; “comic” in the singular, however, is not used to designate the comics medium. The term can only refer to one work or volume or serve as an adjective.

As comics scholarship has spread and deepened, academics and industry insiders, recognizing the confusion surrounding the term comics and its inability to describe all of the titles in circulation adequately, have proposed a range of different naming conventions. One of the most popular terms in circulation is graphic novels, which was invented to disassociate works from the “childishness” of comics. The term was first used by Richard Kyle in 1964 in a Comics Amateur Press Alliance newsletter and was later popularized by Will Eisner, who marketed his 1978 comic A Contract with God as a graphic novel. Before the 2000’s, the term was sometimes understood to mean violent or pornographic novels, but wide usage has made the compound noun accurately understood.

Compared to the term comics, which technically only communicates that the stories are funny, graphic novels more accurately describes the medium’s use of pictures to tell stories, and the term is also a better description for comics in book form. However, use of the term has generated new questions. If Ultimate Spider-Man, for example, is a comic in monthly issues, does it become a graphic novel after it is bound? If so, does a different binding automatically put it in the same category as a work such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986, 1991), or do other descriptors need to be applied to differentiate between bound comics and stand-alone graphic novels? Also, even although “graphic novel” does sound more literary than “comic,” there have been debates over whether it should be used as a substitute, as some have found the term too contrived. Others have pointed to its inaccuracy; the word “graphic” may highlight the medium’s use of images, but “novel” suggests a long fictional story. Exploring the naming conventions for different formats of comics has helped the medium diversify and open artistic possibilities.

Further Distinctions

Comics can be used as an umbrella term to mean all types of graphic publications, regardless of format. Under this definition, a “comic strip” refers to a comic of two or more panels and up to a page in length, often featuring recurring characters if it is serialized. A “cartoon” is a single-image comic. The “comic book,” which also can be called a “monthly,” a “pamphlet,” or a “floppy,” is a monthly issue that is approximately thirty-two pages in length; this is the most common format used by American publishers such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics.

Comic strips have been published in North America since the late 1800’s; however, during the 1930’s, the comic book format was initiated by Max Gaines, a salesman for Eastern Color Printing, as a way to collect previously published newspaper comic strips and boost their sales. A subcategory under comics, graphic novels refers specifically to book-length, completed stories published in one or more bound volumes; however, the term is also applied to volumes of collected comic book series. Sometimes, to differentiate between graphic novels featuring previously unpublished content and those reprinted from serialized comic books, the former are referred to as “original graphic novels” (“OGNs”), while the latter are referred to as “trade paperbacks” (“trades” or “TPBs”). Most comic book series are collected into paperbacks, so the few hardcover collections can still be generally referred to as trade paperbacks.

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Some original graphic novels may be serialized in independent magazines before being issued in a bound volume, and comic books may be collected into volumes; however, for most of comics publishing history, comic book series were issued only in the monthly format, sold at newsstands with other newspapers and magazines, and disposed of after reading. As readers began to collect comics in the 1970’s, publishers responded by printing collections. Because original graphic novels and graphic novel collections have become extremely popular, some have predicted that comics as a whole may transition into being published only as graphic novels. However, comic book publishers have established a pattern for working with the monthly comic book through many decades, and comic book creators and readers maintain that comic books have a unique storytelling structure and will continue to draw audiences.

Differences in Publication Format

In terms of publication, there have been a few major differences between serialized comic books and original graphic novels: production process, publication format, and content. First, as a result of the structure of major comic book publishers in the United States, publishers often own the rights to characters and divide writing, penciling, inking, lettering, and coloring duties among their employees. A series or character can outlive its initial individual creators; for example, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1932 but is owned by DC Comics and remains an active character in the DC Universe. Original graphic novels grew out of underground comics, which developed outside the mainstream comic book production structure. They are often produced by an individual or a self-selected team who retains the rights to the characters and the work as a whole.

Second, comics and graphic novels differ in terms of publication format, which leads to differences in story structure. Because the earliest comic books reprinted short comic strips, the first superhero comic books also featured short, completed stories centered on a stable cast rather than stories developed over several issues. In modern publishing, stories tend to be framed in one issue to create a satisfying monthly reading experience. Although many modern serialized comic books are written with a completed story as a target, early series may continue to tell short stories indefinitely, based on publisher discretion. In contrast, the plot in original graphic novels may build and resolve itself through the entire story and does not necessarily require a specific story structure within a set number of pages.

Third, stories published in the serialized comic book format have overwhelmingly been superhero and crime-fighting stories. Original graphic novels, on the other hand, are particularly noted for covering more personal stories or nonfiction narratives.

Naming Strategies

Before the wide production of graphic novels, comics referred to comic strips and serialized comic books, which are fast reads compared to prose novels and are associated with humor and entertainment. Thus, comics have largely been regarded as a disreputable and juvenile element of popular culture. Fredric Wertham’s 1954 criticism of comics, Seduction of the Innocent, further confirmed this perspective in the minds of many educators by arguing that comics teach children violent behavior and lax social values. In addition, the production of comic book series, divided among many individuals with apparently limited roles, has been seen as a form of industrial mass production and not necessarily art or literature. One approach to changing the public perception of comics is to rename all comics “graphic novels” to distance them from such associations. Because the term graphic novels has literary connotations, another approach is to affix nonfiction or literary comics with a more realistic or serious label to distinguish them from comic book series meant primarily to entertain.

The increase in the number of comics published in the graphic novel format has helped comics become more mainstream. Comics published in the graphic novel format can be more welcoming to new comics readers than those in serial format. They are distributed through the more familiar environment of the bookstore, look like other books, and are more likely to contain complete stories or story arcs; therefore, they do not necessarily ask readers to wait as the series progresses monthly. In addition, original graphic novels have drawn more attention than comics from educators, who have seen in them more literary value, and this has helped readers understand that comics are not all about superheroes.

Others believe, however, that avoiding the term comics panders to a vague idea of literary worth and that there is no need for comics to be similar to prose literature. Scholarship has revealed that comic strips that were previously considered junk reading have relevance in their ability to chart changing social anxieties in North America. Labeling certain titles as graphic novels to set them apart from other comics is particularly contentious. First, a difference in naming creates a hierarchy within comics. Comic books would still be considered childish and remain obscure, when, in reality, they can be mined as rich cultural texts. Second, while there is no inherent link between publication format and content, because series published in the monthly comic book format have been predominantly superhero stories and original graphic novels have been personal or nonfiction stories, format and content have often been conflated. Labeling personal and nonfiction stories as graphic novels risks entrenching the belief that monthly comic books are not a suitable format for personal stories and nonfiction and that original graphic novels should not tell superhero or action stories. This would limit experimentation with different formats of comics.


As industry professionals, librarians, and academics have grappled with the terms comics and graphic novels and tried to pin down their attributes, they have also come to understand the publication possibilities for comics as a medium and how different forms of publication can affect the reading experience. Despite both differences between the uses of comics and graphic novels and the debates around their similarities, the two terms have remained flexible. Comics writer Neil Gaiman has noted that while his Sandman series (1989-1996) was published serially as a comic book, many people have subsequently referred to it as a graphic novel. The differences between the two terms are also lessening as more and more serialized comic books are being collected into trade paperbacks. Readers, librarians, and academic scholars have begun to distinguish between comic books and graphic novels based on publication format rather than content.

Realizing that monthly comic books do not necessarily have to contain superhero stories can help readers read more widely. Many libraries and bookstores have a graphic novels section; while this takes marketing concerns into consideration, as many readers are drawn to comics as a format regardless of genre, one space for all comics encourages readers to consider formats to be similar rather than different.

Original graphic novels are still more likely than serialized comics to be used as teaching materials in schools and universities. However, as more comics are published in the graphic novel format, comics in general have become more socially accepted. On the other hand, maintaining the term comics to denote all forms of graphic storytelling is a part of a larger push in the arts and humanities to close the perceived gap between high and low culture, and it emphasizes that comics need not be elevated to literary status to be an important aspect of culture. Superhero comics, comic strips, and Web comics are regularly discussed at academic conferences and in scholarly journals, and the older term comics is increasingly looked upon favorably.

The debate regarding terminology has also generated suggestions for more precise terms. Many acclaimed graphic novels, such as Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000-2003), are not fiction, and calling them novels would be as misleading as calling a serious story a comic. “Graphic narrative” has been proposed to cover all comics, and sometimes more precise terms such as “graphic nonfiction” and “graphic memoir” are also used.


  • Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA 123, no. 2 (2008): 452-465. Focuses on nonfiction graphic novels and their representation of history and critically reassesses the term graphic novel, suggesting the use of “graphic narrative” to describe nonfiction.
  • Couch, Chris. “The Publication and Formats of Comics, Graphic Novels, and Tankobon.” Image [&] Narrative 1, no. 1 (December, 2000). http://www.image andnarrative.be/inarchive/narratology/chriscouch.htm. Traces the development of the monthly comic book and the graphic novel forms as well as their influences, such as pulp-fiction magazines.
  • Weiner, Robert G., ed. Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History, and Cataloguing. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2010. Deals directly with how naming has affected the delivery and reception of comics in libraries and examines how grouping comics together or throughout the library according to subject matter affects reader access.
  • "Comics" vs. "Graphic Novels": Is It All in the Binding?Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: History, Theme, and Technique Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press

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