From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A graphic novel is a type of comic book, usually with a lengthy and complex storyline similar to those of novels, and often aimed at mature audiences. The term also encompasses comic short story anthologies, and in some cases bound collections of previously published comic-book series.
Graphic novels are typically bound in longer and more durable formats than familiar comic magazines, using the same materials and methods as printed books, and are generally sold in bookstores and specialty comic book shops rather than at newsstands.
As the exact definition of graphic novel is debatable, the origins of the artform itself are open to interpretation. Cave paintings may have told stories, and artists and artisans beginning in the Middle Ages produced tapestries and illuminated manuscripts that told or helped to tell narratives.
The first Western artist who interlocked lengthy writing with specific images was most likely William Blake (1757-1826). Blake created several books in which the pictures and the "storyline" are inseparable in his prophetic books such as Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Vala, or The Four Zoas.
The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, the 1837 English translation of the 1833 Swiss publication Histoire de M. Vieux Bois by Swiss caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffer, is the oldest recognized American example of comics used to this end. The United States has also had a long tradition of collecting comic strips into book form. While these collections and longer-form comic books are not considered graphic novels even by modern standards, they are early steps in the development of the graphic novel.
Antecedents: 1920s to 1960s
The 1920s saw a revival of the medieval woodcut tradition, with Belgian Frans Masereel often cited as "the undisputed King" (Sabin, 291) of this revival. Among Masereel's works were Passionate Journey (1926, reissued 1985 as Passionate Journey: A Novel in 165 Woodcuts ISBN 0-87286-174-0). American Lynd Ward also worked in this tradition during the 1930s.
Other prototypical examples from this period include American Milt Gross' He Done Her Wrong (1930), a wordless comic published as a hardcover book, and Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), a novel in sequential images composed of collage by the surrealist painter Max Ernst. That same year, the first European comic-strip collections, called "albums", debuted with The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets by the Belgian Hergé.
The 1940s saw the launching of Classics Illustrated, a comic-book series that primarily adapted notable, public domain novels into standalone comic books for young readers. The 1950s saw this format broadened, with popular movies being similarly adapted. By the 1960s, British publisher IPC had started to produce a pocket-sized comic-book line, the "Super Library", that featured war and spy stories told over roughly 130 pages.
In 1943 while imprisoned in Stalag V11A, Sergeant Robert Briggs drew a cartoon journal of his experiences from the start of the War till the time of his imprisonment. He intended it to amuse and keep his comrades spirits up. He remained imprisoned till the end of the war but his journal was smuggled out by an escaping officer and given to the Red Cross for safe-keeping. The Red Cross bound it as a token of honour and it was returned to him after the war ended. The journal was later published in 1985 by Arlington books under the title 'A Funny Kind Of War'. Despite it's posthumous publication, it remains the first instance of a cartoon diary being created. Its historical importance is emphasised by the fact that Robert Briggs created it during the war and not in hindsight. Its use of slang, frank depictions and descriptions of life during wartime and open racism is more accurate than many other war memoirs which leave out these details.
In 1950, St. John Publications produced the digest-sized, adult-oriented "picture novel" It Rhymes with Lust, a film noir-influenced slice of steeltown life starring a scheming, manipulative redhead named Rust. Touted as "an original full-length novel" on its cover, the 128-page digest by pseudonymous writer "Drake Waller" (Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller), penciler Matt Baker and inker Ray Osrin proved successful enough to lead to an unrelated second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha by pulp novelist Manning Lee Stokes and illustrator Charles Raab.
By the late 1960s, American comic book creators were becoming more adventurous with the form. Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin self-published a 40-page, magazine-format comics novel, His Name is... Savage (Adventure House Press) in 1968 — the same year Marvel Comics published two issues of The Spectacular Spider-Man in a similar format. Columnist Steven Grant also argues that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales #130-146, although published serially from 1965-1966, is "the first American graphic novel".
Meanwhile, in continental Europe, the tradition of collecting serials of popular strips such as The Adventures of Tintin or Asterix had allowed a system to develop which saw works developed as long form narratives but pre-published as serials; in the 1970s this move in turn allowed creators to become marketable in their own right, auteurs capable of sustaining sales on the strength of their name.
By 1969, the author John Updike, who had entertained ideas of becoming a cartoonist in his youth, addressed the Bristol Literary Society, on "the death of the novel". Updike offered examples of new areas of exploration for novelists, declaring "I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece".
Modern form and term
Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin's Blackmark (1971), a science fiction/sword-and-sorcery paperback published by Bantam Books, did not use the term originally; the back-cover blurb of the 30th-anniversary edition (ISBN 1-56097-456-7) calls it, retroactively, "the very first American graphic novel". The Academy of Comic Book Arts presented Kane with a special 1971 Shazam Award for what it called "his paperback comics novel". Whatever the nomenclature, Blackmark is a 119-page story of comic-book art, with captions and word balloons, published in a traditional book format. (It is also the first with an original heroic-adventure character conceived expressly for this form.)
Hyperbolic descriptions of "book-length stories" and "novel-length epics" appear on comic-book covers as early as the 1960s. DC Comics' The Sinister House of Secret Love #2 (Jan. 1972), one of the company's line of "52-Page Giants", specifically used the phrase "a graphic novel of gothic terror" on its cover.
The first six issues of writer-artist Jack Katz's 1974 Comics and Comix Co. series The First Kingdom were collected as a trade paperback (Pocket Books, March 1978, ISBN 0-671-79016-1), which described itself as "the first graphic novel". Issues of the comic had described themselves as "graphic prose", or simply as a novel.
European creators were also experimenting with the longer narrative in comics form. In the United Kingdom, Raymond Briggs was producing works such as Father Christmas (1972) and The Snowman (1978), which he himself described as being from the "bottomless abyss of strip cartooning", although they, along with such other Briggs works as the more mature When the Wind Blows (1982), have been re-marketed as graphic novels in the wake of the term's popularity. Briggs notes, however, "I don't know if I like that term too much".
Regardless, the term appeared in print in 1976 in connection with three separate works. Bloodstar by Richard Corben (adapted from a story by Robert E. Howard) used the term to define itself on its dust jacket and introduction. George Metzger's Beyond Time and Again, serialized in underground comics from 1967-72, was subtitled "A Graphic Novel" on the inside title page when collected as a 48-page, black-and-white, hardcover book published by Kyle & Wheary. And the digest-sized Chandler: Red Tide (1976) by Jim Steranko, designed to be sold on newsstands, used the term "graphic novel" in its introduction and "a visual novel" on its cover, although Chandler is more commonly considered an illustrated novel than a work of comics.
The following year, Terry Nantier, who had spent his teenage years living in Paris, returned to the United States and formed Flying Buttress Publications, later to incorporate as NBM Publishing (Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine), and published Racket Rumba, a 50-page spoof of the noir-detective genre, written and drawn by the single-name French artist Loro. Nantier followed this with Enki Bilal's The Call of the Stars. The company marketed these works as "graphic albums"
Similarly, Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species by writer Don McGregor and artist Paul Gulacy (Eclipse Books, Aug. 1978) — the first graphic novel sold in the newly created "direct market" of United States comic-book shops — was called a "graphic album" by the author in interviews, though the publisher dubbed it a "comic novel" on its credits page. "Graphic album" was also the term used the following year by Gene Day for his hardcover short-story collection Future Day (Flying Buttress Press).
Another early graphic novel, though it carried no self-description, was The Silver Surfer (Simon & Schuster/Fireside Books, August 1978), by Marvel Comics' Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Significantly, this was published by a traditional book publisher and distributed through bookstores, as was cartoonist Jules Feiffer's Tantrum (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979) described on its dustjacket as a "novel-in-pictures".
Adoption of the term
The term "graphic novel" began to grow in popularity two months later after it appeared on the cover of the trade paperback edition (though not the hardcover edition) of Will Eisner's groundbreaking A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories (Oct. 1978). This collection of short stories was a mature, complex work focusing on the lives of ordinary people in the real world, and the term "graphic novel" was intended to distinguish it from traditional comic books, with which it shared a storytelling medium. This established both a new book-publishing term and a distinct category. Eisner cited Lynd Ward's 1930s woodcuts (see above) as an inspiration.
The critical and commercial success of A Contract with God helped to establish the term "graphic novel" in common usage, and many sources have incorrectly credited Eisner with being the first to use it. In fact, it was used as early as November 1964 by Richard Kyle in CAPA-ALPHA #2, a newsletter published by the Comic Amateur Press Alliance, and again in Kyle's Fantasy Illustrated #5 (Spring 1966).
One of the earliest contemporaneous applications of the term post-Eisner came in 1979, when Blackmark's sequel — published a year after A Contract with God though written and drawn in the early 1970s — was labeled a "graphic novel" on the cover of Marvel Comics' black-and-white comics magazine Marvel Preview #17 (Winter 1979), where Blackmark: The Mind Demons premiered — its 117-page contents intact, but its panel-layout reconfigured to fit 62 pages.
Dave Sim's comic book Cerebus had been launched as a funny-animal Conan parody in 1977, but in 1979 Sim announcedTemplate:Fact it was to be a 300-issue novel telling the hero's complete life story. In England, Bryan Talbot wrote and drew The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, described by Warren Ellis as "probably the single most influential graphic novel to have come out of Britain to date". Like Sim, Talbot also began by serializing the story, originally in Near Myths (1978), before it was published as a three-volume graphic-novel series from 1982-87.
Following this, Marvel from 1982 to 1988 published the Marvel Graphic Novel line of 10"x7" trade paperbacks — although numbering them like comic books, from #1 (Jim Starlin's The Death of Captain Marvel) to #35 (Dennis O'Neil, Mike Kaluta, and Russ Heath's Hitler's Astrologer, starring the radio and pulp fiction character the Shadow, and, uniquely for this line, released in hardcover). Marvel commissioned original graphic novels from such creators as John Byrne, J. M. DeMatteis, Steve Gerber, graphic-novel pioneer McGregor, Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, Walt Simonson, Charles Vess, and Bernie Wrightson. While most of these starred Marvel superheroes, others, such as Rick Veitch's Heartburst featured original SF/fantasy characters; others still, such as John J. Muth's Dracula, featured adaptations of literary stories or characters; and one, Sam Glanzman's A Sailor's Story, was a true-life, World War II naval tale.
In England, Titan Books held the license to reprint strips from 2000 AD, including Judge Dredd, beginning in 1981, and Robo-Hunter, 1982. The company also published British collections of American graphic novels — including Swamp Thing, notable for being printed in black and white rather than in color as originally — and of British newspaper strips, including Modesty Blaise and Garth. Igor Goldkind was the marketing consultant who worked at Titan and moved to 2000 AD and helped to popularize the term "graphic novel" as a way to help sell the trade paperbacks they were publishing. He admits that he "stole the term outright from Will Eisner" and his contribution was to "take the badge (today it's called a 'brand') and explain it, contextualise it and sell it convincingly enough so that bookshop keepers, book distributors and the book trade would accept a new category of 'spine-fiction' on their bookshelves".
DC Comics likewise began collecting series and published them in book format. Two such collections garnered considerable media attention, and they, along with Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1986), helped establish both the term and the concept of graphic novels in the minds of the mainstream public. These were Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), a collection of Frank Miller's four-part comic-book series featuring an older Batman faced with the problems of a dystopian future; and Watchmen (1987), a collection of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 12-issue limited series in which Moore notes he "set out to explore, amongst other things, the dynamics of power in a post-Hiroshima world"..
These works and others were reviewed in newspapers and magazines, leading to such increased coverage that the headline "Comics aren't just for kids anymore" became widely regarded by fans as a mainstream-press cliché. Variations on the term can be seen in the Harvard Independent and at Poynter Online. Regardless, the mainstream coverage led to increased sales, with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, for example, lasting 40 weeks on a UK best-seller lists.
- Artist's book
- Collage novel
- Comics studies
- Graphic nonfiction
- List of award-winning graphic novels