What the Heck is a Graphic Novel?

By Chris

Graphic novels!  A bit of a buzz word in libraries.  It is a term many have heard but not everyone knows what it means.  Simply put, graphic novels are comic books.  A little less simply, they are comic books that are in book form.  And like all books, they come in all shapes and sizes and for all ages.

Now I could blather on about the origin of the term and all that, but that is boring and is also what wikipedia is for.  I could also go on about comics in general and their variety (and controversy) and such, but instead I am just going to start listing some varying examples of graphic novels.  You might surprised at how variable they really are.

Comic Books

Avengers assemble!
Avengers assemble!

Many graphic novels are just comics books rebound and repackaged.  The graphic novel versions often have additional material, such as introductions or alternate cover galleries.  Ultimate Fantastic Four Volume 1: The Fantastic reprints issues #1-6 of the regular monthly comic book.  Captain America Reborn contains all the issues of a limited series comic.  Batman The Greatest Stories Ever Told has compiles batman comics ranging from 1939 to 2002.  By the way, Thor is now a girl.

Ultimate Fantastic Four: The Fantastic

Captain America Reborn

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

All-star Superman

The Amazing Spider-man


Newspaper Strips

Presumably that sammie is made with the good stuff, not chunk light tuna.
Presumably that sammie is made with the good stuff, not chunk light tuna.

Some graphic novels are compilations of newspaper comic strips.  Typically these are in chronological order, and it can be neat to follow story arcs and also to see the evolution of the comic over the years.  Peanuts is a great example of this, as characters came and went and the art changed over time.  I also like reading old Doonesbury strips and seeing what current events Trudeau was incorporating into his stories.

Peanuts: A Golden Celebration

Garfield Rolls On

Dude: The Big Book of Zonker

In Search of the Far Side

The Revenge of the Baby-sat: A Calvin and Hobbes collection

The Bloom County Library


Authors and Adaptations

Those are bulletproof bracelets.
Those are bulletproof bracelets.

Many well known authors have written comics, and also have had their books adapted into graphic novels.  For instance, Jodi Picoult wrote several issues of Wonder Woman in 2007.  Max Brooks has a new graphic novel out.  Joe Hill writes an excellent comic series.  Brad Meltzer has written more than one comic.  And not just authors.  Patton Oswalt, William Shatner, and Kevin Smith are some of the many celebrities who have penned comics.

Similarly, a lot of writers have had their books turned into graphic novels, including James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Patricia Briggs…the list goes on.

Wonder Woman: Love and Murder (Picoult)

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft (Hill)

Witch & Wizard: Battle for Shadowland (Patterson)

Twilight: The Graphic Novel (Meyer)

Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files



Manga nirvana.
Manga nirvana.

Manga are Japanese comics, or comics done in the Japanese style.  This is not to be confused with anime, which are Japanese animated movies.  Manga has become very popular in the US in recent years.  The typical manga book is smaller than the typical graphic novel, being closer in size to a paperback novel.  Most of them, whether translated from the Japanese or created in that style, are read “back to front”.  While graphic novels can be stand alones or part of a series, manga are almost always part of a series.

Fullmetal Alchemist

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

D. Gray-man



Nice skull you've got there.
Nice skull you’ve got there.

Classic works of literature often receive the graphic novel treatment.  Shakespeare is common this way, unsurprisingly, and he is joined by many others, such as Poe and Austen.  These versions have some similarities to the Great Illustrated Classics series, giving younger readers an introduction to the classics.  The graphic novels can provide a nice overview and summation of works that can be intimidating or hard to understand for students, notably with Shakespeare.


Edgar Allan Poe: Graphic Classics

A Wrinkle in Time: the Graphic Novel


Pop Culture

Is that a rabbit with a blaster? Yes. Yes it is.

Many movies, TV shows, and other pop culture things end up as comics and graphic novels.  Star Wars, The Simpsons, Dungeons and Dragons, Aliens, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are just a few.  Some of these might simply be a comic version of the movies, such as the first Star Wars comics, or might be completely original stores, such as most of the 100s of Star Wars comics printed since.

Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures (great for younger readers)

Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago  (the first Star Wars comics)

Star Wars Empire: The Wrong Side of the War  (more contemporary Star Wars comic)

Simpsons Comics Belly Buster

Dungeons & Dragons 1:  Shadowplague

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Origin



Go, Bone, Go!

The bulk of comics come from the two big companies, DC and Marvel, but they aren’t the only publishers of comics.  These days there are many companies putting out comics.  Some of these are pretty big, such as Dark Horse, Image, and IDW, while many others remain largely unknown.  There was a time, though, that the smaller independent publishers had a harder time breaking out into the mainstream.

Did you know that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out as a comic back in 1984?  We can go back farther too, like for The Adventures of Tintin, which first appeared in 1929, and since the series has sold over 200 million copies.  Indie comics have often broken out of the mold of superheroes, giving readers some nice alternatives to the spandex crowd.

The Adventures of Tintin

Out From Boneville

ElfQuest, Wolfrider


Serious Comics

A serious comic about a serious issue.
A serious comic about a serious issue.

While most graphic novels are light hearted affairs, some tackle very serious issues.  Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is a good example in this, as it explores the Holocaust.  Maus was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize.  Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi,  is an autobiographical graphic novel about a girl growing up during the Islamic revolution in Iran.  Newsweek named Persepolis one of the top 10 fiction books of the 2000s, and the movie version received an Academy Award nomination.  Blankets is by Craig Thompson and is a coming of age story about a teen struggling with his Christian faith, and an award winning book.

Maus: My Father Bleeds History

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood


9-11: Artists Respond



Dream and Death from The Sandman
Dream and Death from The Sandman

I thought a great way to end this post was to list some of my personal favorite graphic novels.

Astonishing X-Men: Gifted.  Collecting the first six issues of a new X-Men series, this is one of my all time favorite superhero comics.  It is written by Joss Whedon (art by John Cassaday).  Yes, that Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy and director of The Avengers and so on and so forth.  The characters behave like real people.  They are heroic when needed but also have their own feelings and drama.  Plus an exciting twist.  It has even been adapted into a full length novel, penned by longtime comic writer Peter David.

Watchmen.  Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s tour de force may not have been the first graphic novel, but it is the one that put them on the map.  And it stands as one of the great pieces of modern literature, as evidenced by the number of accolades it has received.

The Sandman.  Written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by a host of artists, The Sandman series (75 issues) showed how comics could incorporate mature themes and appeal to adult audiences.  Issue #8, “The Sound of Her Wings”, is perhaps my favorite comic ever.  Gaiman went on to become a bestselling author of novels for both children and adults.

Flight is a series of comic anthologies, basically graphic short stories.  The series was conceived and is edited by Kazu Kibuishi with a goal of showcasing young comics creators.  I really enjoy the series because of the great variety of stories and art you find in it.

Unshelved.  I think I would be remiss in this blog not to mention a graphic novel that takes place in a library.  Unshelved is actually a webcomic created by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes.  It follows the toils and travails of the staff of the fictional Mallville Public Library.  It is a great way to see things from the other side of the desk.  I used to have a Read Responsibly shirt.


I hope that some of you found this post educational and put graphic novels, and all comics for that matter, in a different light.Share with me your insights, favorites, and recommendations!

A list of the graphic novels mentioned in this post can be found in our library catalog here:  https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=28691;page=0;locg=155;depth=0

3 thoughts on “What the Heck is a Graphic Novel?

  1. […] First off let me point out that this volume collects issues #9-16 of The Sandman comic book.  Preludes and Nocturnes, the preceding volume, is a great read, has plenty of scary moments, and lays the background, but I put The Doll’s House on this list because it is, to me, more of a horror read.  You can read more of what I have to say about The Sandman and graphic novels in general here. […]


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