The most basic of questions regarding graphic novels would have to be: what is a graphic novel? This question, sadly, turns out to be almost impossible to answer. The term is almost forty years old at this point, but throughout its history the term has never come to signify one specific thing. The trouble with the term is mostly that the term became popular in an effort to get taken more seriously by the literary world. In America, moreso than Europe, comic books weren’t taken seriously as having any literary value for most of the twentieth century. The term ‘graphic novel’ is born of insecurity by the long disrespected art form.

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Putting aside these humble roots of the phrase, let’s turn to how it is used. The first and major problem is that second word – ‘novel’. In prose fiction the novel has a very specific meaning that is utterly ignored by the graphic novel. Very many graphic novels are in fact memoirs or short story collections. Certainly there are some graphic novels that would still be categorized as a novel were they actual written-word-only books, but they are not at all the rule. Some graphic novels have a lot of words, some have very few. Some were written to become single books called graphic novels, many are not. Graphic novels are all bunched together into one awkward section where Batman stories, childhood memoirs, short story collections and Dilbert collections all sit shoulder to shoulder to shoulder.

Perusing the many lists of ‘essential graphic novels’ on the internet won’t help with finding a specific definition, I’m afraid. Some lists focus completely on superheroes, some lists completely ignore superheroes, some lists include things explicitly for children, most lists do not. Some lists even include something like The Walking Dead, which is not a graphic novel, but rather a comic book. There have been 135 ‘issues’ of The Walking Dead. Every six issues get collected into a ‘trade paperback.’ There have been 22 volumes of The Walking Dead as trade paperbacks. So when The Walking Dead appears on a list of graphic novels – what are we supposed to go read? Twenty-two books? Is each volume a graphic novel? Technically they may count, but I say it’s just not what we talk about when we talk about graphic novels.

The phrase is nebulous, let that be clear by now. Graphic novels have to be one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it sort of thing. Usually a graphic novel will be written and drawn by the same person, it will be more explicitly literary than your average comic book story (which means that graphic novels mostly don’t have superheroes) and the book has to be able to stand alone. None of those rules are hard and fast, because there are prominent exceptions for each rule. But I hope I gave you some sense of this weird genre.

Written by Roy den Boer

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Roy writes our book club book reviews on a monthly basis, always being critical and fair. Besides this, he is our go-to for everything about comics and graphic novels and he knows more about film than you will ever know.

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