When is a Comic a Graphic Novel?

Gather ’round class. Today’s topic is COMICS!

I'm not sure if I was the focal point of everyone's attention or the kingfisher who flew behind me every once in awhile.

I’m not sure if I was the focal point of everyone’s attention or the kingfisher who flew behind me every once in a while.

Sunday I gave a brief talk to my friend’s Salon Group about the difference between Comics and Graphic Novels. The talk was only about twenty minutes so this was not an in-depth investigation into the history of comics but more like a quick overview followed by Show & Tell.  I figured getting a little more mileage for my effort was in order so here, dear followers, is the basic difference between the two, with a bit of comic book history thrown in.

One thing I did discover in my research is that there is a lot of disagreement and a lot of different definitions but these are the ones I settled on. Comic books are basically periodicals. They are produced monthly or maybe bi-weekly. The action is the most important element because it progresses the story to the next issue, making you want to go back to the comic book store as soon as the next issue is released. Now comics as we know them, didn’t get their start till the 1030’s. Before that “comics” were the funnies you read in the newspaper, mostly on Sunday.  That’s what I’m showing above in picture #2, a book containing full-page spreads of Little Nemo in Slumberland from the New York Herald, circa 1901 -11.

Little Nemo in Slumberland 8-5-1906

Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay 8-5-1906

These were amazingly detailed and colorful. Nemo’s adventures were fantastic but he always managed to wake up in the end. The only thing resembling a comic book as we know it came about in 1938 when a bunch of comic strips from the newspapers were put together in a book called “Fabulous Funnies”.

But then in 1939 DC Comics released Action Comics featuring this really strong dude by the name of Superman and he was a big hit.

erThis was followed by Batman in 1940 and then Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Archie and others in the early 40’s. The Golden Age of comics had begun and everything from war stories to detective thrillers to westerns started to appear in comic book form.

So we march on to the 60’s, early 70’s,
The Silver Age: Lots of superheroes like the Flash, Fantastic Four ( Stan Lee), Spiderman (Steve Ditko). I personally liked The Jaguar (’61), The Fly and of course, Flygirl! (’62) The Fly always got top billing even though she was just as strong and way cuter.

I wanted to be Flygirl!

I wanted to be Flygirl!

Stan Lee started getting into it around this time too. You know him today as the guy who shows up for ten seconds in all of the Marvel movies mainly because he is responsible for a lot of those characters like the X-men, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and more.

Fantastic Four 1961: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Fantastic Four 1961: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Bronze Age: (70’s, 80’s) Small presses and Underground Comics, featuring anti-heroes like Elektra and much darker plots.

Elektra Assassin; 1986, Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz

Elektra Assassin; 1986, Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz

And from then (80’s) on to today, The Modern Age!

Now here is where things get hazy. Publishers started putting a series of comics into one edition. These editions had really nice paper, not that flimsy newsprint. Slick covers and even volume numbers. Basically they were creating trade paperbacks but they called them Graphic Novels and of course charged a lot more. I think the publishers thought they were legitimizing comics but many writers just saw it for what it was, a way to make more money and frankly the writers weren’t ashamed of comic books. My favorite quote is from Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors of comics, books, short stories, essays.

When told by a reviewer that he didn’t write comic books but rather graphic novels Gaiman said, he.. “meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

So, what indeed are Graphic novels? Well they are essentially books. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. The story is told primarily if not entirely in pictures. Granted, some modern “graphic novels” or “trade paperbacks” read that way as well because writers started getting savvy and wrote their comic book plots with editions in mind. But they still originally came out one issue at a time. One writer referred to them as “comic strip books.”

Examples of real graphic novels? Will Eisner is credited with using the term graphic novel for the first time on the cover of his book, A Contract with God and Art Spielgelman’s Maus pretty much defined it further and gave the term legitimacy.contrctmausOr how about the really true graphic novels by Lynd Ward? The stories are told entirely in woodcut prints, no words, no captions.

Cover and two pages from Wild Pilgrimage; 1932

Cover and two pages from Wild Pilgrimage; 1932

So class, your quick and dirty look into the world of comics is over. If you were here I’d let you look and even handle some of my favorites but alas, that is impossible. All I can say is, “get ye to a comic book store!” There are some really great storytellers and illustrators out there and you’re missing them all if you think they are “just comic books.”

Old and new, here are some I enjoy. Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, The Dark Knight Returns ( Frank Miller), Akira, Sandman (Neil Gaiman), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Get Jiro, Batman: The last Angel and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Old and new, here are some I enjoy. Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller), Akira, Sandman (Neil Gaiman), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Get Jiro, Batman: The Last Angel and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

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