Sunday, August 14, 2011

So what are graphic novels?

This is part three of a five-part series about comics and several comics formats. For previous installments, check out the so what are...? tag! Today, we'll discuss graphic novels.

So what are graphic novels?
Graphic novels are, bluntly put, "comics with a spine." (That's a book-style spine, not the body part - ew!) There are two types of graphic novel:

  1. Original graphic novels (sometimes shortened to OGN,) which are directly published as graphic novels with no previous publication.
  2. Graphic novel collections (sometimes called trade paperbacks, trades or TPBs,) which compile chapters originally published in comic book format.
To extend an analogy from the So what are comic books? article, if an individual comic book is an episode in a TV series, then a graphic novel collection is the DVD season set. Some will even include DVD-like bonus features, such as pages showcasing character design sketches or parts of the writer's script.

When were graphic novels invented?
In true comics form, pinpointing the origins of graphic novels is tricky. The term "graphic novel" was first used in 1976, both by underground cartoonist George Metzger and on the dust jacket and introduction of Bloodstar, an adaptation of a Robert E. Howard story. Since Metzger used it to refer to a collection of his previously published works, and Bloodstar had never been printed before, the term has been with both forms from the very beginning!

The term was popularized, however, by legendary cartoonist Will Eisner, who applied it to his work A Contract with God in order to distinguish it from comic books, which in those days (the late 1970s) had an even stronger reputation for being "kid fantasy stuff" than they do today.

As for the graphic novel format itself, finding a single comic that best qualifies as "first" is beyond difficult. One of the strongest contenders is the Picture Novels line from St. John Publications, a short-lived comic book and magazine publisher. They published the pulp-novel-inspired It Rhymes with Lust in 1950, shortly followed by a mystery, The Case of the Winking Buddha.

(The "It" is "Rust," by the way, the name of that lady on the cover!)

Unfortunately, neither was more than a minuscule success, and no further books in the line were published. It's interesting to think what the world of comics would be like today if they had been hits!

What are graphic novels like today?
In the past decade or so the graphic novel format has exploded. Originally just a small corner of the comics market, virtually every comics publisher these days releases graphic novels, and some traditional prose publishers have even created special imprints devoted to them. Several comics publishers have shifted to primarily or exclusively publishing graphic novels, and even the giants of the comic book industry have dabbled in original graphic novels (to say nothing of the armloads of graphic novel collections they print on a regular basis.)

Overall, the graphic novel format has opened the comics medium up to more diverse content than ever before. Works that would have sunk into obscurity in the traditional comic book market - memoirs, journalism, slice-of-life drama - are some of today's most highly-praised comics.

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