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The Graphic Novel

The earliest comic books date from the early 1930s and generally were reprints from newspaper comic strips.

Superman made his debut in comics in the late 1930s; since then comic books have been dominated by superheroes of various sorts.

Stephen Weiner, author of The 101 Best Graphic Novels, provides the following definition of the graphic novel:

A cousin of comic strips, a graphic novel is a story told in comic book format with a beginning, middle, and end. Graphic novels also include bound books conveying nonfiction information in comic book form.

Weiner dates the use of the term "graphic novel" to the publication of A Contract with God: And Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner in 1978. Eisner marketed his book to adult audiences and sold it in bookstores rather than in drugstores and comic book specialty shops.

In his introduction to Teaching the Graphic Novel editor Stephen E. Tabachnick offers another definition of the graphic novel:

The graphic novel is an extended comic book that treats nonfictional as well as fictional plots and themes with the depth and subtlety that we have come to expect of traditional novels and extended nonfictional texts. The term graphic novel seems to have stuck despite the fact that graphic novels are often compelling nonfictional works, such as biograpies, autobiographies, histories, reportage, and travelogues. (2)

Two breakout graphic novels are Art Spiegelman's Maus, which won a special Pulitzer Prize, and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, both published in 1986.

In Comics and Sequential Art, Will Eisner points out that the reader of a graphic novel must attend to not only the elements of fiction (plot, character, setting, theme) but also the syntax or grammar of graphic art, that is perspective, symmetry, color, font style, brush-stroke style (8).

Furthermore, says Eisner in Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, the cognitive processes involved in reading words and viewing graphics are different; readers might see the words or the pictures first or simultaneously. Regardless, the graphics and the text give meaning to each other (59)

Some Elements of Graphic Art
  • Paneling

    The page of the graphic novel is divided into panels rather than paragraphs. The graphic novelist manipulates the size and placement of the panels to achieve a particular result.

    In Comics and Sequential Art, Eisner points out how paneling works:

    • "The art of paneling or boxing the action not only defines its perimeters but established the position of the reader in relation to the scene and indicates the duration of the event" (28)
    • the "number and size of the panels. . . contribute to the story rhythm and passage of time" ; for example, to compress time increase the number of panels on the page (30).
    • long, narrow panels imply a sense of being crowded (33)
    • The panel border can be used like language:
      • rectangular, straight-edged panels imply action in the present
      • a wavy or scalloped border implies a flashback (44)
      • a lack of frame implies limitless space (45)
  • Text

    Treat the text as an image, says Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art.

    The font or style of text can convey a mood (27)

    The outline of the balloon that encloses the text can convey the sound of the speech (27)

  • The Human Form
  • Eisner notes that the artist must freeze the form in such a way that he conveys the movement that precedes and the movement that follows from the moment being portrayed.

    Gestures, posture, and facial expressions all contribute to the emotion being portrayed (103-11)

Eisner notes several limitations of the graphic novel:

  • Because of the specificity of the image portrayed, the graphic novel cannot convey the reader's richer construction of a visual image from words alone (140).
  • Graphic novels have difficulty conveying any abstraction or strong emotion (140).

Eisner sums up the nature of the graphic novel:

The art then [of the graphic novel] is that of deploying images and words, each in exquisitely balanced proportion, within the limitations of the medium and in the face of the still unresolved ambivalence of the audience toward it. (142)

Sources and Further Reading

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices of the Worlds Most Popular Art Form. Tamarac, FL.: Poorhouse Press, 1985.

Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. Tamarac, FL.: Poorhouse Press, 1996.
Trabachnick, Stephen, ed. Teaching the Graphic Novel. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009.
Weiner, Stephen. "Graphic Novels." Bookmarks Magazine. September/October 2004: 24-29.
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© 2005 Dr. Agatha Taormina
Last Revised: November 3, 2011