The History of the Graphic Novel: From Strips to Print

Read on to find out the origins and evolutions of the Graphic Novel, you might be pleasant surprised at what you learn.

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Book Covers for New Kid, Gender Queer, and Smile.

The graphic novel is a fairly new literary medium that has been taking the world by storm. They’re fun, quick-reads that everyone enjoys no matter their age or preferred genre of literature. Graphic novels are unique in terms of the way they explore serious morals through illustrations. But where exactly did it come from? And are traditional graphic novels being overshadowed by digital graphic novels? Here’s everything you need to know about the origin of the beloved graphic novel.

Where Did the Graphic Novel Come From?

The graphic novel — which is a phrase that was originally coined by fan historian Richard Kyle in 1964 — is thought to have really come up in the late 1970s. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when graphic novels began, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is thought to be the first graphic novel and one of the most important early examples of its kind, which debuted in 1978.

A Contract with God, graphic novel by Will Eisner

Eisner’s work set a precedent for more sophisticated work in the graphic novel space, and this led to more influential work. The continuation of the term “graphic novel” and the insistence on differentiation from comics is thought of as a potential marketing ploy to insinuate mature content and themes.

When did Graphic Novels Become Popular?

A few years after Eisner’s smash hit, a big boom followed in the graphic novel industry throughout the 1980s. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986–87), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1980–86) by Art Spiegelman were put on a major pedestal by mainstream media with urges that they were astutely different from anything that had ever hit the literary market; including children’s comics that mainly focused on superheroes and otherworldly beings.

maus by art speigelman book cover

Watchmen and Maus took inspiration from comics of years past and actually began as short-form comic strips in newspapers and magazines. So, other than the artistic style and the mass media attention that these graphic novels garnered, they didn’t actually bring anything astoundingly new to the table. What was so innovative about these works was that the graphic novels of the 80s saw a mature degree of control over many aesthetic decisions that go into creating the art form, such as the formatting, panel transitions, and overall layout to achieve more narrative and literary effects.

Graphic Novels in the Digital Age

The turn of the 21st century is marked as the golden age of graphic novels. Outstanding work such as Smile, Gender Queer, Heartstopper, and My Friend Dahmer have all been released within the past few decades and have set a new precedent for the graphic novel landscape. Even novels such as Smile that are intended for young readers demonstrate strong themes such as the overall growing pains and the transition from child to adolescent.

Many graphic novels from the past few decades have been turned into major productions with Netflix and Hulu, which draws attention to the artistic medium as a whole. Adapting graphic novels instead of what production companies most regularly pick up (general fiction, romance, and thrillers) is always fun and interesting because viewers can watch their favorite illustrations come to life as opposed to literature, where everything is left to the imagination.

Side-by-side of My Friend Dahmer graphic novel cover and My Friend Dahmer movie poster.

Graphic Novels vs. Webtoons

However, the traditional graphic novel that we know has actually been rivaled by the rise in webcomics. With a rise in web publishing and apps like WebToon, webcomics — which favor shorter narratives much like its cousin, the traditional comic book — encourage a return to serialization and short-form content, this time through the internet rather than through the pages of a comic book. Even though webcomics have made becoming a published illustrator more accessible, it tends to have a negative effect on the alternative, which would be print graphic novels.


Webtoons are unique in the sense that anyone can publish their work to the platform and in any language they choose, thus giving creative freedom to many graphic designers, artists, and illustrators and uniting the graphic novel community across the globe. However, even though digital graphic novels have risen in popularity (especially during the pandemic), they have not entirely replaced print graphic novels. In fact, in 2021, print graphic novel sales were estimated at about $1.47 billion, whereas digital comics were estimated to be around $170 million.

Despite Webtoons almost being their medium and subgenre within the graphic novel space, many graphic novels are becoming so popular that they are being purchased and printed in graphic novel format. Beloved Webtoon’s such as Lore Olympus and Hooky have been printed into multi-volume graphic novels that have gone on to dominate the book charts. With Lore Olympus winning the Goodreads Choice award in 2021 for Best Graphic Novel and Comic, it seems only natural that the popular Webtoon set a precedent for future webcomics and that this is only the beginning of webcomics getting turned into print.


It’s plainly evident that the graphic novel has a very complex yet interesting history. Everyone should try to add some to their TBR, and you may be pleasantly surprised!

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