What’s the Difference Between Graphic Novels and Comic Books?

What exactly are the differences between artistic literature like Archie comics and the graphic series, Heartstopper? Read on to find out!

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Covers of Heartstopper, an Amazing Spider-Man comic, and Save Me Webtoon

“Comic book” and “graphic novel” are terms that sort of get thrown around a lot in the bookish community and are often used interchangeably. Bookstores and libraries often fail to make clear, accurate distinctions between the two as they do share the defining characteristic of plotlines being bolstered and accompanied by illustrations. Below are some of the core differences between the two artistic mediums so that you can tell them apart the next time you’re at your favorite bookstore!

What makes a comic book a comic book?

A comic book is a monthly or weekly publication typically only available at newsstands or designated comic book stores and, until the turn of the century, was printed on the cheapest and most delicate paper that we would today regal as “vintage.” These publications also have multiple pages dedicated to advertisements, coupons, various games, and puzzles.

Comic books have been around for well over a century, with the first installment — Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, or The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in English — being the first comic ever, initially published in 1837. Thus classic artistic medium had a big boom in the United States post-World War II because of the way they could entertain children and boost general morale with their fantastical protagonists.

The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck clipping.

Compared to its cousin, the graphic novel, comics are generally seen as more juvenile in terms of content and artwork. This is due to the way in which comics tend to approach sensitive and mature topics such as sex and sexuality, ethnicity, feminism, homosexuality, and more. In fact, many anti-comic book groups formed during the comic book boom, with quite a few parents claiming that comics were preventing their children from appreciating “real art.” Early publications with heroes that we know of today, such as Green Lantern and Superman, contain some concerning ideas that, back then, were simply associated with delinquency and would be viewed as offensive today.

Green Lantern Green Arrow comic cover.
Super-Man comic book cover.

How are graphic novels any different?

Graphic novels are long-form comic chronicles that are typically published in binding with better paper quality. They are sold in bookstores and can be checked out from libraries. The concept of the graphic novel is much newer than that of the comic and saw a big rise in popularity in the 1980s. Novels like Maus by Art Spiegelman and Watchmen by Alan Moore set the stage for the graphic novel world that we know today.

Book cover for Watchmen by Alan Moore

Even though graphic novels can sometimes simply be repackaged collections of original comics, traditional graphic novels are thought to follow whole storyline plots and contain profound literary motifs such as trauma, sexuality, and xenophobia, in addition to more sophisticated artwork. These astounding literary elements are what sets graphic novels apart from comic books that portray more straightforward themes that surround characters such as Spider-Man.

By way of illustration, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel follows him through the years as he has in-depth and emotional conversations with his father, Vladek, who was a Holocaust survivor. Art’s story is a heart-wrenching tale about more than the Holocaust but also about love, family, and recovery from traumatic events. In the novel, the characters are depicted as different animals as metaphors for how Nazis viewed the world (Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, etc.).

So, why are some graphic novels just republished comics?

Often, a graphic novel will simply be an amalgamation of comics from the past (sans advertisements, of course). Vision & The Scarlet Witch: The Saga of Wanda and Vision is just a repackaged version of the original Marvel comics. Oftentimes, this is done for the convenience of the reader; many of these comics are out of print and, therefore, hard to find. So compiling and reprinting them in this format makes the original tales of our favorite superheroes more accessible.

Book cover for Vision and Scarlet Witch graphic novel

However, other times, the graphic novel versions of some of our favorite comic characters are entirely different. Instead, they can be spin-offs or comparison novels to our favorite comics. A great example of this would be Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which is a reimagining of Batman. Miller’s version picks up where the comics left off and is set in the future, taking on new villains with a whole new set of characteristics. Utilizing the graphic novel in both ways is a great way to attract attention to the creative medium and to have a sturdier print version of your favorite stories!

Why do the differences matter so much?

Interestingly enough, the need for a distinction between comics and graphic novels is dominant mainly in the U.S. and the U.K., whereas in other nations such as Japan and France, comics and graphic novels are seen as synonymous. This is because, in other countries, comics aren’t seen as more juvenile than graphic novels; rather, all cartoons, animations, comic strips, graphic novels, etc., are regarded with respect and are all viewed as proper art forms and literature. Generally, comics in other nations tend to have more adults and intense themes.

Hopefully, this has cleared up any confusion between the two literary genres! Despite the lines between them being muddled at times, both are appreciated in the book community and are great ways to read something different.

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