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'Graphic novels' is not comics

July 3rd, 2018 By Indira Neville

I care about comics. I read comics, make comics, edit comics, and sometimes I write about comics.

I also work in a library and every day in order to get to the toilet, I have to walk past a bunch of comics with a ‘graphic novel’ sticker on their spine. It’s the ‘graphic novel’ collection. Every time I pass it, I feel grumpy. I am perpetually annoyed by the description of these comics as ‘graphic novels’ and think the term should be stricken from the library lexicon. I find it inaccurate and insulting and therefore — in being these things — unworthy of the library.

Comic drawing showing a cross librarian looking at a collection of books shelved under 'Graphic novels.
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It’s inaccurate — not all comics are graphic novels

The most important thing to say up front is that while all graphic novels are comics, not all comics are graphic novels. Graphic novels are a particular type of comic. It goes like this ...

Comics is the medium (like ‘poetry’ or ‘film’ is a medium).

A comic is any work in the comics medium regardless of genre, length, or format (like ‘a poem’ or ‘a film’).

A graphic novel is a long-form work of fiction in the comics medium (like an ‘ode’ or a ‘feature film’).

Every ‘graphic novel’ section of every library I’ve ever been in, however, contains a bunch of titles that are not long-form works of fiction. Common examples are:

  • Maus by Art Speigelman, which is historical non-fiction (despite the use of animals)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which is an autobiography
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which is a twelve-part episodic series
  • The Complete Calvin and Hobbs, which is newspaper strips, and
  • What I Hate from A to Z by Roz Chast, which is (mostly) single-panel comics.

Labelling all these different kinds of comics as ‘graphic novels’ is like labelling odes, haikus, sonnets and epitaphs all as ‘limericks’. It’s like having a ‘limerick’ section in the library rather than a poetry one; like sticking a ‘limerick’ sticker on the spine of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

If I were a librarian, I'd be irritated

If I were a librarian, the above scenario would irritate me to distraction. And in exactly the same way, so does the use of the term ‘graphic novel’ when it’s used in the library to define things that aren’t graphic novels.

If cataloguing is the art of finding the best possible description and best possible place for any given resource — a description and place that reflects and understands the object and makes it as easy as possible for anyone else to find it — then ‘graphic novel’ is a cataloguing failure.

An insulting euphemism

As a collection in a library, ‘graphic novel’ is inaccurate. It’s also insulting.

The term ‘graphic novel’ came to prominence in 1978, when Will Eisner slapped it on the cover of his comic A Contract with God and other Tenement Stories. At that time, Eisner was trying to get audiences to understand that ‘comics’ were a medium not a genre, and that his use of the comics medium in this particular book was serious, dramatic, and for an adult audience.

Eisner’s use of ‘graphic novel’ to describe his own comic at a particular moment in time seems fair enough. Somehow though, since then, the term has become a general means of distinguishing some comics — namely, those that are humorous, involving superheroes and/or made for children (all things that I think are great) — from more supposedly sophisticated and literary works in the same medium.

'Graphic novel' arbitrarily elevates certain kinds of comics

‘Graphic novel’ aims to elevate certain kinds of comics to a more legitimate social and cultural position, ascribing them as ‘quality’ and making them palatable (and sellable) to (mostly) middle-class adults via ‘proper’ bookstores, academic institutions, and libraries. Comics that aren’t graphic novels are considered somehow lesser works. Comics that are funny, for example, aren’t deemed as important as those that are ‘serious’. I think this is nonsense. I think there is nothing heavier, more intense and more worthwhile than making someone laugh.

In addition, the term ‘graphic novel’ treats comics as a version of the prose novel, the implication being that ‘novel’ is in some way ‘higher’ than comic and that only by being understood as a sort of novel, can the comic be appreciated as an art form.

Imagine if we renamed novels ‘picture-less comics’. If we ignored the uniqueness, complexity, and history of the novel and instead judged the quality of long-form prose fiction in relation to a medium with a completely different set of attributes. It would be insulting to novel readers and writers alike. Comics have their own long histories and rich traditions and to relabel them ‘graphic novels’ is to dismiss this.

Libraries have issues with comics

Sadly, libraries have long had issues with understanding the worth of comics.

In the 1900s, some US librarians chose to remove the comics pages from newspapers in order to protect young readers from their ungodly influence and to keep their libraries orderly. And it was not until the 1990s that comics were generally deemed deserving of collecting.

Respectfully, I would suggest that the use of the term ‘graphic novel’ perpetuates these kinds of ideas about the value (or not) of comics as a medium. The term is inherently judgemental and I think as inclusive places, celebrating story and information in all its forms, libraries should abandon it.

‘Comics’ is the right word

Libraries should use the word ‘comics’ to describe their comics collection. The word is accurate, inclusive, historically rich, culturally embedded, and joyous.

Comics are their own thing and I love them.

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Lisa Noble
18 May 2019 3:43pm

This is great, and I agree with what you've said, I struggle every time I have to choose a definition of a piece of work which tells a story (fiction or NF) composed of sequential images and text. I've battled with GN vs comic so often. It seems to me we need another term to encompass the range of work... 'comic', to me, does imply witty or humorous content, even if it's dry/wry/ironic. GN has definitely become an elitist way to elevate a comic to be taken as a serious literary piece. I do like 'graphic/illustrated fiction/NF' but agree that it doesn't capture the unique nature of sequential storytelling. So... comics as the best name so far for this medium is OK by me.

25 September 2018 12:18pm

Great article, thank you Indira. It supports my practice in my high school library where we call all sequential art Comics

Crissi Blair
20 July 2018 11:55am

In my school library I've combined what was previously the 'graphic novel' section, with my picture books - solving two problems: the GN section always looked awful because most of the books were out; and the picture books were very neglected. I've called the section 'illustrated fiction' and have a small section of 'graphic non-fiction' in the NF area. Interested to know if others have done things like this and what you have called these zones. It still doesn't feel right to me.

Ian Dalziel
13 July 2018 10:49am

Let's hear it for the 'Ninth Art'!

PS: "The Complete Calvin and Hobbs,"
should be 'The Complete Calvin and Hobbes'

11 July 2018 8:53am

Great article.Thank you Indira!

7 July 2018 11:49am

Go Indira! Love this.

5 July 2018 10:21am

I agree! Comics are not "graphic novels" and should be classed differently .