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What Exactly is a Graphic Novel?

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Family reading a book. Multi-bits/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Question: What Exactly is a Graphic Novel?

While in another FAQ, I discussed what comic books, comic-style books, and graphic novels have in common, now I want to discuss the definition of graphic novels. There seems to be no one accepted definition for graphic novel, although the varying definitions have a lot in common.

Answer: There are differing viewpoints as to how broadly “graphic novel” should be defined. According to Scholastic, “The term graphic novel is now generally used to describe any book in a comic format that resembles a novel in length and narrative development.” According to an article by Keir Graff in the American Library Association’s Booklist/February 1, 2003, “A graphic novel, like a regular novel, is a stand-alone story that is published as a book. It’s easy to get confused, though, because some people will still use comics for the whole genre or graphic novel for any comic-style work that’s handsomely published, even if it’s just a collection of superhero stories.” However, the About.com Guide to Comics, Aaron Albert, says, “A graphic novel is often a set of collected comic books or a stand alone story that is squarebound.” (About.com: Comics)

In The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Creating a Graphic Novel, authors Nat Gerther and Steve Lieber give a broader definition: “A graphic novel is a comics project of substantial length that is designed to be understood as a single work. Fiction, nonfiction – even a comics format cookbook – would count as a graphic novel.” (page 13, 2004 edition. ISBN: 9781592572335) Perhaps, the broadest definition comes from the No Flying, No Tights Teen Graphic Novel site, run by Robin Brenner, Teen Librarian at the Brookline (MA) Public Library and others: "The shortest definition of a graphic novel is this: a book-length comic."

While I particularly like the brief Scholastic definition, in some cases, I do not have a problem with a broader definition. For example, I have no problem with a biography that is novel length, uses sequential art with text to tell the nonfiction story of a person’s life, and is bound like a traditional book being described as a “graphic novel biography” because I would understand what that meant. However, I don’t see myself as considering a comics format cookbook as a graphic novel. What about you?

 

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