What are Graphic Novels?

Comics have had a tumultuous time here in the United States. What we now know as a comic (comic strips, comic books, and eventually graphic novels) began to appear in the late nineteenth century. They grew in popularity as they evolved from newspaper items to comic books; but in the 1940s many people became shocked at the increasingly gory covers and artwork of horror and crime comics. A psychologist, Frederic Wertham, wrote “Seduction of the Innocent” in 1954 and claimed that comic books were a major cause of juvenile delinquency. A panic followed.

Unshelved for 8/23/08

Unshelved is an online comic strip that follows life in the fictional Mallville Public Library and particularly the antics of their teen librarian, Dewey, a comics fan. (c) Bill Barnes & Gene Ambaum Unshelved.com Used with permission.

Today we know that comics don't cause juvenile delinquency. Their popularity has been on the rise again since graphic novels started to catch on and Japanese manga found a strong fan base in the U.S. (More on manga in a future post.) The term “graphic novel” was coined to differentiate longer works in the comics format than comic books – the usual format. (Although many of today's “graphic novels” are in fact collected editions of comics previously released as comic books.) With sturdier, bound formats available, it began to make sense for libraries to carry comics in their collections – not that everyone thought they should.

Sequential art – a more technical term for telling stories with consecutive images (with or without words) – has a long history. Some interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics or cave paintings as early forms. The Bayeux Tapestry presented the tale of the Norman conquest in England through sequential images, with some words, on a 70-foot piece of fabric. The Codex Nuttall is a pre-Columbian document (painted on deerskin) from the Mixtec culture. It utilized pictures to tell genealogies, alliances and conquests. In the middle ages, some bible stories were told through pictures since many people could not read. English painter William Hogarth produced paintings in a series which together told a story. (One example is “A Rake's Progress.”)

If you're a bit mystified by comics, comics artist and author Scott McCloud's book “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” explains thoroughly – through comics – the mechanics and history of the medium. (I used it and his “Reinventing Comics” for the historical information here.) I highly recommend his books, especially for students of art. We have other books discussing comics and showing how to make them; a few are listed below. I'll blog more in the future about graphic novels and comics. You may be surprised at what you can find!

Abel, Jessica. Drawing Words & Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels and Beyond. New York: First Second: 2008
Abel, Jessica. Mastering Comics: Drawing Words and Writing Pictures Continued. New York:  First Second, 2012.
Bigley, Al. Draw Comics Like a Pro: Techniques for Creating Dynamic Characters, Scenes and Stories. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2007.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York:  HarperCollins, 1994.
McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Ozawa, Tadashi. How to Draw Anime and Game Characters: Vol. 1, Basics for Beginners and Beyond. Tokyo:  Graphic-Sha Publishing, 2000.

Categories: Authors & Books.

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