An OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentation / When is a Comic Book a Graphic Novel?


Hey Sal
Uh Yeah Jean
When is a Comic Book not a Comic Book?
Uhhh I don no Jean?
Uhhh I don geddit Jean.
Neither do I Sal. Now get in the ditch.

So comics and graphic novels, both terms amble around with a lot of dirt on them. Not “childhood days in the park with a ball and scruffed jeans” dirt, more… “fell in a puddle in the creepier parts of Amsterdam filth”.

So this piece is about a theory I’ve had brewing in whatevers left of my brain. About a broad rule that can distinguish one from the other and take the sting out of the common conception that a graphic novel has more artistic worth than a comic.

And here it is:

Comic/ Comic Book/ Comix/:

a.) Serially published with little to no intent of ever reaching a finite narrative conclusion – Batman, Spiderman and most big 2 superhero publications are examples of this.
b.) A short single piece, more than a standard 22 page spandex punch n pump but less than the 64 page The Killing Joke. From the tiny “Jar Jar Binks Must Die” comix floating around Gosh! to the original The Eltingville Club pieces by Dworkin (which barring the epilogue issues that came out last year, didn’t really run past a few pages).

So a comic is a short piece that is either part of an “unending narrative” or just too short to be a novel, effectively the short story analogy to your novel.

Graphic novel/that term you use when you want to say you read comics but want to remain somewhat sexually viable:

a.)   A singular work outlining an entire narrative.
b.) A serially published comic book that intends to or does reach a narrative conclusion. Anything from the classic Vertigo maxi-series like 100 bullets or Fables to All Star Batman & Robin (INTENDS) to The Metabarons.

Okay, we have a classification (okay so already you don’t agree with me, fine, just ignore the rest and call me a litera-nazi on the comments, just like mother), so what does it matter how you classify one or the other?

Well in this medium, a lot of it comes down to the antagonistic relationship it’s had with mainstream cultural commentary and the broader idea of “artistic legitimacy” (itself a nebulous, oxyMORONIC notion that needs to go the way of the Office Space printer).

Graphic novels, as a term, really gained footing after the mid 80s, when the triple header of Spiegelmans Maus, Moore/Gibbons Watchmen and Millers TDKR blew minds apart – succesfully yelling “SCROO YOOOOO” at the general consensus that comics were only really bits of cheap pulp to keep children happy with brightly coloured adventures.

(Yup, I know Watchmen and TDKR were published serially, but they had clear narrative endgames and no one ever, including the authors, talk about them as a serialised story, which is basically what happens with Dickens and stuff like Great Expectations. I’m happy with the comparison, unlike Dickens, TDKR is actually pleasurable to read).

Prior to this, strides had been made, O’Neill’s dark gothic Batman rebirth, his legendary Green Arrow/Lantern “My ward is a junkie” story, Englehart’s epic, romantic Batman run, the power of Robert Crumb, Stan Lee’s legendary rebellion against the Comic Book Code Authority’s rules on drugs with what would prove to be the greatest act in the end days of his mythic Marvel run. None of these, despite significant media publicity, truly countered the idea that Comics were effectively a trash medium.

ward junkie

So the 80s came and with it, the graphic novel, a term that operated as an exception to the comic book as trash rule. DC and Marvel were still exclusively in the spandex junk business, unless they hit out of the park, then and ONLY then, would the popular consensus (generally one of us, aged 14-16 screaming that Time had included it in their top 100, okay it was me) tolerate a comic or graphic novel as artistically legitimate.

And at this point, the term associations linger on way past when they should have died out. Graphic novels remain a term we associate with the high-brow stuff, the kind of story or art we can shake at cultural commentators and whine: “NO SEEEE COMICS ARE GROWN UP TOOOO VALIDATE US CRITICS WHO WROTE OFF AN ENTIRE MEDIUM BECAUSE PRECONCEPTIONS” whilst comic is a term we apply to off the rack 22 page publications that aren’t particularly memorable. Even the likes of Snyder’s Batman stories are already referred to in terms of their TPBs, his stories aren’t harked upon in issue numbers but in TPB titles like “Black Mirror”, “Court of Owls” or “Death of the family” as cumulative graphic novels instead of comics, a view that crystallised as his critical reception triggered a fairly meteoric rise in stature amongst the heat of Bat-fans.

Which is pointless, condescending and demonstrative of a lot of the comic/graphic novel community’s aggressively apologetic nature with itself. Graphic novels should not be a term that demarcates a work of “greater artistic validity” than a comic book – a crummy piece wrapped in hardback, a £25 RRP and a spot on the Waterstones shelves is still a crummy fucking piece. A comic you like – be it a weird 5 page indie thing you found or just the latest X-MEN: WE GAVE UP ON COHERENCE BEFORE CLAREMONT issue is good. Sure, like my “rule”, it lacks the length of a novel or It’s short, too short to be a “novel” in anyway and depending on the genre, a regularly published part of a story without care for an ending – but if you like it, it is good.

So there – comic is short and usually without damn for an ending and graphic novel is a longer piece with an aim to an end.

(And the ruleset out above of course isn’t 100 percent, far from it, the idea that there is a rule that can successfully classify an entire medium or segregate it is terrifying – but who knows, it might lend new purpose to terms that are so laden with masturbatory resentment).

A graphic novel isn’t better than a comic and a comic isn’t better than a graphic novel, a good story is just more enjoyable than a boring one.

So since I don’t see these terms going away anytime soon, I nominate rebooting them, Didio style, turning them into something that has nothing to do with “literary credibility” or any self-aggrandising pseudo-intellectual twattery and instead treat them as indicators of narrative duration and intent.

Lay down the terms, pitchforks and care for what mainstream publications have to say, and just enjoy them. Long or short.



  1. I'd agree with those definitions.

    Comics as a mainstream medium does largely aim for an ongoing story, with no intentional end in sight. Not always (we have Mini series, Maxi series, set length runs) but largely.

    'Graphic Novel' shouldn't just be a pretentious way of saying 'I read comics, but want to sound more grown up about it'. By using the word “Novel” you should be talking about a complete narrative. That's what we expect from prose, why not from sequential images?

    It's the narrative that's important. Is it a complete, or largely closed, storyline? Then packaged as a complete collection, requiring no further reading to understand its completion, then it's valid to call it a Graphic 'Novel'.

    I mean, to look at what is now considered classic literature we think of much of what Charles Dickens wrote, as 'Classic Novels'. But even Dickens was being paid by the word, to write chapters of prose for periodicals, which would later be collected as complete novels.

    Is that greatly different from serial comics today? I don't think significantly so.

    As long as it forms a full story, I think it's a valid claim.


  2. I thought it was clever of Amir to touch base on Dickens for the very reason you mention, Mark: he wasn't far from comics in his day. But then he just went on to imply a Batman comic is more enjoyable than Dickens. That's just…well, playing into the hands of critics who suggest there's a difference between comics and graphic novels. 😀


  3. Maybe I'm misremembering, but I thought 'graphic novel' was just a word made up by admen to SELL comics in bookshops and what-have-you (a la 'action figures' vs. dolls-for-boys). When it started to become clear that people were actually trying to make a distinction between the two as different entities, I just started calling it all comics.
    Overlooking that, Amir, you do an alright job of at least making your own separations between comics, comix (usually reserved for classic undergrounds, last I checked) and graphic novels. But I think you end up on the same page as most of us: there is no difference. Good is good, bad is bad; long is long, short is short; conclusive is conclusive, Marvel is fucking interminable. 😀


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