Graphic Novels Represent a Move from the Traditional

M. Lee Manning
M. Lee Manning

Graphic novels represent one of the most popular and fastest-growing types of young adult literature. The genre began in 1978 when cartoonist William Erwin Eisner created ‘A Contract with God’, a collection of stories about a poor, crowded Jewish Bronx neighbourhood, and coined the term “graphic novel” to describe a complex story told in comic book format in 64 to 179 pages. As a visual medium, graphic novels are engaging and often written for a mature audience. ‘Maus I’, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, won the Pulitzer Prize (this was later combined with ‘Maus II’ and reissued as ‘The Complete Maus’ [1997]), and ‘Nam’ (1987), a graphic novel by Douglas Kear Murray, won the Best Media of the Vietnam War Award given by Bravo Organization, a veterans group. In 2002, the American Library Association annual conference featured a pre-conference workshop on graphic novels, and the American Library Association 2002 Teen Read Week theme was “Getting Graphic @ Your Library.”

A graphic novel is a “dynamic format of image and word that delivers meaning and enjoyment”. Like a comic book, a graphic novel comprises boxed pictures and text and may have several boxes per page. As in a picture book, the illustrations enrich and extend the text. However, in a graphic novel, readers must not only decode the words and the illustrations but must also identify events between the visual sequences. Diamond Comics, a major United States of America. distributor, distinguishes a graphic novel from a comic book by noting that a graphic novel is longer and tells a complete stand-alone story, unlike comics often issued in successive parts. In addition, many graphic novels are more complex than the superheroes found in comic books and address many of the same issues and concerns found in more traditional types of literature.

Although traditional book publishers reluctantly have recognized the success of graphic novels, comic book publishers have embraced the medium, issuing graphic novels by outstanding artists such as Art Spiegelman, Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman, Jeff Smith, and Colleen Doran. Publishers usually issue graphic novels in hardcover and issue paperbacks as trade paperbacks.

Because young adults should be encouraged to read what interests them, graphic novels belong in every school library. They also should, when appropriate, be incorporated into the school curriculum. However, this means that, as with any other formats or genres of literature, educators need to know about graphic novels and how to select quality examples for young adults — items that readers appreciate, as well as items that will contribute to adolescents’ education.

Despite their popularity, some people consider graphic novels to be nothing more than adventure stories. There are, however, a number of different types of graphic novels, including superhero tales; realistic stories; science fiction and fantasy novels; future, contemporary, and historical adventure stories; and manga (Japanese) tales, as well as humorous works, political satires, and adaptations of classics. Although fiction remains the most popular part of the genre, the scope of graphic novels has widened to include more sophisticated subject matter, including nonfiction, biography, and autobiography. No matter whether fiction or nonfiction, the term “graphic novel” remains the same.

Even graphic novels that focus on the traditional superhero cannot be written off as mere fluff. Weiner (2001) argues that the superhero tale serves as an allegory to modern life and provides an escape for readers. Others believe that the superheroes can be compared to the heroic figures in classical mythology.

Like manga (Japanese) comics, manga graphic novels and anime (Japanese animation) are popular with teenagers because of the “dynamic, eccentric, and very often sexy illustrations in combination with fast-paced science fiction, adventure, fantasy and martial arts stories”, usually with teens as the main characters. In fact, the growth of English-language manga graphic novels has been phenomenal, spurred in part by the release of related anime on television and in video or DVD format. Even a small manga publisher such as ComicsOne, which publishes the manga version of the hit movie ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ issued nearly one hundred titles in 2002. Like manga comics, manga graphic novels, with their diverse subject matter, are more popular with females than males.

Too often educators exclude graphic novels solely because of the format or the erroneous impression that all graphic novels focus on supernatural horror stories or are expressions of the male power fantasy. However, graphic novels actually fuse text and art, which offers value, variety, and a new medium for literacy. Because graphic novels appeal to young people, educators can use them to offer alternatives to traditional texts and mass media and to introduce young adults to literature that they might otherwise never encounter. In fact, some educators use graphic novels to teach literary terms and techniques such as dialogue, to serve as a bridge to other classics, and as the basis for writing assignments. Although some educators worry that reading graphic novels will discourage adolescents from reading other genres of literature, others believe that graphic novels may require young adults to use more complex cognitive skills than reading the text alone.

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