2. Comics v. Graphic Novels

Is there a difference between ‘comics’ and ‘graphic novels’?

That depends on who you ask. As comics have been deemed worthy of academic attention, the term ‘graphic novel’ has become more widely used. This is definitely related to the issue of ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of culture I mentioned above. The term ‘comics’ is still associated with short strips in newspapers, or superheroes, and these still aren’t really taken seriously. The term ‘graphic novel’ has come to be used by academics to refer to the longer form comic, usually published all in one go as a book – and that is somehow a ‘higher’ cultural form. It is the term ‘graphic novel’ that high street bookshops such as Waterstones and Blackwell’s use to categorise the comics they sell, and again I think this is related to the idea about what is ‘serious’ literature and worthy of being read by the kinds of people who frequent those stores. 

While the distinction between the terms ‘comic’ and ‘graphic novel’ has a certain usefulness, there’s a great deal of academic debate about its implicit politics. Graphic novels are still comics, and owe their existence to long histories and rich traditions that extend back into the twentieth century and earlier. Their relabelling as ‘graphic novels’ dismisses this history. Some critics even see the term as being cynically deployed just to make comics more palatable to middle class readerships, academics, and university English departments.

There are numerous other labels that can be used to describe the comics form. I prefer to use the term ‘long-form comics’ rather than ‘graphic novels’ when talking about book-length comics, because it means that we don’t forget the form’s long and valuable history. But it’s important to remember that even under the umbrella term ‘comics’ is a huge diversity of different kinds of reading experience, some of which bear little resemblance to one another.

Discussions around terminologies and definitions have always been at the centre of academic criticism on comics, and these debates are still ongoing, so there’s still no straightforward answer to this question. 

© Hank Edmondson 2012