What’s a comic and what’s a graphic novel?

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

What’s the difference between a comic and a graphic novel? Are they the same thing? Can children’s books be graphic novels?

Comics as an art form

In the first post in my series exploring Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics I discussed definitions of ‘comics’ as an art form, ultimately settling on McCloud’s label of ‘juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer’.

But what about comics as physical objects? What are they and how do they differ from graphic novels?

What’s a comic?

When we talk about reading a comic, we’re typically using that as shorthand for ‘comic book‘ which is a publication – usually in periodical format like a magazine or newspaper – containing comic art (which we defined earlier). It might feature stories about one particular character or group of characters, like Superman, Hellboy or Godzilla, or it might be an anthology comic which collects different comic characters or series brought together in one publication like The Beano, Phoenix Comic or Monster Fun.

What’s a graphic novel?

When a more long-form, book-length story is told through comics, continuously as one standalone story rather than being split up and serialised, it’s usually referred to as a graphic novel. These are typically published in paperback or hardback and look and feel like a book as opposed to a periodical. They’re much weightier – and more expensive – than a comic book. Briliant middle grade and YA examples include New Kid by Jerry CraftDrama by Raina TelgemeierHeartstopper by Alice Oseman and Nimona by ND Stevenson.

Children’s books for younger readers like Dog Man, Captain Underpants, Pizza and Taco and Bumble and Snug are all graphic novels, too, but you can still refer to them as comics if you like because they’re all part of the comics art form!

Still not sure whether a particular story is a graphic novel or a comic? Imagine that story had been written in prose rather than panels (so just text and no sequential art) – would you call it a novel? Yes? Then it’s probably a graphic novel. No? Then it’s probably a comic.

Sometimes when multiple issues of a comic are collected into one book, it’s referred to as a graphic novel despite not being a novel (but rather lots of shorter stories) and this is a bone of contention in the industry 😬

So, to recap:

Comic book AKA comic – A publication – usually in periodical format like a magazine or newspaper – containing comic art
Graphic novel – A long-form, book-length story told through comics
Anthology comic – Different comic characters or series collected in one publication

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes