How Graphic Novels Work


Comic books are often full of simplistic superhero adventures. Graphic novels, on the other hand, have a greater scope of creative freedom. See more superhero pictures.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Ever wonder what would have happened if Ernest Hemingway had asked Salvador Dali to illustrate "The Old Man and the Sea"? Probably not, but the idea itself is tantalizing -- a book filled not only with powerful words but also masterful illustrations, playing off of each other to tell a story in both figurative and literal symbols.

Although it's far too late for a Dali-Hemingway collaboration, there's still hope for other significant works blending illustration and text in the form of graphic novels.

Pinning down an exact definition is difficult because there's no consensus on what constitutes a graphic novel, but there are some noted differences. For starters, graphic novels are typically much longer than the average comic book. Secondly, most comic books are part of a series, issued monthly, while graphic novels are often one story per book, sometimes spread over multiple volumes. Graphic novels are also typically square-bound like books.

Beyond these disparities, though, comics and graphic novels are strikingly similar. They both have illustrations, rely heavily on fonts to drive the stories, and are usually laid out in boxy frames that resemble comic strips. Like their comic kin, graphic novels are a type of sequential art. They're a type of novel with a narrative that's conveyed through both text and drawn art. Each page's layout includes panels, or boxes, with borders that separate them from other panels on the page. Usually, these panels are square or rectangular, but this is not always the case; the genre's free-form, experimental nature makes it harder to classify precisely. Between each panel is the gutter, which is simply blank space.

Like white space in any sort of visual art, carefully constructed gutters add to the flow of the novel. A wide gutter around one panel, for example, might give that particular frame a greater sense of importance. And like all comics, graphic novels use thought or speech balloons (also called bubbles) to show what a character is thinking or saying. In essence, they're quite a bit like comic strips.

These novels, though, are anything but the Sunday funnies. They usually have longer and much more complicated storylines and themes. The artwork is intricate and the carefully constructed page layouts become part of the work's message. These criteria for defining graphic novels might seem simple enough, but there are a lot of misconceptions about this art form. For clarity's sake, it helps to explain what graphic novels are not.

Graphic novels are not books with pictures thrown in for good measure. They're not movie scripts, although with the recent spate of graphic-novel-based Hollywood flicks, you might think otherwise. They also are not simply a collection of many comic books bound together (those are called trade books or trade publications), although it's now common for serialized comics to be published later in graphic novel collections. And some people argue that graphic novels aren't really even a genre of comic books; they're an independent artistic medium that's different in the way that music, poetry and sculpture are all unique.

One thing that's not debatable, however, is the fact that graphic novels are getting more and more popular. In 2006 alone, sales for graphic novels hit around $330 million [source: Beneath the Cover]. In dollar amount, that's more than four times as much as in 2001. Next, you'll see how graphic novels are adding evermore zam, blam and pow to their pages -- especially compared to their ancestors.

I Can Has Words?

Both comic books and graphic novels use ubiquitous speech and thought balloons to convey dialogue and inner thoughts.
Both comic books and graphic novels use ubiquitous speech and thought balloons to convey dialogue and inner thoughts.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Egyptians had their hieroglyphics, and prehistoric humans, their cave drawings. Although actual written words don't appear often in these contexts, the symbols and drawings held great meaning to the people living in those times. People really needed pictures to communicate ideas and stories.

As human language continued to advance, words, and thus reading, was mostly for scholars and elites. A few hundred years ago, though, mechanization of labor processes helped free up a bit of time for even the working classes, who until then had often used pictures to share ideas in printed media. For instance, political cartoons, in which pictures predominated over words, were featured in newspapers and almanacs used illustrations to help viewers to quickly get the gist of an idea.

In 1837, Swiss artist and writer Rodolphe Topffer published an English version of "The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck," which is often considered one of the first comics ever created. Oldbuck featured some of the hallmarks that define comics, such as a compelling synergy of text and cartoon pictures, as well as panel borders. These elements helped move the narrative forward.

About 100 years later, comics exploded in popularity, especially in North America. From the late 1930s to the 1950s, comic books took on their familiar format, including their short length, the introduction of the superhero paradigm, and characters such as Superman and Batman, who would become lasting worldwide celebrities.

World War II, in particular, helped fuel the popularity of comics, especially among American military men. Comics provided them with cheap entertainment abroad, and stereotyped icons such as Superman, who always, always triumphed over evil, gave them a morale boost, too.

As WWII drew to a close, the black-and-white, good-versus-evil type of superhero comics lost some of their luster and popularity. To replace those tired themes, publishers began releasing comics with other subjects, such as horror, crime, Western and science fiction.

The number of pages contained in comics, though, remained fairly static until 1950. It was then that St. John Publications unveiled a 128-page comic called "It Rhymes with Lust," which the company billed as a full-length picture novel. This title was a purposeful attempt by the author, Arnold Drake, and the illustrator, Leslie Waller, to tie sophisticated writing with equally refined drawn art. It was, in short, one of the first deliberate attempts to make a graphic novel.

"It Rhymes with Lust" was very successful, but it didn't immediately lead to a surge of graphic novels, in part because it arrived at a time of conflict and tumult in the industry. As you'll discover on the next page, comics and picture novels were about to become scorned and demonized by both literary snobs and federal authorities.

Comics Come of Age

As they proliferated, comics were generally considered a harmless, entertaining diversion. But in 1954, psychiatrist Frederic Werthem (a real-life super villain to insatiable comic book fans of the time) published a book called "Seduction of the Innocent," which named comics as a cause of juvenile misbehavior.

The American public didn't immediately start mass comic book bonfires, but as a result of the hullabaloo, comic publishers invented a Comics Code Authority, which directed artists and writers to avoid creating controversial material in order to assuage parents' fears about comic content.

Once the Comics Code Authority took effect, mainstream comics took on a blandness and sameness that turned off many readers. A revolution of sorts was inevitable. In the late 1960s, a comic counterculture arose, in which no subject matter or style was off-limits. Independent publishers distributed these underground comics, known as comix, a purposeful misspelling used to differentiate them from more commercial comics. The letter X was also a nod at the racy and sometimes X-rated material they featured. Adult-oriented themes, such as drug usage, sex and political statements, were common in comix.

These mature themes, and the artistic freedom of comix, opened up new dimensions in comics and graphic novels. Where once superhero-flavored comics dominated and garnered a reputation for comics as childish and adolescent diversions, comix began reforming the medium with grittier, edgier and funnier works.

Then, in 1978, a major shift in terminology occurred with the publication of Will Eisner's "A Contract with God." This title is often called the first modern graphic novel, in part simply because Eisner helped popularize the phrase. "A Contract with God" includes four short stories that take place in a poverty-stricken part of New York City. The overarching theme is humans' relationship with God.

Eisner presented his book to a publisher, calling it a "graphic novel," a term he thought he'd invented. Later, Eisner learned that comic book fan Richard Kyle had used the phrase in a 1964 Comic Amateur Press Alliance newsletter. As the newly promoted designation caught on, a slew of lengthier comics began appearing, hoping to capitalize on the so-called graphic novel phenomenon.

Keep reading, and you'll find out why some artists insist on calling their work graphic novels, forcefully rejecting nomenclature used to describe their comic book forebears.

Advanced Comics Craftsmanship

"Maus," a memoir that explores the personal impact of the Holocaust, won a Pulitzer Prize.
"Maus," a memoir that explores the personal impact of the Holocaust, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Courtesy of DC Comics

Thanks to the so-called Golden Age of comic books in the 1930s and 1940s, iconic superhero stereotypes are still strongly linked to the comic book genre. Because they'd rather avoid those stereotypes, some graphic novel artists purposely avoid using the word "comics" or "comic book" to describe their works. Instead, artists and their critics sometimes search for new words, such as graphic literature or graphic memoirs.

Those linguistic acrobatics are largely semantics. The reality is that comics and all of the other manifestations of sequential art encompass a whole slew of genres and styles. There are action and superhero graphic novels, of course, but there are also stories of mystery and drama, horror and romance. These novels target all age groups, from children and teens to adults.

Graphic novels can be fun and flippant, grave and important, or anything in between. Graphic novels can wrestle with all of the same complicated topics that novels address. And graphic novels can employ an entire range of literary devices, such as symbolism, foreshadowing, flashbacks, anthropomorphism, plot and metaphor.

In some cases, the text may be largely autobiographical, yet in a way that defies easy categorization. For example, Art Speigelman, author of "Maus," used the medium to relate true stories about his father's experiences during the Holocaust.

In his book, Jews are portrayed as mice -- the Nazis, as cats. For this gut-wrenching memoir, Speigelman won a Pulitzer Prize, the only one ever bestowed on a graphic novel. But there was certainly nothing stopping Speigelman from releasing this work in a long series of comic books instead of a graphic novel. That's just the medium he used to express himself.

There is, however, one consistent differentiating factor of regular comic books and graphic novels, and that's the place they're sold. Street newsstands often sell comics, but to find graphic novels, you'll have to visit a comic book shop or bookstore.

Now that you understand the scope and potential of graphic novels, head over to the next page to see some stellar examples -- and why it might be worth your while to plunder the graphic novels section at your local bookstore.

Monsters of Graphic Novel Rock

"Watchmen" is "Superman" for a new age. Nuanced and complicated, its characters feel their way through dark, morally complex plots.
"Watchmen" is "Superman" for a new age. Nuanced and complicated, its characters feel their way through dark, morally complex plots.
Courtesy of DC Comics

Film has "Star Wars." Music has "Rhapsody in Blue." And graphic novels have "Watchmen."

Every medium has its most celebrated achievements and graphic novels are no different. There are numerous writers and illustrators known for their artistic prowess and masterpiece titles. As with traditional books, there are too many great ones to include them all here, but we'll mention some of the biggest names and can't-miss titles.

Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, along with colorist John Higgins, created the acclaimed "Watchmen," which cracked Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels. "Watchmen" is a comic book series comprised of 12 issues that were later compiled into a single trade book. It constructs an alternate reality that uses a team of flawed, masked "vigilantes" (instead of almighty superheroes, which the novel satirizes) to explore ideas about power and control in a psychologically-wrenching manner.

Set in the Cold War era, Moore went after the big issues, such as human morality, philosophy, and the potential for worldwide nuclear annihilation. With its ominous tagline, "Who watches the watchmen?" "Watchmen" brought the medium a sense of adult-oriented artistry.

Frank Miller authored "The Dark Knight Returns," which, like "Watchmen," portrays its superhero (Batman) as a flawed human being instead of a perfect and indestructible icon. Miller paints a bleak world in which crime is rampant and the retired Bruce Wayne must pull out his Batman suit once again to bring balance and peace to Gotham City.

More outlandish fiction is also a strong seller in graphic novels. "The Mighty Avengers" includes a massively popular, evil-fighting character named Ironman. And in "The Incredible Hercules," the Greek protagonist must continually ward off challengers who want to harm the city of Atlantis.

Geography is no boundary for the popularity of graphic novels. For example, in Japan, readers voraciously devour manga, their version of graphic novels. Manga creators delve into every topic imaginable in hopes of capturing various slices of the huge manga fan base, which includes both men and women of all ages.

In fact, the popularity of manga has spilled over into the United States, where manga titles often challenge native language titles as bestsellers. But no matter where they're from, groundbreaking graphic novels aren't hard to find -- as you'll see on the next page.

More Groundbreaking Graphic Novels

"The Sandman" is author Neil Gaiman's ominous exploration of immortal forces and human experience through his highly regarded fantasy series
"The Sandman" is author Neil Gaiman's ominous exploration of immortal forces and human experience through his highly regarded fantasy series
Courtesy of DC Comics

Graphic novel writers and artists consistently develop commanding storylines and illustrations that captivate readers. They spin elaborate, beguiling tales that keep readers riveted, sometimes for many volumes, or sometimes in just a single, breathtaking tome.

Neil Gaiman, and established writer outside of the comic arts, is another household name in graphic novels. One of his best-known works is "The Sandman" series, in which immortal characters, such as Death and Desire, delve into aspects of human history and includes broad swathes of experiences, from pop culture, to serial killers, to Freudian analysis. Gaiman splashes "The Sandman" with all types of historical settings and blends in different types of literature, too, adding even more depth to his work.

In 1995, DC comics unveiled "Stuck Rubber Baby," by Howard Cruse, which explored the travails of a white, homosexual Southerner who becomes embroiled in the Civil Rights movement.

"Persepolis," by Marjane Satrapi, mashes cultural and gender issues galore into her autobiography about her childhood, which was affected dramatically by the Iranian revolution.

In "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth," by Chris Ware, the title character works through difficult problems with his family and encounters hot-button issues such as race and his own personal history. Some pages of this novel are totally devoid of text, relying on illustration alone to move the complex mix of flashbacks and layered storylines.

Joe Sacco has earned critical laud by blending journalistic style with graphic storytelling, notably in "Palestine," which draws heavily on his visits to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, relating in bleak drawings the hardships of the people there and their dealings with Israeli conflict and war. In a similarly-constructed novel, "Safe Area Gorazde," Sacco addresses the horrors of the Bosnian War by including information he gleaned from interviews with survivors.

As you can probably imagine, it takes a lot of time and energy to conceive and fabricate a graphic novel that serves as lasting art. Luckily for the writers, they don't often have to go it alone. Next, you'll see how writers are really just one cog in the machine of a slick graphic novel.

The Creative Team

Colorists add the spice of rich coloration to graphic novels and comics. Each hue adds a specific emotional overtone to the pages.
Colorists add the spice of rich coloration to graphic novels and comics. Each hue adds a specific emotional overtone to the pages.
Comstock/Thinkstock

A single, highly-motivated writer can type an old-fashioned book all alone. Graphic novels, though, usually require a full creative team, including a writer, penciler, inker, colorist and letterer.

The writer, of course, composes the text that appears in the novel. Writers usually develop the overarching story and themes, too, along with the plot, dialogue, character development and all of the essential elements of storytelling. Of course, no novel is graphic unless it relies on illustrations to propel all of these components.

That's where the penciler comes in. Pencilers imagine and execute the layout of each page, creating the panels and gutters and drawing the characters and environment of the story. Their illustrations are sketch-like and serve as a sort of framework or skeleton for the other graphic artists in the team. Pencilers are often jack-of-all-trades illustrators, able to accurately draw everything from people and buildings to puppies.

Inkers build upon the work of pencilers. With great precision, inkers shade and form the penciler's drawings. They wield an entire array of brushes and pens to add dimension, shape, depth and detail to the original sketches. In many cases, the inkers will liberally erase much of the pencil work as they go, to prevent random, rough pencil lines from diminishing the overall image quality.

Unless, the graphic novel is supposed to be monochromatic, colorists have the joy of adding color to the work of the pencilers and inkers. They use their skills to embellish the characters and add mood and drama to the story. With dark colors, they can create an ominous or dangerous setting, or use bright colors to lighten the page. In the past, colorists used pencils, pens and paints to do their work, but nowadays they mostly employ computer programs, such as Adobe Illustrator.

Letterers are tasked with adding text to the layout. He or she is responsible for drawing thought and speech balloons, and then filling these with a font that matches the story's atmosphere. Big, boldface letters, for example, show emphasis and drama, and small, squiggly letters might display a tone of sadness or uncertainty.

Powerful graphic novels bring together the skills of high-caliber artists in all of these fields. At the best of times, they bounce ideas off one another to get the story just right. In more discordant times, they might bounce each other off the walls instead.

The amount of collaboration between the team members changes depending on the people involved and the scope of the project. With some novels, a writer might take sole lead in dictating the direction of the art. In others, such as Dean Koontz's "Frankenstein," the author lets the artists choose how to illustrate the story.

No matter how many people are involved, if a famous name like Koontz is on the cover, you can bet that Hollywood investors are watching. As you're about to discover, film adaptions of graphic novels often draw huge crowds.

Graphic Novels Go to Hollywood

Batman, a.k.a. The Dark Knight, has been a Hollywood staple for many years. These days, audiences embrace the Batmobile, but also other graphic novels gone to the big screen.
Batman, a.k.a. The Dark Knight, has been a Hollywood staple for many years. These days, audiences embrace the Batmobile, but also other graphic novels gone to the big screen.
Courtesy of DC Comics

Moviegoers know that Hollywood has sourced a lot of film material from comic books. Superman and Spiderman have been on screens big and small for a long time, of course, but graphic novels like "Watchmen," "X-men," "Sin City," "Surrogates," "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and many others have also become major feature films.

Some graphic novel creators, such as Alan Moore, aren't fond of the live action adaptations of their work. Moore, in particular, believes that because film is a completely different medium, it can't accurately portray the nuances of graphic novels [source: Time Out Sydney].

In fact, film adaptations often veer wildly from their comic sources in content, another aggravation for the people who first imagined their plots and characters on paper. The same goes for loyal fans of the novels who want to see every detail of their favorite stories faithfully represented on the big screen.

Regardless of the opinions of authors and artists (and their fans), film studios see graphic novels as gold mines for big-screen material. The tremendous potential for incredible visuals, and the rich diversity and depth of characters and stories connect with many audiences -- fan and non-fan alike -- and their wallets.

For example, the "X-Men" movie series includes three films (with a fourth on the way), the first of which grossed more than $300 million worldwide and earned rave reviews from critics and movie fans alike.

TV producers love comics, too. Recently, the cable TV channel AMC fleshed out "The Walking Dead" graphic novel series, created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, into an epic, small-screen series about a zombie apocalypse. The show was a massive success in 2010 and is expected to last multiple seasons.

Digital innovations, too, are playing a role in the increasing popularity of graphic novels. You can find many graphic novels online for free, and some are even specifically designed for electronics such as Sony's PlayStation Portable and Apple's iPad.

These outlets give authors a new way to connect with digitally-savvy audiences that might not want to pay for (or wait for) printed volumes. And in our computer-saturated society, people are getting more and more accustomed to accessing digital media instead of hard copy materials, perhaps to the chagrin of some artists who might prefer that their readers see their work offline.

In other words, location matters. And traditionally, one location in particular -- school -- has been off-limits to comics and graphic novels. Next, you'll see how once-vilified comic heroes are plunging into the academic fray to save the day.

Teacher Leave Jimmy Corrigan Alone

Struggling readers often have an easier time understanding words when pictures provide more context. Graphic novels to the rescue!
Struggling readers often have an easier time understanding words when pictures provide more context. Graphic novels to the rescue!
Jupiterimages/©Getty Images/Thinkstock

Comic books have traditionally been the bane of teachers. It's far too easy for sly students to slip these thin pamphlets into their textbooks, making it seem as though they're studying sociology when they're actually distracted by "Silver Surfer."

These days, graphic novels are slowly making headway into classrooms and school libraries. Not as contraband, but as actual teaching tools. Part of the reason for this shift is a spreading appreciation for the fact that students absorb information differently. Some people are drawn to words, while others pick up more quickly on visual cues.

Jeff Hayes, a Ph.D. candidate in secondary education English language arts at the University of Alabama, says that traditionally, the U.S. education establishment has not always recognized how differently students absorb lessons.

At some point, he says, "Our educational system became obsessed with the idea that information was and is best learned through prose, poetry, and script devoid of visual context or connection of any kind."

Hayes believes that the graphic novel medium is underappreciated as a way to reach students with learning abilities that don't match current curricula and also expose these pupils to the variety of styles in which people communicate. Change, however, does not come easily.

As Hayes explains, "Colleges of education and teacher training programs that produce English language arts pedagogues have little room to move with new curriculum ideas due to the pressures of standardized testing and the funding associate with it. There is also the stigma attached to comic books"

Libraries and schools consider comics with caution, in part because of that stigma, but also because many people (such as parents) perceive these types of books as a distraction or detriment to "real" reading.

Still, some teachers believe graphic novels are also helpful for engaging reluctant and struggling readers and those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Colorful comics grab the reader's attention, and the smaller word count cuts down on the intimidation factor.

Comics can help teach students basics such as punctuation and how to write paragraphs and outlines. They also help students develop more advanced reading skills and can help build a reader's confidence level. They help students understand inferences and familiarize them with satire, parody, plot, spacing, allusion, irony, symbolism and other concepts that can be difficult to grasp in text-only mediums.

Furthermore, comics are an engaging way for all sorts of people to exercise their minds in tech-saturated societies filled with passive, mindless pursuits, such as cable television and Web surfing.

Regardless of whether they're digital or analog hard copies, graphic novels are becoming a more popular -- and more powerful -- means of sharing stories both frivolous and serious, for entertainment and for education. It's the kind of happy ending that would make Superman very proud.

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More Great Links

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