How Graphic Novels Work

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.