Confused By Comics: What’s a “Graphic Novel?”

So, collecting comics can be weird. And collected volumes of comics can be even weirder, because the same material is often collected in multiple different formats. There’s Trade Paperbacks, Hardcover editions, Omnibus Editions, Milestone Editions, Absolute Editions, Graphic Novels…the list goes on. So what’s the difference?

This will be a multi-part series where I go over these different terms. Let’s start with maybe the most complicated one: Graphic Novel has three different meanings. One is very incorrect and two are fine.

Firstly, there are people who use Graphic Novel as a term to describe comics with a slightly more mature audience in mind — Things like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Sin City, etc. Things you aren’t going to give to your 8-year-old niece or nephew. That is not what Graphic Novel means. Graphic Novels are a FORMAT, and has NOTHING to do with content. People who say “Graphic Novel” to refer to “mature” content are insecure about saying they read comic books and want to sound cooler than they actually are. Get over yourself, you sound like a pretentious asshole. There’s no shame in reading comics.

So if that’s NOT what Graphic Novel means, what DOES it mean?

The original definiton of a Graphic Novel was a long-form comic that came in some kind of bound format, rather than the usual staples. Something originally printed as one longer story that you can buy in one shot. X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Red Sonja: Ballad of the Red Goddess is a Graphic Novel by this definition — A comic of substantial length that was originally printed in a bound format. Raina Telgemeier’s comics, Sisters, Smile, etc., are proper Graphic Novels.

Since about the year 2000, a lot of monthly comics are written with the intent of being collected into a single volume, called a Trade Paperback. Why is it called a Trade Paperback? Because it’s a paperback, but the paper stock used for the cover is called Trade Paper. No, really, that’s it!

There is a tendency to call comics collected in this format Graphic Novels, because even though they’re originally published in monthly pamphlet format, they are INTENDED as one long-form comic. From a business perspective this makes some sense: Publish a story as a handful of pamphlet comics, and then collect them, to spread out the costs of paying the writers and artists in creating the material.

And, increasingly, people have begun including Hardcover collections under this umbrella term. I’m personally not a fan of this definition, but it’s becoming used so ubiquitously (hell, the American comics section at Barns & Noble is just called “Graphic Novels” now), that it’s hard to fight. So, sure: Any reprint collection of comics is called a Graphic Novel.

So, wait. If we’re just going to call all collected editions Graphic Novels, how do we differentiate ACTUAL Graphic Novels from reprint collections?

Well, we now have a new term: OGN, or Original Graphic Novel This refers to comics initially released in Graphic Novel format. Avengers: Endless Wartime, and Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe are all examples of OGNs.

I hope that helps a bit! Next time? We’ll break down some specific TYPES of Graphic Novels.