Difference Between Graphic Novel and Comic Book?

Hey, as the title seems to imply, is there any difference between a comic book (i.e. Spider-Man Issue No. 1) and a graphic novel (i.e. “Watchmen”)?

I’m arguing with my friend about this, and she refuses to see the difference. I’ve attached a poll, and here’s what each of them means:

Length: Length of the printed comic book. (i.e. 32 to 64 pages vs. 200 pages or longer?)

Format: What kind of story is told. (i.e. one long story in 200+ pages as opposed to a brief story in 64 or less pages)

No Difference: Self explanatory.

(Civil Responses, please.)

A comic book is a single issue. Usually ending in some kind of cliffhanger. You have to buy the next 3 - 5 issues to get the complete story.

A graphic novel is a complete self contained story. Much longer in length; 60+ pages vs. a comic’s 22 pages.

Then you have a trade paperback which is a collection of, usually, around 6 issues of a single comic, telling a single story arc. The terms graphic novel and trade paperback are often used interchangeably.


I said length since, as mentioned, collections of comic arcs in a single volume are still often called “graphic novels”. So the fact that the whole story is in one binding seems more important to me than whether the tale is one unbroken flow or a series of stories creating one overall tale.

Of course, if your friend’s argument is something like “Comic books are childish and ridiculous” then the length and format hardly matter if she’s fixated on the whole “story told with pictures” aspect.

Interesting choice to post a question about graphic novels in Comic Sans.

Are you going to ask about as asteroid strike in Impact? Or Iced Tea in Long Island?

That’s a good idea, Exapno! :smiley: I actually chose Comic Sans precisely for this reason.

Watchmen was originally separate issues before being collected.


She actually says that as far as she’s concerned, they’re the same thing, much to my irritation. She also does tell me how childish it is that I’m 20 and read comic books.

The term was coined by the great Will Eisner to differentiate his work from comic books, but primarily to have people see them something different than comic books.

But something like “The Killing Joke” is considered a graphic novel, and it’s only a single issue long.

Basically, a graphic novel is a self-contained story arc. It usually runs for multiple issues and is gathered into a collection, usually a single book, but it can be multiple ones (e.g., Sandman).

Ultimately, though, it’s what I’m pointing to when I say “That’s a graphic novel.” That’s really the only possible definition that fits all cases you think is one, and eliminates similar cases that you don’t think of as one.

Graphic novels don’t have pages and pages of ads.

I haven’t used the term “graphic novel” out loud since I was a teenager, because it’s definitely one of those “protesteth too much” terms.

“Comic books are for KIDS, but I read GRAPHIC NOVELS for adults!” just sounds like somebody trying too hard to justify themselves.

Most folks I know these days would just say, “Yeah, I read comics. Some are for kids, some aren’t. I like both art and writing and it’s interesting to see how they can be combined.”

That said, “graphic novel” is useful as a term to describe a specific type of comic: long format, stories written as a single, self-contained arc. It can be fuzzy; a lot of “graphic novels” are published as shorter issues initially, but were clearly conceived of as a single unit initially. I’d count those as graphic novels, but I know some purists would insist only books that were originally published or at least written and illustrated as a single work count. In my personal view, trades that just combine an arc of a serial don’t count. It’s not a question of merit, though; I just think that’s a different type of work.

A long, self contained story (a novel) told with images (graphics) is a “graphic novel”.

A “comic book” (Spiderman #1) is not a “graphic novel”.

A collection of “comic books” (Spiderman #1-6) is usually not a “graphic novel”, though sometimes it is (Watchmen #1-12).

All of the above are “comics”.

I picked Format, because I don’t consider any old collection of comic books gathered into a single volume to be a graphic novel. They have to tell a coherent story (or at least a series of them), like Watchmen or Sandman. A 200-page collection of Archie one-offs wouldn’t make a graphic novel, for example, but the collected series of “Afterlife with Archie” would.

It started out as a particular format of self-contained long-ish stories, probably with a hard cover. It became a childish euphemism for all things comic book, like calling “porn” “adult entertainment”. Not a big fan of implying that there’s anything wrong with the word “comic book”, so I never use it.


Last time I wnted to spend my money on a comic book, they cost twelve cents.

Graphic novels tend to cost upwards of twelve dollars.

Also (unrelated to price), when it’s called a graphic novel, the author often considers himself* relieved of any obligation to make the comic comical.
*(or herself; the author could be female)

They are all comics, as has already been said. However, I put them into three categories:

  1. Periodicals. These are short stories or chapters of about 20 pages of story, plus several pages of adverts They are printed on cheap paper with a thin cover. They are held together with a couple of staples. They are produced to a regular schedule, usually monthly. They remain current for only a short time, after which they are removed from the shelves to make way for newer issues.
  2. Trade paperbacks. These collect and reprint several issues of a periodical. Better quality paper, and a proper book binding.
  3. Graphic novels. These are original stories, not reprinted from the periodicals. The stories are longer than the periodicals. They are printed on higher quality paper, with a thicker, or even a hard cover, and a proper book binding. They remain on sale indefinitely, being reprinted as long as people keep buying them.

As has been mentioned, some people try to maintain a distinction between “graphic novels,” to mean a work published in a single issue which tells a complete story, and “trade paperbacks,” which collect multiple issues that have been published previously (and which usually tell a complete story). But I find that’s a distinction that is lost on most readers. I routinely hear people referring to things that are clearly trade paperbacks by that definition, such as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, as graphic novels. Even Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which everybody calls a “graphic novel,” and which everybody points to as an example of how sequential art can deal with serious subjects, was originally published serially.

So there’s no point in insisting on a distinction between graphic novels and trade paperbacks, because nobody maintains that distinction.

Things that tend to be called graphic novels do often have a difference in format–they tend to be printed on higher quality paper, and the covers are usually stiffer paper and the spine is usually square-bound with glue rather than staple-bound. Graphic novels also tend to be longer than traditional comic books, although not necessarily by much. The Killing Joke, for example, is 48 pages. That’s a bit longer than a typical comic book issue, but not by a huge amount.

Ultimately I voted “No difference.” I tend to agree with typoink that it strikes me as a term intended to distance the work from those silly embarrassing “comic books” that the kids read, but that serious people should disdain. If you’re going to use a term for the format of stories told through sequential art, then the term should be generic enough to refer to all examples of the format, regardless of quality. After all, we don’t reserve the word “novel” for serious literary works examining the human condition, and use some other word for forgettable potboilers that you buy in the airport and toss in the trash as soon as you get off the plane. Good or bad, they’re all novels. “Comic books” should be the same way.

On the other hand, we make distinctions about the formats that novels are delivered in: mass market paperbacks versus trades versus hardcover versus ebooks, for instance. And we do have length distinctions for “stories told through sequential prose”: flash, short story, novelette, novella, novel. Admittedly, the “novel” category is rather broad as it encompasses anything from the slim “Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy” through the crushing cliffs of bound paper like the latest installment of recent epic fantasy series… :wink:

In addition to the above mentioned graphic novel, trade paperback and comic book distinctions, I’ll add that I always conceived of comic books as something that you could subscribe to- a periodical, and one that had ongoing more or less serialized stories.

So while a graphic novel was typically self-contained, a comic book was an ongoing periodical publication, and a trade paperback was merely a collection of a certain set of stories out of the comic book, but not the whole story- it usually had existed before the trade paperback, and continued afterward.

This is now sort of blurry with the way that comics have gone nowadays, but it’s the way that they tended to be in my childhood and teens, only getting kind of murky while I was in college (mid-90s).

Basically - this.