What is a graphic novel, what is a comic?

In searching for a blog post for this week I ran into an issue of trying to understand the concept of what could be called a graphic novel versus what would be considered a comic. To put it extremely bluntly, as this article is titled, what is a graphic novel, and what is a comic? For people who do not have a wealth of knowledge about the medium of graphic novels, it can be difficult to differentiate the two. In fact I am still working on some of fine lines where works can fit into the “comic” genre or the “graphic novel” in my own brain.


The word “comic” is the more frequently used term when describing a bound book or paper with pictures printed on it. Of course the definition for “comic” has several different meanings, most of which include comedy. However there are clear examples of comics you see in newspapers that while being “comics” are not necessarily comical in nature. Even comics that tend to have cheery or comical ends can have more serious endings.

This Peanuts comic strip, by Charles Schulz, does not have a particularly comical approach and instead features Charlie Brown being tormented by Violet and Patty.

This Calvin and Hobbes strip, by Bill Watterson, is laced in cynicism and dark philosophy that is only humorous to certain readers.




“Comic” is the key word in the public media for visuals that tell a story in electronic or print. There are comic book stores, comic conventions, and comic pages in the newspaper. Many people, both children and adults, can tell you their favorite comic book hero or their favorite comic strip yet would be hard pressed to decide if they could even name a graphic novel they had read. The world revolves around the word “comic.” Yet has a hard time deciding what to do with the graphic novel.


Graphic novels can fall into the category of comics yet they are arguably quiet different then other categories in the genre. As Dr. Whalen mentioned in a previous class the traditional newspaper comic and the graphic novels we will discuss in class are majorly different. This is primarily because the short traditional comic strip shows us exactly what we need to know while graphic novels are more complex and require us to interpret the story. Newspaper comics are limited in space and attention span. They are simple and to the point since they have little space to tell their stories. Graphic novels are for lack of a better terminology “novels” and therefore have the space and vision to visually depict a scene without having to sacrifice or simplify characters emotions or storyline. Taking this into account graphic novels have a level of depth beyond comics that requires readers to put as much attention, if not more, in analyzing graphic novels as the reader would for any regular novel or work of literature. Ultimately graphic novels can, and often are, categorized with comics, frequently though graphic novels have a level of detail and depth that is rare in comics.



After deciding how to categorize and differentiate between comics and graphic novels I found that I still had one issue that I was left confused on. Is it possible to have a graphic novel that does not also qualify as a comic? The line between comic and graphic novel is blurry. Asking person to person the definition of the qualification for each and the answers change dramatically. To get a sense of this I polled a group of other students not in the graphic novel class, about what they thought the difference between a comic and a graphic novel.


A few of the responses I got:

“A graphic novel is serious and has some kind of deep meaning, while comics are funny.”

“Comics are only in newspapers or about super heroes, but graphic novels are really long”

“They are the same aren’t they?”

“I think they would have different audiences but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a graphic novel.”


Clearly I got responses as conflicted as I felt about defining the relationship between comics and graphic novels. Most people agreed that graphic novels are most often also comics, while many comics cannot be considered graphic novels. Yet there is still the question of whether a graphic novel cannot be a comic at all. Or do graphic novel and comic always go hand in hand, with the ever-powerful word of “comic” being the only word that can stand on its own separate context?

  1 comment for “What is a graphic novel, what is a comic?

  1. September 6, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    This is a question that may seem at first to be mere semantics. You’ll hear this in class eventually, but I like to think of “comics” refers to the medium, “graphic novel” refers to a genre of comics. Calling comics a medium let’s us talk about how they work (panels, word balloons, art) regardless of their content. Calling graphic novels a genre lets us recognize that there are differientated audiences for comics, and some writers are clearly working with something that has more in common with literature.

    Of the two, I like “comic” better, and in fact, many writers strictly avoid the term “graphic novel” altogether, deeming it vague, pretentious, or both.

    Is it possible to have a graphic novel that does not also qualify as a comic?

    So did you think of any examples? I tend to think Masereel’s work isn’t really a comic, but is definitely a graphic novel. What do you think?

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