Let’s Get Graphic: What We Talk About When We Talk About Comics

This Tuesday was Read Comics in Public Day, a mini-holiday that celebrates the legacy of comics legend Jack Kirby (creative force behind Captain America, Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, and X-Men) as well as the funny pages* themselves. It’s all done in an effort to let the world know that reading comics isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Because comics are awesome.

I know I’ve recently said that comics are the Hollywood darling of the moment, and they are; but there’s still a bit of a stink that follows the word around. A lot of people like to use the term “graphic novel” when talking about all things sequential art, especially when there’s marketing involved.

I know this shouldn’t bug me. I know I should be happy that people are reading comics, no matter what they call them. But every time I see the phrase “the critically acclaimed graphic novel” used to describe Watchmen, I get a little bit stabby. Because Watchmen was a comic book. In the fall of 1986, DC Comics published a 12-issue miniseries by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It was immensely popular, and the collected edition (or trade paperback) continues to sell insanely well.

Comic books are a form of serialized storytelling. While there are plenty of wonderful stand-alone issues and one-shot specials, comics move the story of a character (or characters) along in installments–like a television show.


A graphic novel, while it’s not always an accurate term, refers to a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all in one book. Like an actual novel, or a movie. David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is a graphic novel. You can also have a series of graphic novels, like Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy (which you seriously should go read right now). Books like Blankets, Fun Home and Smile are also what I would put into the graphic novel category. Here’s where the “novel” part gets a bit sticky, because those stories are memoirs, not novels. The New York Times and their Best Sellers lists call them “graphic books,” which is technically accurate even though it sounds like books that are full of crazy violent and sexed-up stuff.

And now I’ve gone a bit cross-eyed.

The point is you wouldn’t call Downton Abbey a movie, so you shouldn’t call Sandman a graphic novel. I know it seems like a petty point, but I think over and improper use of the term “graphic novel” devalues “comic books.”

Each time you talk about how great the Walking Dead graphic novels are, you’re undermining the Walking Dead as a comic book. You’re separating yourself from the kind of people who still read those silly things and probably live in their mother’s basement. You’re treating comics like they’re something to be embarrassed by. And they deserve better than that. Because if you’ve read Watchmen or Sandman, and if you’re reading Saga and the current run on Wonder Woman, you know that the stories in comic books can be so amazingly wonderful that you’d be a fool to think they were something to be ashamed of.


*I use the term “funny pages” with the utmost respect and endearment. Plus it’s fun to say!

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