101 BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS Jacket CoverI’m on record as being uncomfortable with the term “graphic novel,” but it has become so ubiquitous that it can’t be avoided anymore, if you want to communicate with actual people. For example, the other day I referred to “Maus” as a comic, and this confused a friend, who said, “I thought it was a graphic novel? What’s the difference between a graphic novel and a comic?”

His question was sincere, because he wanted to understand.

My quick answer: all graphic novels are comics, but not all comics are graphic novels. For example, “Peanuts” is not a graphic novel.

This leaves open the obvious follow-up question: “What is a graphic novel?”  Which I was hoping he wouldn’t ask, but he did.

Different people use the phrase to mean different things. Here’s what I told him. For me, a “graphic novel” has to:

1). … be a complete work in one volume. “Sandman” is a serial comic, and at the highest possible level it is complete, but most individual volumes of it do not qualify as “a graphic novel.” This isn’t to say that serials like “Sandman” or “Love & Rockets” have no value. It is just to say that they are not graphic novels. They bear the same rough relationship to graphic novels that the entirety of the television series “The Sopranos” bears to a movie — similar, but not the same.

2). … have narrative unity from beginning to end, and tell a complete story. Item (1) eliminates books that tell one story over multiple volumes. This eliminates books that have multiple stories in one volume — story collections, anthologies, and strip reprints. 

3). … be presented to me in book-form: cover, spine, and physical pages. As ebooks become more common, this will matter less and less in the future, and I may change my mind, but for now, a graphic novel needs to exist somewhere as a bound paper book before I consider it a graphic novel.

4). I’ve been picky about things so far. There’s one area where I’m not. A graphic novel can be fictional or non-fictional, even though, in the prose world, where we borrowed the term from, “novel” always means “fiction.” Technically, “Maus” is a “graphic  history,” and “Persepolis” is a “graphic memoir.” Neither would be shelved with the novels if they were written in prose form. But the practice of calling nonfiction books “graphic novels” is so widespread that even I can’t imagine correcting it at this point.

I know many of you probably have slightly different definitions in your head for the term “graphic novel,” and I am not trying to make my definition canonical, so don’t get mad at me or anything. It’s still a young category, and the boundaries of it are still being staked out, in part by conversations like this one.

Fortunately, my friend didn’t ask “What are comics?” Because that’s an even bigger can of worms!