More Terms and Definitions: Comics and Graphic Novels edition

This is a boring, but necessary post. I did it once to differentiate Science Fiction from Fantasy.  Now we need to hash out what I’m talking about when I’m talking comics.

I’ve gleaned my information about these things both from Scott McCloud’s books on comics and from Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil.  Some of this comes from my own interpretation and experience of the work.  Like the last post, these definitions change from person to person, so it’s worth hashing out my personal definitions for the sake of clarity.

Based on what I know of my readership, I’m assuming that most of my regular blog readers don’t read comics, and wouldn’t have any reason to know these terms.  I am going to use some of the terminology in posts later this week, so I think it’s important to get all of this out of the way.



“Sequential art and storytelling” blah blah blah

There are some heady definitions of what comics are and how they are the combination of words and pictures across the page to tell a story. I think on an intuitive level, we all understand that without the deep intellectual discussion. Sometimes the picture tells the story. Sometimes the dialogue does. Sometimes it’s in the caption. Sometimes it’s in the depth and blackness of the ink.

I’m not here to talk about the storytelling medium. I’m here to talk about the things ordinary readers hold in our hands and refer to as “comics”.    In this case, I use “comics” as an all-inclusive term. It seems like most people do this when I get into chats with them on the topic. “Comics” then refers to any of the art+words+sequence versions that I’m about to discuss.

Now, let’s break it down – from the most familiar and accessible, to the more complex versions:

  • Funny pages – who didn’t grow up reading the Sunday comics?  Peanuts, Garfield, Blondie, For Better and For Worse, The Family Circus. These are comics at their root level. Their most basic form. Some of them carried episodic stories from week to week, and the characters grew and aged. Some had recurring themes, or the characters never grew or changed over time.  These are comics. They are often funny or poignant, and frankly, I’ve written one, and I doubt I could do another one.  I don’t have that kind of wit. 
  • Comic books – these are the 15-20 page soft paper back books that you think of smattered with superheroes. These are the Action Comics, the kind Stan Lee exclaims Excelsior! about.  The story line is almost always episodic (an arc within one issue) and almost always ties to a larger, longer arc across the series. In discussion, this is the common currency of comics.
  • Web comics – web comics are fun. They can be stand alone or they can include chapters and long arcs that hook the reader in over time. They are generally shared like a blog, updated on a regular basis, and the daily posts are bite-sized, even when the whole is quite massive.   I place them in the middle of these media because they are still new, and growing. The web comic is really still trying to figure out what it is.
  • Trade paperbacks – A trade is a thicker paperback version combining several comic book issues in a single volume.  Those episodes that all contribute to a single arc are usually bound together into a thicker book, so that a reader can enjoy that whole novel-length arc at once.  Many of what are considered to be “graphic novels” are, in fact, trade paper backs. V for Vendetta was created and issued in comic book form, but you don’t find it that way now. You will only find the whole arc, sold en masse, as a trade.  The Watchmen is another example of this.  Those individual issues barely made sense as stand-alone episodes, but bound together as a whole, it works as a more complex piece.
  • Graphic novels – A graphic novel is a longer work in this medium that was not originally sold and published in tiny parts.  They are relatively rare, because the smaller parts are the common currency among readers and publishers.
  • Manga – this is a term that confused me for a while, until I read a few.  In the same way that you have to separate out Japanese Anime films from a feature length animated film intended for adults that is made in the US, you have to separate out the graphic novel style of Manga from the comics of the west. The pacing is different, the art is different, the humor and plots are different. No less enjoyable, just a different way to use the same basic tools to tell a new story.




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