James Rants: An (Un)Important Distinction – Graphic Novels VS Comic Books

I’m doing a bit more of a general post in response to discussions I’ve had with friends and co-workers over the last little bit of time.  Maybe two months.  Since an initial discussion of The Walking Dead comic series with one of The Uninitiated (that is to say, a  middle-aged mother of two who watched and loved the TV series, but wanted more).

I spent a good five minutes discussing the finer points of comic books and graphic novels, attempting to stress the difference between the two.

And then it hit me.  She didn’t give a shit.

Hell, nobody does.  No. Body.

Comic books and graphic novels are very different beasts.  People who write both will tell you this.  People who read them… may not make the distinction.  And this reason is twofold, really.

1) The terms “comic books” and “graphic novels” have become interchangeable since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

2) They’re basically the same thing, and few people care enough to mark the difference.

But dammit… I do.

The difference between the two is very distinct and easy to remember.  And it is this:

Comic books are published in a monthly format.  You read the sequential, serialized story one part at a time.  This can be the superhero stuff put out by DC Comics, or Marvel.  The varying and usually weird stuff published by Vertigo, Image, or Dynamite… Or it could be Japanese manga series like Naruto.  Some wouldn’t consider likening manga to comic books.  I would, especially in light of how they’re published in Japan.

Graphic novels are longer stories that aren’t serialized in any fashion before they’re published in trade paperback form.  These stories aren’t a collection of issues, but instead one large story (or occasionally a large part of a larger story, à la DC Comics’ Superman Earth One which has a sequel coming out some time in the near future) that is published all at once… much like an actual novel… just with pictures!

But comic books and graphic novels have many similarities, which can be confusing to those who don’t make it a habit of reading either.  The most obvious example is that both are examples of the same medium, i.e.: sequential art matched with text to tell a story… but the way they’re published makes the difference.

As much as fans want to puff up and legitimize their comic book reading… even intelligent comics like Sandman, Y The Last Man, or even From Hell (which was serialized in the excellent horror comics anthology Taboo) are comic books.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Comic books are just as legitimate as graphic novels… Or not, as the case may be.  For instance, I feel that the aforementioned Superman Earth One, which tread so much old ground, I’m surprised Supes didn’t fall into the Earth’s core… was it bad? well, not really… but it didn’t really bring anything new to the table… but that’s just one idiot’s opinion.

So is that all you get today?  A rant that even I, the writer, will fully admit is a completely nit-picky, sand-in-the-crotch-area-of-the-bathing-suit response to a topic that never asked for one?

Well, no.  Of course I’m going to give you a top 5 list to go out on!

Oh God Another Top Five Graphic Novels List That The Internet Didn’t Need, Want, Or Ask For

5. Joker by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo (DC Comics, 2008)

What?  A superhero graphic novel showing up here?  Well… yeah.  There’s actually been quite a few really good superhero graphic novels.

And, as shitty a writer as Azzarello was for the Superman story arc For Tomorrow and Hellblazer… if there’s something the man knows, its street level crime books.  Like 100 Bullets, which I’ll finish some day.

Joker follows The Clown Prince of Crime from the gates of Arkham to a final confrontation with Batman, taking us deeper into both the politics of Gotham City and into the Joker’s mind than we would probably prefer.  Though DC’s Earth One series of graphic novels is getting a lot of attention, this was earlier… and a lot better.

4. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics Books, 1997)

I often tell people that the first comic I read was Alan Moore’s brilliant (and long) From Hell. This is true, as long as I don’t lump comics and graphic novels together.  I actually recall reading Ghost World because I was obsessed with Thora Birch in

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  And I know better.  Ghost World was first serialized in Daniel Clowes’ own comic series Eightball.  See, this isn’t easy for the nit-pickers either.

Now I’ve got to find a new 4.

New 4. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

I know it says NEW on it, but I promise… it isn’t 52, and I won’t reboot my blog’s continuity into some confusing mess that can still tell decent stories.

I can’t say much new about Arkham Asylum other than the fact that I read it.  It was great. Everyone should read it.  McKean is a master and used the story to draw… pretty much my favorite Joker of all time.  Sorry, Bermejo…  Sorry Bolland…

3. Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf Productions, 2003)

Jesus, these things really go on, don’t they?

This is the first of two graphic novels that is non-fiction (and I just tipped my number 1 pick, didn’t I?) and Craig Thompson… he’s an all-star.

Blankets is a large book.  A large, large book.  At 592 page, it is by far the biggest book on the list.  It tells Thompson’s auto-biographical tale of his first love, and his drift from his religion.

And it is the saddest, sweetest little slice of life tale you’ll ever read.  Both Thompson’s script and his exquisitely detailed artwork (which took THREE YEARS to make, by the way) convey the various emotions of the characters better than almost any illustrator working today.

And don’t even get me started on Habibi…

2. Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (Vertigo Comics, 2006)

My pick for number two is a mix of allegory, fantasy, and political statement.

The best part about the story?  You can read it simply as a fantasy story about captive lions running amok in Baghdad after the US-led coalition invaded in 2003.  But the story has layers upon layers, with different lions representing differing viewpoints on the war, and various other political issues of the day.

And the real joy of Brian K Vaughan’s writing (in this, Y: The Last Man, or Ex Machina) is that you never know what his actual perspective is.  It is often difficult to tell which character (if any) is an analogue for Vaughan himself.  He will regularly present a many-faceted view of a situation… and that makes him one of the strongest writers in comics today.

1. Maus by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 1986)

Or rather: Maus would be my number 1 pick, but it was serialized in a magazine titled Raw in the 80s before being collected into two separate trade paperbacks soon after.  So… fuck man.  I’m done.  If I can’t pick Maus as my top graphic novel because of my own annoying technicality… No number 1 this week.

1. Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Vertigo, 1995)

OK, it isn’t as hopeless as it seems!  I’ve remember Neil Gaiman is awesome (as if I forgot!) and find I can accept having him as number one.  Ha.

If you haven’t read Mr. Punch (or The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch: A Romance if you want to use the full title), you should.  Because it is great.  So, so great.  But… just don’t plan to sleep for about twenty-four hours afterward.
Neil Gaiman has done some truly unsettling and weird works in his life.  Short stories like  “We Can Get It For You Wholesale” or novels like Coraline.  Even parts of Sandman are disturbing.  Mr. Punch is the most unsettling for me.
Maybe because it seems (similar to Violent Cases) like an amalgamation of Gaiman’s own childhood memory and fantasy.  
Which is the point, really.  Gaiman’s text and McKean’s pictures drive home the point that one cannot really know what parts of a memory are true.  Perhaps everything we recall from childhood is true.  Perhaps less.
Of course, I could find is so unsettling just because Punch and Judy has always freaked me out… and the graphic novel does nothing to alleviate all those unnatural childhood fears I had about puppets generally, or Punch specifically.
OK, you didn’t think I’d go through a list about comics and graphic novels without having Neil Gaiman on there at LEAST once, did you?

I hope this offers you insight into how difficult it can be to tell the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel.  You can’t tell by the cover, or the content, or even the author.  And that I’m notoriously annoying and nitpicky.

But the most important thing to take away from this is… it doesn’t matter what you call them.  If you enjoy reading comic books, graphic novels, sequential picture stories with words… whatever you refer to them as… enjoy them.  Be as unashamed as those idiots parading Fifty Shades of Grey as the best thing since missionary sex.

Don’t Forget to Follow Books and Bits On Facebook (yes, it will open in a new window… for your convenience!)

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