Graphic Novels 101

Marjane Starapi's memoir of her childhood in Iran

You’ve heard of “Maus” and “Persepolis,” but, really, what’s a graphic novel? Tricia Narwani, Editor with Random House’s Del Rey Books (with more than 100 manga titles this year), recently answered that question at NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute. Speaking to students, she talked about the state of the industry, the various genres and much more.  

Even though the term “graphic novel” was popularized in 1978, the category can be amorphous…and confusing, she noted. More simply put, graphic novels are comic books that may have complex story lines and are bound in similar format to books. To get everyone on the same page, Tricia mentioned Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Brian K. Vaughn’s (of Lost fame) “Y, the Last Man”, and this got students nodding their heads in recognition.

While graphic novels are dominated by classic superheroes, the biggest sellers are manga and media tie-ins. Tricia noted that although sales were up 5% in 2008, so many publishers have followed in the footsteps of the two major publishers DC and Marvel that sales are slowing this year.


On Genres and Subcategories
: Graphic novels can be put into various categories such as comedy, fantasy, mystery or children’s comics and indie comics. Some of the more popular ones:

Manga – While there is some debate as to whether manga is its own category, it originated in Japan and exploded in the US around 2002. In Japan it’s a multibillion dollar industry and appeals to everyone from children to the elderly. The wide range of subjects include rock and roll, baseball, and curry. Yes, there is a manga called “Addicted to Curry” and it is popular. American manga hasn’t been as successful as Japanese, and Tricia thinks that’s because the US audience is largely teenagers. Also, she says the cartoon network will be showing less anime, which will have an effect on sales.

First glimpse of "Twilight" graphic novel
First glimpse of “Twilight” graphic novel


Adaptations –
This is a big growth area with adaptations from comic to film and from book to graphic novel. The most well known film adaptations are “V for Vendetta”, “300”, “X-men”, “ The Dark Knight”, “ Ghost World” and Iron Man”.  Marvel created the “Dark Tower” comics which expand upon Stephen’s King’s series of the same name. Little, Brown and Yen Press will also be publishing the “Twilight” saga in graphic novel form with no date yet announced.

Non-Fiction – The classics “Maus” and, “Persepolis” both set during times of political upheaval, are two amazing examples of non-fiction graphic novels with great writing and visuals to match. In fact, says Tricia, many librarians and teachers get students to read by introducing them to non-fiction comics. She mentioned that one of my favorite books, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, was recently adapted into comic form.

Webcomics – Nearly 10,000 online comics are published on the web; the ease of distribution means many have huge followings. Like indie comics, they’re self published.  MegaTokyo is one of the more popular examples and Penny Arcade, a popular gaming webcomic, gets about 2.5 million readers a day.

On Marketing:

Graphic Novels are marketed widely online and at conventions. New York’s Comic Con and San Diego’s Comic-Con are two of most well known venues, but Toronto has a festival as well; there’s an Asian American Comicon and MoCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) Fest. Graphic novels have a high creative cost since there are many more contributors (the artist, the writer, the inker, the letterer, etc) than with a traditional book, so publishers have to consider all of these factors before accepting a proposal.

On The Digital Future:

Many titles have been scanned and are widely available online, though there is plenty of piracy. Unlike the music industry, book publishers are not trying to shut down graphic novel websites, figuring that the digital versions spawn print sales. A bigger problem is the fact that the Kindle and other digital readers cannot yet display the images well. That will likely change in the near future, so stay tuned…


So where’s it all going? Are we going to see more and more shelves at Barnes & Noble devoted to graphic novels or are these books a fad and victim of market saturation? No one knows for sure, but one thing is certain: “From a creative standpoint,” says Tricia, “this is the golden age for graphic novels.”

by Alyssa Léal

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