Difference Between Comic Books And Graphic Novels

“When maturity was reached, he discovered he could easily: Leap 1/8th of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building[. . .]raise tremendous weights[. . .]run faster than an express train[. . .]and that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!” —Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

In A Nutshell

Calling something a graphic novel isn’t just a fancy way of saying “comic book.” There’s a very clear difference between the two. Graphic novels are much longer and tend to be much more complex. While a comic book will tell a story over many issues, graphic novels more often have their storylines wrapped up in only one or two books.

The Whole Bushel

Accuse someone who’s reading a graphic novel of being into comic books, and you’re likely to get a dirty look at the very least (or a lecture at the very slightly worse). They might look the same at a glance, but they’re actually very different types of story medium.

Both comic books and graphic novels use a combination of illustrations and words to tell a story. That story can be anything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the tale of a superhero or of a zombie apocalypse. The difference isn’t so much in the content, but in the presentation.

Comic books are serialized stories; most are relatively short, and tell the story of the book’s heroes and heroines over a long period of time. There are usually many, many issues of a successful comic book, and the stories unfold over months and sometimes years.

Graphic novels are longer works that tell a single story from the beginning to the end. (Sometimes, successful comic books will be collected and packaged in a graphic novel format.) Because stories don’t have to be broken up over countless issues, plots can often be more complex and more detailed, as readers don’t have to remember details for anywhere from months to years while reading. Manga is a type of graphic novel, a Japanese graphic novel that is read from top to bottom and right to left since that is how the Japanese language is read.

Graphic novels actually pre-date comic books. It’s thought that the first graphic novel ever published was the 1783 adaptation of Gottfried August Burger’s Lenardo und Blandine. Illustrated by Joseph Franz von Goez, the 160-frame work tells the story of two ill-fated lovers. Blandine, the daughter of the king, falls in love with and marries her father’s faithful courtier, Lenardo. Her father promises her to someone else, kills Lenardo, and tells his daughter of her husband’s death by sending her three messengers bearing a ring, a letter, and an urn containing her husband’s heart. She does, of course, go mad and die of grief.

Although individual comics have been around for centuries, comic books are a relative newcomer to the literary world. Single-panel comics have been published in papers and broadsheets since the mid-1700s, and comic strips became popular around the end of the 19th century. Comic books as we know them today, though, are generally thought to have found their origin with Funnies on Parade in 1933 and Action Comics #1 (the first appearance of Superman) in 1938.

Comic books cornered the market for decades, until a resurgence in the popularity of graphic novels. In the 1980s and 1990s, British authors like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman brought graphic novels back into the mainstream market. Graphic novels have enjoyed a period of underground popularity as artists and writers tried to make the separation between mediums clear. Graphic novels got a reputation as being gritty, explicit, and for mature audiences, while comic books were relegated to more mainstream popularity. Ironically, comic books have long carried their own stigma of being a childish, immature, guilty pleasure at best.

Fortunately, thanks to big-screen adaptations of both graphic novels and comic books, some of that stigma is being stripped away after decades.

Show Me The Proof

Heritage Auction Galleries: A Brief History of Comic Books
Lenardo und Blandine, illustrated by Joseph Franz von Goez
Get Graphic: The World In Words and Pictures
Graphic Novels: History and Basics

  • Back in 2007 there was talk of a Twin Peaks graphic novel, a sort of season three, to be included in a DVD-box of the show. Matt Haley was going to be the artist, but the project got vetoed by David Lynch, the series original creator. Would have made an interesting book, but some stories are perhaps best left unresolved.

    My favourite graphic novel (if it is one, it’s part comic, part illustrated bio) is Robert Crumb’s Kafka. Good times.

    • Valkyrie

      Can you just imagine how it would have turned out though? The series was bad enough to try to understand, it probably would be almost porn aka Blue Velvet mixed with the horror of Eraserhead ( the only film to turn my stomach whilst watching it )

      • I’ve seen the series about ten, fifteen times, but every-time after the final episode of season two (major cliffhanger!) one is left all frustrated. The subsequent movie (Fire Walk With Me) is a prequel with some sequel elements, but lacks a certain something that made the series so special: a sense of humour. A graphic novel, it would be interesting, but I think I’ll miss the soundtrack / score music. The thing is, in the series Laura Palmer (in the Black Lodge) tells agent Cooper “see you in 25 years”, which would be in 2014. So again, this year, as in most years, there’s rumours rumours. Nice new Avatar, Valkyrie.

        • Valkyrie

          Would be interesting to see if they made a new series.. I feel your pain with the last few sequels lacking a few elements, they did the same to Lost and gave it the most cop-out failure of an ending ever!

  • Andy West

    Great to see graphic novels and comics getting their due. I;m a huge Nova fan, if that comic was made intoi a wonderful film i’d die happy. If Adam Sandler was involved I’d …

    • Lisa 39

      If adam sandler were involved i’d even watch it lol, i may read the whole list and comment section again because you comic book geeks, that’s the highest compliment from me, you guys are the best! I didn’t understand most of what anyone said! (i’m only retaining the word superman) but it was a good time!

  • Andy West

    As an aside I met Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar. Great guys.

  • Hadeskabir

    Alan Moore writes amazing Graphic Novels, he’s a genius.

  • Acheya Wachtel

    Another big difference is that graphic novels have a decent price, usually, considering their length and story, while comic books are beyond unproportionatly priced. It was $3.99 for a My Little Pony comic. Yes I like the MLP series, but that is not the point. A 13 page comic shouldn’t cost more than $2.00. I understand the price of printing and glossing the paper is expensive, but it shouldn’t come out to $4 or $5 to just make a profit. Hopefully there is someone in the comments who understands the comic world better than I do because I would much appreciate an answer. I really want to start reading comics, but they are so damn expensive, even with digital downloads.

  • Skeeter

    I thought the diference between the two mediums was that geeks read comic books, and uber-geeks read graphic novels. I kid, of course

  • CplEthane

    A visual medium that employs a single to sequential images (text is entirely optional) to tell a story or express an idea is a comic. Therefore, graphic novels are comics. Simple as that. “Graphic novel” is just a pretentious word used by people who are uncomfortable with admitting that they’re reading comics. There’s no metric at all to determine the difference between a Batman comic and a Batman “graphic novel”.

    The term “graphic novel” is not an ancient one. It was coined by Will Eisner of all people, as a sort of trojan horse term to lend comics more credibility among snobbish literary types. Also, collected chapters of manga into a volume are not “graphic novels” either — in Japan they’re simply called “manga” because over there, they don’t suffer the hangups we have in the west about reading comics. Japan’s Prime Minister of all people admitted that he enjoyed reading Rozen Maiden, a manga about Victorian dolls come to life, and was seen reading in in public places.

    They’re comics, plain and simple, and the term “graphic novel” does not do anything to remove the childish stigma that comic books have suffered in the west for all of these years. In fact, it probably does more to strengthen it by virtue of its pretension alone. There’s nothing wrong with anyone of any age enjoying comics and comic books and the sooner that’s realized, the sooner that stigma will disappear like it has elsewhere in the world.

  • Ray

    They’re both the same thing. People are just embarrassed about reading comic books.

    • Fabia Walker

      Bullshit. I’m a manga (graphic novel) fan who doesn’t like comic books (except x-men. I love x-men) and I can tell you in the utmost certainty that they are completely different things. Manga can be about anything, very serious, any genre, cator to any audience i.e. Pokeman vs. Kino’s Journey, both completely different, but both anime nonetheless. Go read Superman (comic) and Berserk (manga/graphic novel) back to back and come back and say that in all honesty. I fucking dare you.

      • blckbrd

        Wrong, wrong, wrong. As the very own Alan Moore states in his documentary “The Mindscape of Alan Moore”, the name “Graphic Novel” is merely a term coined by the publication industry to cater towards more “mature” audiences, making them feel like they’re not into “Kids stuff”. Tell me, do you find yourself offended by the idea of reading a “Comic” or why do you answer with such virulence? Comic books are just comic books, the rest are just genres.

        • Ray

          That’s exactly what I meant. I read the walking dead comic book and it’s pretty good but it’s still a comic book. I don’t see a valid reason to call it anything else.

          • Lisa 39

            I up voted you guys!

          • Ray

            Thank you! The strange thing is that the walking dead comic book is 10x more violent than the tv show. I still wish it was a regular book. I prefer them but it’s still really good.

          • Lisa 39

            You’re welcome, i haven’t watched walking dead or anything else, i’m a dexter fan! I used to read the archie comics when i was a kid but then i started buying teen girl stuff lol. That’s all the input i can give!

        • mo

          You mention the real reason, and your comment is more on point of the differences than the article is.

      • blckbrd

        Oh, and btw, if you’re gonna emblazon yourself as a Manga reader, why suggest “Berserk” as a good example of a mature comic? How about Inoue Takehiko’s “Vagabond” or Urasawa Naoki’s “Monster”?

      • Andy West

        sometimes yes

      • Kris

        true that. anime and manga are far superior to nearly everything (if not ALL) comics and cartoons can offer.

      • Freddie Irizarry

        Manga are just comics from Japan, read from back to front and in black and white. Still comics.
        Comics can also be about anything. Bones is a comic book for kids. Punisher is one for adults.
        Stop being a weeb.

        • Murasame

          This. I also happen to be a Manga and Anime fan. and MANY people get it wrong and tell you they are Anime fans and tell you that Anime are only japanese cartoons. But that’s wrong. Anime is just their word for cartoon. Western cartoons are also called Anime in Japan. So that’s that. And Manga’s are just japanese comics. Graphic novels are also just comics. To think that comics are always only about simple things is just a very restricted way of thinking. That’s the same restricted thinking that we see when people will tell you anima and manga is only for kids. Some nerds just want to be seen better as others. To be superior. That’s why they tell you bullshit like this.

          • That’s true, but you shouldn’t forget about the specialization of the word. Anime can have 2 meaning. It could be animation in general or Japanese animation. Depends on contextual use.

      • Mike Pittman

        Comic books can be about anything too, even in the super hero genre you can find anything from very series (Kingdom Come), to entirely wacky (Justice League International), you have westerns like Jonah Hex (which one of the greatest western properties of all time across all mediums) and horror stories like Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing and Jeff Lemire’s Animal man. But even outside of Marvel and DC, you can find anything in any genre of any tone. All graphic novels are comic books.

    • Andy West

      I.m not, in fact there is an old man in my neighborhood who encourages it,. All the the children of neighborhood are encouraged by his fervor,.

      • Ray

        Yeah me either. I read the walking dead and someone told me there was a jericho comic for a new season. I plan to read that someday.

    • Aetherious

      You motherfucker… Lol

    • the doctor

      hey comic books rule

    • Mariam Munira

      Saying graphic novels and comic books are the same is like saying Twilight and Dracula are the same. In few terms they are the same yet so different. I don’t think people are ashamed to say they read comic books. It’s just that is would rather say I am reading a classic book.

    • Hoxton Hoxworth

      Yep, same stuff. It’s like saying that those Collections that come out wrapping all the issues from an arc is a Graphic Novel. Graphic Novel is a fancy way to say comic book.

  • ResidentRedRanger

    if someone gives you a look for reading a comic just remind them what the highest grossing films were the last few years along with all mainstream media eating up comic culture

  • Jonathon Hero

    There has been less distinction between the two in the last few decades as comic books have gone away from one-shots or two-book stories in favor of long arcs that are crafted to read better in trade.

    Many comic readers forgo buying monthlies, instead waiting to read the stories when they are collected in a more reasonably priced graphic novel format.

  • mo

    After today’s articles, I dont believe knowledgenuts cares about getting facts right. they just want to spread misinformation.

  • Valkyrie

    As a staunch comic book fan, nothing could beat reading through my father’s collection of Stan Lee comics, sadly he swapped them for a set of Encyclopedias for me and my brother .. I was gutted. I absolutely love the X Men and can’t wait for them to immortalise the gorgeous Gambit in film form

    • Dumas911

      Gambit was in the last Wolverine movie when Logan goes to New Orleans, and they end up fighting while Wolverine is fighting Sabertooth at the same time.

      • Hadeskabir

        That was the FIRST Wolverine movie, not the last. There was a new Wolverine movie last year.

        • Dumas911

          Yeah that’s actually what I meant. The one with Will I Am in it.

          • Hadeskabir

            Yeah, that’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Most people say it sucks but I love it.

      • Valkyrie

        I didn’t watch the Movie never had a chance to..I’ll look it up … I hope they didn’t ruin my perfect man 😀

        • Dumas911

          In my opinion they ruined him. He was nowhere near as awesome as in the cartoons or books. He’s always been my favorite to, but it was very disapointing.

    • Evan

      The sad thing is that nowadays you can read encyclopedias and many of that stuff free online. But with comics, you have to pay a lot of money to get those rare comics and if you want to read it online, you still have to pay some kind of expense.

  • Errkism

    A regular book beats both of these any day.

    • Not always. Books, comic books, graphic novels, TV series, movies – they are all great, no need to fight over what is better.

  • David Carlson

    The term graphic novel didn’t exist in the 1700’s, so the referenced work is completely irrelevant. Technically platinum predates the earth, but that doesn’t mean the term platinum was used before the term earth. The true and honest fact of the matter is, graphic novel is a term that was created after the term comic book. This would make logical sense out of the misconceptions people have. Most people call them all comic books, because the term comic book was popularized first, and we all know how stubborn humanity is, so we don’t like to trade our old term for a new one, and just call them all comics.

  • Joe List

    I disagree. Comics are comics, be it short of longform. The term makes even less sense if you look at comics on the web and digitally distributed comics. Additionally, the term graphic novel doesn’t mean something is more complex, I can think of many single episodes of a television shows that are more complex than specific feature length works.

    Graphic novels are a sensible shirt and tie to put over a term people worry seems silly. Comics.

  • the doctor

    all kinds of books rule

  • pooop

    … comics are shorter….i rarely read graphic novels

  • FreaperFTW .

    So it’s almost like a soap opera vis-a-vis a movie.

  • Josh Dupree

    Its astounding how some people can be such “know it alls” when they know nothing at all. The first few comments are a prime example of this. People are missing the point entirely. This is an informative article meant to help one discern the differences of a comic book and a graphic novel not to deny any connection of the two. They are both different formats. It’s like one saying there is no difference between a dvd/ bluray and a vhs tape. The contents may be similar but the format and overall presentation is entirely differnt, and if you want to deny the obvious difference between the two then you’re an idiot.

    • Petey Pete

      uh well no, a vhs and a dvd are vastly different on a material level. comics and graphic novels are both paper last time i checked. i think maybe what you mean is that saying graphic novels and comics are the same is like saying movies and TV shows are the same.

  • I still don’t see the difference, if anything they’re the same thing like animes and Cartoons

  • Penemuel

    So that’s the only difference?

  • Murasame

    So, I read this article. I also read comics and graphics novels. I still don’t see a difference. Graphic novels are comics. Thank you.

  • Petey Pete

    sorry, there is very little difference between comics and graphic novels. ‘Graphic Novel’ is simply a marketing term. Sure, graphic novels tend to be more self-contained than a comic series and often appear more complex and adult oriented. But these differences are only minor. They are, in fact, essentially the same format. If you correct people, then you will just come off as pretentious and pedantic, sorry to say.

  • Mike Pittman

    ALL graphic novels are comic books, but not all comic books are graphic novels.