Kevin McVicker’s Comics Corner: issue #2: “Graphic Novels- what they are & what they’re NOT”

Welcome to “Comics Corner” a new column here at Nerd Nation, where popular independent comic book artist/writer Kevin McVicker explores various topics both in and around the realm of comic book fandom. In this second edition, Kevin will be exploring “Graphic Novels”… what they are, what they aren’t, and why it’s okay to JUST CALL THEM COMIC BOOKS!… But enough intro stuff… let’s get to it, shall we?

Kevin with comics legend Stan “The Man” Lee (who, for the record, is someone who also understands what a graphic novel is and isn’t.)

Graphic Novels: I hate this term. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate graphic novels, especially when used in the correct sense, but so often it is not used in the correct sense.

Graphic Novels, to clarify, are novel-sized books, which use sequential artwork. They are stories told in a one-shot that span many (usually more than 100) pages, not just the regular 24 page (or up to around 50 in the case of a giant sized issue). They generally use a long-form narrative, like a novel, and tell one complete story from beginning to end, as does (or at least, should) a novel.

Comic Books, on the other hand, are those serialized issues we pick up each week (or month) as either part of an on-going or limited series. Yes, limited series that tell one story (like “Watchmen” for example) are comic books because it was an issue-based release. And, to be clear, a collection of work is called a ‘Trade’ (‘TPB’ or ‘Trade Paperback’ if it’s in paperback). This is a collection based around one character, story, or theme that originally appeared in various comic book issues.

THIS is a graphic novel.

There are actually fewer graphic novels than people want to give graphic novel status to. Some of them are quite famous like “Maus” or “God Loves, Man Kills” or the first and most famous “Contract With God,” but they are not something put out all the time. People love to use ‘graphic novels’ when talking about ‘comic books’ because it makes them sound mature and serious. You know what? Screw that. They’re comic books. Don’t be ashamed of what you enjoy. Whether it’s “Adventure Time,” “Spider-Man,” “My Little Pony,” or “The Walking Dead,” you’re reading a comic book. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!

I know you’re tired of people calling comics ‘kiddie.’ Most people like that still think comics are like the old Adam West “Batman” TV series, but comics, even during that time period, weren’t that campy. That series ran from 1966 to 1968, and in May of 1971 was when Stan Lee now ran the famous storyline dealing with drug abuse in “Spider-Man” that was published without the “comic code” of approval.

THIS is NOT a graphic novel… it is a TRADE PAPERBACK.

And do you know why the “comic code” of approval was put into place? It was because individuals felt, thanks to the ignorant psychology of Fredric Wertham via Seduction of the Innocent, that comics were “not appropriate for kids.” This was from many of the crime and horror comics published by various companies in the late 1940s to the late 1950s. And some of those were pretty heavy and probably not kid appropriate, but they didn’t cause the kids that Wertham studied to be in juvenile detention halls. His logic is the same as noticing ice cream sales and drowning both increased in the summer and drawing the correlation that ice cream causes people to drown. – Yes, it’s that ridiculous. Kind of like the precursor to video games making kids violent, same radical stupidity, different scapegoat.

Jump forward almost twenty years and in 1986 and 1987 respectively we had “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” published by DC. And since then, with the Vertigo line at DC, Darkhorse Comics, and Marvel’s MAX line there have been many mainstream comics that do not follow a campy storyline for kids, but rather create deep often violent and sexual postmodern tales of morality. And these were all comic books! And most of them are extremely well-known. If you have picked up even the latest issues of “New Avengers” by Hickman or “Justice League” by Johns you know those are heavy books that, though they aren’t laden with sex and violence, are not something that little kids should read if they were even interested by the deep storylines.

QUIZ TIME: can YOU determine which of these are actual ‘graphic novels’ and which are not?

So when someone says ‘graphic novels,’ unless they are actually talking about a novel that uses sequential art work to help tell the story, call them out on their pretentiousness. Even Alan Moore doesn’t say he writes graphic novels. He writes comic books. He has said on graphic novels, “It’s a marketing term… that I never had any sympathy with. The term ‘comic’ does just as well for me.” 

See? It’s okay! There is nothing wrong with comic books. Stop pretending like that’s a bad word… Let’s just be honest here! We read comic books! We love comic books! …

-Kevin McVicker

Note: the views and opinions expressed by Mr. McVicker are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Nerd Nation Magazine, or anyone else for that matter. So don’t be a d-bag and try to sue anyone over the stuff he writes. K? Thanks! =)


  1. I’ve known the difference but I’ve still used the term in regards to stand alone comics compiled into a single volume, such as Moore’s work as well as tales like The Killing Joke. It’s not out of disdain for the term “comic book”, I’ve just always viewed what was produced as being more literary. It’s printed in a different format than previous publishings, but “volume” doesn’t really work for what to call them because they aren’t printed in multiple installments. It’s one self contained story that has garnered considerable recognition beyond the numerous issues published for decades.

    This was a practice I had years ago when very stories got their own volumes, and things have changed considerably nowadays where pretty much everything gets its own printing just because it’s a self contained story. But it was a much easier way of suggesting reading material to anyone who didn’t “get it” when it came to my liking comics.


  2. First, thanks for reading and replying!
    Second, I complete agree with you on the Killing Joke. It is a graphic novel even if it is a little shorter than most. But I disagree on necessarily lumping all Alan Moore work in that label. Mainly Watchmen, which usually is categorized as a Graphic Novel, because although it is a self contained story (technically not any more with the multiple prequel series produced a few years ago) it is still a serialized story. And when read as such it makes such a much more impactful tale I think. The best example I can think of is issue 5, which if you carefully read on it’s own stands out (at least for me) above the other issues as a fascinating and powerful tale regardless of the impact of the collected work. What Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins did in that issue to visually tell Rorschach’s story was profound for me when I first realized and I’ve never looked at comics the same way again. So that singular comic stands out, even in a collected edition. And I think that’s the power of recognizing these are comics, individual stories which when collected tell a larger story.
    Look, I also know I’m arguing semantics, so you’re not wrong no matter what. The point is getting the pretentiousness out of comics. Even in your comment you mentioned things being “more literary.” I understand some comics are better than others, but generally people deem the cynical and post-modern tales as the “more literary” issues/collections/trades/graphic novels. I’m sorry, maybe people won’t get it, but nothing beats a Lee written and Kirby drawn Silver Surfer story. That’s literature to me. Take your Kafka, I’ll take Kirby (not actually directed at you, just in the general sense).
    I’ll put it in one final way… TV was trashed for years as being garbage and not having worthwhile or film-like quality of story-telling. Recently though, that has changed, and whether it is The Wire, Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Hannibal, Battlestar Galactica, or any other TV show which continues to set bars on how TV is made, we don’t call them “films” or “TV films.” There are made-for-TV movies, but for a TV series, whether it is crap like Two And A Half Men (sorry if you like, but it’s awful) or Game of Thrones, it’s still a TV series. That defining term says nothing of the caliber of the program. Likewise, whether it’s Archie or Global Frequency, it’s a comic.

    Jesus, I think I just wrote as much as the article. Sorry. But, finally, at the end of the day, if you have to use semantics to get someone interested in comics, what can I really say? Good job, and keep it up.



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