the March/April 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
Graphic Novels 101: FAQ
By Robin Brenner
By day a mild-mannered library technician at
Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, Massachusetts, Brenner is the
creator and editor-in-chief of “No
Flying, No Tights,” a website reviewing graphic novels
for teens, and “Sidekicks,”
its sister site for kids. Here are her answers to some frequently
the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel?
simply, length. A comic and a graphic novel are told via the same
format, officially called sequential art: the combination
of text, panels, and images. Comic strips, comic books, and graphic
novels are in this sense all the same thing, but comic books stretch
a story out to about thirty pages, whereas graphic novels can be
as long as six hundred pages.
What’s the difference between
American comics and Japanese manga?
are a few key differences between American graphic novels and Japanese
graphic novels, or manga. While superhero comics still dominate
the U.S. market, in Japan there is a much wider diversity of topics,
from romantic comedies to historical fiction to how-to comics, and
they are published in both weekly and monthly installments. Japanese
comics work with a complex language of visual signals, from character
design to sound effects to common symbols. The biggest difference
is obvious: Japanese comics are from another culture and were never
intended for export. In some ways, Japan’s pop culture is
like ours, but in many ways it’s not, and learning the secret
code that opens up those stories for us is one thing that makes
manga so appealing to American readers.
Are different graphic novels aimed
at different audiences?
certainly! In today’s market, graphic novels exist for almost
everyone but are not automatically for all ages. In the past, American
comics were mostly aimed at children and teens, but today there
are graphic novels for everyone from elementary school kids to seniors.
It’s true that a higher percentage of graphic novels and comics
are still essentially aimed at men from teens to middle age, while
girls and women have fewer titles created expressly for their tastes.
Japanese manga creators, on the other hand, have a specific age
and gender audience in mind when working on their titles, and those
age and gender recommendations usually hold up.
What are some common misconceptions
about graphic novels?
and graphic novels are for kids. In reality, comics
never were just for kids. Even in the 1940s–1950s Golden Age
of superhero comics, there were crime, fantasy, and science fiction
comics intended for teens and adults rather than children. However,
due to the hullabaloo started by psychologist Fredric Wertham’s
Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which drew a tenuous
connection between juvenile delinquency and comics, comics’
content became watered down. Many adults are still under the impression
that the format automatically means juvenile content — but
as the average age of a comics reader is thirty, this is certainly
Graphic novels are all full of violence
and explicit sex. On almost opposite tack to the idea
that graphic novels are for kids, many adults fear that they are
full of sex and violence. Like many previous formats, graphic novels
are painted with the extremes of what’s available. There are
comics with R- or X-rated content, but they are not the bulk of
what’s available, nor are those titles intended for younger
Comics and graphic novels are only
superheroes. Yes, superheroes are still the bread
and butter of the big companies, but genre diversity is increasing
every day with more and more independent companies publishing a
range of genres, from memoir to fantasy to historical fiction. This
is partly what has allowed graphic novels to truly break into the
book market. On the other hand, this distinction could also lead
to the mistaken conclusion that there is nothing of value in superhero
comics. A few years ago, many dismissed fantasy as a lesser genre,
but the success and popularity of Harry Potter has reminded
the reading public that genre does not define quality.
Graphic novels are for reluctant readers.
One of the biggest benefits of graphic novels is that
they often attract kids who are considered “reluctant”
readers. This is not just hype — the combination of less text,
narrative support from images, and a feeling of reading outside
the expected canon often relieves the tension of reading expectations
for kids who are not natural readers, and lets them learn to be
confident and engaged consumers of great stories. That being said,
graphic novels are not only for reluctant readers —
they’re for everyone! It’s a disservice to the format
to dismiss it as only for those who don’t read otherwise,
and relegating graphic novels to a lower rung of the reading scale
is not only snobbish, but wrong.
Graphic novels aren’t “real”
books. This one’s a zinger and contains a bit
of truth and a lot of prejudice. The key to categorizing graphic
novels is to remember that they’re a format, akin to audiobooks,
videos, and television, all media that have struggled for acceptance.
Graphic novels are not and were never intended to be a replacement
for prose. Sequential art is just another way to tell a story, with
different demands on the reader. So, yes, graphic novels don’t
work exactly the same way that traditional novels do, but they can
be as demanding, creative, intelligent, compelling, and full of
story as any book.
Why should kids read comics and
novels are simply another way to get a story. They represent an
alternative to other formats, not a replacement. They are
as varied as any other medium and have their fair share of every
kind of title, from fluff to literary masterpieces. What they always
involve, though, is reading — just as books, from Newbery
winners to the latest installment in the Animorphs series, do. Stephen
Krashen, who examines voluntary reading in his book The Power
of Reading, discovered that comics are an unrecognized influence
on reading. He found that not only were kids more likely to pick
up comics voluntarily, but the average comic book has twice the
vocabulary as the average children’s book and three times
the vocabulary of a conversation between an adult and child. And
the very fact that a child chooses to read them gives them a greater
impact on that child’s confidence in reading.
Not only do graphic novels entail reading in the
traditional sense, they also require reading in a new way. To read
a comic requires an active participation in the text that is quite
different from reading prose: the reader must make the connections
between the images and the text and create the links between each
panel and the page as a whole. This is generally referred to as
“reading between the panels,” and this kind of literacy
is not only new but vital in interacting with and succeeding in
our multimedia world. If you’ve ever struggled to make the
connections in reading a graphic novel while a teen reader whizzes
through it, you’ve experienced how different this type of