By Chelsey Roos
Comic books (and their slightly more sophisticated cousin, the graphic novel) get a bad rap. It’s a common belief that stories told in pictures are for young children, who aren’t yet able to read. Once you’re ready to sound out C-A-T, we often start pushing readers to more and more text-heavy books, and we cast a suspicious eye on anything with pictures. If you’ve ever worried about your child’s preference for Dog Man, Garfield, or the works of Raina Telgemeier, over so-called “real books,” then you, too, have been swept up in the notion that stories told in pictures are somehow more juvenile or immature than stories told exclusively in words.
As someone who spent her formative years rereading Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, and these days will drop everything to read the latest Lumberjanes, I’ve always been pro-comic. But it’s not just me. Comic books and graphic novels also routinely hit the best-seller list. In recent years, graphic novels have won high praise and awards – Jarrett Krosoczka’s Hey Kiddo was a 2019 National Book Award finalist. So let’s examine this anti-picture prejudice, and see what comic books and graphic novels are really made of.
What’s the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel?
The usage of “comic” has been around since at least the 1930s, referring to the issues of superhero and detective comics that were popular at the time. The phrase “graphic novel” became popular in the 1980s, when comic readers were looking for a way to describe more serious stories. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, “comic books” are usually serialized, with no definitive end to the story, and often contain collections of newspaper-style strips. Think issues of Superman, or collections of Foxtrot. “Graphic novels,” on the other hand, tend to be longer, self-contained stories, which follow the same kind of narrative arc you’d see in a traditional novel. The library calls its collection of both types “graphic novels.”
Are comic books and graphic novels just the book version of junk food?
Nope! Comic books and graphic novels are definitely “real books.” In fact, there are a lot of benefits to reading comic books and graphic novels:
- Graphic novels still contain plenty of text to read. In fact, many children’s graphic novels use more complex vocabulary than their text-only counterparts, because the pictures help to boost readers’ comprehension of unusual words.
- They improve visual literacy. Visual literacy is what we use to decipher the meaning of images – it’s how we do everything from appreciating art, to deciphering social cues and facial expressions, to noticing when advertisements are attempting to mislead us with visual tricks. Comic readers improve their visual literacy by interpreting the story through pictures, noticing visual foreshadowing, and interpreting characters’ emotional states through how they’re drawn.
- Comics and graphic novels encourage more reading! The reason these are on best-seller lists (especially for kids) is that they’re engaging and stimulating reads. Growing readers need as many positive experiences with a book as they can get, to encourage them to continue on their path as readers.
Are there comics and graphic novels for adults?
Yes! There are a stunning number of great comics and graphic novels for adults (and some for teens and children that are perfect for adults as well). And if you think comic books and graphic novels are limited to just superhero battles or newspaper-style daily strips, think again. Graphic novels span all genres, including science fiction and fantasy, but also realistic fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. Try one of the below on for size!
Never read a graphic novel before? Start here! Graphic novels and comics have grown beyond the traditional sci-fi fare (though there are some great sci-fi comics on this list as well). No matter your favorite genre, there's a graphic novel for you (plus some for teens and children, with great crossover appeal).