Previously in this sub-series of comics I did a brief overview, went into comic strips, and then into comic books. Now we get into comic books by another name and layout, the graphic novel. Before they turned into trade collections of longer comic books and the periodicals started writing for the trade the graphic novel was a unique form of comic, which is why when people call regular comic books “graphic novels” I know I’m dealing with an elitist who doesn’t know what they’re talking about or wants to admit they’re reading comics (because heaven forbid they read a “comic book”). It’s not more mature to call a comic book a graphic novel, it’s the wrong term. By the same vein a trade collection isn’t a graphic novel except in form. To continue the video analogy I’ve been going with (strips=shorts, comic books=TV series, graphic novel=movie) the trade collection is one of those so-called movies edited from various, maybe connected episodes of a TV series.
What sets a graphic novel apart from a trade collection? A graphic novel is an original story created for that format. It’s as simple as that really. It might be edited down into a miniseries, but we’ve seen movies edited into TV episodes, especially in kids shows of the 1980s (even Adventures Of Superman edited Superman And The Mole Man into the final episodes of the first season), but the intent was to create a movie…I mean graphic novel. How does the format set itself apart from the others?
While a graphic novel can have sequels (similar to movies, and some movies were intended to form a trilogy, like Star Wars or Back To The Future, or form a franchise like James Bond or Godzilla–after the first movie was so successful anyway) they’re intended to be one huge story. A regular comic miniseries, maxiseries, or ongoing is meant to be a continuing tale. In the case of ongoings and even some mini and maxiseries each issue may have an end point or a cliffhanger to draw you into the next issue. For example DC’s first MASK miniseries were self-contained stories but there was an element that led into the next issue until the finale in issue #4. Graphic novels typically don’t have that but they may leave some element to convince you to pick up the next volume. Stargazer, a comic I reviewed some years ago, is a two volume story (meant to be at least three but the funds wouldn’t allow the writer to continue) where the second volume continues from the first but are their own stories.
The graphic novel takes many cues from the prose novel, making that a rather fitting description–graphic novel. Some may have chapters, although that’s usually for trade collections or stories originally meant to be a series but ended up being retooled into a graphic novel. Then you have the more modern “writing for the trade” approach by DC, Marvel, and a few other companies. They saw that trades of certain storylines were successful, didn’t realize it was because those storylines are important and it’s a pain finding the individual issues at a fair price the older and more important the arc was, and just decided to make both formats. This has called for some comic fans to suggest getting rid of the periodical altogether and just make graphic novels. It’s not the fault of the periodical, because it has its own way to tell a story. A graphic novel (outside of the earlier notations) is one story that might be part of a series of stories, again like a novel may be part of a series. It has its own unique flow and pacing, as it’s meant to be read in one long sitting as opposed to a series of short sittings. You also can’t put out a good graphic novel each week unless you have a writer working on only one or two stories a month and playing musical art teams. The end result would also be a lot of good characters may disappear because nobody wants to spend the time on developing them. That’s something that is easier on a TV show than it is in a series of movies. Look at how better developed the characters are in The Real Ghostbusters versus the first two Ghostbusters movies or the focus the Star Trek series could do versus the theatrical films. The regular comic has more breathing room.
I’m not saying you can’t get character development in a series of graphic novels. You all could throw some book series names at me that proves me wrong. I’m saying it’s easier in a TV series or an ongoing 24 page comic series than it is in a graphic novel. A graphic novel also isn’t as long as its prose cousin (which the artist, printer, whoever has to put this on a shelf, and the reader are probably all thankful for) so it doesn’t have the same amount of time as the book. These could be longer, more impactful stories that wouldn’t fit into a serialized format. Think the Dragon Ball Z movies. They were based on what was happening the show that season but most of the stories don’t fit into the series because the timeline for that show, and the comics they were based on, kept a tight lock on events, the occasional time skip aside. So you could have Goku and friends fighting a giant brain or dealing with more androids and not have them mess with the regular story. The Killing Joke wasn’t intended to be canon, or at least not fit into main DC/Bat-continuity but was lucky enough to be able to be fitted in and led to some actually good character development for Barbara as she left the Senate to return to crimefighting not as Batgirl but as Oracle. Then you have DC’s “Elseworlds” stories, tales set elsewhere in the multiverse, where you could do a “what if” type story where Kal-El’s ship landed in Russia instead of Kansas or a flashback story about Dick Grayson’s final exam to become Robin. The story may not pace well as a miniseries but works as an original graphic novel.
I understand self-publishers going into graphic novels. If they don’t have a monthly presence on store shelves it’s cheaper to make a graphic novel. The creators of the webcomic Star Power, which is currently on its final story arc as the creators want to move on to other projects, realized that early on, though they still sell individual issues digitally through online services so it’s still essentially a trade. Other webcomic makers just go ahead and make a graphic novel, or a series of graphic novels, following the manga style of collection stories (in manga’s case not from a website but an anthology magazine like Shonen Jump), which is also essentially a trade. When the only way to reach your audience is through the internet, a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign that still requires people find it, or tabling at a convention the serialized periodical may not be your best option, but a graphic novel would make reaching those audiences easier and ultimately less expensive for the creator. I have a feeling I might go this route someday for that reason but I would love to do a monthly or bi-monthly series like the ones I grew up with. That said, I do enjoy a good graphic novel for longer reading but prefer an original graphic novel over a collected miniseries, reading it in the format and spirit it was intended.
I think Marvel had the right idea in the 1980s. They had all their usual ongoing titles and miniseries and then one original graphic novel a month. These would be done by different teams and may or may not be part of their regular Marvel universe. It would allow other creators to do something different or tell a story they couldn’t work into the main comic. This is the method I wish the comic publishers could go back to. Maybe it would cut down on the events. The best graphic novels to me are original graphic novels.
I would end the comics-thon here for Art Of Storytelling but I think I want to discuss the minicomic. I review enough of them, so since I’m talking comic formats what do they bring to the table?