Is It a Comic Book or Graphic Novel? Learn the Difference Between Graphic Novels and Comics

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 27, 2019 • 3 min read

Mixing up comic books and graphic novels can seem like a simple mistake but the terms “graphic novel” and “comic book” are not synonyms. Although both formats feature illustration-based storytelling, they have distinctions that reveal substantive differences.



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What Is a Graphic Novel?

A graphic novel, as its name suggests, is a novel that tells a complete story via illustrations. A graphic novel contains a beginning, middle, and end. A graphic novel will offer the type of resolution that one expects from a novel, even if it is part of a series. Effectively, this makes a graphic novel longer and more substantive than a comic book, which is a serialized excerpt from a larger narrative.

What Are the Characteristics of a Graphic Novel?

Graphic novels share all the key characteristics of traditional novels. These include:

  • A clear beginning, middle, and end
  • A central narrative (or A-story) supplemented by optional B-stories
  • Character development and personal journeys
  • Thematic messaging
  • Precise, carefully considered dialogue and narration

The obvious distinction between graphic novels and text-based novels is that graphic novels permit their images to do the vast majority of the storytelling, with dialogue bubbles and narration boxes to help elaborate the story.

7 Classic Graphic Novels

Graphic novels began to gain traction in literary circles in the late twentieth century, and they continue to flourish well into the twenty-first century. Here are some landmark books of the genre:

  1. Maus by Art Spiegelman
  2. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  3. Ghost World and Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes
  4. Daddy's Girl by Debbie Drechsler
  5. The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
  6. 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
  7. Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
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What Is a Comic Book?

A comic book is an excerpt from a larger serialized narrative that is told via illustration. Famous comic book publishers include Archie Comics, Marvel Comics, and DC Comics. From the mid-twentieth century through the present day, these publishers and other similar companies have issued comic books on a weekly or monthly basis in the form of books or as pieces of sequential art called comic strips, which are published in magazines or newspapers. These comics contain excerpts from long-running narratives that can last for years or even decades.

Some of the most famous American comic book series include:

  • Superman
  • Batman
  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • Wonder Woman
  • Archie
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • The X-Men
  • The Fantastic Four
  • The Sandman

What Is the Difference Between a Graphic Novel and Comic Book?

While an untrained reader may not be able to discern a graphic novel from a comic book, fans of both genres should have no trouble doing so. As a general rule:

  • Graphic novels are longer than comic books.
  • Graphic novels cover a wide array of genres and subject matters. Comic books may as well, but the subjects are often associated with or explained through the lens of superheroes or heightened realities.
  • Graphic novels contain complete narratives, whether or not they are part of a larger series.
  • Comic books contain excerpts of serialized narratives. It can be difficult to read a comic book if you haven’t read the comic that comes directly before it in series.
  • Both comics and graphic novels can contain complex characters with detailed backstories and inner conflict.
  • Comic books are produced with greater frequency than graphic novels, often arriving on a weekly or monthly schedule.

Comic-style illustration is also popular in other countries. For example, Anime and manga, both of which originated in Japan, are popular worldwide. Anime is most analogous to comic books while Manga aligns more closely with graphic novels. Italy is another country who produces comic books, called fumetti, which are translated and exported worldwide.


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