Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Graphic Novel

Term coined, probably in the early 1970s, to distinguish between the Comic book and the attempts then being made to create works of literary merit using a similar amalgam of words and pictures. The term "comic book" had other disadvantages in this context (it is not a book but a magazine) and "adult comic" had been commandeered by the pornography market. The increasing sophistication of the narrative techniques employed by comics artists and writers throughout the 1970s made evident a growing need to attract an intelligent adult reader who could appreciate the nuances of a multi-layered verbal/visual narrative. The difficulty in attracting such readers did not exist in France, where the term bandes dessinées usefully avoided both the dichotomy and the intimations of juvenilia. Indeed, it was in France that the most interesting experiments with the medium were being published, and there the burgeoning market for picture-story albums for both adults and children was very different from that of the US comic book, whose readership was generally considered to be limited to a very narrow adolescent age-band.

The notion of a visual narrative is not a modern one. The most remarkable early example is Trajan's column, a 2nd-century sculpted pillar covered with a sequence of relief sculptures depicting the emperor Trajan's war against the Dacians. Almost 1000 years later, the seamstresses who created the Bayeux tapestry adopted a similar approach in pictorial terms – a left-to-right movement with consecutive incidents shown in a continuously unfolding tale – but with the addition of a verbal explanation of each event. Many medieval paintings show consecutive scenes from Bible stories. Two series of prints by William Hogarth (1697-1764), The Harlot's Progress (circa 1731) and The Rake's Progress (1735), depicted individuals brought low through dissipated living. But books in which pictures carry the burden of the narrative are uncommon before the 20th century, a singular example being Gustave Doré's Histoire Pittoresque, Dramatique et Caricaturale de la Sainte Russie (graph 1854). Mention should also be made of the work of Heinrich Zille (1858-1929), whose semi-autobiographical Hurengespäche Gehört ["Stories Told by Prostitutes"] (graph 1913), Kinder der Strasse ["Street Children"] (graph 1923) and Zwanglose Geschichten ["Stories without Restraint"] (graph 1925) consisted of lively drawings of German proletariat life linked by a sparse handwritten text. In the 1920s the Swiss Franz Masereel (1889-1972) produced a sequence of wordless "novels" in the form of woodcuts in which he cast himself as "everyman"; these include Le Soleil (graph 1920; trans as The Sun 1989 UK), Histoire sans Parole (graph 1920) and L'Idée (graph 1920) – these two assembled as Story without Words and The Idea (trans graph omni 1990 UK). The last of the sequence was La Ville/Die Staadt (graph 1926 France/Germany; trans as The City 1988 UK). In these, however, the pictures show only consecutive individual scenes, and pictorial narrative is minimal, as in the cycle of autobiographical woodcuts in similar style, Childhood (trans graph 1931 UK), by Helena Borcharâková-Dittrichová.

In the USA, Lynd Ward (1905-1985) produced a woodcut "novel" in a far more sophisticated and selfconscious style: God's Man (graph 1930). James Thurber's The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures (graph 1939) anticipated holocaust in World War II. But it was the development of the comic book and an awareness of Cinema that led to a realization that subtle nuances of meaning could be conveyed by judicious use of varied picture composition and viewpoint, along with dramatic lighting, fragmented images, etc. In this way pictorial narrative techniques developed which could convey increasingly complex story ideas.

The publication of A Contract with God and Other Stories of Tenement Life (graph 1978), the first of a series of "sequential art" books by Will Eisner, served to give the term GN definition and focus. Also of relevance is Jules Feiffer's Tantrum (graph 1979). GN was quickly taken up as a useful marketing term when, in the early 1980s, specialist comics shops began to attract more discerning readers and publishers perceived a market for reprinted comic-book material in glossy covers; they labelled such collections GNs in order to lend them credibility. The useful adult/juvenile distinguishing element would have been lost had not the mid-1980s seen the publication of two remarkable works, both of which first appeared as short comic-book series: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986; graph 1986) by Frank Miller (see Batman) and Watchmen (1986-1987; graph 1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Both had the structure of the conventional novel, as did a third milestone book publication of the period, Maus (1980-1985 Raw; graph 1987) by Art Spiegelman (1948-    ). These three works served to re-establish the GN as distinct from a comic book. Other publications of the time include Violent Cases (graph 1987) by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, several books in the series Love and Rockets by the brothers Hernandez, and a number of bandes dessinées translated from the French, among them The Magician's Wife (graph 1986; trans 1987 US) by François Boucq and Jerome Charyn, Pelisse (graph 1983-1987 4 vols; trans as Roxanna 1987-1989 US) by Letendre and Loisel, and Bell's Theorem (1986-1989 3 vols; trans 1987-1989 US) by Matthias Schulheiss. Further excellent examples are regularly published in Heavy Metal. Other significant GNs have been translated from the Japanese (see Manga), early examples being Hadashi no Gen (graph 1972-1973; trans as Barefoot Gen 1987 US) by Keiji Nakazawa, about the bombing of Hiroshima, and Akira (graph 1984-1988; trans 1988-1990 34 vols US) by Katsuhiro Otomo.

Comics writers and artists, inspired by the variety and expressiveness of these, began to test the boundaries of their medium and experiment with narrative techniques, many derived from the cinema. The UK publisher Victor Gollancz issued a list of GNs of considerable merit, including A Small Killing (graph 1991) by Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate, The City (graph 1994) by James Herbert and Ian Miller and The Minotaur's Tale (graph 1992) by Al Davison. But these admirable experiments were commercially disappointing, and the series was discontinued. GNs are now usually produced and distributed by the companies who deal with general comic books: they may be published as multi-volume partworks, in episodes/long features in magazines like Heavy Metal, or as complete volumes in sturdy covers.

The dividing line between a comic book and a GN remains indistinct, signifying a process of "growing up" for the comic-strip medium. It is significant that many of the titles published by DC Comics in their "adult" Vertigo line are clearly GNs (a notable example being Gaiman's and McKean's Mr Punch [graph 1994 US]) while others equally clearly are comic books. The difference is in the maturity of the concepts, the complexity and subtlety of the narrative, and the perceptiveness of the intended reader. [RT]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.