What is a Graphic Novel?
Mention the terms “graphic novel” or “comic book” and most adults visualize either a handful of colorfully clad superheroes (i.e., Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) or those classic black-and-white characters in the daily newspaper. Comic books, and their lengthier counterpart the graphic novel, however, have a much broader range of subject matter, style, and genre.
In his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, revolutionary theorist and comic creator Scott McCloud described the comic book as a “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer.” But what exactly does that mean? Artist and comic creator Will Eisner, sometimes credited for coining the term “graphic novel,” suggested a simpler definition in his landmark work Comics and Sequential Art, stating, “[Comics are] an arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story and dramatize an idea.”
To put it even more simply, a comic book is any form of literature that combines story and art. Yes, that’s right, any form of literature. Like movies, books, and television shows, comics and graphics novels are an expandable medium—not a genre. This medium includes those heroic superhero adventures, of course, but also graphic nonfiction, realistic fiction, sports stories, fairy tales, and much more. And Capstone has them all!
How Are Graphic Novels and Comic Books Different?
What’s the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book? Well, the differences are slim—literally. As Professor Nancy Frey, Ph.D., points out in her book Teaching Visual Literacy, “All graphic novels are comic books, but not all comic books are graphic novels.” The only real difference separating them is the length: comic books are slim volumes of stories told through sequential art (often serialized, 32-page pamphlets published monthly and sold directly to comic shops); graphic novels are simply longer versions of the same format.
Despite this definition being widely accepted, the term “graphic novel” is still debated among librarians, publishers, and the creators themselves. In fact, many of today’s top creators believe the terms “graphic novel” and “comic book” can be used interchangeably when discussing forms of literature that combine story and art.
Others, such as the New York Times Book Review, have taken a different approach, inventing an all-new category for bestselling comics called “graphic books.” But no matter what the terminology, graphic novels and comic books (and graphic books, too) all share some common elements.
What Are the Page Elements of a Graphic Novel?
Never read a graphic novel before? Don’t worry! As Superman once said, “You asked for my help. That’s all that matters.” Getting up to speed on this format is simple. Knowing a few key terms and definitions will give anyone a better understanding of the eccentricities and opportunities that graphic novels have to offer young readers.
Narrative boxes serve a variety of purposes in comic books. These slim, rectangular boxes—often located at the top or bottom of an illustrated panel—convey information that cannot be communicated through character dialogue. Narrative boxes replace the four rhetorical modes of discourse seen in traditional text: exposition, argumentation, description, and narration. These devices can explain and analyze information, prove the validity of an idea, or place details and information from the story in a logical order, such as indicating when and where the action in a panel is taking place. For these reasons, narrative boxes are particularly useful in Capstone’s Graphic Library nonfiction graphic novels, including the popular series Max Axiom and the Society of Super Scientists, Greatest Sports Moments, Courageous Kids, Amazing World War II Stories, and more.
All graphic novels are made up of a series, or sequence, of illustrated frames called panels. These panels, as literary coach Terry Thompson suggests in Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2–6, are “analogous to paragraphing in traditional text.” Each frame is a subdivision of the entire composition, a piece of the larger puzzle. The number of panels, or illustrated frames, per page varies greatly from book to book.
At Capstone, our lowest levels graphic novels, including Discover Graphics, My First Graphic Novel, and First Graphics, often contain an achievable 1 to 3 panels per page. While more complex graphic novel series, such as Junior High Drama and Jake Maddox Graphic Novels, have a higher number of panels to support older readers. However, the intention of all comic book panels is the same: communicating one piece of a larger sequence or story.
Also known as “dialogue balloons,” speech bubbles are the voice of comics. These often cloud-shaped bubbles emanate from the mouths of superheroes and other characters and communicate their dialogue throughout a graphic novel. When Mr. Kazarian, Alien Librarian drops some scientific knowledge or Ninja-rella spouts a heroic catchphrase, their words are displayed within speech bubbles. Through width variation or altering a speech bubble’s shape or line type (wavy, jagged, dashed, etc.) dialogue balloons can also convey a character’s tone, timbre, or even his or her emotional state of mind.
The lowly name for this term misrepresents its importance. In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, McCloud writes, “The gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the heart of comics.” He couldn’t be more correct! To put this definition simply, the gutters of comic books are the spaces in between the panels—the gap between each illustration in a story of sequential art. But how could a quarter-inch of white space be that important? Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts include foundational reading and writing skills, such as predicting, inferring, and drawing conclusions. The gutters of a graphic novel support them all, requiring students to anticipate, ask questions, and decipher the events between each of the panels on a comic page.
How To Read a Graphic Novel
At Capstone, many of our lowest-level comics—including Discover Graphics: Mythical Creatures—feature a “How to Read a Graphic Novel” infographic. This handy in-book guide helps young learners identify the unique elements of the format as well as instruct them on how to move from panel to panel.
What Are the Benefits of Graphic Novels?
For many years, teachers, librarians, and readers have argued for the educational benefits of graphic novels. In fact, in an editorial for the New York Times in 1949, Lawrence K. Frank wrote, “Some day when the schools learn to use the dynamics of children’s spontaneous interest for learning, children will be permitted to discuss comics in the classroom.”
Despite this long-ago prediction, graphic novels and comic books remained absent in educational spaces for decades to come and were only a fraction of the $1.21 billion industry they are today. However, the benefits of graphic novels for young readers, as outlined in Capstone's handy-dandy infographic, can no longer be denied.
Instead of looking at comic books as something different—something alien—embrace their unique powers and abilities. After all, remember Superman himself is technically an alien, and where would the citizens of Earth be without the Man of Steel?
Kids Are Drawn to Comics
Like Lawrence K. Frank envisioned more than 70 years ago, the greatest advantage of graphic novels is their motivating factor—because everyone knows that kids love comics. It’s a fact!
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin proved, scientifically, that average sixth-grade students overwhelmingly prefer comics and cartoons to almost all other reading materials. Studies show a dramatic increase in readership and circulation when comics and graphic novels are added to school libraries. In fact, School Library Journal reported that the mere presence of comics increased library usage by a whopping 82%! In addition, the circulation increase did not solely affect the comic shelves; the circulation of non-comic materials increased by more than 30% as well.
Why is this important? Choice appears to be a significant factor in cultivating an appetite for reading. In fact, a study by Scholastic revealed that kids are more likely to read when they can select the material, with 9 out of 10 children responding that they are “more apt to finish books they choose themselves.”
Some of Capstone’s most popular series combine the in-demand graphic novel format with high-interest topics, including sports (Jake Maddox Graphic Novels), scary stories (Scary Graphics), and superhero adventures (Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures).
Graphic Novels Motivate Challenged Readers
The value of comics and graphic novels, however, reaches far beyond library circulation statistics. The number of books checked out means little if the most difficult group of students to attract—challenged readers—still have not picked up a book.
Educators have distinguished two types of challenged readers: reluctant readers and struggling readers. Reluctant readers have the capabilities required for strong literacy skills, such as visualization, pronunciation, and vocabulary, but may lack the simple motivation to grab a book off the shelf. Often, literacy refusal stems from peer pressure, or the age-old perception that books are “uncool.” Instead of sparking a negative reaction, however, comics are often viewed as the “anti-book” books. The rebellious nature of the medium alone motivates kids to read. For this reason, graphic novels also make the perfect entry points for curriculum topics, including history (Movements and Resistance), science (STEM adventures), and even classic literature (Graphic Revolve).
Unlike reluctant readers, motivation alone may not yield significant improvements for struggling readers. These students often have difficulties visualizing images in their minds by simply decoding words on the page. After failing to succeed with text-heavy chapter books, these students might give up on reading and become reluctant readers themselves.
But have no fear . . . graphic novels to the rescue!
Visuals Support Readers
In an editorial, the New York Times proclaimed that comic books (and graphic novels, of course) had an essential place in education. Why? They stated, “The pairing of visual and written plotlines that [comic books] rely on appear to be especially helpful to struggling readers.”
This melding of visuals with words is perhaps the most obvious reason students read comics and graphic novels in the first place. And, studies have shown, that struggling readers greatly benefit from reader supports, such as pictures or illustrations that directly reflect the text.
In her book, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center, media specialist Allyson A. W. Lyga agrees, stating, “[Struggling readers] can focus their mental energy on gaining meaning from pictures (and, thus, understanding the story) rather than becoming frustrated by text that constantly challenges their inability to create mental pictures of the story.” Visual supports are especially helpful for younger readers. For this reason, publishers are bringing the format to an even younger audience: early readers, ages four to eight.
Capstone has a wide variety of graphic novels that support pre-readers and early readers alike—from oh-so-cute graphic novels like The Super Adventures of Ollie and Bea to wordless graphics featuring some of today’s most beloved characters such as Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes.
With many other benefits, graphic novels are a great choice for readers of all ages and literacy levels, from pre-readers to advanced. Their strong appeal, motivational value, and reading supports make them a key to unlocking any kid’s reading superpowers. And Capstone’s graphic novel catalog and website are the perfect places to start this adventure!