The History of Graphic Novels

Graphic books arose from the comic books of the mid-20th Century. Comic books have been popular in America since the early part of the 20th century, and their popularity grew exponentially over time. The heyday of comics came in the 1940s and 1950s, when superheroes like Superman and Captain America were created. In 1954, psychiatrist Frederic J. Wertham published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent. In it, he put forth many arguments against comic books that may be familiar to librarians today: comics were a motivating factor for troubled youth; they contributed to violence, depression, and even suicide; they ruined children's taste for good literature; they promoted disrespect and inappropriate language; they were too sexual, too violent, too graphic. In response to this and to Congressional inquiries into the industry, comic publishers created a Comics Code - language and violence must be toned down, characters must be appropriately dressed, and authority figures must be respected. While most large publishers followed these rules, a large underground "comix" movement gained weight in the 60s and 70s. These were created by young adults for young adults, and they were unexpectedly popular, despite being underground. At the same time, mainstream authors began to reimagine their heroes as more three-dimensional characters who were much more self-reflective than the superheroes of the 40s. The combination of these two factors led to the rise of the graphic novel. In 1978, famed comic writer Will Eisner coined the phrase "graphic novel" when he published what is widely considered to be the first of the genre: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. This novel was specifically directed at adults, and tells four short stories about working-class Jewish life in New York during the Great Depression. Contract is a far cry from the superhero comics of the 1940s. It deals frankly about the pain and problems of life, and is more concerned with depicting characters than in passing judgment on their actions.

The next major step in the history of graphic novels was 1986. In this year, three classic graphic novels were published: Watchmen, by Alan Moore; Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller; and Maus, by Art Spiegelman. All of these were literary works, in which the story was more important than the artwork. Watchmen and The Dark Knight, drawing on the introverted superheroes of the decade before, questioned the very idea of what it means to be a superhero. Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, tells the story of the author's father and his survival through the Holocaust.

Since the mid-80s, graphic novels have become more and more popular. They now cover every genre, from non-fiction to classical literature to stories about robots; they can appeal to every demographic; and they are wonderful tools for any classroom.

A note about Manga: manga, which are Japanese comics, have become incredibly popular in the last decade - especially with teen and preteen girls. These books are often translated into English before being sold in the U.S., but they need to be read "backwards," starting with the top right corner of the last page, and moving from right to left across the page.

The Importance of Graphic Novels

According to a 1993 study in The Journal of Child Language, the average comic book introduces students to nearly twice as many new words as the average children’s book and more than five times as many as the average child-adult conversation. 

Graphic novels appeal to reluctant readers (especially boys), give new voices to minorities, teach multiliteracies, and encourage traditional literacy. They attract graphic novels because the limited amounts of text are less intimidating and the images are inviting. The combination of text and images is helpful for new and struggling readers; these texts can offer an alternate path to higher-level texts. Boys in particular find the combination of image and text very appealing, and so these are an excellent way to draw boys into literary activities.One study shows that middle school boys who did more comic book reading also read more in general, read more books, and reported that they liked reading better than those who did less comic book reading.

Minority students may enjoy the many graphic novels that depict the struggles of immigrants and minorities. Many other graphic novels give insight into more recent conflicts and power struggles, and thereby give validation to minority students and their experiences. Graphic novels offer more diverse voices than traditional textbooks do, and they can lead easily into discussions of political and social issues. They present alternate views of culture and history in accessible ways.

In today's media-driven society, young people need more than just the traditional print literacy. They need to be able to understand and interpret images as well – whether on film or tv, in magazines, on the internet, or in graphic novels. Graphic novels teach students how to consider visual elements alongside of literary elements. They allow students to analyze information in different ways. Graphic novels combine visual and verbal literacies, just like films and television do, but they do so in unique and interesting ways. In fact, reading graphic novels may require more complex cognitive skills than the reading of text alone. Graphic novels teach multiliteracies as students examine the medium itself and how it affects the message of the text.

And of course graphic novels can also encourage traditional print literacy. If students are reading graphic novels, they are reading. “Reading comics is reading -- the verb choice is deliberate and accurate. We don't say watching (like we do for movies or TV) or listening (like music or the radio). We call it reading because that's what you do with a comic book or graphic novel. And that implies at least three important things: a medium that can tell any kind of story or instruct on any topic; active engagement with those stories or topics; and a medium that requires readers to interpret words and pictures and the interplay between the two. There are a lot of comics that don't aspire to do anything beyond entertain, and many don't even do that well. But that's true of movies, TV, music, radio... and yes, books. There are plenty of comic books and graphic novels that do much more than entertain, and do it as well as the best books you can think of.” --Jim Ottaviani, author.

Graphic novels are often called a “bridge” between television or video games and books, because they have the same visual impact of the former with the literacy skills required by the latter. I think it’s also important to note that graphic novels are a destination in their own right. Journalist Lev Grossman observes: “some of the most interesting, most daring, most heartbreaking art being created right now, of both the verbal and visual varieties, is being published in graphic novels.” Stories told in comics can be as engaging and exciting as stories told in any other medium. They combine visual and traditional literacy, and as such should be appreciated for their own merits.

About this Website

The original graphic novels were designed for a teen and adult audience. While now more and more graphic novels are being created for younger children, the graphic novels on this website (unless otherwise noted) are specifically for secondary students. As with any material, you should review these texts to determine their suitability for your collection. You know your school best, and you know your collection development policies. Some graphic novels have language, violence, or sex that may not be appropriate for all audiences.

Works marked with an asterisk (*) were mentioned in my presentation at the ISLMA Conference on October 29, 2010.