Graphic Novels: Panels vs. Paragraphs

I grew up reading graphic novels, only they weren’t called that at the time. They were called comics, and what I read were the Classics Illustrated of the 1940s. I read them daytime and nighttime, indoors and out, over and over, until the pages had to be taped back to the covers. My two favorites were Moby Dick and The Prince and the Pauper. Others I remember enjoying were Robinson Crusoe; Robin Hood; Gulliver’s Travels; and The Call of the Wild.

I was probably somewhere between 7 and 11 years old when I was reading these graphic novels over and over. I have no memory of ever thinking that these were in any way different from other books. I realized that they were made of art in panels, and words (either narrative or dialogue) — but I never stopped to think about how that might be different from a “normal” book which didn’t tell the story through panels. All I knew was that I loved these stories. 

In retrospect, I think that the reason I read them over and over (in a way that I would not read a novel over and over) was that each told an exciting story in a very condensed fashion, with illustrations which heightened my empathy with the character and increased the tension.

The term “graphic novel” was first coined during the 1960s, and it actually refers to nonfiction as well as fiction. A graphic novel is in essence composed of the same content as a comic book. That is, it’s composed of comics: panels of images and text which combine to tell a story. The story need not be “comic” or humorous: it can be deeply solemn and serious, as in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Perhaps this need not be said, but the term “graphic novel” refers to a format — not to a genre. If somebody says, “I read graphic novels,” that doesn’t tell the listener what genre the graphic novels are. Graphic novels are probably present in every genre of literature.

The Classics Illustrated I read when a kid were true “graphic novels” and not comic books. (Though I read hundreds of comic books, too, mainly Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Superwoman, Supergirl, Superboy, and Captain Marvel.) Graphic novels are usually stand-alones: one book tells the entire story. Comic books tend to be serials, with the story continuing from episode to episode.

Many creators of graphic novels, however, disagree with the term “graphic novel,” which they consider too highfalutin: they want their books to be called comics, even though the books may be serious nonfiction. Comics artists agree that, unlike a traditional comic book, a graphic novel is stand-alone with a beginning, middle, and end: the story is finished at the end of the book. It isn’t continued in a series.

Although I loved comics and Classics Illustrated, I had stopped reading them by the time I was in high school. By that time I was in love with the written word and didn’t want accompanying visuals for the fiction I was reading. Moby Dick in novel form was far more powerful to me than it had ever been in comics form. As I became an avid reader of fiction, I felt that pictures interfered with the smooth flow of the written story. Pictures also imposed the artist’s interpretation of what the characters looked like on me. I preferred to imagine them myself, without the intervening and interrupting illustrations.

I did return to reading comics, or graphic novels, about ten years ago, when I read Persepolis. There I felt no sense that the illustrations and words were separate. For me, the book worked in a powerful way, with the visuals and the words telling a story together. I felt the same sense of integrated story when reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

So now I’m back to reading comics, in the form of graphic novels. I don’t read many of them, maybe three or four a year, and each time I sit down with one, I never feel the same as if I’m sitting down to enjoy reading a novel. For me, it’s more work to read a graphic novel. The pleasure I receive from being swept up in the flow of words that tell a story is slowed perceptibly by the need to look at and interpret the panel illustrations, and then to read the dialogue and/or narration. Although I’m enjoying the graphic novels (particularly the illustrations) I’m never 100% immersed in the story the way I am when reading a novel.

In recent years nonfiction graphic novels have proliferated. They cover topics such as World War II, the Civil War, Cortez, the Titanic, etc. When compared to books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War II, for example, I think the graphic nonfiction novels present history in a way that’s much easier to grasp (visuals!), understand (small chunks of information in dialogue boxes), and remember (because of the visuals). 

Because graphic books require so much space to tell a story, they can’t tell as much of a story as a text-only book. But graphic nonfiction history books seem an ideal way to get young students (adults, too) interested in a topic. If they’re interested in more depth, they can then read a text-only book.

Although I read comics, I have yet to write one. I started to write one for early readers, and had great fun doing it. But for some reason I never finished: I think I found it tedious to tell the story in panels rather than in paragraphs. 

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Barbara Gregorich thinks that She’s on First would work very well as a graphic novel . . . and maybe some day she’ll attempt retelling the story in that form.