It's a format, not a genre!
Just to clarify, graphic novels are NOT a genre. They are a format that can tell any kind of story, from biographies to action adventure stories to romances. The format is the key, not the type of story being told.
What is something like Garfield? A comic or a graphic novel?
A comic strip, actually.
So, a book of Garfield comic strips is a graphic novel?
Actually, no. That would be considered a collection of comic strips. Other familiar titles of collected comic strips would include Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Bloom County, and so forth. In public libraries, these can usually be found in the 741.5 section going by the Dewey Decimal system. Of course, for someone who just wants to read comics, these definitions are not terribly important -- it's the format readers are often interested in, not the terminology.
What are comics?
For most readers out there, it's not a great stretch to figure out what comics are. The Sunday paper is full of comic strips, from Garfield to Zits, and there are numerous collections out there in book format, from the beloved Calvin and Hobbes collections to Peanuts. For a super-short history: comics as we recognize them started just before the turn of the 20th century. They continued to grow in scope and format until the 1938, when Superman first appeared in Action Comics and the so-called Golden Age of comics began. From that point on, comics and comic books have been circulating all over the world. For more detail on the history of comics, check out The Comic Page.
The key to comics is the format. Think about what comics look like on the page -- sequential boxes of drawing, text bubbles to represent speech, squiggly lines (called motion lines) to indicate movement. For the best description of comic art I've found, check out Scott McCloud's excellent book, Understanding Comics. His rather academic definition of comics is this: "...juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."
The keys here are images in sequence on the page designed to tell a story. That story might be a three panel joke and it might be a three hundred page epic.
From my subjective point of view, comics represent something between traditional art, screenplays, and films -- they're visual like art and film, but they are full of dialogue and short description like screenplays. The difference between film and comics is what indicates the separation -- in film, the images are displayed in order in the same space, while in comics the images are displayed in order side by side. As Mr. McCloud puts it, space does for comics what time does for film.
Comics include the short strips you see in the newspaper -- maybe 3 or 4 panels long, usually telling a very short plot or joke. Comics tend to be either black and white or in solid colors. Comic books are longer -- usually around 32 pages long, but are told in that familiar format of panels and text bubbles. Comic book art tends to be more complex than that of the newspaper comics -- it often contains vivid colors and subtle shading, although every comic is unique to the artists involved.
What are graphic novels?
Graphic novels, the focus of this site, take the whole storytelling format one step further. The shortest definition of a graphic novel is this: a book-length comic. It's that simple. Artists and writers create longer plots, ranging from 100 to over 300 pages worth of work, all in the comic art format. As with comic books, they are often quite complex in terms of artwork and the layouts get more adventurous.
Another term you might hear tossed around is trade paperback, or TPB. This refers to a selection of comic books bound into one, sturdier paperback book. They tend to be the same size as graphic novels and often draw together one plot line from a comic book series. In order not to confuse too many people, I have included some trade paperbacks with the one-shot graphic novels.
Why is Maus a graphic novel?
Basically, because it's book-length -- it is a longer story than either a comic strip or comic books contains. Now, this can be a sticky definition, as Maus, for example, was published first as a comic book series, and then collected into two bound volumes. So you might say it's current form is a graphic novel, but it was also previously a comic book. In the end, everything really is comics -- these are just terms that have been adopted by the general public to refer to the kind of comic they're reading.
There is also sometimes the implication that a graphic novel is somehow better, or more literary, than a comic book or a collection of comic strips. This is not particularly true -- this often is a misunderstanding about the term. For this site, graphic novel just means a difference in length, not a judgment of quality.
What about books like Frankie Pickle or Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Are those graphic novels?
In the library world, I've used the general rule of thumb that if it's over 50% comics, then it's probably a graphic novel. If it's over 50% prose, then it's a novel or nonfiction, depending. Most folks are referring to books like Frankie Pickle and Diary of a Wimpy Kid as hybrids -- they're both comics and prose works, and both are equally important to the story. And I'm all for them!
What is manga?
Manga is the Japanese word print comics. Examples include Naruto and Fruits Basket. Japan produces an impressive array of comics and graphic novels for everyone from children to adults. There are many subgenres of manga aimed at specific audiences or for partiuclar age groups. There is a general style to manga that new readers often reference -- exaggerated eyes and simplified features, simple outlines -- but in truth manga also varies the same way that American comics do. Check out my book Understanding Manga and Anime for more information on this amazing subset of comics -- there are good reasons this subformat is taking over the world!
How do I read this? Do I read the words first? Look at the pictures?
Comics take some practice for new readers. What do I mean? Many readers confronted with comics longer than a comic strip have difficulty knowing how to read the format -- do I read the text? do I look at the picture? Basically, do both. Divide your time between reading the text and observing the visuals. Both are necessary to understand the story, and together they become something entirely different than plain text. The best writers and artists work together to create text and images which work seamlessly and which lead the reader through the page.
Remember, too, to give yourself time! It took me about six months to be able to read any graphic novel I picked up, and then, when I dove into Japanese comics or manga, it took me another six months to be as fluent in their visual language. Reading comics is not as easy to pick up as it may seem at first glance -- and that just proves that it is a definite skill to be able to read comics, not just a fluffy past-time!
I see, like, 8 names here -- how many people does it take to write one of these things!?
This is a question directly from my Mom (thanks!). 'Tis true, when you look at the credits for a graphic novel, there are often many more than one name listed. Graphic novels usually list a writer (for the script), a penciler (who sketches the artwork), an inker (who inks the sketches), a colorist (who adds the color), and an editor (who wrangles everyone else.) There are some brave (or perhaps obsessive) souls who do all of the steps themselves. At the same time, there may be more people than one for any category, especially when the title is a collection of previously printed comics. So yes, it often takes many people to create a comic book -- that's part of the coolness factor, in my opinion. For fun, see the flick by comic scribe Kevin Smith, Chasing Amy, for many amusing comments on the snarkiness between pencilers and inkers (inkers get no respect!).
What's the correct term for manga created outside of Japan? OEL (Original English Language) Manga?
Personally, I don't call anything manga unless it was created in Japan for a Japanese audience. I don't want to get into arguments with folks who believe differently, but I believe that there are enough significant qualities to manga (cultural references, sense of humor, innate style) that make manga from Japan its own format deserving of its own name.
That being said, I usually refer to comics that are somehow strongly referencing manga (especially those that reference the art style) as manga-style comics. OEL manga used to be a more common term, especially when Tokyopop was using it as a way to brand titles, but now its popularity as a term has waned. OEL manga also presumes the title was written in English (which it isn't always).
As time goes on, of course, creators are blending more and more in terms of style, so we may have to give up the distinction entirely, but until that time, manga-style works as a broader, understandable term for me!