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Definitions | Names to Know | Frequently Asked Questions


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 in the U.S. 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.

Here is an example from Colleen Doran's sci-fi epic A Distant Soil -- note the panels, the text, the sequence of events and emphasis on emotion:

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.

I can hear you thinking, "Huh?" 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.

For those of you who don't want to wait to get the book, here, on his website, is a short desription of where comics fall in between fine art and text.

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 divided by time, while in comics the images are displayed in order side by side divided by space. 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 20 pages long, but are still 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.

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 50 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 plotline 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.

Now, reading 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. If you're having a bit of trouble, try reading a black and white comic -- the absence of color tends to make it easier for some readers to adjust.

This page comes from Brian Michael Bendis' and Mike Oeming's wonderful book, Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl?. Take a look.

See how the text bubbles link to tell you who's speaking? Notice how the frame spreads across the page and repeats, giving you a sense of time and space? That's how the best comics work.

Manga refers to Japanese print comics -- examples include Ranma 1/2 and Adolf. Japan produces an impressive amout 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 -- exaggerated eyes and simplified features, simple outlines -- but manga also varies the same way that American comics do.

Anime is the term for Japanese animated films, often related to manga. The two art forms feed off of each other, so I've included the term for anime here to clarify the distinction between the two.

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Names you might want to know

There are many authors and artists who stand out in the comics industry. Here is a short list of some names you might read or hear about -- though this is by no means a complete list. If I attempted that, I'd be typing all year! I bet you can't guess how many of these guys started out in their teens.

Brian Michael Bendis
One of the hottest current writers, Brian Michael Bendis has worked tirelessly to push the boundaries of his art, from his first noir crime drama Goldfish to his deft take on Spiderman, Ultimate Spiderman. Lately, his series Powers, along with artwork by Michael Avon Oeming, has reached new heights of complexity, empathy, and storytelling dynamite.

notable contributions
Ultimate Spider-Man

A prolific and intelligent group of female artists who create some of the best and most complex manga to come out of Japan. Notable for their operatic style and interrogation of issues including artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and little things like destiny, loyalty, and sacrifice.

notable contributions

Will Eisner
The master of American comics (after all, he is the one the award is named after). Born in 1917, Will Eisner contributed to the golden age of comics with his creations The Flame and most notably The Spirit. While producing The Spirit, he also began the American Visuals Corporation, a company devoted to creating comics and cartoons. He also taught cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He remains a powerful force within the industry as both participant and inspiration.

notable contributions
The Spirit
A Contract with God, often cited as the first graphic novel

Warren Ellis
Warren Ellis has recently dominated the adult graphic novel market with his insightful, irreverant, and rant-filled comics. Not for the faint of heart and crammed full of razor wit and political references, not to mention a keen eye for humanity at its best and worst, all his titles are worth seeking out. Most notable are his Transmetropolitan and The Authority series.

notable contributions
The Authority

Stan Lee
Chairman of Marvel Comics -- he joined when he was only sixteen (gives us all something to shoot for!) and created some of the most beloved superheroes: Spiderman, Daredevil, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men...the list goes on and on.

notable contributions
The Marvel Age of Comics, really, including all characters above

Scott McCloud
Probably best know for writing Understanding Comics, he also wrote the ever popular series Zot!.

notable contributions
Understanding Comics
Reinventing Comics

Frank Miller
Another now-famous writer who started out as a teenager (this time 17), Frank Miller worked his way up through Marvel to become one the most invigorating writers of the industry in the 80s. He is usually associated with The Dark Knight Returns, and thus partly responsible for a major shift in American comics toward giving superheroes "feet of clay," but is also repsonsible for creating Elektra, one of the more popular female characters, and working on Daredevil.

notable contributions
The Dark Knight Returns
Batman: Year One

Alan Moore
Another landmark creator from the 80s, Alan Moore is the other half of the revolution revamping comics. Pushing the envelope with complex plots, intellectual questioning, and an intense sense of myth and history, he began a new era of comic writing. His Watchmen is considered one of the most complex and intriguing investigations of the psychology of superheroes -- just why would someone decide to put on a costume and become, basically, a vigilante, anyway? -- and remains brilliant with the passage of time.

notable contributions
From Hell
V for Vendetta

Greg Rucka
Greg Rucka is one of the best of the comics writers out there, and he especially excels at realistic, gritty intrigue tales. He's long been famous for the excellent Whiteout, and more recently he's garnered more well-deserved fame for the British Intelligence series Queen and Country. He's also lately tackling Gotham's police department in Gotham Central.

notable contributions
Queen and Country

Osamu Tezuka
Osamu Tezuka holds much the same revered position in Japan as Will Eisner does in America. He's considered one of the most influential and important creators of manga, and his style has affected the entire nations industry.

notable contributions

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What's up with the titles for the genre sections? They seem mildly familiar to me...
Here's the skinny on the genre section titles -- they are all quotes from either song lyrics or literature. Here's the complete list with credits:

new sensation - song: New Sensation by INXS
superhero soup - song: Superhero Soup by The Nields
be bold, be bold - from the fairy tale, Mr. Fox, also associated with Bluebeard -- the whole quote is, "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold."
resistance is futile - TV: the declaration of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation
riddle me this - comics: The Riddler, but of course (c'mon, you had to know that one!)
the real deal - ok, so this one's just slang...
way back when - and, um, so is this one
the usual suspects - film: no, not the crime caper featuring Kevin Spacey, this quote originally comes from Casablanca, as in, "Round up the usual suspects."
a day in the life - song: A Day in the Life by the Beatles
cry havoc - play: Shakespeare, specifically Julius Caesae, and even more specifically, "Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war."
all I want is you - song: All I Want is You by U2
the witching hour - play: Shakespeare, specifically Hamlet, even more specifically Hamlet, as in, "Now is the witching hour of night in which churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion into this world, now is the time that I could do such bitter business as the day qould quake to look on..."

So, there you have it!

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.

Then something like Maus is a graphic novel?
Yup, you got it.

Basically, because it's book-length -- it was written and printed as a longer story than either a comic strip or comic books contains. For a more in depth answer, see my What's the deal? page and take a look at the definitions.

Why should I read comics?
I was once just like you!

Once, I was just as puzzled by the devoted fans of comics and graphic novels. Could they really be that good? I had read Maus in high school, but I didn't even connect that it was a graphic novel.

Then, one fateful day, I read Pedro and Me. I was amazed. I had no idea a graphic novel could be that impressive, never mind that it made me both laugh out loud and cry (and I do not cry easily at books!)

There is a preconception surrounding comics and graphic novels -- that comics are childish, simple, and not comparable to literature. Now, I won't get on a soapbox here, but comics and graphic novels are just as complex, evocative, and involving as any good book or film you might encounter. They tackle the same issues as books. They are equally as well written as books. They include first-class artwork.

Try not to think of the comics and graphic novels as only comics -- think of them instead as a story about something you find interesting. Like fairy tales? Try Castle Waiting. Like memoirs? Try Pedro and Me.

Aren't they all just superhero stories?
Resoundingly no! Comics and graphic novels come in every genre any other format does -- as you can see from my site's subject categories, there are many titles in anything from memoirs to mysteries. I'm only touching on the tip of the iceberg here -- there are pretty much graphic novels on almost every topic there are books on. For an example, one of the most famous graphic novels, Art Spiegelman's Maus, won the Pulizter Prize and is widely recognized as an important memoir of the Holocaust. Right now, there's a bit of a boom in the comic and graphic novel industry, so you all are getting more and more quality titles than have been widely available before.

Aren't a lot of comics, well, x-rated?
There are some comics that are -- they do exist. They are meant for adults and were never intended for children or teens. I do not review or recommend any such comics or graphic novels on this site. However, most comics are not pornographic! Comics and graphic novels have been tackling more adult issues, certainly, but most are not remotely x-rated.

I've heard that comics don't represent women well. Is that true?
In the past, as with other 20th century media including film, women were not always portrayed well. Be aware that some collections of comics from the 30s onward may well have a less than empowering take on women, on ethnicity, on society in general, and on sexuality. Remember, though, someone like Lois Lane was very much based on the the fast-talking dames of the 40s, like Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell. Those women were far from meek, and Lois is very much of the same breed. Who else could tackle Superman?

Over time, comics have definitely changed for the better. Female artists, writers, and characters are gaining as much ground as women in the film industry. Women are portrayed with strength, intelligence, and independence. Titles like Birds of Prey are leading onward into th future. Same goes for superheroes of different ethnicities and backgrounds.

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), and a colorist (who adds the color). 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!).

Why is this site here?
I just want to broadcast my opinions to the world! Actually, no -- I decided to create a page devoted to graphic novel reviews specifically for those who read them the most -- mainly teens -- and for those who might be involved in distributing them to teens -- namely teachers, librarians, and parents.

I currently work as a library technician at Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, Massachusetts. I have also become the resident comics and graphic novel enthusiast. I've had a lot of informal questions from and discussions with my peers about graphic novels and comics in general. I've worked over the past year with our Young Adult librarian to start a collection for our library, and in the process became a big comics geek (and I'm proud if it -- can you tell?).

So, really, this site is a place for me to share my opinions with whoever's curious and hopefully provide some clarification about what comics and graphic novels are. Obviously, I also spout about which titles are the ones to run out and read. The site is in no way comprehensive (at least not yet) and should be a kind of jumping off point for curious teens and adults.

What's with the title of the site? I see some suspicious capes flapping around here.
The title of the site comes from a now-famous quote from the producers of the television show, Smallville. In order to revamp the Superman mythology for the new show, the producers and writers came up with one unbreakable rule: no flying, no tights. I've adopted that as a kind of motto. Though it's not strictly true that there is no flying or tights in the graphic novels I review, I am going at it with the idea that graphic novels can be a whole lot more than what a regular joe might expect from them.

If you have any more questions, feel free to email me.

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copyright Robin Brenner 2002-2004