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Trade paperbacks aren't graphic novels - and that matters

Like "indie comics", the definition of a graphic novel should be simple (roughly novel-length, self-contained story in comic format). Of course, that's not the case. Trying to define a prose novel is tricky, but generally we know what one looks like. I can't say the same about graphic novels.

This confusion wasn't done to the comic industry, but created by them. Comics lived in a ghetto of their own making for several decades, starting with the Comics Code in the 1950s. They started to really try to get out of that ghetto, led by the one-two punch of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in the 1980s*. Problem is, they tried to take shortcuts to get there. Instead of changing the connotation of "comics", they instead sold trade paperbacks as "graphic novels"*. Since novels are well-respected and taken seriously, then so should a "graphic novel".

*The point isn't to argue about the timing or what caused it. There was a shift around the 1980s, and beyond the scope of this post to debate the specifics.

**Sorry, Time Magazine, Watchmen isn't a graphic novel.

It's a dishonest linguistic trick, like calling a TV series a long movie. It works, but strikes me as insecurity. It sounds like insisting you belong in the "cool club" because you write novels, not comics. Own what you are (like me: I'm a comics blogger. It's nothing more than that.)

Why does this matter? Is it fun to be a pedantic asshole on the internet? Yes, but that's not the reason. By using the term graphic novel wrong, actual graphic novels aren't getting the attention and success that they could have. This is causing a storytelling problem in comics.

How often have you seen this template?

  • Underwhelming first issue that doesn't even reveal the premise of the series until the last page.
  • Most readers drop off, leaving a small number hanging on to future issues.
  • Trade paperback comes out in 6 months, people who stuck with it try to convince you it was good all along.
  • You give in, and the first trade actually works as a whole, leaving you baffled about that first issue.

Most recently, I did that with Tokyo Ghost, but it's happened many more times. It's basically the curse of Image Comics. There are a lot of stories that need more than an issue to start taking shape, and therefore don't read well if you stop at the end of that issue. They're most satisfying when there's one volume to read straight through. Why aren't they published like that, then? Why are the majority of comic stories told 22-32 pages at a time, with graphic novels ignored unless you're Raina Telgemeier or Bryan Lee O'Malley?

Well, there are a few drawbacks for customers about graphic novels:

  • It's easier, in time and money, to get the first issue of a series than to buy a graphic novel. I'll spend $3-4 and invest 10-15 minutes more easily than $10-15 and 60-90 minutes, especially when I know nothing about the story ahead of time.
  • The shiny #1 gets more readers (and people writing about it), both due to conditioning (see Marvel's constant relaunches) and the point above.

Then there are a couple marketing advantages for the creators:

  • You have more time for word of mouth to build up. Your book makes more of an impression, if people see the name once a month for a year, rather than once. See The Walking Dead and Saga for this working perfectly.
  • You get another big release to promote. Rather than just the graphic novel, you get the #1 issue and the trade paperback release to promote your work.

The hardest part of any creative work is getting people to notice. Comics are a small niche in the world of entertainment, so you want the really passionate fans and websites to notice you. They love their monthly series, so you cut your graphic novel into 5-6 pieces to publish it that way, even if the story doesn't fit.

So, what comes next? I'm not stupid - lecturing people about what graphic novels are will give me a smug sense of satisfaction and change nothing. If graphic novels were more successful, there'd be less reason to make everything a monthly series. If people bought more graphic novels, they'd be more viable.

So, here's what to do:

  • Buy more graphic novels. Look for books that aren't collections, but original stories told in that form. You'll need to either buy fewer single issues or spend more money, neither of which sounds appealing, but that's how you send economic signals.
  • I will talk more about them. This is me making a promise to seek out, buy, and review more graphic novels. If I'm not helping people to find them after what I've said here, then I'm a hypocrite.

I'll be stupidly ambitious and grandiose again, but for the sake of better storytelling, a small change in buying and reading habits is a small price to pay.

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