By Aisling O’Mahony
In recent years, graphic novels have seen a significant rise in popularity and change in reputation. Previously misunderstood as entertainment for children, they are now acknowledged to be both a tool for capturing the interest of younger readers and a literary artform that can address serious themes for mature audiences. The term "graphic novel", was coined in the 1960s by Richard Kyle. Comic books and graphic novels are often confused for one another, and there remains some contention about where exactly the boundary between these two media lies. The general consensus seems to be that, though similar, graphic novels and comic books have distinct traits. Graphic novels are, in fact, novels that tell a complete story through illustrations: they have a clear beginning, middle and end. Though also told through illustrations, comic books are often excerpted from a larger narrative.
Recent actions by some of the biggest publishing houses worldwide reflect the expanding market for graphic novels. In 2019, Penguin Random House formed Random House Graphic, a new imprint dedicated to the art of publishing graphic novels for kids and teenagers. Their aim was to see “a graphic novel on every bookshelf.” Around the same time, HarperCollins launched their own graphic novel imprint, HarperAlley. A report by Publisher’s Weekly saw the sales of adult graphic novels increase by 29% last year, despite the pandemic’s bookshop closures. Another report by the NPD Group revealed that 16.2 million adult graphic novels were sold in print last year.
Beyond entertainment, graphic novels are increasingly being used as educational tools, with teachers putting them on syllabuses and turning them into learning tools. Sterling Publishing’s All-Action Classics series retells classic tales in graphic novel format. The series is illustrated by Ben Caldwell, a former Marvel Comics artist. These types of novels increase student engagement and cater to visual learners. Instructional graphic novels are also gaining in popularity. The Howtoons series, for example, teaches kids how to use everyday household objects to build projects and toys. Survival! Inside the Human Body is another series teaching readers about human biology.
Graphic novels about historical events and important figures are also gaining in popularity with both kids and adults. One example is Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Whitney Gardner. Another is The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix. Graphic novels have also become a popular medium for memoirs. A few examples include Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob and Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince.
Several authors have also utilised graphic novels to explore urgent current issues in a more accessible way. For one, New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and journalist Steve Duin transformed the 400-page Mueller report about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election into a graphic novel. Other examples include one about immigration by Thi Bui titled Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir and Maia Kobabe’s exploration of gender in Gender Queer. The Times I Knew I Was Gay by Eleanor Crewes, however, deals with sexuality. These are but a few examples in the vast selection of graphic novels exploring important themes.
Several acclaimed novelists have branched into graphic novels. Margaret Atwood famously collaborated with Johnnie Christmas to create Angel Catbird, and James Patterson too has produced numerous graphic novels. Novelists are not alone in following the trend: several musicians have also tried their hand at the medium. Some noteworthy mentions include The Twisted Tales of the Ritalin Club by YUNGBLUD and Poppy’s Genesis One.
With the power to make literature increasingly accessible and engaging, graphic novels have cemented their reputation as a serious literary artform. Some to watch out for this year include The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel, The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag, It's Her Story: Marie Curie: A Graphic Novel by Kaara Kallen and Rosie Baker, and We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Acts of Resistance During World War II by Frank Abe, Tamiko Nimura, Matt Sasaki and Ross Ishikawa.