What about a Graphic Novel?: The Bum Rap of the Graphic Novel

So for free-for-all December we’ve all been having a little bit of fun posting about topics and books that haven’t quite fit in elsewhere – or that we are finally getting around to talking about! For me there has been this naggling little thing in the back of my mind about Graphic Novels. Last month Yash posted about 6 amazing graphic novels – and though they might not have all fit perfectly into “realistic story” month, Yash makes an excellent case.


Graphics Novels evolved out of the comic form which saw it’s beginnings in the early 1900s. These comics were often in newspapers, political cartoons or “the funnies”, meant to be readable for those without much literacy. Popularity among the working class (and those above, but don’t tell anyone!) grew and brought about The Golden Age of comics, which began with Action Comics #1 featuring Superman (1938). Superman and other comics were devoured by adults and children alike – and don’t forget this was a time of turmoil – World War II raged and people of all ages needed an escape. I don’t know if I’ve shared my opinion (it is a common one) before but fiction in all of it’s forms (that’s right even non-fiction) serves many purposes, including education and entertainment, but one of them is escapism. Adults and children of the 1940s wanted to read about larger than life characters that endeavour to do only good and fight the evils of the world, because in their daily lives they looked forward to or were fighting in wars or working in factories, or chained to a desk. Is it so much different now?

The Golden Age didn’t last long – by the end of the 40s a famous psychologist, Frederic Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent which linked comics to aggression in children – this of course followed a few incidents of teens committing murder. Let’s face it, there are always tragedies but Wertham had the world convinced that these incidents were directly linked to Comics. Many comics, or aspects of comics, were banned in the United States and Canada in 1954 by the Comics Code Authority.


Comics have never really recovered from this reputation. While those of us in the literary world have moved passed these conceptions, though still remaining critical where criticism is due as with all forms of literature, those who don’t deal in books every day still find comics difficult to accept. They are seen as collector items, not necessarily books of any kind, they are low brow, excessively violent, sexualized, and, frankly, not-literary enough.

Graphic Novels, which are basically comic books that can encompass a whole story and are therefore longer, came about in the 60s though saw a rise in the 80s with the GNs of Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore and Will Eisner and many more. So while comics, in the more sophisticated (rebranded) form of Graphic Novel, found their way back into the lives of adults, they struggled, and still do, to find their way into the hands of children and youth.

When kids can get their hands on a good graphic novel (and there are quite a few) they rip through them like they’re cotton candy – but that’s just it: when kids can get their hands on them. I often find myself broaching the topic of graphic novels and comics cautiously with parents who are looking for a good gift or a good story for their child. The conversation often goes like this:

Random Parent: “My son/daughter is really into ANY GENRE (as Yash mentioned) and reads well/not very well.”

Steph the Bookseller: “Well we have plenty of great books for you to choose from, have you thought about Graphic Novels? They are always a great option.”

Random Parent: *look of horror*

End of conversation.

I know that I’m generalizing here. I’ve had some wonderful parents and teachers and librarians who are very open to Graphic Novels, but the truth is they are a minority. I have kids coming in on their own who run straight for the Graphic Novel shelf, they tell me that their library only has number 1 of Bone could we get them number 2? They tell me that they aren’t allowed to bring their comics to school, that the only way they can get their comics is if they buy them themselves or borrow from friends, I’ve even had some admissions that their parents don’t like comics, I’ve seen parents insist that their child not get the graphic novel and opt for a traditional book instead and the list goes on…

To me, if kids are reading and seeking out more literature we’ve done a good job. To me, Graphic Novels are a legitimate form of literature that tell a story in multiple platforms as opposed to simply with words OR pictures. So, what’s the real reason parents and adults resist Graphic Novels?

I think it might be the pictures. Partly there’s the resilience of that bad, blue collar, violent and sexualized reputation from 1954 but I think it’s coupled with the idea that Graphic Novels aren’t really Novels at all but long picturebooks. Where are all the words?

Parents buy books for their kids so that they will read and I think that anxiety builds up in parents whose kids are only reading graphic novels. They worry about their child’s literacy level, what kind of influence these books are having etc…


Dear Parents, Graphic Novels are having a good influence on your child and improving both their traditional and visual literacy.

Critics of the Graphic Novel often purport that since picturebooks are for young children then graphic novels, books with pictures, must also be suitable only for young children (or nerdy men). Here’s the truth, the picturebook format is much more sophisticated than you are giving it credit for, and setting that aside even the simplest of picturebooks has a simple plot, basic language and images that supplement, compliment or build on that storyline. Graphic Novels do use this same concept but they are a full novel, a more complex, layered story with advanced language and a reliance of the reader to be able to understand and put words to the images: facial expressions, actions, setting scapes etc…

My point is: Graphic Novels aren’t only words with supplemental pictures but pictures with supplemental words. Your child has to read the images, they have to think about what the image means, they have to be creative and they have to use their own words, perhaps even more so than with a traditional book.

So give Graphic Novels a chance. Try some out yourself, and, whether your child is a reluctant reader or the book-a-day reader, let them read with pictures too. In this day and age a child’s visual literacy is incredibly important — they need to be able to read advertisements and critically engage with visual culture.

Still not sure?

I suggest trying out Josh Elder’s Reading With Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter. This is (arguably) one of the best resources out there because instead of explaining in only words to adults and children that pictures can teach — this book literally illustrates it’s point. It is full from front to back of comics that teach a variety of subjects and concepts using both pictures and words. On top of the learning, it’s hilarious and full of funny ways that these facts and ideas can be remembered.



Beyond that, I know I’ve mentioned them before but check out Scott McLeod’s books Understanding Comics and Making Comics these aren’t so much stories but detailed explanations about comics, what they are, what they offer, how they are put together etc… They are like academic texts with lots of imagery.


And now I’m going to list a few more Graphic Novels that Yash didn’t mention last week but that we here at The Book Wars may have mentioned before.

Anya's Ghost

Anya’s Ghost

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol – Yash reviewed this book here, I read it some time later and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a great read about a girl who finds out what friendship, love (not romantic) and life really mean.


Babymouse: Dragonslayer by Matthew and Jennifer Holm This is actually book 11 in the Babymouse series which follows Babymouse through daily life and her imaginings. Babymouse enters the world of her imagination in each book to overcome whatever obstacle is in her way. It’s cute, funny and often just a good story.  In this particular volume Babymouse fails a math quiz and her punishment is joining the Mathletes team. Babymouse enters her daydreams which land her in a fantasyland where she has to confront her fear of math (geometry, arithmetic etc…) which appear in the form of a dragon.


Bone by Jeff Smith – Alright, I know that the little character looks a little goofy, but this graphic novel series is fantastic. It’s made up of several story arcs – the first on is comprised of the first six books and is called Out From Boneville. It is an adventure story about three cousins following a map to lost treasure. Simple enough, but it is also filled with sweet and witty dialogue, charming and relatable characters and honestly, it’s entertaining and follows a kind of logic that is masterfully built into the worldbuilding. I think that Bone, as with many middle-grade and YA fiction,  offers a kind of role-modelling built-in lesson – the character’s are generally good and they deal with their problems in non-confrontational ways that often end up with unexpected resolutions.

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The Olympians by George O’Connor – A nice supplement to the Percy Jackson series and to learning about the Greek Gods. O’Connor is a mythologist who reconstructs the stories of the Greek Gods – they are highly entertaining and illustrate how much contemporary stories draw from mythology and legend. Very fun, very educational and very pretty! Look at the art! :)


Persepolis is the brilliant autobiographical story of author Marjane Satrapi’s young adult life in revolutionary Iran. This book offers a stunningly visual culture coupled with the relatable Marjane, a character dealing with political change that is beyond her control. She is wry, serious but most of all documentary in tone – it is funny, but it is also very sad. A great eye opener and worth a read by adults and children alike.


Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks – I could have sworn one of us had done a review of this book in the past. Well, this is a great read about three wildlife activists and their life’s work. The illustrations and storytelling work nicely together to introduce each of these ladies (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas) and their work with primates in the wild – and their fight against institutions and poachers. It’s a good story!

ZitaZita the Spacegirl and sequels by Ben Hatke. Janet has done a review of this before so I won’t go too far into it but it’s the story of a girl on a mission to save her best friend in space. Zita is charming, spunky, hilarious and, most of all a normal girl who discovers that she is a hero, despite herself.


8 responses to “What about a Graphic Novel?: The Bum Rap of the Graphic Novel

  1. As a mom of a son who went through an intense graphic novel reading phase–and he turned out to be just fine and a reader of all kinds of books–I give graphic novels an enthusiastic two thumps up! :)

    • Love to hear it! ^_^

      I read only Manga and comics for about three years, and I turned out alright as well.

      Give the Graphic Novel a chance folks! It’s an awesome medium! (Not a genre though, just a different format of the novel).


  2. Oooh! You’ve made a great case for graphic novels, Steph! If/when I next write about graphic novels, I’m just gonna ask people to read this first! BTW, I wonder what parents say about books like Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is a novel but also has some comics- and yet, deals with some very real, very moving accounts of being an Indian (Native American) in the States …
    And even so, I think it’s odd that we think comics = unliterary, because there are so many novels that are unliterary too, and just why can’t you let the reader enjoy life sometimes? *ahem* Anyway, LOVED your post, Steph! :)

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  4. Awesome post, Steph! I faced major resistance from some members of the English department over my use of graphic novels during my teaching practicum. Not surprisingly, the teachers who resisted most were the ones who had never read a graphic novel in the first place.

  5. Love this! And I agree graphic novels kinda seem to have a bad reputation. Here in the Netherlands we had a dutch comic series that was pretty popular and I never realised comics had such a bad rap in the US. I’ve had a time when I read a lot of manga’s and the stories can be as well done as in a book. I don’t read as many manga’s/grpahic novels anymore as I feel that I need to read them as physical copy, because reading them online takes some of the fun out of it. And as I can’t afford to buy manga’s at the moment, i kinda stopped reading them altogether.

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