Comics and Graphic Novels: What Are They, Anyway?
You’ve probably seen the words “comics,” “graphic novels,” and “manga” flying around to describe seemingly the same thing: books in which the story is told through sequential art, a bit like a storyboard for a film. But what are they, really? To be honest, they often are used interchangeably, but these (and a few other) phrases are commonly understood to describe slightly different things.
There is still some disagreement, of course (is there ever not, when it comes to diehard fans of anything?), but here are some explanations that should put you in good stead.
Comics and Comic Books
“Comics” and “comic books” typically refer to serialised magazines that are typically 20-30 pages long, and tend to be released on a monthly schedule. You’ll probably be familiar with DC Comics and Marvel Comics, who primarily do superhero stuff, but there are plenty of other publishers releasing increasingly varied books in this format. Self-publishing is also becoming increasingly accessible, both in physical and digital formats, resulting in a rise in independent, creator-owned series.
Many people, myself included, also use “comics” to refer to books told through sequential art, as a whole. So comic books, graphic novels, and manga all fall under the “comics” banner the way sci-fi, fantasy, crime, and romance are all “genre fiction.”
“Graphic novels,” on the other hands, are comics in a bound book form, rather than a magazine. They’re often collections of multiple issues of a comic series (six seems to be the magic number here), and for that reason, they’re also known as “collected editions,” “trade paperbacks,” or simply “trades.” You can think of “comics” as akin individual episodes of a TV show, and “graphic novels” as the equivalent of a DVD boxed set.
That said, more and more stories are going straight to the shelves as graphic novels. The magazine format works well for ongoing, serialised stories, but more and more writers are turning to the medium for finite, self-contained tales. A single book is often a better option than a series of magazines, both from a storytelling and a budgetary perspective.
“Manga” is a Japanese word that has come into common usage in English to refer to Japanese comics, though in Japan, it simply means “comics” of both English and Japanese origin. Manga (that’s both the plural and singular form) are quite different to Western comics, in that they’re almost always in black and white, and are usually (but not always) written and drawn by one person.
In Japan, manga are usually serialised in anthology magazines that collect individual chapters of different series’ into a single magazine, before later being released in a graphic novel format (called tankōbon, which means “standalone book.”) In the West, translation and localisation costs mean that we almost always get manga in graphic novel form only.
(Manga shouldn’t be confused with “anime,” which are Japanese TV/film cartoons, like the works of Studio Ghibli. They are related, however, as many anime series are adapted from manga.)