What are graphic novels? We know them when we see them—they have text and pictures together. Isn’t that the same as comic books? Essentially, they are two kinds of works using the same methods, just as two painters who work in different styles both use paint.
Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics (in graphic novel form!), spends time examining what and how comics, graphic novels, and manga work.
Comics, as we know them, are generally issued over time as series. Often, when a series is completed, the issues are collected into one book, a graphic novel. This is similar to the way novelists like Charles Dickens used to work, publishing their stories in magazine and newspapers and then having an actual book made. Just as novels can be on any topic, so can graphic novels. One difference is that we’ve gotten used to calling any work done with art and text mixed together a graphic novel, even if it’s non-fiction. Since this terminology has become so common, we’ll just have to get used to it.
To take just two popular examples, Watchmen is fiction (of the superhero apocalypse variety), and Maus is a non-fictional account of Art Spiegelman’s father’s Holocaust experiences and their effect on him and his family.
Two other examples of autobiographical comics are American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar and Persepolis. It’s hard to classify the Logicomix: an Epic Search for Truth, the work of mathematicians Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou. It combines a spiritual biography of mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell’s life and an exploration of the areas where philosophy and mathematics intersect with stories of the authors' own lives for good measure.
Joe Sacco’s visual accounts of Palestine and war in Bosnia and cartoonist/animator Guy Delisle’s reports on his visits to the Far East, Pyongyang: a journey in North Korea and Shenzhen: a travelogue from China are good examples of using comics as journalism.
Not so far afield, but just as interesting is Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot’s tribute to his hometown in northeastern England, to comics, and to Alice in Wonderland. This is a personal favorite, but if you have no interest in learning about Sunderland, it is still interesting for the various graphic techniques upon which Talbot draws.
Toward the end of his life, Will Eisner, the man known as "the father of the American graphic novel," examined antisemitism in two works: Fagin the Jew, in which Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist villain tells his side of the story; and The Plot: the Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, telling the story of one of the most wide-spread works of antisemitic propaganda.
Those who want to sample the variety of ways today's graphic novelists treat classic works of literature might want to see The Graphic Canon. Vol. 1, From the Epic of Gilgamesh, to Shakespeare, to Dangerous Liaisons.
Thanks to a grant from the Small Book Expo, Pratt library’s collection is becoming even more diverse; the 40 new titles have just started arriving.
For good surveys of what’s available in the very broad area of graphic novels/comics, one might want to check out 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die and Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know or 500 Essential Graphic Novels. You’ll find that there’s something in the comics/graphic novel format for everyone: fiction, non-fiction, entertainment, education... And because graphic novels are not always shelved where you might expect them to be, be sure to consult the Pratt catalog, or a friendly librarian.