What is the Difference Between Graphic Novels and Comic Books?

wiseGEEK Writer

Comic books and graphic novels differ in terms of story completeness, length and the presence of advertisements. The latter publication tends to be easier to find in bookstores and libraries, and they usually are made more for adults. Identification numbers are not the same, as well. Some people view comics as being more "common" and less artistic, but they can be worth thousands of dollars to collectors, making it debatable which form has more value.

A graphic novel tends to cover one story in its entirety.
A graphic novel tends to cover one story in its entirety.

Completeness of the Story

A standard comic book usually includes the beginning, middle or end of a story, so a person typically cannot read or buy just one to learn the whole plot or discover the characters. By contrast, a graphic novel tends to cover one story in its entirety. If writers and artists decide to create a sequel, they design it as a new, complete story with a beginning, middle and end.

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Libraries often carry graphic novels.
Libraries often carry graphic novels.

Some graphic novels are designed from the start to tell one, long story that cannot logically be broken up into the shorter format. Using this format allows the author the creative freedom to tell his or her story in an original way without adding abrupt cliffhangers or changing the natural flow of the story. In other cases, a collection of comic books will be published in novel form. This type takes those individual comics that told the different parts of the story and combines them into one reading experience, often with clear divisions between each part.

Popular comic strips are sometimes collected and sold in book form.
Popular comic strips are sometimes collected and sold in book form.

Publishers sometimes also issue comic strips as a collection in book form, which leads to a little confusion when trying to make a distinction. They often do this with very popular titles, such as Garfield, Peanuts, or Calvin and Hobbes. Titles give a clue here, because these collections typically give some indication of how the publication was organized, such as by year or theme.

Graphic novels are more popular in bookstores, while comics are typically sold in comic shops.
Graphic novels are more popular in bookstores, while comics are typically sold in comic shops.

Length and Format

Taking story completeness into consideration, in general, a comic runs about 21 to 24 pages. Most take only 10 to 30 minutes to read, making them great for filling short periods of free time. Graphic novels can be three to six times as long, with anywhere from 60 to 120 pages, but a person usually still can finish one in a single sitting.

Comic books are periodicals, typically printed on magazine-style paper and simply bound with staples. Graphic novels, on the other hand, can sometimes be found in hardback, although this is less common than paperback versions. Paperback covers are usually thick and glossy and the novels are bound like other, more traditional books.


Publishers often include eight to ten pages of advertisements in a comic book, bringing the total number of pages to around 32. Many of these ads are in-house, meaning they're designed to draw attention to other works or products from the same company. Others are from other businesses, and these help cover the costs of production. Typically, graphic novels contain little or no marketing. As a result, they are typically much more expensive.

Where to Find Them

Most comics are often sold directly through specialty stores, with only a few getting larger distribution to booksellers and libraries. Graphic novels usually are available at traditional book stores and libraries, although some comic book stores do carry some titles.

Maturity Rating

Graphic novels tend to be aimed at adult readers, so they often have mature themes that are not appropriate for kids. The work by one of the most recognizable graphic novelists, Frank Miller — author of Sin City and 300, among many others — is definitely not for the faint of heart. It contains significant references to sex and violence, with the illustrations leaving little to the imagination.

People often think of comic books as being aimed specifically toward kids or teen audiences, although many adults enjoy the themes, as well. Some concepts tend to be fairly universal, such as good fighting evil, finding romance or handling everyday life events such as school. Comics for kids are often good for beginning readers because the text tends to be fairly simple and describes what appears in each frame of the work.

This distinction isn't always a hard and fast rule, however. Japanese manga, for example, which are a type of comic book, often explores more adult themes. There are also a number of comic book titles that are known for their violence and other adult themes. A kids comic may also be collected into a graphic novel format, although these tend to be a bit less common than more adult titles.


Similar to any other novel, graphic ones are given an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), a 13-digit identifier used with books. In the United States, they also have Library of Congress filing numbers. Comics, conversely, usually have an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), an eight-digit number used only with periodicals.

Acceptance and Value

Even though comic books are enormously popular, in general, many people tend to see them as a "lower" art form, in part because they assume that they are largely designed for children or have simple themes. Graphic novels typically are more accepted, with some even making bestseller lists, and they may compete directly with more traditional novels. Ones that combine a series of comics may be more appealing to adults who might feel self-conscious about purchasing individual comic books to read. A number of comic book authors argue that the distinction is just a marketing term designed to sell the more expensive format.

Despite the usual view of comic books as "common," some of these publications have become wildly successful to the point of strongly influencing culture. Phrases, characters and objects from famous ones such as Spiderman, Superman and Batman, for example, have spread into other areas, including music, television and toys. The highest grossing US film of 2008 was "The Dark Knight," based on the Batman comics, while in 2012 it was "The Avengers," which was based on the Marvel Comics superheroes.

Another way in which comic books have become more accepted is for their actual financial value. Very rare ones can be worth thousands of dollars. People collect graphic novels, too, but when they do, it's typically because they enjoy a particular art style or story line, not because they're looking for an investment.

Manga style boy and girl from a graphic novel.
Manga style boy and girl from a graphic novel.

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Discussion Comments


Most cartoonists like Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware and Jeffery Brown have said they make comic books. They feel the term graphic novel is silly.



Your point about twisting history is mistaken, because even comic book writers twist the facts. I think most people recognize these forms of art to be primarily for entertainment and not factuality.



I agree that graphic novels may seem more realistic, but who's to say that they twist reality for people? History is, for the most part, written by the conquerors and not from a realistic perspective anyway.


I think one key difference is that Graphic Novels tend to resemble true stories to the extent that they are able to twist history and facts in the minds of the less-educated, whereas comic books are very clearly other-worldly. Upon watching 300, it seems that many people now have that mental picture whenever they think about the real Battle of Thermopylae.


The division between graphic novelists and comic book writers is often comparable to the perceived difference between artists and entertainers. Graphic novelists have and continue to attempt to separate themselves from comic book artists in the popular imagination.

The graphic novelist attempts to portray stories and ideas that are not just more mature in the types of imagery, but in the intellectual in moral implications they explore. Comic books artists are sometimes seen, perhaps unfairly, as people who milk a continuing story and do whatever they have to to maintain readership and demand. This often leads to wildly over-the-top story developments and redundant character interactions.

Whether the distinction between these two types of artists is as clear cut as some think it is doesn't really matter. What makes the reader happy is a story that they can relate to and engage with. Whether that satisfaction comes from the "high art" of the graphic novel or the "lowbrow" mindlessness of the comic book is up to the individual.

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