What’s In A Comic?


What’s in a comic book or a graphic novel? What is it about the illustrations and the stories inside their covers (or their covers!) that keep bringing readers back for more? Well, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it? But I am nothing if not overly ambitious and I just so happen to be a giant nerd (and self-proclaimed graphic novels aficionado), so to break in my first shiny new blog post I thought we could get into it a little. Plus, it’s a big month for the comics industry, at least in North America. It was Free Comic Book Day on May 4th and, on the Canadian side of things, several comics arts festivals will be running in major cities across the country including Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, which I’ve visited a few times myself. It’s always such a fun surprise to see what indie artists have been cooking up and you never know who you might run into (Ryan North in 2010 was a big highlight for me).   

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe we should start at the beginning. After all, what’s in a comic, a graphic novel? What is a comic, really? After a Google deep dive (and a scouring of several encyclopedia listings, all hail Brittanica), here’s what I’ve got for you.

Unsurprisingly, comics and graphic novels are some of the youngest types of literature that we have. Comics, as far as history can tell, have existed since the end of the 19th century as single-strip stories with cheeky punchlines, but only really began to circulate post-Great Depression on the backsides of English and American newspapers and as promotional giveaways. Since they were always funny in nature they gained the name “comic.” In the 1930s, as a reflection of the times, the single strip funnies eventually started to give way to more engaging and serious compilations of action, crime, fantasy, and science fiction stories, but comics themselves were never able to shake their humor-filled origins so the name “comic” stuck (which is a bit of an unfortunate misnomer if you ask me).


Jumping ahead to the 1970s, the term “graphic novel” started to gain traction when authors, publishers, and readers alike were trying to find something that distinguished sophisticated and refined storytelling from the rest of available comics. While there isn’t any definitive “first” graphic novel, historians and fans alike will point to Will Eisner’s Bronx-set collection of social-realistic tales, A Contract With God And Other Tenement Stories, as one book that had a major influence on the industry and the art form (which you can still read here at the library!). Eisner’s influence on the format was so great that he has an entire award named after him (and it’s the equivalent of the Oscars in the world of comics).

But that doesn’t really answer the initial question, does it? What’s in a comic or a graphic novel that keeps us reading? Several people in the industry have chimed in with their own thoughts from acclaimed author Neil Gaiman (in a book of essays and speeches on a variety of topics that comes highly recommended by yours truly), cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud, scholar Hillary Chute and so many more.

Though if you ask me, I think what makes comics and graphic novels so appealing to readers is that it is a format built on borrowing (just like a library). As I tend to do, allow me to get a little artistic on this post for a moment. Comics and graphic novels take and mix and form something new from so many other artistic mediums that have existed long before it, which I think is pretty dang cool. It’s a collage of human creativity from fine art (composition and color theory), film (what is a comic or graphic novel if not a polished storyboard) and even opera and stage plays (the last one might sound like a bit of a stretch but go with me here). Comics and graphic novels use the same principles of expression that actors on stage use. Let me explain. Since the entire audience in a theatre might not be close to the stage, actors are forced to exaggerate to be properly understood by those furthest from it. Since comics and graphic novels can’t rely on text description like a novel does the characters’ expressions need to be drawn in a way that can seem overly dramatic. So, the next time you read a comic or graphic novel and wonder why the crowd looks that surprised or why the villain seems way too smug about their about-to-be-foiled evil plot just think theatre.

But hey, that’s just a theory. A comics theory.

If you’d like to join in on the comic and graphic novel fun this month, check out some of my (and my fellow staff members!) favorite picks below (including manga, because they do count as comics in my world and also, why not?). 


When I Arrived at the Castle by E.M. Carroll

Our unnamed heroine arrives at the titular castle to snuff out the horror that lives there, but through the winding corridors and underneath the shadowed turrets, things might not always be what they seem.

If you’re a fan of atmospheric horror like I am, I can’t recommend this graphic novel enough! I read this one when it first hit our library shelves in 2019 and every so often it will still come to mind. The red, black, and white illustrations are so striking as is the gothic, suggestive, surreal, and semi-poetic writing in this LGBTQ, Edgar Allen Poe-esque tale of terror. Carroll really shows their macabre chops in this one and has turned me into a lifelong fan of their work.


Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma

Yotsuba is a five-year-old girl who has just moved into a new house in a new neighborhood with her adoptive father Yousuke. With adventures to be had around every street corner, cheerful and curious Yotsuba will have readers smiling from ear to ear!

“Delight abounds, and the art is absolutely exquisite. Yotsuba is a total cartoon!” – Ruthanne

This one is a slice-of-life, feel-good series of manga fun for all ages. Azuma’s drawing style plays well off the silly and sometimes (maybe a lot of times) dramatic Yotsuba and the more realistic world that surrounds her, leaving room for hilarity in every nook and cranny she discovers. 


Descender by Jeff Lemire, illustrations by Dustin Nguyen 

In a world where androids have been outlawed and are ruthlessly hunted down, robot boy TIM-21 and his friends must find a way to survive in the unforgiving landscape of outer space.

“Fans of comics and sci-fi should give this a try. Lemire’s fantastic storytelling and Nguyen’s stunning artwork is a winning combo.” – Mark  

Canadian graphic novelist Jeff Lemire is someone I like to say has their own brand of delightfully weird, which leaves so much room for the unexpected in his stories (fans of his Netflix-adapted series Sweet Tooth will know what I mean). I guarantee you won’t walk away thinking “I saw that coming.”  


Something Is Killing the Children by James Tynion, illustrations by Werther Dell’Edera

When the children of Archer’s Peak go missing, Erica Slaughter finds herself called to solve the mystery. And to hunt down some monsters. Monsters that only children can see.

For my last recommendation for this blog post I thought we could end with a bang. It’s a pretty provocative title, I know, but it’s one of my favorite currently running series out there. Plus, this dark Eisner Award winning action-horror tale is getting a Netflix adaptation, which is even more of a reason to pick it up before you watch it. It’s sure to be something with the creative minds behind Dark at the wheel (also, if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch Dark).

If you’re in need of more staff-recommended comics, graphic novels, and manga, check out this list on our catalog here!

Until next month and happy reading!

About Maya

Maya is an Information staff member at Vaughan Public Libraries. If she isn't scratching her head over the next sentence in her writing, she's making art and stretching her creative legs. She's a huge film buff and loves weird, fantastical fiction.  |  Meet the team