I’m back with another riveting column about all things bookish! I was inspired recently by Free Comic Book Day, which happened a few weeks ago on Saturday, May 7. Every year this event takes place on the first Saturday in May. On this day, participating comic book stores give away free comic books in celebration of independent comic book stores and the comic book medium.

As a librarian, I get to see a wide variety of comics and graphic novels circulate through the system. Over the past 10 years or so, I have noticed that my own perceptions of this medium have changed and it made me wonder if others were curious about it as well. These days I see many more people getting interested in comics and graphic novels. If you haven’t discovered these yet yourself, they offer an exciting variety of reading material that may make a great addition to your reading repertoire.

Growing up I read a lot of Garfield, Archie, Betty & Veronica, and Barbie comics in addition to the “traditional” text-based books I loved. I know many others of my generation also enjoyed comics such as Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Tintin, and Asterix that are still wildly popular with all ages today. As I crept into young adulthood, the world was seeing the rise of comic book culture seeping more into the mainstream.

ComicCons grew into massively popular events now attended by many more than just the stereotypical “comic book fan.” The success of TV Shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and mega-blockbuster Marvel and DC Comics movies helped bring more of comic book culture into the spotlight, and helped usher in a new wave of fans from beyond just the fringes of comic book fandom.

Graphic novels and comics have long been a popular genre with fans of superheroes, but they have even been on critics’ radar for decades. Maus by Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Sabrina by Nick Drnaso was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, and New Kid by Jerry Craft won the 2020 John Newberry Medal for children’s literature. Since their inception, comics and graphic novels have suffered from the misperception that they were for children. Maus by Art Spiegelman, Watchmen by Alan Moore, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, all published in the 1980s, helped define the graphic novel as a more serious literary comic form for adults.

In recent history, we also saw the proliferation of the term “graphic novel.” The term originated back in 1964, and became popularized in the 1970s with the success of A Contract with God by Will Eisner, but didn’t seem to become widely used in the mainstream vernacular until the late 20th century. Now the graphic novel and comic book industry is flourishing. According to ComicsBeat.com, graphic novel sales increased by 65% in 2021.

Those like myself, who maybe aren’t very familiar with comics and graphic novels may be wondering: is there a difference between the two? They share some similarities in style, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, but I learned that there is a difference. When I hear the term comic book, superhero comics or Sunday funnies cartoon strips come to mind. When I think of graphic novels, I usually think of a more serious and sometimes less fantastical setting or story. 

This observation is sort of an accurate description of the difference. According to MasterClass.com, a comic or comic book refers to a serialized excerpt from a larger narrative, often associated with or explained through the lens of superheroes or heightened realities. They are usually more difficult to read as a stand-alone; readers will need to have read the previous volume in the series to understand any subsequent storylines. In contrast, individual graphic novels, whether part of a larger series or not, contain a beginning, middle, and end and offer the type of resolution one expects from a traditional novel.

In my work at the library, I often encourage patrons who don’t see themselves as readers to try out a graphic novel or comic book. They can be a great way for encouraging children who are “reluctant readers” to get interested in books. However, they don’t have to just be a springboard into further reading, they have incredible benefits just on their own. A quick search and you can find tons of lists extolling the virtues of graphic novels, especially why they are great for kids learning to read. I’ll try to distill the information I found down to a few key points.

They engage us on a plane beyond words on the page using spatial cues, colors and other visual cues. They are great for visual learners who may process information that way. They are fun to read and you can enjoy the great art and design. They have complex characters with detailed backstories and inner conflict. They are often packed with lots of detail on every page that can further aid in developing a character.

You can gain a deeper understanding of metaphors, symbolism and point of view. Narratives can mirror real world events and tough issues, offering intellectually stimulating and empowering stories. It is a widely accessible medium. They can also transcend language and cultural barriers. A great example of the power of visual storytelling is the picture book Drawn Together by Le Minh, illustrated by Dan Santat depicts the power of visual medium in communication.   

The variety of comics and graphic novels that are out now continues to amaze me. Everything from far-fetched fantasies to retellings of historical events. Summer is a great time to try out a graphic novel or comic book. July is Graphic Novels in Libraries month, and graphic novels are a great way for readers of all ages to participate in the library’s summer reading program. Below I have included some lists of a few titles that may help introduce you to the magic of comics and graphic novels.

Happy Reading!

(Julia Engel is a reference librarian for the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library technical services division. She can be reached via email at Julia.Engel@corvallisoregon.gov or by phone at 541-766-6988.)


Adults:

Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

March by John Lewis

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Kids: 

Owly by Andy Runton

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Babymouse by Jennifer and Matthew Holm

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

Wings of Fire by Tui Sutherland

Amulet by Kazu KibuishiNarwhal: Unicorn of the Sea by Ben Clanton