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What's the Difference Between Comic Books and Graphic Novels?

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The main difference between Comic Books and Graphic Novels is the resolution of conflicts in plots. In Graphic Novels, the whole narrative or story would be finished in one book or publication, whereas Comic Books usually take several issues to finish a certain arc. Thus, a graphic novel is longer and complete, while a comic book is shorter and serialized.

What is a Graphic Novel?

graphic novel stranger things
Stranger Things: The Bully, a recent Graphic Novel

As the name implies, a Graphic Novel is a story written and presented with the help of images. Basically, a Graphic Novel is a novel that has images to better illustrate what happens in the story. Since Graphic Novels are still novels, it uses the same elements in a single publication or book. These elements are setting, characters, plot, conflict, resolution, POV (point of view), and theme. In other words, a Graphic Novel is a stand-alone book.

What is a Comic Book?

superman comic book
Superman, one of the most famous superhero Comic Books

A Comic Book is a sequence of comic strips that comprise an excerpt from a larger narrative or arc. This means that the story in a single comic book issue is unresolved; the reader should read the issues before and after the book just to get to the ending of the whole story. A Comic Book uses visual illustrations and cues to tell the whole story from panel to panel. These visual tools are illustrations, image panels, captions, speech or thought balloons, and onomatopoeia.

Differences Between Graphic Novels and Comic Books

It is very easy to attribute that a Comic Book is a Graphic Novel and vice versa. After all, they both use illustrations to convey a story. However, there are some key differences to help a reader identify whether an illustrated publication is a Graphic Novel or a Comic Book.

Story Elements

In a Graphic Novel, all of the elements in the story are present. Hence, the story is finished as soon as the narrative in the book is also finished. All of the characters, settings, plots, conflicts and resolutions, are already explored and discussed within the book.

On the other hand, a Comic Book usually takes several publications to complete a single arc. A single issue can’t stand alone in terms of finishing the whole narrative. Sometimes, new characters, surfacing conflicts, and changes in settings would happen upon the release of new issues.


Graphic Novels are lengthy, complete, and complex. Since Graphic Novels are self-contained stories, the plot and all of the sub-plots together with all of the characters are revealed and resolved within the book itself.

While on the flip side, a single Comic Book is short, simple, and concise. The stories in Comic Books can also be complex but they are broken up into several issues. Therefore, a single Comic Book isn’t enough to satisfy one whole narrative.

International Standardization Category

Graphic Novels are in the ISBN or International Standard Book Number Category. It means that a Graphic Novel is a type of monographic publication. The number combination for monographic publication is 13 digits long.

Comic Books, on the other hand, fall under ISSN or International Standard Serial Number Category since Comic Books are serialized. The combination for these ISSN publications is 8 digits long.


Graphic Novels are more gritty, explicit, and mature. Some examples would be Watchmen and V for Vendetta. These publications tackle socio-political issues at the time they were published and piqued the interest of their readers, especially the adults.

Comic Books are usually stories about unrealistic worlds and superhumans. Some popular examples are Marvel and DC comics. Comic Books usually contain stories about crime-fighting superheroes against the injustices caused by villains.

Comparison Chart: Comic Books Vs Graphic Novels

SpecificationsComic BooksGraphic Novels
ElementsStory Elements: Incomplete
Orientation, Panel Positions, Size, Text, Speech or Thought Balloons
Story Elements: Complete
(Characters, Settings, Plot, Conflict, Resolution)
Beginning, Middle, End
Frequency of PublicationRegular Issues or Periodicals (Weekly, Monthly, or Scheduled)Single to Low
LengthShort and Concise
The total story arc unfolds during the series of publication 
Lengthy and Complex, Complete Story in a single published material
ThemeGritty, Explicit, Mature, Socio-Political issuesUnrealistic Worlds and SuperhumansCrimes and Injustices
Readers or AudienceAdultsTeenagers

Similarities Betweens Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Graphic Novels and Comic Books share some notable similarities. That’s why people sometimes get confused about which term should be used to categorize an illustrated story.

Images and Illustrations

Both Graphic Novels and Comic Books are using drawings, doodles, illustrations, and other visual tools to better illustrate the story they are telling. The styles and themes of the illustrations may vary from artist to artist but they both use visuals to help the readers visualize what is happening within the story.

Story Telling

Both Comic Books and Graphic Novels are telling a story. They both aim to share a message or moral to their readers. Genres and themes of the stories being told in Comic Books and Graphic Novels may vary because of the author’s or publication’s preferences.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some popular examples of Graphic Novels?

Some notable and exceptional examples of graphic Novels are Maus by Art Spiegelman published in 1980, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore published in 1982, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. They are stand-alone publications that tackle socio-political issues and ideals.

Why are Comic Books and Graphic Novels called “Comics”?

Originally, “comics“ were used to illustrate humorous messages in a newspaper. The word “comics” as an illustration is derived from the similar word “comic” which means to cause laughter or humor. The usage of “comics” as an illustration evolves into other themes as time passes by until it becomes the comics that we know and love today that tackle different issues and tell different stories.

What is the best-selling Comic Book of all time?

X-Men #1 holds the highest number of sold copies to date. X-Men #1 has an estimation of 8,186,500 copies sold worldwide. It is almost 8 times higher than the 2nd placer, Star Wars #1 having only 1,073,000 copies sold internationally.


Graphic Novels and Comic Books both use drawings and illustrations to convey or share a message to its readers. They can also be sources of entertainment as they both possess visually stunning art and compelling story arcs. Although they share outstanding similarities, the differences can be easily pointed out by examining the length and story elements.


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About the Author: Tom Vincent

Tom Vincent graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics and social studies. He then started his higher education at the University of François Rabelais in Tours with a DUT Information Communication. To expand his knowledge, he also followed a professional degree in e-commerce and digital marketing at the Lumière University of Lyon. On this project, he is in charge of articles covering language, industry and social.
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