“There’s a big difference.” – what is a comic book, graphic novel, and trade paperback?

There’s a scene in American Sniper where one of the soldiers is sitting on his cot reading a comic book. The main character confronts him about why he’s reading a comic book and not out training. The reply, “It’s a fucking graphic novel man, there’s a big difference.”

“It’s a fucking graphic novel man, there’s a big difference.”

This would have been a great line. Except the solider isn’t reading a graphic novel. He’s reading a comic book. A plain ‘ole, 24 page comic book, which comes out monthly, on Wednesdays. In fact, according to this article, he’s reading issue number 1 of Punisher volume six, which came out in 2004.

So what is a comic book, and how does it differ from a graphic novel? How is the graphic novel so revered, and the comic book so reviled? And what is a trade paperback? And how does this relate to Sevara?

Let me start off with an analogy that most people will be able to relate to – movies and television shows. Movies and TV shows are fundamentally different. Not just in their delivery method and length, but their story telling method and commercial strategy. A TV show is not merely a 60 minute movie that plays in your living room. A movie is not a long TV episode we watch in theaters (well, before the MCU anyway). They’re different, and comic books and graphic novels are different in many of the same ways.

A comic book is like a TV show. A comic book, like a TV show, is relatively short, comes out on a regular basis, and is usually, but not always, episodic in nature. Most TV shows are between 30 minutes and 6o minutes. Most comic books are also short, about 24 pages of art. But the length isn’t what characterizes them. Comic books typically come out on a monthly basis, bi-monthly in some cases and even bi-weekly in others, but usually they come out once a month and get shipped to comic book stores on Wednesdays. Like TV shows, which come on once a week during the season, the story progresses forward in those 24 pages, and then you have to wait a month for the next issue. And like a TV show, a comic book is going to have advertisements inside, often throughout the comic book like commercial breaks on a TV show. The comic book makes its money from the ad revenues as well as the cover price. And because there is a gap in time between episodes, the current episode may have to remind you what happened in the last episode, either with some text at the beginning of the comic book, or a character intentionally referencing something that happened in the previous issues. Think about the TV shows that start off with a voiceover that says ‘last week on The Walking Dead’ and then some clips. They know that time has gone by since the last episode, and they need to catch you up to speed on the events. TV shows and monthly comic books are happening in real time.

On a side note, not all TV shows are episodic, or serialized, and not all comic books are episodic. What does episodic mean? It means that the story continues from one episode to the next. Those who haven’t been following in order from the beginning will generally be lost. On TV, I’d generalize by saying that the new wave of cable and streaming TV shows tend to be episodic (as well as many network shows like Twin Peaks and Lost). You have to watch the series from beginning to end, and each show will generally leave you with a cliff hanger that will beg you to watch the next episode. Think Game of Thrones, season one, episode one. A boy is kicked out of a tower. Credits roll. You have to watch the next episode in order to find out what happens to him. On the other hand, sitcoms, mysteries, and many other TV shows are not episodic, and you can jump in at any point. The Black Mirror is not episodic, you can watch any episode in any order. Most comics these days are episodic, with the exception of comics for younger readers like Sponge Bob and a number of Disney comics. These comics tell a complete story in 24 pages. But most modern comics for adults will be episodic, with character arcs and stories that span dozens or hundreds of issues.

A graphic novel, on the other hand, is like a movie. A pre-Empire Strikes Back Hollywood movie. The idea for a movie and a graphic novel is to tell a complete story in one long-form format. A movie is typically 90 – 120 minutes long (or 2.5 hours these days post-Peter Jackson), has no commercials (not counting product placements) and usually tells the whole story. Again, this is a pre-Empire and pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe Hollywood analogy. The whole production is filmed at one time, edited, and packaged as one product (pre-Matrix 2 and 3, pre-Hobbit). A graphic novel is the same. The writer and artists produce the whole story at one time, knowing that it will be packaged and sold as one book. Therefore, there are no cliff hangers every 24 pages, and no commercials every eight pages or so. It’s a book, like a novel, sold in book stores. The length is different, story telling style is very different. The cost is different – a comic book is $2.99-$3.99 these days, where as a graphic novel can be anywhere from 70-200 pages and cost $9.99 and up.

Are we clear on the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel? The medium is the same – sequential art that tells a story through action and dialogue. But when one story is told in short segments spread over months or years, and the other is meant to be consumed in one or two sittings like a novel, the style of storytelling is vastly different.

Let’s throw the trade paperback into the mix. You may see this in comic book catalogs or on websites as TPB. Trade paperbacks are hugely popular, and there is a difference between a TPB and a GN (graphic novel). And there is a TV analogy here as well. Not everyone likes to watch TV shows week to week. Waiting for the next episode of Game of Thrones can be excruciating, as the story inches forward like molasses dripping uphill in February. Some people prefer to binge watch. Just a few years ago, that meant buying a whole season on DVD or now BluRay, and just sitting back on the couch or bed all weekend and ripping through it. My wife and I did that with a few seasons of Mad Men, and I did that with all of Spartacus when my wife and son were away one summer. And now with Netflix, binge watching is more popular than every. How long did it take YOU to watch all of Daredevil? Be honest. The experience is different, because the cliffhangers don’t last as long, they go straight to the next episode, and the audience retains all the info from the previous episode.

Remember that comic book that we talked about, which came out every month? Well, at a cost of $4 each issue, a one year story arc would cost $48. And what if you missed an issue in the middle? How would you get it back? And how would you re-read the story easily- unpackage all 12 issues from their sleeves and lay them all over the living room? That would be awkward, and if you didn’t already own the issues, expensive. The easiest way to sit and read a whole comic book arc would be for the issues to be printed as one book, with all the ads removed. This is called a trade paperback. I’ll point to two examples from Batman. Batman: Year One and Batman: Hush both originally came out in comic book stores as single issues. Year One was four issues, so that spans four months. Hush was twelve issues, so that’s a whole year! DC has reprinted those issues as trade paperbacks so you can sit and read them like a graphic novel. They’re the same size as a graphic novel. They LOOK like a graphic novel. But since these are serialized episodes re-printed as a book, the storytelling is different. When reading Hush, the writers sometimes reference something that happened a few issues ago to remind the readers who were reading in real time back in 2009. Also, each story is 24 pages of art, usually with a cliffhanger. You can detect the episodic nature of the issues. Not that that’s a bad thing. You just need to know what you’re reading when you buy a graphic novel or trade paperback. We don’t expect a DVD of TV episodes to play out like a movie. But graphic novels and trade paperbacks look identical. So if you’re reading Hush and you don’t know that it’s a trade paperback and not a graphic novel, you might wonder why there are twelve chapters and eleven cliffhangers, and why the writers sometimes remind you of situations or characters from 20 or 30 pages before (cause that happened last month!).

The reason why I’m talking about this at length is because when you go on Amazon, as all of us do, it isn’t immediately clear what is a graphic novel and what is a trade paperback. A causal observer might not catch this bit on Amazon: “This volume collects Batman #609-619”. You have to click ‘read more’ to find it. Plus, not all Batman books are trade paperbacks. Batman: The Killing Joke, is a graphic novel. Written by Alan Moore, who also wrote the graphic novel Watchmen. Both are amazing, needless to say. But if you do an Amazon search for ‘Batman graphic novel’, you also get The Dark Night Returns and Batman Year One right after The Killing Joke. The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One are trade paperbacks, although since they are both such tightly written  complete stories, and impossible to find as individual comic book issues anymore, most of us have read these as trade paperbacks and generally consider them to be quintessential Batman stories. They FEEL like graphic novels, meaning that they feel like complete stories in their own right. They were both printed as mini-series, like a TV mini-series, so they feel polished and finished. Which they are, they rock. But you have to click ‘read more’ or read the reviews to see that The Dark Night Returns was a four-part mini-series printed in 1986 for comic book shops, and reprinted as a trade paperback in 1997. Hell, the category in Amazon is Graphic Novels!

Amazon Category
Amazon Category

The relatively new comic book Saga, by Vaughan and Staples, is hugely popular these days. Like the title implies, it is a long story. Many readers are choosing to buy the trade paperbacks when they come out instead of the individual issues. It’s cheaper, and you get up to speed quicker. Saga: Volume One for example combines the first six issues of the series. But some readers what to find out what’s going on right away and buy the individual issues (I sure as hell ain’t wait’in six months for the Game of Thrones season five BluRay to come out to find out what happens this week in Westeros, are you crazy?). Other people buy the individual issues as pieces of art and collectors items. The cover art is stunning.

Digital distribution is the future, not just with comics, but with TV as well. With digital distribution, you can get your fix instantly, like binge watching on Netflix, since there an entire comic book series can be made available online to binge read. So conceivably, you could release an entire twelve-issue comic book series on ComiXology on the same day  instead of month to month so that readers don’t have to wait for the next one to come out. That’s what Netflix did with Daredevil and March Polo, right?

So what’s going on with Sevara?  ComiXology is the most popular online comic book reader. Sevara was written as three individual episodes. My publisher is making the individual issues available digitally and the trade paperback available at the same time. The individual issues will be on ComiXology to read in digital format here: http://bit.ly/1FQ387k, while the trade paperback of issues 0-2 will be on Amazon at the same time or shortly after. The individual issues should reach comic book shops in late 2015, hopefully November or December. If you want to collect the individual issues as works of art and collectors items, you can go to your comic book shop. If you want to read the whole thing in one sitting, you can get the trade paperback on Amazon. And if you want to read it digitally and not bother with a physical copy, you can get all three issues on ComiXology. Issue #0 is only $.99 cents!

The major difference that you’ll find between the Amazon version of the Sevara trade paperback and the individual issues is that the trade paperback has a 7 page epilogue, and 40 pages of bonus material. Plus, the order of the pages is wee bit different to tie the whole three issue arc together better. I’m calling it the deluxe edition trade paperback, and it feels a lot like a graphic novel.

Thanks for checking out this post, please feel free to share and comment. I didn’t touch on why people love graphic novels so much, but hate comic books. Maybe you can post your thoughts on that, since I really don’t get it at all.

(Oh, and do buy all the graphic novels and trade paperbacks that I mentioned in the article, either from Amazon or your local comic book shop).

One thought on ““There’s a big difference.” – what is a comic book, graphic novel, and trade paperback?”

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