History of the Graphic Novel

December 15, 2009
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The history of the graphic novel has its beginnings at the dawn of mankind with the first cave paintings illustrating a successful hunt. Paintings were the first way for humans to share information or tell stories because the alphabet had yet to be invented and oral histories were unreliable after a few generations. The next evolutionary step toward the graphic novel was picture writing like the Egyptian’s hieroglyphics and the Aztec’s language. Picture writing became obsolete due to the extensive vocabulary required for civilization not necessary for hunter-gatherers. This combination of vocabulary and pictures is still the essence of today’s graphic novel.

Modern literature was still a bastion of the wealthy and the limited middle class population. The majority of the world’s population was illiterate well into the nineteenth century and still relied upon picture books for their entertainment. According to Stan Tychinski, weekly periodicals began to appear, many of them joke books or humor publications. “One of the best examples of this type of publication is Poor Richard’s Almanac, printed in 1732 by Benjamin Franklin” (Tychinski). The next revolution was the Dime Novel Magazine which was the forerunner of the modern paperback book. These involved sensational adventures starring avenging outlaws and gunslingers whose bailiwick included the saloons and plains of the American West. These formed a major source of entertainment for the average population in the United States at the time.

Attributed to the humorist Rodolphe Toffler, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck was the first major graphic novel published in the United States. Its advent in 1842 was a collection from a serial in the weekly humor magazine, Brother Jonathan. This strip format led to the 1895 publication of the first successfully merchandised comic strip character The Yellow Kid. In 1897, the release of the collected editions of The Yellow Kid cartoons is often considered to be the first financially successful graphic novel. The considerable imitations to reach the publishing market attest to the financial aspirations of writers. This led to actual prose novels starring Blondie and Little Orphan Annie.

After World War One, there arose in the United States the pulp fiction novel.
It acquired its name from the cheap pulp paper it was printed on. These adventure stories were targeted toward the avid male audience starring The Shadow and the Spider among others. These vastly popular heroes became spin-off radio programs used to alleviate the struggles of the American populous in the Great Depression.

The rise of the daily comic strip led to the advent of the first comic book in 1933. Published by M.C. Gaines, its appellation was New Funnies and reprinted daily comic strips. Detective Dan was the first all original comic books also published in 1933 by Humor Publications. The comic book rage spread dramatically with the release in 1938 of Action Comics #1 starring Superman. “Superman and his fellow mystery-men paved the way for the comic books Golden Age, and a vast array of costumed heroes, detectives, cowboys, and the like flooded the newsstand.” (Tychinski.). The marriage of the paper backs book and the comic book led to the first popularly printed graphic novel, It Rhymes With Lust, by Arnold Drake and Matt Baker. This book has become a very rare collector’s item.

In the United States in the mid 1950’s parental concerns about comic book content led to the creation of The Comics Code. This regulated the violence and sensationalism permitted in comic books. Comic books in America became so diluted of content that they became known as children’s reading not fit for adults. However, in other countries such as Japan and France these restrictions were not placed upon the publishers. This led to the modern graphic novel genres that reached the American shores in the 1990’s.


The possible acme of the graphic novel came in 1992 with the special Pulitzer Prize awarded to Art Spiegleman for his biographical story of his parents in World War Two during the Holocaust. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale was also nominated for several other literary awards establishing this form of writing as an authentic literary genre.


The creation of a graphic novel involves six major steps. The first is choosing a script forming two versions of the same book. The original text uses all the original words found in the novel while the quick text is an abbreviated version. The art work remains identical for both versions. Step two is when the artist draws rough sketches from the directions of the scriptwriter. In step three, the artist creates a pencil drawing of the rough sketch filling in most of the detail and emphasis. Step four is the inked version of the same page as the pencil sketch. Black ink is used to fill in the shaded areas and to add clarity to the pencil sketch. The art work is now ready for the color stage of step five. The final stage is the addition of sound effects and captions. Two versions of each page must be lettered, quick and original texts (Bryant 156-157). Now the art work is ready for publishing and A Christmas Carol comes to life.

According to Art Spiegelman, “On the positive side, the public awareness of these books has vastly increased, creating a kind of renaissance era of intense creativity and quality. Ultimately the future of the graphic novel is dependent on how much great work gets produced against all odds. I’m much more optimistic than I was that there is room for something and I know that right now there’s more genuinely interesting comic art than there’s been for decades and decades” (Arnold) This sentiment still holds true today as many classics such as Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet and Dracula are found in Graphic Novels.

















Works Cited

Arnold, Andrew D.”The Graphic Novel Silver Anniversary.” Time.com, 14 November

2003. Web. 14 December 2009.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Litchborough, Towcester, United Kingdom:
Classical Comics Ltd., 2008. Print.

Tychinski, Stan. “A Brief History of the Graphic Novel.” Diamond Bookshelf.com, n.d.

Web. 14 December 2009.





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