The Graphic Novel Renaissance

By   Hannah Bickerton 15 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

From Alice Oseman’s wholesome Heartstopper to Art Spiegelman’s powerful Maus, graphic novels are finally getting the attention they deserve with sales soaring into the billions.

Graphic novel sales broke UK records last year with adult graphic novels hitting the £50 million mark for the first time. In 2021 graphic novel sales in the US reached $1.47 billion, a 76% increase from 2020, and the global market was valued at $14.69 billion, with a projected growth of $21.37 billion by 2029. 

Through the decades of the last century and into our own, graphic novels have not only reflected culture but influenced it. They now appear to be experiencing a renaissance as new audiences discover their love for this dynamic medium, one that crosses over into multiple art forms in society. Not only have we seen many graphic novels and comics adapted for the big and small screens, but they’re now being recognised and reassessed in education – inspiring a passion for reading and helping kids to develop valuable skills.

But how do graphic novels actually differ from other formats, such as comics, manga and illustrated books? Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: they’re not a genre but a medium, a vessel for telling stories in sequential art form. Comic books and graphic novels are often confused, but the two actually have distinct identifying features. While comics usually have segments of narratives that are serialised, graphic novels are longer complete narratives, regardless of whether they’re an instalment of a series.

Manga is essentially the Japanese equivalent of comics, serialised strips for very specific demographics such as Shoujo and Shounen. They’re often published in paperback volumes that are part of a series, and when translated are still printed from right to left to retain the authenticity of the original version. On the other hand, illustrated books use illustrations to complement the written narrative, rather than using text and images equally to portray the story. Ultimately, these formats have become an integral part of pop culture, continuously proving their legitimacy as a media for art and storytelling, enriching the experience of stories in which world-building or character nuance is key.

Misconceptions of the Graphic Novel

Comics have existed since the end of the 19th century but only really garnered wider interest with the publication of Superman in 1938, probably the most iconic comic book character to date. This spawned a series of spin-offs and created a whole new genre of characters with secret identities, superhuman powers and colourful outfits – the superhero. Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, Captain Marvel and Green Lantern are just a few of the characters that followed. Other genres also emerged during the 1940s, including science-fiction, westerns and horror and crime. 

The teen genre was also popular, particularly a comic strip with a red-head character named Archibald ‘Archie’ Andrews which debuted in 1941, becoming so popular in fact that the company who created it changed its name to Archie Comics in 1946. A lot of these characters still remain recognisable and relevant in pop culture over 80 years later. Graphic novels are a much newer format, the term coined in 1964 and only really taking off in the 1980s with the publication of graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Today, the graphic novel is a medium that doesn’t fit neatly into a single category. They’re an eclectic mix of genres for a range of audiences, from calming slice-of-life to the dark and serious, from wildly fantastical worlds like in the epic Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples to those firmly grounded in the real world like Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home. Once regarded as ‘just comics’ read by kids or ‘geeks’, graphic novels have evolved into a respected platform for every genre in print and have proven to be every bit as multi-faceted and varied as other literary formats, differing in genre, length, themes and art styles. 

YA graphic novels have become particularly popular since the publication and Netflix adaptation of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper – Volume 1 of the series named by BookScan as the top-selling graphic novel in a combined adult and children’s chart since records began. One of the best-known graphic novels, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, now also a film and award-winning HBO series, subverts the superhero genre that the format is so known for and dissects what it means to be a superhero by examining an alternate reality where superheroes are commonplace but plagued with mortal failings.

The plurality of genres within the graphic novel category means that readers can find a broad range of sensibilities, tones, styles and aesthetics. However, the name graphic ‘novel’ can often mislead people into thinking that the category consists mostly of fiction, when in fact there are so many inspiring non-fiction graphic novels for readers to discover, from memoirs to journalism, medicine, education and history. For example, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis follows her as a girl growing up in Tehran, Iraq, during an unstable time in history. The overthrow of the Shah regime, the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq are shown through the lens of childhood, adding a new perspective of the time. 

Another non-fiction graphic novel you have most likely heard of is the truly unforgettable Maus by Art Spiegelman, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and is based on interviews with Spiegelman’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew and Auschwitz survivor. It’s a riveting and provocative book that explores the Jewish experience of the Holocaust while depicting the Jewish people as mice, the Poles as pigs and the Nazis as cats. Maus established comics as an important feature of contemporary culture and historical representation, showcasing how graphic novels can address serious subject matters and thereby changing the medium’s relationship with history. Published in 1986, The Complete Maus received widespread media coverage in January 2022 after it was banned by a Tennessee school district. The result? A 2,656% increase in sales compared to before the ban – selling out completely on Amazon.

The many misconceptions and stigmas surrounding graphic novels have meant they have never quite gained the same mainstream respect and success of other literary forms. Their use of images makes people associate them with childish picture books and cartoons, assuming that only children can or should enjoy them. While graphic novels and comics are some of the most popular formats in children’s publishing, their witty dialogue and illustrations helping kids to develop a love for storytelling, it is clear from just the examples we’ve mentioned that there is a thriving market for graphic novels meant for adults. As freelance comics editor Kirsten Murray points out, ‘Comics have been cursed with this since their inception, but adults have always read them. There’s a weird stigma towards comic pages, despite the many proven literacy benefits that come from reading pages of comic art. It’s a different way of reading that challenges audiences by combining visual, spatial and textual components on a page to get a full understanding of the story.’

‘Wednesday Warriors’ was the name given to the voracious readers who were first in line to buy the next instalment of their favourite printed comics as they landed on shelves – often slightly older and mostly male readers. However, along with the development of technology and smartphones, web comics have exploded in popularity in recent years and tapped into an audience the industry has long overlooked: Gen Z and Millennial women. Webtoon, which originated in Korea in 2004 and is the world’s largest digital comics platform, said more than half of its 82 million monthly users are women

Rachel Smythe’s Lore Olympus began as a free Webtoon comic, retelling Greek myth like a soap opera with a focus on the romance between Hades and Persephone. It was then published in graphic novel form, Volume One reaching #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list in November 2021. It also won the 2021 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Graphic Novel and was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2019 and Ringo Award in 2021. Perceptions are changing of graphic novels, and so is the audience. Just as there is traditional literature of every genre for every age, so too are there powerful and impactful graphic novels for everyone of any background, tackling important topics from women’s rights to discrimination, the exploration of sexuality and monumental historical events.

Graphic Novels are Growing in Popularity. Why?

A number of factors have contributed to the increased interest and intrigue in graphic novels that we’re currently witnessing. Murray believes that changing perceptions of the medium is a huge part of this. ‘People are discovering that they’re not just for kids. We’ve seen a growth in fandom culture over the past decade, resulting in the growth of all things traditionally deemed for children: comics, video games, anime, etc. Comic Cons regularly pop up across the country now, filling huge convention halls, and there’s a growing demand for memorabilia.’ Alongside challenging stigmas and assumptions surrounding readership and reputation, graphic novels are now acknowledged as a tool for capturing the imaginations of young readers and an artform that can address serious themes for mature audiences. 

More schools are adding graphic novels to their syllabuses and turning them into accessible educational tools. For example, Sterling Publishing’s All Action Classics series retells classic tales in graphic novel format, helping to improve student engagement and cater to more visual learners. Increased support of the graphic novel from educational institutions has introduced young and often reluctant readers to an enjoyable format that is less daunting in terms of learning but also something that can inspire and develop into a hobby. 

Alternatively, many adults discover their love for comics and graphic novels through other forms of entertainment. The numerous television, film and online adaptations seem to be never ending, with new Marvel films released every year. ‘But superhero stories aren’t for everyone,’ says Murray. ‘We can’t deny that the resounding popularity of the Marvel movies has helped fuel the interest in comics and graphic novels. They’ve drawn readers to a new section of their favourite bookstore – or even checking out a specialist comic shop – acting as a gateway into this huge world of other books.’ The success of culturally significant series and films like the Academy Award-winning The Dark Knight, Joker and Black Panther, which all earned over $1 billion at the global box office, have also had an impact on people’s perceptions – what was once perceived as lowbrow, immature and basic amusement has now become respected, complex art. 

The Netflix series Heartstopper, which premiered in April 2022, propelled the first volume of the original graphic novel by Alice Oseman to number one on the official UK Children’s bestseller charts, with the rest of the series also listed  in the top ten. The series has introduced the many looking to read more of the coming-of-age queer story to the graphic novel medium, and there is no sign of things calming down any time soon, with Season 2 on the way and the Heartstopper hashtag currently reaching over 9 billion views on TikTok. The growing acceptance of comics and graphic novels and love for their adaptations has undoubtedly been a vital influence in the growth of the medium’s popularity.

Publishers have finally started to recognise the potential of this market, indicated by the launch of Penguin’s imprint Random House Graphic in 2019 and HarperCollins’s graphic novel imprint Harper Alley around the same time. Giant Japanese publishers like Viz Media, Kodansha and Square Enix now also have US offices and have established their presence alongside indie manga houses Seven Seas Press, Denpa Books, and Tokyopop, as an integral part of the marketplace. There has been a huge increase in titles licensed from overseas over the past few years, providing fans access to a range of translated titles, such as Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia, Tsugumi Ohba’s Death Note and Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan, to name just a few. 

Manga sales in the UK rose to £28.8 million in 2022, a 24% increase from 2021, and sold more through the TCM in 2022 than it did in the first 13 years of BookScan full market data. Triggered at the beginning of the pandemic and amplified throughout it, this remarkable growth can be partly attributed to multiple lockdowns and the increase in availability of new anime on streaming sites such as Funimation and Crunchyroll. More and more viewers were discovering and watching anime, which, just as with Western films and TV series adaptations, inspired people of all ages to read the original manga series and subsequently find other works in the similar formats of comics and graphic novels. 

While it has taken manga nearly two decades to become a mainstream category, it has paved the way for other international formats to enter the graphic novel industry, such as the rapid adoption of webtoons and Korean graphic novels known as manhwa. which were reported to have a global user count of over 82 million readers. Digital technology and social media platforms, such as TikTok, have significantly increased awareness of the medium. Readers now have global access to their favourite comics and online communities like #BookTok, full of endless exciting recommendations and consistently helping to attract, influence and grow a diverse audience of avid graphic novel readers.

Publishing a Graphic Novel

Comics constantly push boundaries. Their rules are different to other literary forms, and their success is measured differently too. For Murray, ‘the most successful graphic novels see the creator(s) fully understand and embrace the medium’s unique traits. They know how to use all the elements of a comic page, then break the rules in the most impressive and exciting ways that really keep you hooked throughout. As with all storytelling, strong characterisation and believable world building is crucial too.’ Writing a graphic novel involves so much more than simply creating a storyboard and filling in the blanks. Before any script or art can be created, the graphic novelist must first establish the genre they’re writing in and the audience they’re writing for. There are plenty of genres to choose from – memoir, crime, political, comedy, romance – and it’s important to know the rules of them, even if it then means breaking them.

Outlining the story is next, making sure the structure is clear and characters are given depth and development arcs. Stories will often follow the general three-act structure of introduction, climax and denouement. The story will then need to be formatted, breaking it down onto the scripted page, not only scene by scene, but panel by panel. The main goal is to ensure that text and illustrations work perfectly in tandem to best represent the story and enrapture readers. Artistic style and page and panel layouts will all be essential in appealing to certain audiences, the story’s pacing and conveying meaning. For example, using a succession of small panels can slow down time or illustrate a series of actions, like a fight sequence. We recommend reading Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and Comics and Sequential Storytelling by Will Eisner to understand more about the unique aspects of comics and graphic novels as a literary format and artform. 

Writing and creating a graphic novel is a huge achievement that requires a lot of dedication and hard work, but it’s important to recognise that nothing will ever be perfect the first time round. Just like with every other literary format, the input of an editor is absolutely vital. An editor should help writers to tell their story in the best way possible. They will also be the main point of contact for everyone involved in the production process: writer, artist, letterer, colourist, cover artist and publisher. Editors will typically start by reviewing the script, much like a developmental edit, and work with the creative team to approve thumbnails (rough page layouts). They’ll then check for any inconsistencies or disruptions to the page flow, ensuring the page matches up to the script, as well as the quality of the line ink and colours, once again checking for consistency and ensuring they enhance the tone and atmosphere of the story. The last step will be to proofread the lettered pages.

However, unlike other literary formats, Murray points out that, ‘comic and graphic novel editors are also responsible for keeping an eye on the art development. This requires having a good sense of page layouts right from the beginning, ensuring that the elements in the script – descriptions, captions and dialogue – will make sense on the final page. You have to anticipate whether the artist will be able to appropriately translate the writer’s panel descriptions so the reader will be able to understand the full story. This extends further into the lettering stage. Balloon placement can make or break the flow of a page, and therefore the entire reading experience. Everything needs to work together in a well-structured but satisfying way.’ Editors are a key part of the process, keeping everyone focused on the final goal of creating a brilliant story.

There are various routes available to graphic novelists when it comes to publishing their book, which doesn’t necessarily need to be fully completed. Instead, creators can collect together a submission package, which can include elements such as a summary of the story, a list of characters, a sample script and several pages of sample art. This can then be used to approach literary agents or submit directly to traditional publishers. Alternatively, publishing independently is an appealing option for creators who want to keep control and ownership of their work. This route involves paying for professional services, such as editorial, design, print, marketing and distribution that will ensure the quality matches that of a traditional publisher. Funding for these services can be sourced through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. If you’d like to find out more about crowdfunding, you can find our free downloadable guide for indie authors here.

At the end of the day, you don’t need to jump into anything too quickly. It’s worth taking the time to carve your own path and discuss your options with publishing experts like whitefox. Murray suggests testing the waters first by ‘creating a one-page strip, a short zine or a webcomic. Go to comic conventions. Build a network by talking to fellow creators. Show off your work, ask for feedback and always be willing to learn.’ But most importantly, ‘Have fun with it! There’s nothing quite like the magic of seeing a graphic novel and all of its moving parts come together in one fantastic final story.’

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.