A Beginner's Guide to Graphic Novels

BY CHELSEA ENNEN • May 17, 2024

A Beginner's Guide to Graphic Novels

You might think that only artists can create graphic novels and comic books. It’s true that many of the more famous ones—those making it onto school syllabi, at least—are often the work of an artist. 

But many graphic novels are also written as a partnership between a writer and an artist, sometimes even teams of both working together. Which means writers don’t have to sign up for drawing classes if they have ambitions of working on graphic novels. But that doesn’t mean that you can simply remove everything but the dialogue from your writing and call it graphic novel ready. 

Comics and graphic novels are their own form, with their own quirks, structures, and best practices. In order to get a good grasp on how to optimize your writing for telling stories with pictures, here are a few references you’ll want to add to your collection. 

The Basics: Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud is a cartoonist and comics theorist whose work on form and structure is often assigned reading in college courses. He has written several nonfiction titles you might want to explore as you begin your journey into this new medium, but Understanding Comics is the first one you’ll want to pick up. 

Not only does McCloud give you a history of comics as an art form, he also gives readers a formal vocabulary to define all elements that go into making comics. He also discusses the different ways these forms can be used by a storyteller. As a beginner to the world of comics, learning that vocabulary will help you break down concepts into more digestible pieces, and it will help you understand how to gear your own writing toward graphic novels rather than screenwriting or novel writing. 

The coolest thing about Understanding Comics? The entire book is written as a comic book. 

Memoir: Alison Bechdel

Even though you may have heard of the Broadway musical adaptation, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a must read for any prospective graphic memoirist. As an adult cartoonist, Bechdel uses the comic book form to look back on her strange childhood and reflect on her father’s complicated life. Bechdel also wrote a different memoir that focuses more on her mother, aptly titled Are You My Mother? Either of these books are a no-brainer to check off your reading list if you have goals to write a graphic memoir. 

Superhero: Finished Story Arc of Choice 

Marvel and DC comics have been running with so many characters for so many decades, it’s no wonder that many die-hard fans have storage units full of their collections. If you’re new to the world of spandex and capes, don’t let the breadth of reading intimidate you. 

Head to your local comic book shop and skip the weekly issues for full collections that get published altogether. Whether it’s Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One or Gail Simone’s historic run with Wonder Woman, dip your toe into classic superhero comics by picking an arc and reading it from start to finish, that way you can get a good sense of how the writer spaces out the plot and creates enough action to make each issue exciting. It’ll then be easier to read new issues as they come out, and watch for the techniques you’ve already seen play out over a full story arc. 

Kids: Raina Telgemeier 

There is a lot of incredible writing going on in kid’s graphic novels. Any children’s bookstore, even if it doesn’t have a dedicated comic and graphic novel section, is going to carry some of Raina Telgemeier’s bestselling books. Three are autobiographical (SmileSisters, and Guts), and another, called Ghosts, is a fictional story about a girl who can see the undead. 

Any of Telgemeier’s books are a wonderful example of how comics can so effectively speak to the emotional inner lives of kids and adults alike. 

Something Different: Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh first came to prominence in the blogging heydey of the 2010s. Brosh riffs on typos (“alot”), imagines of her dogs’ inner lives, and her hilarious anecdotes aren’t illustrated like traditional comics, but her iconic style and clever use of Microsoft Paint has brought her huge popularity. Brosh also suffers from severe depression, and while her health struggles keep her mostly out of the spotlight, her two published books have both became huge bestsellers. 

Hyperbole and a Half and Solutions and Other Problems both swing between incisive depictions of mental illness, ones that have been widely praised by mental health professionals, and the kind of madcap silliness that earned her such a loyal audience. While not what you’d typically think of as a comic book, work like Brosh’s can help you see how expansive the form can be. 

Make Friends

It bears repeating: you do not have to be an artist to work in comics. 

That means comics and graphic novels can allow for mutually satisfying and challenging artistic partnerships—you get to work with a fellow creative! Creating art can be hard work, and any opportunity to form a team will make the journey better. 

Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn with her husband and her dog. When not writing or reading, she is a fiber and textile artist who sews, knits, crochets, weaves, and spins.

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