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Birth and history of the graphic novel

Birth and history of the graphic novel

It is a long time since the comic stopped being been considered a lesser art. Now it rubs shoulders in the bookstores and on the lists of best-sellers with the latest literary productions. This evolution has occurred largely thanks to the boom of graphic novels, an editing format designed for the adult public. Superheroes have thus given way to other genres such as the autobiographical tale, the journalistic chronicle and the adaptations of classics of literature.

How the genre appeared

The term graphic novel began to be applied in the late 70s, when publishers realised the commercial possibilities of broadening the boundaries of comics. The aim? To reach other audiences and compete face to face with the novel. Historically related to children and young readers, comics managed to take a giant step in those years, thanks to works such as The Contract with God, by Will Eisner, which he himself baptised as the first graphic novel.

Eisner, with a long career as a cartoonist thanks to popular characters such as The Spirit, aimed to "publish a comic that, in the book stores, would be displayed in the novel department and not under entertainment and children's books." And he achieved it, although recognition would only come much later. His trilogy, under the common title of A Contract with God, explained the daily struggle of the inhabitants of a neighbourhood on the outskirts of New York to get ahead in an environment of poverty.

El Contrato de Dios

Even so, the origins of this publishing phenomenon and its definition remain sources of discussion. The poet and cartoon expert Ana Merino, author of the recent book 10 essays to think of the comic (Eolas Ediciones), affirms that publishers took advantage of the term graphic novel "to open up to readers who were not necessarily repeat buyers of comics. It is linked to the adult public and seeks a marked thematic unit. The first graphic novels were not conceived as closed pieces, but were rather part of serial projects".


These first incursions in the new format include works like Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which began to be published in Raw magazine in 1980 and was completed in 1991. A year later, already published as a comprehensive volume, it became the first and only comic to receive the Pulitzer Prize. In Maus, Spiegelman describes his complex relationship with his father, a survivor of the Holocaust, and his experiences in Auschwitz, using animals as the main characters of too real a fable: the mice represent the Jews, the cats the Germans, the pigs the Poles ... Through the use of new innovative expressive resources and his ability to thrill readers, Maus is a fundamental starting point to get into graphic novels, a decisive format to bring the comic to the public.

Variety of genres

Like the novel, the cinema and any other narrative art, in the graphic novel there are different genres, more or less differentiated thematic units into which the different works can be classified. Here we review the most representative formats and their main titles; a brief guide to delve into the fascinating world of strips.


The classic Marvel and DC comics adapted quickly to the new format, largely because, in the mid-1980s, the British Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published Watchmen. With the cold war as background, the comic is set in an alternative reality in which Nixon is still president of the US and the superheroes’ activity has been declared illegal.

In addition to providing original narrative solutions through the drawing and composition of the vignettes, Moore went about demystifying the figure of the vigilantes (as screenwriter refers to the superheroes). Watchmen supposed the consecration of the author, one of the most influential of the graphic novel, with titles like V for Vendetta, Batman: the murderous joke and The League of extraordinary men. Another great reference of the genre is Frank Miller, thanks to his approaches to classic DC characters such as Elektra, Batman and Daredevil, and more personal proposals that cross generic boundaries, such as Sin City and 300.

Non-fiction or historical novel

If vignette journalism has a father, that is Joe Sacco. The writer and artist of Maltese origin in the mid-90s published Palestine: in the Gaza Strip, a series halfway between the underground comic and the journalistic chronicle in which he narrates his experiences in the Palestinian territories. In an interview published by El País, he explained what the ninth art brings to the story. "The comic has a strength that no other form of reporting has. Its repeated images focus reality more slowly, sometimes silently, sometimes in mouthfuls, and work in the mind of the reader who can choose their rhythm." Others of his most representative works are Gorazde: protected area and Stories of Bosnia.

The Canadian Guy Delisle is the other great totem of the genre, thanks to his comic-reports on his adventures in Asia and the Middle East, always with a touch of humour: Shenzhen, Pyongyang and Burmese Chronicles are three of his most outstanding volumes



Maus is still the great reference, but there are other essential works. Authors such as Marjane Satrapi or Alison Bechdel have turned decisive moments of their own lives into cartoons. In Persepolis, Satrapi tells how his childhood and adolescence were affected by the arrival of Islamist fundamentalism in Iran, the separated years of his family in Europe and his return to the Iran of the ayatollahs. For his part, Bechdel, in Fun Home. A tragicomic family, traced the complexities of family relationships, the repressed homosexuality of his father and the discovery of her own sexuality, different from that of the majority of girls in her school.

El Castillo

Literary adaptations

Within the publishing phenomenon that the graphic novel is now enjoying, the most recent trend is the adaptation of great classics of literature to sequential art. Here we would highlight the comic versions of The process and The castle, both by David Zane Mairowitz and Chantal Montellier. The creative couple manages to turn the narrations of Franz Kafka into drawings capable of transmitting all the anguish and existentialist breath of the Czech writer. Other recent successes are the biographies of great writers, like in The last days of Stefan Zweig, Gabo, memories of a magical life or The Footprint of Lorca.


The Spanish graphic novel

According to Ana Merino, "there is an interesting tension between editorial projects that in formidable books compile series such as Paracuellos by Carlos Giménez, and projects that were conceived as a graphic novel. One good example would be Vapour, by Max.


There are many decisive moments, but in the Spanish case, with the Transition came the coming of age of the comic and new aesthetic offers for adult readers". Paco Roca, Spain’s most famous comic strip artist of recent years, with masterpieces such as Wrinkles, later adapted to the cinema, or The grooves of chance, or the duo formed by the screenwriter Juan Díaz Canales and the draftsman Juanjo Guarnido, authors of brilliant detective story Blacksad, are good examples of the excellent state of form of the Spanish comic.