How Comics Become Graphic Novels, or Which Volume One Do I Pick?!

Saga Monthly vs. Saga Trade Paperback

Six issues of the Saga comic book series equal one trade paperback collection. Photo by Kelly (Yeah, the comics are hers, too.) Click through for a link to Saga in the Library catalog!

The books you find in the graphic series sub-section of the Library’s graphic novel collection don’t start out as nicely bound books with shiny pages, introductions, and insights into the artist’s process in the back.

(If you’ve been reading comics for any length of time, you are thinking “duh!” and rolling your eyes at me. If you’re new to comics, you might find this blog post helpful and informative. So read on!)

Comic series are (for the most part) published monthly in 32-page installments. Often, about 10 of those pages can be taken up by advertisements. Many comics also feature letter columns, where readers can email the author and/or artist and have their thoughts about the book printed, along with a response from the creative team. Some books have other “back matter” too, like Image’s Lazarus, which features a monthly update on real-life scientific research that relates to the story.

New issues come out every Wednesday, but we comic book nerds call just call it “New Comic Book Day.”

So how do comics go from monthly serial to book form?

Saga monthly vs. trade paperbacks

Eighteen issues of Saga shrink down into three trade paperback collections. The trades take up a lot less room and are easier to care for, but are worth less cash money. Photo by Kelly.

It’s pretty simple. Publishers like DC, Marvel, Image, and others put complete story arcs from the monthly serials into collections commonly called graphic novels or trade paperbacks (as this is the format in which they are most often published). Of course, they remove the ads, letter columns and other back matter and add introductions and things like character designs from the artist’s sketchbook.

These days, trade paperbacks come out shortly after the final issue of the story arc, which is great for readers. In the overall history of the comic book, though, graphic novels/trade paperbacks are a fairly recent invention. Marvel did publish a few “graphic novels” in the late 1960s and ‘70s, but the format didn’t really take off in mainstream comics until the ‘80s (thanks to the success of “true” graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, And Other Tenement Stories, as well as the collected reprinted editions of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). You can read more about the history of the graphic novel over at Wikipedia’s Graphic novel article.

Story arcs span anywhere from one to six or more issues, but four and six are standard, and are usually the number of issues that get collected in those “graphic novels” you see on Library shelves.

The Walking Dead volume 1

This is about zombies, so Kelly tried to read it once but got too scared. But the 10 pages she read were good!

So the first trade paperback of, say, The Walking Dead, really consists of issues 1 to 6.

Okay, okay, you say. But why is there a trade paperback volume one AND a hardcover volume one of The Walking Dead? And Y The Last Man (links to paperback and hardcover, respectively)? and Fables (paperback and hardcover)? And Hellboy (paperback and hardcover)? And a bunch of other stuff?

When a comic becomes really popular, publishers often collect multiple trade paperback collections–usually two–into special hardback collections. Vertigo has a line of “Deluxe” hardback volumes for most of its popular series. Image has done this for The Walking Dead, and I expect it’ll do the same for Saga, another super-popular series (and my current favorite), in the near future.

Which version should you read, though? It all depends on what you like. I usually read both the monthly issues and the trade paperbacks, because I adore letter columns and I don’t like to wait, but I also like the additional material that comes with the collected editions.

If you’re picking up a series for the first time, and it’s available in hardcover, I’d recommend going with that, because you’ll need to check out and keep track of fewer volumes. If you take your books everywhere, a trade paperback will be lighter (it never hurts to be practical, right?).

Just be careful about buying monthly series. It’s, um, kind of addicting.


1 Comment

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One response to “How Comics Become Graphic Novels, or Which Volume One Do I Pick?!

  1. Sheila

    Clear explanation. Good advice.

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