Making A Good Graphic Novel

Millie Ho illustration graphic novel characters
I recently illustrated a book cover for Marie Marshall’s upcoming novel, and there’s been talk of further collaboration on a graphic novel. This got me thinking about what makes a good graphic novel good, which is just another way of asking:

“What is a graphic novel that I’d want to read?”

So I revisited my favourite titles and came up with this brief list of high-level elements often found in a good graphic novel:

1. Show or tell—just not both!

An anecdote from book cover designer Chip Kidd (the dude responsible for the iconic Jurassic Park poster) goes like this:

On my first day of my graphic design training at Penn State University, the teacher, Lanny Sommese, came into the room, and drew a picture of an apple on the blackboard and wrote the word apple underneath. He covered up the picture and said, “You either say this”, and then he covered up the word, “or you show this.”

And then he took his hand away so that you had the picture of the apple and the word apple, and he said, “But you don’t do this. Because this is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.”

We all know that you shouldn’t belittle your reader when writing fiction, and the same goes with book cover design, and drawing/writing a graphic novel. Don’t explain away concepts or ideas that are better left to the reader’s imagination.

2. The characters are relatable and entertaining.

When I think about relatable characters, I think of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, which is about two cynical high school graduates trying to figure out the rest of their lives while (unintentionally) dissolving their friendship. Clowes does a spectacular job of capturing, through either showing or telling, near universal adolescent I’ve-been-there moments:

Ghost World Ribbon In Hair

Cynical teen Enid Coleslaw hugging a treasured childhood keepsake.

Sometimes relating to a character can come from the small things, like a detail about finding a favourite record you thought was lost. And watching the acerbic 1977 original punk Enid hug a package put together by her passive father is as entertaining as it is endearing.

3. Action must be punctuated with interludes.

Too much action is boring. Die Hard would be especially boring if you stripped away the Christmas carols and replaced them with scenes of Bruce Willis raising his Beretta, cartwheeling, and heroically driving bullets into a blond Snape over and over again. Too much action dilutes the plot and burns the eyes because there’s no time to digest what the story is all about.

I Shall Become A Bat Frank Miller Mazzucchelli Batman

“Yes, Father. I shall become a bat.”

Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One depicts Bruce Wayne stabbed and in critical condition with his hand on the bell that summons Alfred. Instead of another action scene where Alfred rushes to Bruce’s aid, Bruce looks at his deceased father’s bust, then at a bat that crashed through the window, and calmly solidifies his position as Gotham’s caped crusader. It’s a powerful scene, and says more about Batman than kicks and punches ever will.

What are your tips for writing or drawing a good graphic novel?

10 thoughts on “Making A Good Graphic Novel

  1. kvennarad says:

    Let’s allow your readers in to our discussion for a wee while, Millie.

    The answer to your last question is “I don’t know, I’ve never created one!” You have read ‘The Everywhen Angels’, for which you designed the cover; that is a novel which purely relies on words, thus the showing and telling are all done verbally. You have the manuscript for ‘From My Cold, Undead Hand’; that too was originally conceived as a text novella, and my intention was to make the action non-stop, not letting the reader pause for breath. Does that mean, under rule 3 above, that it would actually make a ‘bad’ graphic novel?

    Well, I certainly ‘saw’ the action as I wrote the story. I even ‘saw’ it in comic-book frames (more in film sequences, but that’s not really relevant here). However, it was written principally in answer to a request from my publisher for a ‘teen vampire novel’. But a text-based work can become a graphic novel, by a process similar to adaptation as a radio drama or a movie, neither of which is necessarily narrated. A description in text can be conveyed in a picture; Enid Coleslaw (see the pic above) could have spent a paragraph explaining her despair, but it was captured and conveyed in a single frame showing her slumped on the bad.

    Putting it simply, a graphic novel is not an illustrated text. It is a novel where illustration largely stands in text’s stead.

    • J. E. Lattimer says:

      Love the illustration for the book cover, Millie! As for your final question, well, that would require me staying up all night and typing a short novel to fully answer that one- So I guess I will have to summarize- The artwork has to match the style of writing / storytelling and then elevate it to something the words could never achieve on their own- This is crucial, for otherwise there wouldn’t be any need to illustrate it at all. I think Harvey Pekar was right about using as few words as possible, and then editing that down to even less. A few silent pages with sequential art never hurts anybody. I have always perceived graphic novels to be that perfect middle ground between books and film… Anyway, best of luck with it- All the best!

  2. the urban misanthropist says:

    For me, a great graphic novel draws out the tension between internal and external narrative – The pictures depicting the physical reality, the text reflecting the characters experience of it. Kind of like the voice over in a film noir. There’s lots of examples but V for Vendetta, Gregory and just about anything by Neil Gaimen come to mind.

    • Millie Ho says:

      A “voice over” is a good way of putting it. I think of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” series, which does a fabulous job of weaving in multiple perspectives in a Narrate-Your-Own-Life kind of way.

  3. The Lotus War says:

    This is a really fantastic post. I absolutely agree about show or tell or both – though I have a hard time with it! Hopefully my little transition into RPG-making rather than comic-making will force me to do confront that difficulty more head-on (since you don’t have a narrator in RPGs like you could in comics)

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