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Graphic Novels are books made up of comic book content. Although the word "novel" normally refers to long fictional works, the term "graphic novel" is applied broadly and includes fiction, non-fiction, and anthologized work. It is different from the traditional "comic book" in format and purpose.
The traditional comic book has evolved since it's first appearence in the United States in the 1930s when it was simply a collection of newspaper comic strip reprints. In 1933, M. C. Gaines devised the first four-color, saddle-stitched newsprint pamphlet, a precursor to the color-comics format that became the standard for the American comic book industry.Towards the end of the decade virtually all the popular and commercially successful comic strips ("The Funnies") had either been reprinted or were close to catching up with the then current on-going series being reprintied.
In 1935, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson came to Independent News seeking a new distributor for the comic book projects his company, National Allied Publications, was producing. Although comic books were not Donenfeld's main field, he took on Wheeler-Nicholson, and Independent News began printing and distributing comic books. Wheeler-Nicholson brought out two comics, NEW FUN (the first modern comic book with all-original material) and NEW COMICS — but everything would change with his third publication, DETECTIVE COMICS.
In 1938, Donenfeld managed to remove Wheeler-Nicholson from the equation, pushing Detective Comics, Inc. into bankruptcy and buying its assets. As part of the bankruptcy action, Liebowitz — now sole owner of Detective Comics Inc. — bought up Wheeler-Nicholson's National Allied Publications.
Liebowitz, now in control of the fledgling company, devised the title for what was to become National/DC's most important comic book: ACTION COMICS. He asked editor Vin Sullivan to find material to fill the new title, and Sullivan, Liebowitz and Sheldon Mayer ultimately created comics history with what historians and fans call the Golden Age of Comic Books by selecting writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster's character Superman to star in the new title.
In 1939, a "one shot" reprint of SUPERMAN adventures originally published in Action Comics was printed and sold so well it became an on-going series that has existed in one form or another ever since. Had the format been different and collected instead in "book" form and not in the standard comic package it would probably be considered the first graphic novel collection. But since the individual reprinted stories were not "connected" they can not be considered "chapters" and they do not follow the typical story arc of begining, middle and end.
Over the years many other comic book "collections" were published as "Specials" "Annuals" etc with a few non-comic book-centric "experimental" attempts. Prototypical examples from this period include American Milt Gross' He Done Her Wrong (1930), a wordless comic published as a hardcover book, and Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), a novel in sequential images composed of collage by the surrealist painter Max Ernst. Similarly, Charlotte Salomon's Life? or Theater? (composed 1941-43) combines images, narrative, and captions as in later graphic novels.
In 1947 Fawcett Comics published Comics Novel #1: "Anarcho, Dictator of Death", a 52-page comic dedicated to one story. In 1950, St. John Publications produced the digest-sized, adult-oriented "picture novel" It Rhymes with Lust, a film noir-influenced slice of steeltown life starring a scheming, manipulative redhead named Rust. Touted as "an original full-length novel" on its cover, the 128-page digest by pseudonymous writer "Drake Waller" (Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller), penciler Matt Baker and inker Ray Osrin proved successful enough to lead to an unrelated second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha by pulp novelist Manning Lee Stokes and illustrator Charles Raab. Presaging Will Eisner's multiple-story graphic novel A Contract with God (1978), cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman wrote and drew the four-story mass-market paperback Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (Ballantine Books #338K), published in 1959.
By the late 1960s, American comic book creators were becoming more adventurous with the form. Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin self-published a 40-page, magazine-format comics novel, His Name is... Savage (Adventure House Press) in 1968—the same year Marvel Comics published two issues of The Spectacular Spider-Man in a similar format. Columnist and comic-book writer Steven Grant also argues that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales #130–146, although published serially from 1965–1966, is "the first American graphic novel". (Similarly, critic Jason Sacks referred to the 13-issue "Panther's Rage" — comics' first-known titled, self-contained, multi-issue story arc — that ran from 1973 to 1975 in the Black Panther series in Marvel's Jungle Action as "Marvel's first graphic novel".)
In continental Europe, the tradition of collecting serials of popular strips such as The Adventures of Tintin or Asterix led to long-form narratives published initially as serials.
By 1969, the author John Updike, who had entertained ideas of becoming a cartoonist in his youth, addressed the Bristol Literary Society, on "the death of the novel". Updike offered examples of new areas of exploration for novelists, declaring "I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece"
The earliest known use of the term "graphic novel" was in 1964. It was popularized within the comics community after the publication of Will Eisner's A Contract with God (1978) and became familiar to the public in the late 1980s after the commercial successes of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen (serialized in 1986 and 1987, collected in 1987), and the first volume of Art Spiegelman's Maus (serialized from 1980 to 1991, collected in 1991).
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