What Graphic Novels Should I Read?

Graphic Novels have become a hot topic at conferences and publishing circles. However, this new mode of storytelling seems to be shrouded in mystery. Most of us in the Kidlit community are very familiar with novels and picture books, but we haven’t the slightest clue where to start when it comes to comics.

Hey,wait a second! Is a comic even the same thing as a graphic novel? Well, in some circles the answer is yes, in others no. Indeed, it seems the rules of graphic novels seem to fall down around us rather quickly.

But just a every agent and editor tells us to READ READ READ! I think the same applies to the world of graphic novels. However, the question for most is:

Where Do I Start?

Personally, I’m not a fan of spandex and capes, thus superhero comics have never appealed to me. As a literary writer, I wasn’t sure if there was a place for my kind of stories among the Ka-Pow panels of comic lore. But, boy was I wrong! The following is a short list of graphic novels that really changed the way I see the medium. Hopefully, they might be a jumping off point for you as well. Enjoy the journey down the rabbit hole!

Ingrid’s List of Graphic Novels To Get Your Feet Wet:


American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yan



Blankets by Craig Thompson



Stitches by David Small



Kabuki: Metamorphosis by David Mack



Flight by Kazu Kibuishi



Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi



Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud


Happy Reading Everyone!  

Demistifying the Graphic Novel

Scholastic editor Nick Eliopulos is a graphic novel fanatic! At the 2010 SCBWI LA conference he shared his experience making the graphic novel The Sons of Liberty. He had so much insight into the graphic novel universe that I couldn’t fit it into one post! So if you have even an inkling about writing your own graphic novel then read on my fearless friends!

Publishers Want Graphic Novels!

  • Graphic Novels have gotten bigger and bigger in the publishing world in the last ten years. But progress is slow. Publishers are still trying to figure out how it all works.
  • Publishers see graphic novels as a way to expand their current market and get new readers.
  • Graphix is the Scholastic imprint that publishes graphic novels. They published Bone.
  • Graphic novels is growing in the publishing industry, everyone want to do one, but they are being picky due to cost.
  • Manga has hit a wall.

What Kind of Stories Can Be Graphic Novels?

  • The question to ask yourself is: is your story visual? This is the number one reason to tell your story as a graphic novel. If you have a lot of people sitting around and talking, then it may not be the right medium. Think about what the visual element brings to the story and how that can help it to be unique.
  • Plot, character, and voice are all the same when it comes to a graphic novel. Keep these story elements in your book. They are still just as important.
  • The media can accommodate all genres, even non-fiction. So be creative!
  • Not all graphic novels are action adventure. A lot are because it is visual, but it is not exclusive.
  • Baby Mouse is one of the youngest books (age group) Scholastic has created as a graphic novel.
  • Yes, Graphix has published girl young adult graphic novels.
  • Graphic Novels can really adapt within the market. They flow well between middle grade, young adult, or genre fiction. If one genre is hot, you can make a graphic novel in it.

Tips on Writing and Pacing Your Graphic Novel:

  • Writers should draw out some of what you are writing so that you can get a sense of how the book is working and the pacing. Use stick figures if you want.
  • A page in a graphic novel is a piece of artwork in and of itself, but that isn’t so with a novel. So you really need to consider what goes on each page and why.
  • Scene changes in the middle of a page can be very awkward visually.
  • End the page with a beat. This can be a cliff-hanger to get you to turn the page, but it doesn’t hallways have to be. An emotional beat works too.
  • The left page is different than the right page. Be aware of where a reveal is in your images. Turning a page is a good way to reveal something. But if you put the reveal on the right side, the viewer will skip everything on the left page and go straight to the reveal.
  • Can you show the transition from day to night visually? Do you need the word “Meanwhile” instead?
  • Will you use thought balloons? Whose thoughts do we get to see? Think about point of view. It is best to stay with the protagonist. Often we don’t want to know what is happening inside the bad guy’s thoughts. This can sometimes be done in movies, but it is harder to pull off in a graphic novel.
  • Sex and violence can get a book censored quickly. Anyone can open up a graphic novel and see a sexual picture and immediately take it out of context. With a novel, you usually have to read the book to find the dirty parts. Pictures are found much faster.

Finding an Artist for Your Graphic Novel Project:

  • Often submissions come in with an artist attached to a project. The process is different than a normal picture book project.
  • To find an artist, a great place to go is a comic book convention. Most of these conventions have an “artist’s ally” where you can view portfolios and talk to artists in person.
  • It’s best to find an artist who isn’t also a writer because they will often be less dedicated to your project.
  • Author David Levithan found his artist for his and Holly Black’s graphic novel through the San Diego Comic-Con.
  • You want to find an artist with an artistic vision that is similar to yours. There will be lots of cooks in the kitchen, so make sure you work well together and have a cohesive vision.
  • You could pay an artist to do some sample artwork for you, but be open to a new artist if the publisher isn’t hot about the artwork. But always work this out with your artist first.

What Do Publishers Want in a Manuscript Submission?

  • Include sample art if you are working with an artist.
  • Include a full (complete) script. Feel free to use a screenwriting program/software to format your script.
  • Check out the Marvel Website and see what they ask for in a submission. This is a great guideline.
  • Make sure you note page breaks in your manuscript as this is very important.
  • You do not need to thumbnail your whole book. If someone asks you to do that, they are really asking way too much of you. The problem is some publishers don’t know how to go about this process, so they just want to see more and more.
  • It’s good to illustrate the first five pages of the manuscript so the publisher can get a sense of the pacing and look of the book.
  • In general, higher profile agents send packages that include: 5-20 pages of art with the finished script. Publishers should probably take a clue from these agents.
  • All houses are making graphic novels and accepting submission differently. Try and research each house.

Great Ways to Promote Your Graphic Novel:

  • Put your work on the web. Diary of a Wimpy Kid was discovered online as a free web-comic, as was the new graphic novel Smile.
  • Websites are great for artists.
  • Yes, it is okay to put out a free digital comic book online. The publisher can always re-package a product. This was done with the book  Bone.

How Have Digital Mediums Changed Graphic Novels?

  • The iPad is a big game changer. Now you can read an entire graphic novel digitally and at high resolution.
  • There’s a lot of talk, but not much action yet to back it up. Scholastic talked about doing a middle grade graphic novel series as an e-book stunt, prior to the book coming out, but marketing wasn’t excited about it.

How Long Does It Take To Make A Graphic Novel?

  • Eliopulos wanted Sons of Liberty to take a year, but it actually too two and a half years.
  • Time line will depend mostly on your artist.
  • If it’s part of a series, a good way to work is to start writing the second book while the artist is making the art for the first book.
  • The typical page count of a graphic novel is under 200 pages. Sons of Liberty was 176 pages. Remember that pages cost money (for artwork, lettering, etc.).

Other Great Info:

  • Translated projects (with art already completed) are cheaper to produce in the US.
  • Some agents that represent graphic novelists are: Dan Lazar, and Jill Grinburg.
  • In general, Eliopulos sees submissions from writer/illustrators, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect quality so much as quantity.
  • If you’re an artist developing a portfolio, a great thing to do is to go online and check out Marvel’s website. They have sample scripts online that you can illustrate. They like these because it shows them how different artists will interpret the same text.
  • Payment for graphic novels is something that is still being hashed out. It seems to be moving toward a picture book model where the cut is 50/50 (writer/artist). But that can be tricky when you have different colorists and inkers, etc.
  • Rights are also a tricky issue. Whose work is it? The Authors? Did the illustrator add so much that really the property is theirs as well? It can be confusing.
  • Yes you can make a black and white graphic novel. In general, this is better for older age groups as children really respond to color, particularly little kids.

Graphic Novel Terminology:

  • Graphic Novel – This is a long form sequential art story with a book binding.
  • Sequential Art – A sequence of static panels.
  • Comic Book – Classic 32 page superhero thin book. It is made on thinner paper and comes out in episodic stories.
  • Manga – Eastern comics with a specific trim size.

Nick Eliopulos is an editor with Scholastic, following a 5-year stint with Random House Children’s Books. He has edited many middle-grade and young-adult titles, including the Tapestry series, The Pricker Boy, Unfamiliar Magic, and the forthcoming Sons of Liberty graphic novel. He has also worked on chapter books, cutting his teeth as an assistant on the Magic Tree House series.

Graphic Novels: An Editor’s Experience Making “The Sons of Liberty”

Editor Nick Eliopulos, spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference about the process of making a Graphic Novel. A self-proclaimed comic-book geek, who was always waiting for Marvel to call, Eliopulos, found his true passion at Scholastic. And to his delight one of his first projects was creating the graphic novel series Sons of Liberty. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, the publishing industry still has a lot to learn when it comes to wham-pow’s and panels. The following is Eilopulos’ journey from pitch to publication.

Producing The Sons Of Liberty:

The Pitch:

  • Sons of Liberty came to Scholastic as a partial script. Included in the submission was the script, as well as some art sketches of characters and concepts.
  • The concept of the book is: Runaway slaves during the civil war get super powers.
  • Eliopulos’ boss loved the idea and dropped the project in Eliopulos’ lap, telling him to figure it out and make this project happen.

Running the Numbers:

  • The first thing Eliopulos did was run a PNL for the project (Profit and Loss). But this was the first challenge of the project. Without anything to compare it to there weren’t other numbers to draw from. Traditionally one pulls numbers from similar titles based on how they’ve performed.
  • New things to consider included heavier paper stalk, paying a colorist and an ink artist separately, etc.
  • There were also multiple markets to consider for sales. They didn’t want to market to the comic-book crowd exclusively. They also wanted to have readers for a normal historical fiction novel to be interested.
  • How the project will perform at a book fair is another consideration. Graphic novels really need the support of book fairs as it’s often tricky to know what shelf to place them on in Barnes and Noble.

Writing and Editing the Script:

  • Most often the manuscript of a graphic novel will look like a movie script. Feel free to use screenwriting software for your project.
  • Other than story notes, important things to pay attention to are actions that will take too long to illustrate. Something like “He blinks” will take at least three panels to make visual. Some things will need to be condensed.
  • There are many different styles to writing a graphic novel script. Some write panel by panel and want more control over the content, while others may mention the general imagery for the whole page. Often a writer and illustrator will work together, this way the script is a bit sparser because the two parties have already discussed the visual look of the work.
  • A good comparison of two different ways to write the same action would be: Version #1: “He hits the guy.” Version #2: “He uppercuts the man, teeth chatter and blood sprays against the wall.”

Thumbnail, Pencils, and Inks:

  • Initially, Eliopulos thought an assembly line model would work best for this project. But he quickly learned that wasn’t ideal.
  • Once the script is in place you move onto the thumbnail stage of the project. This is where the artist draws small quick sketches of the whole book. This is where you see the story come to live for the first time. At this stage you get to see the pacing of the book and overall flow.
  • Revisions on art begin with the thumbnail stage.
  • Once thumbnails are approved we move to the pencil sketches. Pencil sketches are often delivered digitally. Styles vary as some artists are very detailed and others are loose. The benefit of lots of detail, however, is that you can see if the characters have enough variety and emotion.
  • Issues of style can be very important and at the pencil stage is where you really get to see if the style is a match or not. These must all be approved before moving forward.
  • The Ink phase is next. At this point the imagery really starts to come to life, and you get a stronger sense of lighting through shading. It is very hard to edit things once they are inked. Yes, the artist can white out the work, or re-draw it and edit it in digitally. But revisions should try to happen in the pencil stage.

Scanning, Coloring, and Lettering:

  • Scanning the artwork was a new element that Eliopulos did not budget for. (We all learn!) As high resolution scans need to be made for each page of artwork.
  • The colorist comes on board once the work has been digitized and adds color in the computer. The colorist is really an artist in his/her own right. In fact, in some graphic novel reviews, the critics will mention the colorist by name. Color really adds the opportunity to give more depth to an image.
  • Skin tone was an important element of the colorist’s job. They wanted to be sure that both of the main characters had different skin tones that made them individuals.
  • Another example of the importance of color is when scholastic re-published Bone. Originally the work was in black and white, but the company colored the work for its re-launch so it would appeal more to children.
  • Once the artwork was finished one needs to letter the book. This is in fact far more complex than choosing a font and plopping it into the novel. Fonts are important! How will you communicate sound effects? Do you use uppercase or lower case? What about actions like Wham-Pow? Emphasis is also important. Using bold letters can stress certain words.  And will the text even fit in the space the artwork left for it? You can’t change the art at this point!
  • Lettering was another extra expense that wasn’t originally accounted for.

Sales and Marketing:

  • It was important to loop in the sales and marketing people as soon as possible so they could see the product.  They can’t just fall back on their standard bag of tricks for this project, it needed to reach multiple markets.
  • New things we had to learn included: Using a new distributor (Diamond, who distributes to all of the comic book shops), or how to use Comic-con to promote the book.
  • The exciting thing about promoting a Graphic Novel is there isn’t just a cover image to use to market (as you would use with a novel), now you have a whole book full of beautiful art you can use to market with.
  • There is lots of confusion about where the books will be shelved in the book store. Do they go in the graphic novel section? Often times this section is a complete mess. Some stores have juvenile graphic novel sections now, but one really has to gauge the age of the audience. There’s no clear answer.
  • Categories are really important to book stores so this is one of the major marketing challenges.

About Nick Eliopulos and What He’s Looking For in His Submission Box:

  • He used to be a reader for Marvel and read their slush submissions.
  • He’s looking for the same things in a graphic novel that you would look for in a regular novel.
  • He likes high concept books, as they are easier to sell.
  • Non-fiction is harder to sell, but he’s not against it.
  • A voice driven book is difficult, but if the voice is stellar then he would be interested in it.
  • He loves the graphic novel Ghost World personally, but that is probably not what he is looking for to publish.
  • Loves Scott Pilgrim and this would be more of what he is interested in.
  • He is interested in a novel to graphic novel mash up.
  • He likes to see series potential in a submission, but like submitting novels the first one should stand on its own.
  • He is not interested in publishing “floppy” comic books, only graphic novels.

Coming Soon! A second post from this session with Nick Eliopulos featuring questions from the audience and additional information on the graphic novel market!

Nick Eliopulos is an editor with Scholastic, following a 5-year stint with Random House Children’s Books. He has edited many middle-grade and young-adult titles, including the Tapestry series, The Pricker Boy, Unfamiliar Magic, and the forthcoming Sons of Liberty graphic novel. He has also worked on chapter books, cutting his teeth as an assistant on the Magic Tree House series.