What Do You Need to Be a Graphic Novelist?


A graphic novel is an illustrated narrative work in either experimental or comic book format. This is a literary form in transition, now encompassing classic comic themes, sports, mystery, horror, historical drama and Japanese manga. Graphic novels are presented as storyboards with an emphasis on illustrations. Graphic novelists may write and illustrate their own creations, or collaborate with other writers and artists.

History of Graphic Novels

Telling stories with pictures has existed since prehistoric times, since cave paintings probably told stories; in the Middle Ages, tapestries and illuminated manuscripts served the same purpose. William Blake may have been the first Western artist to intertwine lengthy writing with pictures, as in his "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." According to "A History of Manga," this popular Japanese literary medium took off following WWII, and manga is currently read by a large proportion of citizens in Japan, with illustrations provided by about 3,000 manga artists.

Knowledge and Skills

Anyone considering becoming a graphic novelist probably already has a strong interest in this literary form. Knowledge of the market is essential. A graphic novelist will need good writing skills and the ability to construct a compelling story, bearing in mind that this story will be presented first as a storyboard, with action formatted into illustrated panels. Since some novels have later been turned into graphic novels -- for example, Terry Pritchett’s "Discworld" -- obviously, a writer without drawing ability can collaborate with an artist after the story is finished.

Training for Graphic Novelists

Some graphic novelists are self-educated, but college courses are also available. For example, Emerson College offers an online certificate program in Graphic Novel Writing and Illustration. Core subjects include Introduction to Comic Art, the Graphic Novel as Literature, Writing the Graphic Novel, Illustrating the Graphic Novel, a portfolio project and a seminar in graphic novel production. Production includes not only preparation for the print market, but also Web options and e-book markets.


According to "New York Magazine," the 2008 Graphic Novel of the Year, "The Bottomless Belly Button," was written and illustrated by 23 year-old Dash Shaw, who presented it to a potential publisher as “300 pages in comic-strippy black-and-white.” The finished book, which took School of Visual Arts graduate Shaw 2.5 years to complete, ended up as “720 pages of knotty family drama, emotional teen angst, lyrical passages about nature, good jokes, bad parenting, architectural schematics, rudimentary codes and explicit sex." A graphic novelist needs knowledge, skills and the perseverance to devote years to projects that must then be self-promoted. Working as part of as a team while honing writing or drawing skills is also an option.