The Prehistory of the Graphic Novel

Whatever the term “graphic novel” actually means, it is one that rose to mainstream use in the 1980s. But most people seem to agree that the term was first applied in 1978 to Will Eisner’s Contract With God. But many of us have run into works that we would call “graphic novels” but were published before 1978. So my intent here is to make a list of those works.

So I guess that means that I’ll have to offer a definition. To me, a graphic novel is a book-length sequential narrative in print form. It is not just a collection of strips. Also, while I just used the phrase “sequential narrative,” I do not believe that graphic novels have to be narrative. They can be non-narrative and even non-objective. But the sequence of images must be put into a specific order by the artist to create an intended effect. So this leaves out collections of art. Also, I’m leaving children’s books off the list (with a few exceptions based on the author). This isn’t because they don’t apply or that I look down on them, but I am interested in artists who were aiming their work at an adult audience.

So here’s the list that I came up with. This is based on books I own, critics I’ve read, and brief internet research. I expect– and hope– that this is a partial list. So if you have suggestions for works to add to the list, please comment below. Also, this is a U.S.-centric list, since that’s the perspective I’m coming at this from. I’d love to know what was happening in other countries during this period. The works are listed roughly in chronological order

Rodolphe Töpffer

Frans Masereel

  • 1919 The Sun
  • 1919 Passionate Journey
  • 1924 The Story Without Words
  • 1925 The City

Lynd Ward

  • 1929 Gods’ Man
  • 1930 Madman’s Drum
  • 1932 Wild Pilgrimage
  • 1933 Prelude to a Million Years
  • 1936 Song Without Words
  • 1937 Vertigo
  • 1952 The Biggest Bear (children’s book)
  • 1973 The Silver Pony (children’s book)

Otto Nückel

  • 1930 Destiny

William Gropper

  • 1930 Alay-Oop

Milt Gross

  • 1930 He Done Her Wrong

Helena Bochráková-Dittrichová

  • 1931 Childhood

István Szegedi Szüts

  • 1932 My War

Max Ernst

  • 1929 La Femme 100 Têtes
  • 1930 Rêve d’une Petite Fille qui Voulut Entrer au Carmel
  • 1934 Une Semaine de Bonté

Giacomo Patri

  • 1940 White Collar

Charlotte Salomon

  • 1941-43 Life? or Theater?

Myron Waldman

  • 1943 Eve

Miné Okubo

  • 1946 Citizen 13660

Alan Dunn

  • 1948 East of Fifth

Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, Matt Baker, and Ray Osrin

  • 1950 It Rhymes with Lust

Manning Lee Stokes and Charles Raab

  • 1950 The Case of the Winking Buddha

Laurence Hyde

  • 1951 Southern Cross

Edward Gorey
(Gorey made more than 100 books, so this is a partial list)

  • 1953 The Unstrung Harp
  • 1954 The Listing Attic
  • 1957 The Doubtful Guest
  • 1958 The Object Lesson
  • 1961 The Curious Sofa
  • 1962 The Willowdale Handcar
  • 1965 The Remembered Visit
  • 1967 The Utter Zoo
  • 1972 The Abandoned Sock
  • 1977 The Loathsome Couple
  • 1982 The Dwindling Party
  • 1990 The Fraught Settee
  • 1999 The Headless Bust

Martin Vaughn-James

  • 1970 Elephant
  • 1971 The Projector: A Visual Novel
  • 1973 The Park
  • 1975 The Cage

Tom Phillips

  • 1980 A Humument (first edition)

Put your additions to the list below…

4 thoughts on “The Prehistory of the Graphic Novel

  1. Here are a bunch of additions I assembled from suggestions on Twitter:

    Cham (Charles Amédée de Noé) (France)
    1844 Impressions de Voyage de Monsieur Boniface

    Gustave Doré (France)
    1847 Les Travaux d’Hercule
    1854 Histoire Pittoresque, Dramatique et Caricaturale de la Sainte Russie

    J.A. and D.F. Read (United States)
    1849 Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags

    George Cruikshank (United Kingdom)
    1844 Mr. Lambkin
    1849 The Toothache (with Horace Mayhew)

    Dr. Charles Ellery Stedman (United States)
    1857 Mr. Hardy Lee, His Yacht

    Wilhelm Busch (Germany)
    1865 Max and Moritz: A Story of Seven Boyish Pranks
    1876 The Knopp Trilogy

    A.B. Frost (United States)
    1881 “Our Cat Eats Rat Poison” (later published as “Fatal Mistake”)

  2. Jules Feiffer (United States)
    1959 Passionella and Other Stories [includes Munro]
    1979 Tantrum
    2014 Kill My Mother
    2016 Cousin Joseph
    2018 Ghost Script

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