Comic Books vs. Graphic Novels – Which Makes the Best Movie?

This isn’t meant to be a trick question. Comic books and graphic novels DO have some minute differences, even if some people may not fully understand or chose not to recognize them. Those differences may be like splitting hairs at first, but they grow larger when you consider switching the presentation format from paper to something more dynamic. Let’s face it, comic books and graphic novels are more popular now than they ever have been, and therefore it makes sense that there will continue to be interest in producing movie adaptations. The act of adapting print media to film is a tricky one, and because of the supposed differences between comic books and graphic novels, each has to be approached a bit differently.

Therefore, if you allow yourself to believe that there are differences in the first place, a second question emerges; are comic books or graphic novels better for movie adaptations?


Each month the Cinelinx staff will write a handful of articles covering a specified film-related topic. These articles will be notified by the Movielinx banner. Movielinx is an exploration and discussion of our personal connections with film. This month, to go along with the summer movie season, we’ll be discussing comic books as they relate to film. Feel free to add your own comments or reviews regarding the ever-growing role of comic books in movies.

For those that are still struggling with the first question, I guess the first step is attempting to show you that there could be some differences between comic books and graphic novels before addressing the second question. Think of this as a graphic print media if/then statement rather than me trying to force you against something you wear proudly on your sleeve. Fans of either (or both) are going to have their own strong opinions about the differences (or lack thereof), so there’s no use in arguing. Graphic novels and comic books can be considered different things when you look at them “in general”. They are in many ways similar, but there are also traditions and trends unique to each format.  

Comic books are like magazines. They have issues and volumes. They are produced over the course of many months, years, and even decades. Each comic book tells a story that in turn becomes part of the larger overall story. Graphic novels are longer than an individual comic book. They tell one story, beginning to end. There is no division of the story over time. It is literally an illustrated version of a novel. It is possible, and common, for several comic book issues to be bound together to become a graphic novel, but my point remains. An individual comic book issue tells only a part of a story, where, typically a graphic novel tells a complete story.

Now that you have been briefed on the “in general” differences being used for this mental exercise, let’s get into some meaty specifics. Here are 5 aspects to consider when determining if comic books or graphic novels make the best film adaptations: 

1. Content


Graphic novels have a reputation of being more adult-oriented. While both comic books and graphic novels are frequently violent, graphic novels are typically more so (think of it like R-rated violence vs. PG-13 violence). Their themes are darker, and they feature more drugs, sex, and other mature musings than your typical mass-consumption comic book. All of this has the potential to make for a gripping, suspenseful film. However, because of the gratuitous violence, sex, and drug content, the audience appeal of a graphic novel film will understandably be smaller. A graphic novel film is typically not something that is advertised to kids and younger teens (although, let’s face it, they would probably be interested). Thus, the profitability potential of a graphic novel film is less, and therefore, it may feature a smaller budget or less promotion (or no spin-off TV shows).

Alternatively, comic books have had a reputation of being geared towards a younger demographic. They are faster paced, more action-packed and with themes that are easier to digest. All of these things have the potential for making an entertaining (and eye-pleasing) film. There will be less focus on complex themes and messages, and more focus on action and adventure. Not only does this make for a film that kids and teens will enjoy, but it will also keep adults entertained. This, in turn, makes production companies happy because there are more people whom would be interested in seeing their movie. From a business perspective, a comic book movie seems like a better idea.

Winner: Comic Books

2. Plot Construction


So we have established that comic books tend to be shorter, more action-oriented, and easier to read (remember “in general”). What does this mean for a movie adaptation? For one, it means there is more potential for action. Super hero comics especially are full of ideas for gripping action sequences and exciting high-adrenaline plots. Furthermore, simpler stories may be easier to adapt to the big screen. It is a well-recognized fact that books rarely make great films. The same may be true for graphic novels. The extra text and depth of story may be difficult for the writer of a film adaptation to adequately translate unabridged. There’s nothing that scorns a fan more than leaving their favorite part of a story out or changing a large portion of the story in order to make it work for film.

However, while comic books may have the edge as far as being more immediately exciting, they often have a lot of material overall. Consider the fact that a comic book has many different issues from which a film needs to choose its content. You can’t transfer a single issue of a comic book to the big screen and expect it to fare well. Movies require some sort of effort into character and story development (if they want to be taken seriously). A single issue of a comic book is just one glimpse into a much larger timeline of events. It won’t have the depth of character development and story that a movie typically requires. A graphic novel may be denser, but it tells a story complete. It introduces characters to the reader and has a complete story arc just like a typical movie would (this is great for lazy writers too). A graphic novel may require some shortcuts in order to meet the time restraints of a modern film, but the story will remain mostly complete.

Winner: Graphic Novel

3. A Fan’s Perspective

superman3 poster  index

The job of a writer adapting a graphic novel or comic book to the big screen is not easy, no matter how much of a fan you are to the source material. Not only do you have to deal with the complexities of adapting the original story to work on film, but you have to be careful to not upset the original source material’s fan base. They are at the same time both your toughest critic and most enthusiastic supporters. Obviously, the larger a fan base for a graphic novel or a comic book, the more likely it will be made into a film. Therefore, today’s big-budget adaptations have a lot of pressure to get it right.

Consider the added complexity of the fact that each fan will bring their own unique experiences and perspectives when watching the film version of their favorite comic book or graphic novel. As a result, graphic novels may have the upper hand because they will have a more complete story already established. There is less opportunity for individual readers to have a different opinion of what should and should not be in the film. Comic book fans may have their own favorite issues or moments that they believe should be included in the film. It would be impossible to make one film that pleases all of these varied opinions, and therefore a comic book film seems like it would have a higher probability of upsetting a large part of its fan base due to the limitations inherent with a feature-length film.

 Not to mention the fact that because a comic book is presented in issues that are spread out over time, it is more likely that readers could remember things from past issues differently than they had when they first read them (hey life happens, opinions change). With a graphic novel, a reader is completing a story in a comparatively small amount of time. They may not remember all of the details, but the “big picture” is clearer and therefore easier to transfer over and connect with once it is on the big screen. 

Winner: Graphic Novel

4. Character Development


One of the most important aspects of a feature length film is its character development. With ill-defined characters, audiences will not feel as engaged in the story and they may stop caring what happens. The same is true for comic books and graphic novels. The development of characters is pivotal to the success of the overall story.

A comic book character is developed over time by the trials and tribulations that they have experienced. There may be one or two issues where a major character is introduced, but they are rarely defined by a single issue or moment. Instead, they are a product of their environment. Because of the time spanning between issues, a comic book character has a chance to develop along with events that are happening in the real world. They can adapt to new popular trends and fashions without losing their appeal. This makes them more dynamic characters than those in a graphic novel. Furthermore, although their origins may be decades old, they can be adapted for modern times more easily. Comic book characters tend to be more timeless than graphic novel characters, which makes them easier to incorporate into film.

Graphic novel characters have the advantage of being developed more succinctly than their comic book counterparts. This also means that their development in a movie adaptation can often be more accurate to the source material. They are also a product of their environment, but their environment is not changing. They are people living in a specific time dealing with the problems of that time. This makes them great for period pieces, but they are not easily adapted to other settings.

Winner: Comic Books

5. Track Record


The ultimate deciding factor will be, of course, the actual track record of film adaptations of comic book and graphic novels. Because of they often deal with more adult-oriented material, graphic novel movies have been less common than movies based on comic books. There is simply more potential for profit with comic book films and therefore they will always be more common. Curiously, despite the fact that graphic novels appear to have more “meat” to their stories, the film adaptations haven’t always reflected that. Films like Watchmen or V for Vandetta or Road to Perdition have maintained the high-brow theme and story development drama while films like 300 or Wanted have gone for more action. Audiences have seemed to respond well to graphic novel adaptations, but have yet to flock to theaters in the same way that comic book movies are seeing. Critics have also been receptive of graphic novel adaptations, typically appreciating the additional focus on story.

Comic book films have proven to be incredibly popular and profitable. The mega movie franchises built based upon Marvel and DC comics are proof of this, and audiences can’t seem to get enough, even if films don’t live up to their expectations. Although there is a larger pool of comic book films than graphic novel films, comic book films have had the larger percentage of major missteps. For one, consider the number of remakes of comic book films. You could consider this as a by-product of the large fan base and scope of story inherent to comic books in general. New film makers simply want to make their own perspective. However, more remakes may also mean that someone found something wrong with the original, or maybe they think that they can tell a particular story better than it had been told in a film before. While audiences have been showing up to theaters to see comic book films, they are not always pleased with how they turn out. Critics too have not always been playing along. Despite these blemishes, you can’t ignore the fact that comic book movies have been pouring out of Hollywood since 30’s. It’s true that they have never been as popular as they are now, but in comparison, adaptations of graphic novels are a relatively new thing (despite the graphic novel having been around longer than what we currently consider as a comic book). Comic book films are simply a staple of film culture, a part of the tradition, and there is no indication that they are going away anytime soon.

Winner: Comic Books




There you have it. Considering these aspects, comic books are the champion over graphic novels as far as making the best movie adaptations. This philosophical victory was not an easy one, there are still several areas where graphic novels seem like the ideal choice on which to base a movie. Do you have any loyalty to one over the other? What are your favorite comic book and graphic novel movie adaptations? How do they compare to their source material?