In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Graphic Narratives in the U.S.

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies of Primary Texts
  • Exhibition Catalogs
  • Pedagogy

American Literature Graphic Narratives in the U.S.
Daniel Worden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0095


The more common term to describe the texts that fall under the heading of “Graphic Narratives” is simply “comics.” “Graphic narratives” has gained popularity in the burgeoning field of comics studies because the term “comics” poses a couple of problems that “graphic narratives” avoids. First of all, “comics” implies a humorous tone, leading one to think of the comic strips serialized in newspapers from the late 19th century to the present day, many of which strips were, indeed, comic (although there were a number of newspaper strips that were not). Secondly, “comics” also connotes popular, low, or mass culture, a key facet of graphic narratives’ history, but one that is just that, historical. Today, comics are widely recognized as a major aesthetic and literary medium. Indeed, no other aesthetic form has experienced such a radical revaluation by literary critics, art historians, and cultural studies scholars in the past two decades than graphic narratives. Popularly marketed today as graphic novels, though this is again problematic because key texts such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (New York; Pantheon, 1986–1991) are not novels but works of nonfiction, graphic narratives have been central to American popular culture since the late 19th century, when newspapers first began publishing serial comic strips. Today, graphic narratives have permeated not just popular culture, as new superhero and comics-based films, video games, and television shows are released every year, but also literary and arts culture, as graphic narratives are reviewed in major literary magazines, displayed in museum exhibitions, and increasingly taught in college literature courses. This article surveys the rapidly expanding criticism on, histories of, and anthologies about graphic narratives in the United States, from the medium’s origins in the late 19th century to its contemporary prestige. As its title indicates, this bibliography focuses on graphic narratives in the United States, and thus does not address treatments of European graphic narratives and Japanese manga.

General Overviews

The field of comics studies has expanded widely in the past decade. Heer and Worcester 2009 is the first anthology of scholarship on comics that is designed to capture the emerging field. Much of the scholarship on comics has been published in recent years and argues for the importance of graphic narratives to literary and cultural studies, such as in Chute 2008. Other works, such as Wright 2003, explicate the history of comics as a medium, as well as the intricacies of reading comics for a scholarly audience largely unfamiliar with the finer points of comics history and form, as discussed in Gardner 2012 and Hatfield 2005. Some central works on graphic narratives are not written by scholars or academics but instead by comics artists or popular critics, as in McCloud 1994, an indispensible work about graphic narratives that is also itself a graphic narrative, and Wolk 2007, an accessible introduction to comics history and form.

  • Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 123.2 (March 2008): 452–465.

    DOI: 10.1632/pmla.2008.123.2.452

    This essay provides one of the most concise and thought-provoking introductions to date to the field of comics studies. Chute provides a brief history of the rise of comics studies, argues for graphic narrative’s inherent literary qualities, and reads nonfiction comics by Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman as emblematic of how graphic narrative uses image and text to represent history. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Gardner, Jared. Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

    Gardner’s book is a compelling history of comics as an inherently modern medium that is bound to the popular press and film. As opposed to the formal account of graphic narratives in McCloud 1994, Gardner’s book focuses on print culture to assert that the interactivity, focus on the reader, affective engagement, and formal experimentation inherent to graphic narratives have made them a central narrative form in the 21st century.

  • Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

    Focusing on the alternative comics that emerged out of the underground comix movement of the 1960s, Hatfield’s book is exemplary in its close readings of image and text, as well as in its historical account of underground and autobiographical comics. Chapter 2 (pp. 32–67) of this book is especially useful as a guide to interpreting and analyzing comics.

  • Heer, Jeet, and Kent Worcester, eds. A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

    This anthology of comics scholarship is the most exhaustive resource to date in the field of comics studies. Reprinting excerpts from some of the most influential recent works in the field, as well as some historical sources, the anthology is divided into sections on history, form, narrative, and individual case studies.

  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

    A meditation and explication of comics form, written as a comic, McCloud’s text has served as a touchstone for scholars and critics of graphic narratives. As a comics creator himself, McCloud explicates how a graphic narrative is put together and the amount of thought, formal knowledge, and craft needed to make the narrative progression on a comics page “invisible.”

  • Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2007.

    A critic and journalist, Wolk provides an accessible introduction to comics history and form. The first half of the book is especially useful for its intermingled history of both mainstream and alternative comics, a juxtaposition that is rare in scholarship on graphic narratives. The second half of the book reprints reviews of major graphic narratives.

  • Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

    A rich historical study of comic books from the 1930s to the contemporary moment, this volume focuses on comics’ relationship to youth culture, with particular attention to the comics controversy of the 1950s and the superhero genre, the dominant genre in mainstream comics publishing.

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