Graphic novels are a format, not a genre. They are narratives, told in comic book style, and published as a book – usually 64, 128 or 176 pages, as opposed to a collection of comic strips which have been previously published as a periodical serial.
The term “graphic novel” was coined by Will Eisner to distinguish his book A Contract with God (1978) from collections of newspaper comic strips.
He described graphic novels as consisting of “sequential art” — a series of illustrations which, when viewed in order, tell a story. Will Eisner
is seen as the founder of graphic novels, and the industry award is named in his honour.
Graphic novels can be fiction or non-fiction - some libraries are calling them “graphics” rather than “graphic novels” to be more inclusive of
“Although today’s graphic novels are a recent phenomenon, this basic way of storytelling has been used in various forms for centuries — early cave drawings, hieroglyphics, and medieval tapestries like the famous Bayeux Tapestry can be thought of as stories told in pictures.” - Jeff Smith, creator of Bone
How to read a graphic novel
“Graphic novels don’t work exactly the same way that traditional novels do, but they can be as demanding, creative, intelligent, compelling, and full of story as any book.” Robin Brenner
Just as graphic novels are more than fiction with pictures, reading a graphic novel is a different experience to reading a novel. The best are not only well written but can contain compelling artwork, and innovative design. For the reader this means focusing as much on the reading as the looking by taking note of interplay of both on each page, the layout arrangement (placement and size) of panels, detail that illuminates character, and how narration and dialogue are arranged. Here are a couple of excellent resources that examine this area in detail.