I met someone recently who is teaching a course on comics at a local college and she emailed me to continue our conversation. In her email I noticed she referred to graphic novels instead of comics and discussed them as a genre rather than a medium. Both of these are common phrasing with people who didn't grow up reading comics and I usually don't correct them because I don't wanna be that annoying guy who's always correcting people about the one thing he knows about (to be fair to myself, I also know about sharks) and I know they don't give a shit anyway. Since this woman is teaching a class, and was actually asking for my input, I started typing. More words came out than I intended and so I'm pasting it below, minus her name.
Hiya Teacher's Name
I'm always happy to talk about the creative process. I usually learn something myself in the course of those conversations. I'm excited about what you're doing and looking forward to helping in any way I can.
To that end and with no intention to offend; comics is a medium not a genre. As a storytelling medium it may be used for fact or fiction of any genre the creator wishes. Comics do seem to be mainly associated with the more fantastic genres of fiction - sci fi, horror, superheroes of course - and any mash up or combination thereof. Personally, my theory as to why comics seem to lean that way is that there is no special effects budget, literally no constraints other than the limits of the creators abilities as to what may be shown. With no limits and little monetary pressure, comics are one of, if not the most direct way for an artist to share his or her dreams with an audience. There are historical and financial reasons why comics, having started out as children's entertainment, have mostly been some kind of fantasy, but that's a whole essay which has probably already been written by someone who knows way more about it than me. I do maintain that comics are particularly well suited to more bizarre or larger than life stories because they allow an artist to take whatever is in his or her head and show it to someone else.
When we spoke you mentioned Maus and Persepolis and I would argue that these are prime examples of that kind of direct communication. They both tell their stories in ways that could not be done in any other media. Those two works are not celebrated just because of their harrowing humanist content, but because they are incredibly well crafted examples of comics storytelling. Obviously, if they weren't good, we wouldn't still be talking about them. Both creators excelled at utilizing comics unique visual language to present a story that sucks the reader in. It is the most direct line of communication I can think of because - when done well - it reaches into a deeper part of the human brain than language can hope to penetrate, while still utilizing languages' ability to engage our intelligence. At their most ambitious, comics can hit us in the same places that cave paintings and Charles Dickens do but simultaneously.
Comics is the medium. Graphic Novel is a format for presentation, as is Webcomics, the European style Graphic Albums (the format Tintin was presented in until quite recently when the stories were repackaged to resemble a more American idea of a book or graphic novel), newspaper comic strips and the traditional American comic book. The phrase graphic novel seems to be used mainly to lend the medium - because of it's history, generally considered a children's entertainment - a little dignity. In traditional industry terms, a trade paperback is a run of comic book issues collected into book format while a graphic novel is a single story presented, upon initial publication, as a book. We call everything graphic novels now because it sounds more grown up.
Again, I don't mean to offend or to lecture. I just wanted to express the difference between genre and medium with regards to comics but I found a couple of tangents I needed to barrel down, I guess. I think it's cool that this kind of class is happening outside of someplace like RISD where you might expect it and I'd be happy to come in next semester and assist you however I can.
I would also recommend getting in touch with a group called the Providence Comics Consortium. I don't know them personally but I've spoken to some of the kids they work with and they are clearly a group of people who love comics and what they can do.