Is "graphic novel" just another name for a comic book? Not really. According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, a graphic novel employs the technique of cinematographic narrative, developed by comic-book artists, telling the story through metaphors and visual images, particularly images of action.

Although some graphic novels are compilations of comic books, true graphic novels are usually substantial, self-contained narratives, published in large bound volumes of anywhere from 50 to 300 pages.

The term "graphic novel" was probably invented by Will Eisner (1917-2005), and it became widely used in the eighties after the release of three significant titles: Maus (by Art Spiegelman), Watchmen (by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (by Frank Miller). Also very influential is the Sandman series (by Neil Gaiman, past guest of the Merril Collection). These titles raised the profile of the serious narrative comic book and instigated a commercial need for a distinguishing term.

As D. Aviva Rothschild says in the introduction to Graphic Novels: A Bibliographic Guide to Book-Length Comics (p. xiv): "I think the time has come to insist that graphic novels are a genre unto themselves. Graphic novels use words and pictures in ways that transcend ordinary art and text, and their creators are more than writers and artists. The artist must have a director's eye for shadow, angle, setting, and costume. The writer has to know when the text speaks and when the art speaks, avoiding redundancy. In the ideal graphic novel, the text does not distract from the art or vice versa: the eye flows naturally from element to element, creating a whole that a text-only book cannot match."

The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy currently holds over 5000 graphic novels in its non-circulating research collection.