Who Reads Graphic Novels?

What are adults reading? The Harris Polling service, which recently showed that 40% of Americans read eleven or more books a year, has taken a look at what kinds of books adults are reading, including graphic novels.

11% of all adults surveyed read graphic novels. Echo Boomers (ages 18-33) are the most avid graphic novels readers at 18%. The largest categories for this group are Literature at 42% and Mystery, Thriller and Crime at 41% (respondents could pick more than one category). Gen X-ers (ages 34-35) read the next highest amount of graphic novels, at 11%. More men read them than women; 15% as opposed to 8%.

In the survey, Graphic Novels are offered as a choice of “type of book,” along with Mysteries, Science  Fiction, Literature, Romance, Chick-lit, Westerns, and the catch-all  Other category. Unfortunately, this presents a misleading skew to the survey: graphic novels are not a genre but a format, and can fall in to any of the other genres mentioned (including nonfiction, which is broken out into separate statistics.)  You might better ask about who reads poetry, plays, graphic novels, prose, and listens to audiobooks.

As a genre reader, I find the pre-selected categories problematic in terms of definitions: where is fantasy, what exactly comprises literature, and just how is chick-lit defined?  How does each respondent understand the categories? I’ve had people insist to me that they don’t like fantasy and then list Harry Potter as their favorite book, so I know first hand how confusing genre can be.

Desperate for statistics on who reads graphic novels when researching five years ago, I was only able to uncover the already outdated figures collected about the direct, comic store market by Diamond Distributors: that the average reader was 29 years old, and readers were overwhelmingly men.  These new statistics are great fodder for discussion, but I’d also love to see a more in-depth survey about reading, graphic novels, and audiences.

4 Responses to “Who Reads Graphic Novels?”

  1. Melissa Taylor Says:

    I think they should be a genre because it’s a unique reading experience which requires inference of visual clues. Plus the art is something entirely different than illustration. Am I the only one who thinks this?

  2. Robin Brenner Says:

    It depends on what you mean, Melissa! I agree with what you say — that they are unique reading experiences and that the art is not just illustration — but to me that means a format difference, not a genre difference. Genre, to me as a librarian and as a reader, indicates content. Romances promise adventures in love, mysteries ratchet up suspense and frequently have a body in them, and science fiction speculates on what could happen while fantasy speculates on what couldn’t happen. Graphic novels can be all of those genres, but the difference is in how they’re read, not what the story is. So, to me it’s a format difference, not a genre difference. Movies, TV, audiobooks — these are all different formats from books, and I think graphic novels and comics deserve to be considered with them rather than a category that expects certain content.

    Do you see what I mean? What do others think?

  3. Kathy Moon Says:

    Scott McCloud tackled this in his book “Understanding Comics”. “Comics” is, very broadly, a printed medium in which words and “sequential art” are used to communicate ideas. You can have silent comics, of course, just like silent films. But generally, the words and pictures work together to tell the story in a way that neither could alone. An audiobook of a graphic novel would be like listening to a movie over the radio.

    Generally, yes, it’s a very valid statistic to say that “graphic novels” are gaining popularity. But they could all be reading “Bleach” instead of “Blankets”! Manga might, more understandably but still incorrectly, be considered a “genre” for a survey like this; the most common and popular examples would be either boy’s action stories, or girl’s romances.

    I guess my point is that surveying readers about their preferred format would be more appropriate, in addition to asking what kind of plots they like. Perhaps they could include well-known example titles/authors on the survey? Like: Fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter)

  4. Robin Brenner Says:

    Kathy, I agree that manga could be mistaken for a genre (although again, I’d call that a mistake and be just as annoyed as I am here with them presuming graphic novels are a genre.) I know that I can be a stickler about definitions like these, but as someone who’s been fighting to dispel the misconceptions about graphic novels for years now, it’s tough to get readers to even consider a graphic novel when they come in with stereotypes that are perpetuated by just this kind of survey.

    And what’s wrong with reading Bleach instead of Blankets? ;)

    I agree that surveying both preferences would be best — format and genres, separately.