Fan historian Richard Kyle coined the term "graphic novel" in an essay in the November 1964 issue of the comics fanzine Capa-Alpha. The term gained popularity in the comics community after the publication of Will Eisner's A Contract with God (1978) and the start of Marvel's Graphic Novel line (1982) and became familiar to the public in the late 1980s after the commercial successes of the first volume of Art Spiegelman's Maus in 1986 and the collected editions of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen in 1987. The Book Industry Study Group began using "graphic novel" as a category in book stores in 2001.
The term is not strictly defined, though Merriam-Webster's full dictionary definition is "a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book", while its simplest definition is given as "cartoon drawings that tell a story and are published as a book". In the publishing trade, the term extends to material that would not be considered a novel if produced in another medium. Collections of comic books that do not form a continuous story, anthologies or collections of loosely related pieces, and even non-fiction are stocked by libraries and bookstores as "graphic novels" (similar to the manner in which dramatic stories are included in "comic" books). The term is also sometimes used to distinguish between works created as standalone stories, in contrast to collections or compilations of a story arc from a comic book series published in book form.
In continental Europe, both original book-length stories such as La rivolta dei racchi (1967) by Guido Buzzelli, and collections of comics have been commonly published in hardcover volumes, often called "albums", since the end of the 19th century (including such later Franco-Belgian comics series as The Adventures of Tintin in the 1930s).
As the exact definition of the graphic novel is debated, the origins of the form are open to interpretation.
The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck is the oldest recognized American example of comics used to this end. It originated as the 1828 publication Histoire de M. Vieux Bois by Swiss caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffer, and was first published in English translation in 1841 by London's Tilt & Bogue, which used an 1833 Paris pirate edition. The first American edition was published in 1842 by Wilson & Company in New York City using the original printing plates from the 1841 edition. Another early predecessor is Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags by brothers J. A. D. and D. F. Read, inspired by The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck. In 1894 Caran d'Ache broached the idea of a "drawn novel" in a letter to the newspaper Le Figaro and started work on a 360-page wordless book (never published). In the United States there is a long tradition of reissuing previously published comic strips in book form. In 1897 the Hearst Syndicate published such a collection of The Yellow Kid by Richard Outcault and it quickly became a best seller.
The 1920s saw a revival of the medieval woodcut tradition, with Belgian Frans Masereel cited as "the undisputed king" of this revival. His works include Passionate Journey (1919). American Lynd Ward also worked in this tradition, publishing Gods' Man, in 1929 and going on to publish more during the 1930s.
Other prototypical examples from this period include American Milt Gross' He Done Her Wrong (1930), a wordless comic published as a hardcover book, and Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), a novel in sequential images composed of collage by the surrealist painter Max Ernst. Similarly, Charlotte Salomon's Life? or Theater? (composed 1941-43) combines images, narrative, and captions.