Books about books are a difficult format. Which audience are you targeting? How much prior knowledge do you assume? Which writers do you choose as exemplary and who do you decide to leave out? There are hazards no matter how you tackle your subject: risk alienating all but dedicated fans or aim for the lowest common denominator and risk portraying only a skeleton rather than a full body of work. Couple that with a complicated genre like graphic novels and you've dug yourself a pretty deep hole. How you approach something like a comprehensive guide to artists and styles will be subject to much scrutiny and, undoubtedly, derision.
Paul Gravett's Graphic Novels: Everything You Need To Know succeeds fairly well at encapsulating the heart (but not the whole body) of graphic novels. Gravett's work provides a great primer on major writers and just enough of a historical context to give meaning and precedent to the larger themes that span the genre.
Illustrating how much style has to do with substance with a format that succinctly carries the reader along from one artist to the next, Gravett starts each chapter with an introduction to the artists and sub-genre that are his focus and a two page artist profile. For instance, Frank Miller's Sin City heads up one chapter, with selections from the work and text in the margins explaining stylistic choices, themes, and brief plot synopsis. Following are two to four pages of different artists whose works are related in someway to the first; in this case, Frank Miller is followed by Michael O'Sullivan's Road to Perdition, Igort's 5 is the Perfect Number, Phillipe Thirault's Miss, and David Lapham's Stray Bullets - all of which are either gritty, crime dramas much like Sin City, or feature artwork similar to Miller's high-contrast black and white. Each is given just enough space to whet the appetite and this format provides a great springboard to a larger body of work with which the reader my not be familiar.
First and foremost Gravett correctly lets the works speak for themselves. He certainly leaves some people out - Adrian Tomine, for instance, receives only a passing mention - but his book is, nevertheless, a reliable and useful introduction to the major players within the community. He also speaks with an obvious devotion to his subject while reserving some of the humility typical of those who place on a pedestal a body of work that has been largely dismissed as kid's stuff. Herein Gravett goes a long way towards illustrating exactly how it is anything but.
As an interesting preparatory work for readers more interested in the style and function of graphic novels, Gravett's book succeeds. As an analysis of major works and pillar artists Gravett is similarly thorough and informative, letting the book function as a quasi-encyclopedia of the graphic novel. Like most good works of its type, Graphic Novels will leave one wanting more and Gravett wisely includes an index of websites, commercial stores, and publishers as suggestions for further places to continue the exploration of a genre that is still in its formative phase.