What is a graphic novel? Is it a collection of serial comics? Or is it an original story told only in panel-based sequential art? Does it have to have words or be a certain length or does it even need to tell a story? As the public’s interest in comic books and visual storytelling in general continues to grow, the format is morphing into a new kind of graphic work not easily defined as a conventional comic book.

Often visually stunning yet still driven by some form of narration or text, these works may appeal to the average comics reader, but they also blur the lines of what’s expected of the format, often presenting graphic works in a class all their own. PW Comics World took a look at four very different visual books that truly exist in a world graphically apart.

It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, published Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout in December last year. Though primarily a biography, Radioactive tells the story of the life of the famous woman scientist, Marie Curie and her love affair with her husband Pierre through haunting cyanotype images and a font custom designed by the author, Lauren Redniss. (In addition there's an online exhibition devoted to the book created by the New York Public Library and students from Parsons the New School for Design, where Redniss teaches). The book manages to detail both the loving relationship of the Curies as well as their scientific achievements (discovering radioactivity, finding new elements and winning the Nobel Prize) using an elegiac combination of prints, drawings and text in a unique and powerfully poetic visual amalgamation. The result is part serious biography and part picture book. So how should a reader define it?

“I’ve published many traditional biographies, and have always loved the form,” said Calvert D. Morgan Jr., v-p, editorial director for It Books. “But I think the things that are most untraditional about Lauren’s work—the emotional power of her imagery, the way she weaves her narrative together with her art—make Radioactive something that’s almost impossible to compare with traditional biography. It’s more a work of [visual] art, the key goal of which is to tell a story.”

HarperCollins also continues to explore the world of cross-format graphic books in their HarperDesign imprint with the publication of the Brothers Grimm’s classic folktale, Little Red Riding Hood, produced in January as a tie-in release with the movie Red Riding Hood, which was in theaters earlier this year. The book’s pages are sparse on text (which is arrayed free form around the page in varying sizes and fonts, almost like verse) and heavy on gorgeous, sweeping spreads with illustrations by artist Daniel Egnéus.

There are literally hundreds of versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale on the market, but the high art illustrations and art book design make this version not quite a children’s picture book. So should it be classified as a graphic novel? According to Elizabeth Viscott Sullivan, executive editor at Harper Design, the answer is no.

“Well, by definition, it’s not a graphic novel. And it’s not an art project,” she told PW Comics World. “It’s a new graphic interpretation of the story in a slightly edgier, more fashionable, slightly irreverent form that we think appeals to a broad audience,” said Sullivan. “It’s not positioned exclusive to a genre. Barnes & Noble and the indies are carrying it, but so are MoMA and Urban Outfitters,” she said.

But other, smaller publishers are also exploring the potential of unusual narrative graphic works. In May, San Francisco-based City Lights Books released Everything is its own reward, it’s second collection of work from Paul Madonna’s San Francisco Chronicle comic strip, All Over Coffee. But much like the book itself, even Madonna’s All Over Coffee is hard to classify. Not a traditional comic strip, All Over Coffee is usually only one panel and does not involve characters in the traditional sense. Rather, Madonna narrates or captions the drawings he does of places he’s been and seen in his international travels. The scenery, the city and its streets, neighborhoods, buildings and vistas are the main characters. So how does one tell a story when the scenery is constantly changing?

Elaine Katzenberger, editor at City Lights Books says that she and Madonna had this very discussion several times. “The first book was a collection of strips,” she said. “They’re presented in numerical order. It was a much more straightforward idea in his [Madonna’s] mind. But we really started to talk about what’s the difference between a book and a collection of your strips; why would they be in a book and what makes a book? ” she said.

For the second collection they got even more serious. In Everything is its own reward, the strips are not presented in numerical order. Rather, they have been curated by Katzenberger and Madonna to flow in a more narrative order.

“For the second collection it became a discussion about how the pieces really related to each other thematically and what kind of narrative emerged when we arranged them that way,” said Katzenberger. But even confronting the problem straight on, Katzenberger found it hard to define where a book like this would fit.

“I don’t think I would classify it as comics,” she said. “And as far as in a bookstore, where it would be shelved, obviously it’s not a graphic novel either; but it’s definitely art,” said Katzenberger.

Gerry Donaghy, graphic novel buyer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Or., said that the books covered here, “sell pretty modestly for us, with the exception of Radioactive. That one got a ton of publicity and took off for a few weeks.” Deciding where to shelve graphic works at Powell’s, Donaghy said, “all boils down to [each category] buyer feeling like they can sell it out of their sections.”

He said that Art Speigelman’s Maus has sold well out of both Graphic Novels and Judaica-Holocaust Studies for years. And, “recently, we ordered 21: The Roberto Clemente Story from Fantagraphics for both Sports and Graphic Novels. We shelve Craig Thompson's Blankets in both Graphic Novels AND Literature.”

Donaghy said that while he “passed on the [Little Red Riding Hood] Grimm's Fairy Tales,” the kids buyer decided to stock it.” Donaghy said ”I don't think our buyers or our customers are so rigidly dogmatic that they would sniff at a graphic novel outside of where we keep the funny books. It's all about the quality of the content.”

Another publisher playing with this hybrid visual format is Tuttle publishing, based in Tokyo and Rutland, Vt. Founded by Charles Egbert Tuttle, Jr. in 1948, the company is dedicated to publishing works on Asia, from Asian literature to books on Asian arts and crafts. But their new book, Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhoods, published this month, will be one of their first comics-related books. Released in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the book’s charm and comic love of the details of street life in Tokyo before the disaster, makes it even more compelling.

The book is a graphic memoir by artist Florent Chavouet of his six months in Tokyo while his girlfriend interned at a company there. He went out everyday with a sketchpad and pencils and drew the world around him, adding his own commentary on every page. The result is an often hilarious and insightful view of Tokyo through the eyes of a foreigner. Part memoir, part travel guide and all illustrations, how should the book be classified?

“It’s hard to say,” said author Chavouet. “I don’t know for sure and am still wondering what it is, but I think it’s more a hybrid. There’s a travel guide aspect, but not the same as for Lonely Planet. If you’re looking for good restaurants or hotels, you won’t find a lot of useful addresses in my book,” Chavouet said. “On the other hand, you do get the ambiance of the city and the different neighborhoods, the physiognomy of the streets, as well as some nice detailed maps,” he explained. “[But] there is also a diary or journal aspect, where you can follow the day-to-day life of a young foreigner in Tokyo and learn how he moves about the city, what he does, the little surprises and disappointments experienced during the trip,” he said.

While all these books would probably appeal to the average comics reader, even the publishers are hesitant to define a specific market for the books themselves. Some are more text heavy and some rely on the art to pull the reader through. But no matter where they belong, whether shelved with the biographies, art books, travel guides or comics, graphic books and visual storytelling are gaining a foothold in the book marketplace by simply finding new ways to tell good stories—with pictures.

“It’s not that good prose writing doesn’t evoke all kinds of things other than what the author is saying,” said City Lights’ Katzenberger. “That’s what good writing does. But I think that this form kind of demands it.”

[Additional reporting by Calvin Reid]