Umm...I'm gonna just go off on this one...
As you already know, Gene Yang's American Born Chinese was nominated for a National Book Award in the category of "young people's literature" or "young adult literature" or something along those lines. Never have I seen an award nomination make so many people angry.
On the one hand, you had people saying that a graphic novel was not a "real book" and as such, should not, under any circumstances, be nominated for a National Book Award. This article in particular (you have to scroll down to the second half) was quite dismissive.
On the other hand, you had all the comics people who were mad that it was put in the "young people's literature" category. As this article puts it, they felt that the work is not "specific to any age group."
There was so much controversy. When Yang won the Michael L. Printz award for "young adult literature" or whatever equivalent category it was, there wasn't half as much buzz, and he actually won that, while the young adult National Book Award went to a book about Octavian Nothing.
I'm admittedly biased, but I definitely fall in the camp that views graphic novels as legitimate novels. What are the elements of a good novel? Character development, plot arc, symbolism. Things like that. American Born Chinese has those, there's no doubt about it. Just instead of using stylistic descriptions, he uses stylistic drawings. I do see the other side of the argument; that, say, movies have character development and plot arc, but they aren't considered books. I can see how people can accept graphic novels as a legitimate art form without classifying them as "novels." But I think what separates books from movies (aside from the obvious picture vs written word thing) is the fact that you have much more liberty to interact with and interpret a book. You imagine the expression in characters' voices instead of having it spoken for you. You can go back and re-read certain parts, or spend a longer time on certain parts. Graphic novels allow you to do all this, just like non-graphic novels. Plus the submission requirements for the National Book Award just say "work of general fiction or non-fiction."
Even if you don't consider them the same as books, I will stone cold slap a bitch if you don't think graphic novels are a legitimate medium. I feel there is far too much stigma about comics. People think of them as below books for some reason, probably because most people associate comics with superheros, which have their largest market with kids. But the way I measure something as an art form is the emotional impact it has on me, and I think anyone would be hard pressed to deny the emotional impact of ABC. One of my favorite books ever is the graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson. It reduces me to tears whenever I read it, which is more than I can say for almost every other book I've ever read.
The only problem I have with graphic novels is the term "graphic novels," because when I tell my parents that I got graphic novels as a Christmas present, they think I'm reading some questionable material.
I also fall into a sub-camp that views comics on the web as equally legitimate - no printing necessary. The web gives people more room to be creative; they can create colors without worrying about how expensive color-printing will alter them, and not worry about space or content restrictions like the ones newspapers impose. Yes, this also leads to a lot of crap being put out there on the Internet, but it's sort of a self-editing process: if you don't like it, forget the website even exists. No biggie.
Anyway. At this point, it's pretty difficult to talk about comics without Scott McCloud's name coming up. The dude is sort of a crazy motherfucker, and a lot of people have a lot of problems with some of his ideas, but as far as I can tell, he is almost universally respected. I highly recommend his trilogy about Understanding, Reinventing, and Making Comics (actually I haven't read the last one, coz it just came out recently, but I trust it's as good as the other two). They are comics about comics, and they are so good at explaining comics - as an art form, as a societal force, historically, technically. They're really just top notch.
In terms of new media stuff, it is really sort of interesting to see how the Internet affects comics. Obviously there are people publishing comics on the web, and Scott McCloud has his theories about infinite canvas and micropayments and all that, but I'd also like to direct your attention to the Flight series. It is a series of anthologies of comics, and it's a pretty hot item in the comics community right now. Most of the contributors started on the Internet, met each other and built up reputations there, and then got together and made these extraordinary collections. (By the way I only know this background info because of an article by Scott McCloud at the end of Flight, Volume 1 - seriously, the guy is everywhere.) I read Vera Brosgol's online comic Return to Sender before I read her stuff in Flight, for example. It would have been hard to gain the same collaborative, synergistic effect without the Internet, and personally I am prepared to say that any problems the Internet has created in our society are negated by the beauty that is Flight.
The Internet also lets you read comic artists' blogs and chat with them and such. I like that. I get starstruck easily.
Soooo, if you actually read all that, you are a braver person than I. It's 2:30 in the morning and it's unlikely that any of it makes any sense at all. I do, however, know that comics are a really great form of art and of entertainment. (And if you don't read Achewood, what are you doing with your life? He's a Stanford alum, you should be all up on this.)
PS Adam - This is why micropayments don't work. They are kind of like Communism. They are really really nice theoretically, but in the real world they tend to collapse.