I recently read a review of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona that cited it as her debut graphic novel. And it got me thinking about that notion of a debut.

Stevenson’s story was actually her senior thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She began serializing it as a webcomic in June 2012. By November, it had been announced that it was being picked up by HarperCollins for print, but it wasn’t actually published until a couple weeks ago. In the meantime, Steveson co-created and began writing the popular Lumberjanes series, and it’s recently been announced that she’s now working on Runaways launching next month for Marvel.

Lumberjanes is the first of Stevenson’s work to see publication and, although it was initially serialized in a monthly pamphlet form, she initially wrote it as an eight-issue story. That story wrapped up in November and the first half of it came out in trade paperback form in April.

So in terms of publication dates, Lumberjanes is Stevenson’s debut graphic novel. On the other hand, with Nimona seeing a broad audience via the web first, not to mention the fact that she wrote it first, that could be easily argued as her debut.

But on the other other hand, her intention with Nimona originally was that it would see a pretty finite audience: her professors and maybe a handful of other students. It was itself the work of a student, specifically crafted to showcase what she had learned (or, potentially, hadn’t learned if it hadn’t been executed well) in classes. It was a culmination of her formal education in a literal sense, and was used by her instructors to determine whether or not she should graduate or not.

But creators, if they’re worth anything, are constantly working to improve their craft. They’re always trying to learn ways to hone their skills. So just saying that Nimona was part of Stevenson’s education is disingenous, as every work a creator makes is part of their education, even when it isn’t formalized with a degree.

But, to that end, what about Stevenson’s projects before Nimona? Surely, she has a body of work from before that, even if it, too, was only intended for a small audience of educators and friends. Do those works qualify as a debut?

Now, think of all that in terms of the broader spectrum of webcomics. How many creators developed comics, shared them online, improved their skills while working on their strip, only to delete it entirely and start over when they weren’t satisfied? As they were shared online, they certainly have a (theoretically) very wide audience, but if/once they’re removed, does that still qualify as a debut if not many people read it? What if the audience grew slowly over time, but the earliest installments were never visited? Or what if those early installments were retroactively changed to better fit later story or artistic developments? Is it still a debut work previously published portions have been radically altered?

It seems like very minor point of semantics; I’m talking about the precise definition of a single word in a precise context. But stepping back a bit, the broader notion of how a reader approaches a work can change significantly depending on how they first come to it. Saying Lumberjanes is Stevenson’s first published work, while accurate in some senses, implies she’s considerably less experienced than she is. But at the same time, saying Nimona is her debut graphic novel, while also accurate, confers a much greater importance to the work than describing it, still accurately, as a published version of her senior thesis.

While it’s certainly not necessary to have all this context to read any of Stevenson’s work, it can be worth considering when approaching anyone’s work.