Father of the Comic Strip

Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer

DAVID KUNZLE
M. Thomas Inge General Editor
Copyright Date: 2007
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv6tb
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    Father of the Comic Strip
    Book Description:

    Sixty years before the comics entered the American newspaper press, Rodolphe Töpffer of Geneva (1799-1846), schoolmaster, university professor, polemical journalist, art critic, landscape draftsman, and writer of fiction, travel tales, and social criticism, invented a new art form: the comic strip, or "picture story," that is now the graphic novel. At first he resisted publishing what he called his "little follies." When he did, they became instantly popular, plagiarized, and imitated throughout Europe and the United States.

    Töpffer developed a graphic style suited to his poor eyesight: the doodle, which he systematized and also theorized. The drawings, with their "modernist" spontaneous, flickering, broken lines, forming figures in mad hyperactivity, run above deft, ironic captions and propel narratives of surreal absurdity. The artist's maniacal protagonists mix social satire with myth. By the mid-nineteenth century, Messrs. Jabot, Festus, Cryptogame, and other members of the crazy family, comprising eight picture stories in all, were instant folk heroes. In a biographical framework, Kunzle situates the comic strips in the Genevan and European culture of the time as well as in relation to Töpffer's other work, notably his hilarious travel tales, and recounts their curious genesis (with an initial imprimatur from Goethe, no less) and their controversial success.

    Kunzle's study, the first in English on the writer-artist, accompaniesRodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips, a facsimile edition of the strips themselves, with the first-ever translation of these into English.

    David Kunzle is a professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of many books on popular culture and graphic arts, includingHistory of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-998-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    Rodolphe Töpffer was born in 1799 at an intellectual crossroads of Europe: Geneva. Apart from a nine-month stay in Paris as a student, he scarcely ever moved from his native town and its immediate environs. When he did so, for a few weeks every summer, it was to hike with the boys of the boarding school he had started, in the nearby Alps. He turned the chronicle of these hikes into a galaxy of little adventures, full of funny incidents and surprises, which he wrote up imaginatively and eventually printed and illustrated. He visualized the funny little worlds around him...

  5. Chapter One TÖPFFER THE SATIRIST: CONTEXTS FOR THEMES
    (pp. 9-48)

    Töpffer, once lauded as the “innocent” and “naïve” humorist, on closer view of the picture stories takes on a more aggressive, polemical, and satirical edge. He who prided himself on never attacking individuals, targets currently cherished ideas and causes, and on occasion individuals too. He cuts a wide swath of sociopolitical issues that he largely avoids in his prose works and that crop up in his picture stories alone: war and militarism, absolutism, bureaucracy, law, cholera, frontiers, religion, the peasantry, and science. We here offer local and European contexts for all of these, deferring the two major topics of education...

  6. Chapter Two GOETHE, TÖPFFER, AND A NEW KIND OF CARICATURE
    (pp. 49-56)

    The repressive Restoration Europe of the 1820s was not conducive to caricature or freedom of the press. Even in England there was a decline in both. The Revolution in France of July 1830, promising new freedoms, injected new energies to which Töpffer, who had already embarked on his picture stories, responded in his own way. At first hesitant to publish, Töpffer found a sponsor in an unexpected place, and by chance: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar. It is a remarkable fact that Töpffer’s little hobby, his new branch of narrative caricature, first practiced to amuse schoolchildren, family, and friends,...

  7. Chapter Three JABOT, CRÉPIN, VIEUX BOIS
    (pp. 57-73)

    The praise of Goethe and the long notice inKunst und Alterthumwere not enough to persuade Töpffer to start publishing his comic albums. As his father had discovered, there was a very real risk to becoming identified with a genre of such low and dubious status as caricature, especially for one who had ambitions to become established as a serious, moral writer. Rodolphe’s father had been very careful as to which of his satirical caricatures he had engraved and distributed; most of them, done in watercolor, circulated privately. He made enemies anyway, and he did not have his son’s...

  8. Chapter Four TÖPFFER LAUNCHED, COMIC STRIP DEFENDED, LITERARY FAME, FESTUS
    (pp. 74-82)

    The year 1839, that of the secondVieux Boisedition, of the Parisian piracies of Töpffer’s comic albums, and of the first imitations of them by Cham, all of which signaled the wider acceptance of the new genre, was also—coincidentally?—that of Töpffer’s emergence onto the Parisian literary scene.Le Presbytère, expanded now into a full-length two-volume novel, was hailed by the essayist Xavier de Maistre as a “third Héloïse, better than Rousseau’s.” De Maistre, now an octogenarian at the Russian court, who had long since made a splash with a short, Sternean piece calledVoyage autour de ma...

  9. Chapter Five POLITICS AND ABSURDITY: PENCIL AND TRICTRAC
    (pp. 83-94)

    Of all Töpffer’s picture stories,Monsieur Pencilbears the clearest imprint of the July 1830 revolution in France. The most polarized of his comic albums, playing the most absurd fantasies against emphatic injections of political actuality, it is at the same time balanced, and was tempered by the experience of a decade between its composition in 1831 and the rather different version published in 1840.¹ It is, I believe, Töpffer’s aesthetic masterpiece, although it has not been his most popular story, and is even omitted in some editions. The manuscript was executed between March and July 1831 and, although lacking...

  10. Chapter Six THE LAST YEARS: CRYPTOGAME, ALBERT, AESTHETICS AND PHYSIOGNOMICS
    (pp. 95-119)

    The last two years vouchsafed to Töpffer were marked by a resurgence of attention to his picture stories, which he had neglected since 1840, and a concern to leave to posterity guidelines for his inventive procedure. The early 1840s offered the schoolmaster and university professor two additional distractions: the literary laurels with which he was crowned in Paris by Sainte-Beuve, to his delight, and the radical agitation in Geneva, which infuriated him. From early 1842 the threatening revolution consumed all his energies; he became, as some of his friends noted with regret, anenglué, Genevan dialect for fanatic, and helped...

  11. Chapter Seven TÖPFFER THE PROFESSIONAL DILETTANTE
    (pp. 120-127)

    We may be glad, as Töpffer eventually confessed himself to be, that his weak eyesight prevented him from becoming a painter. Instead, he became everything else. His weak eyesight, moreover, taught him to draw rapidly, and evolve the system of doodling that became his hallmark. We may be glad, too, that he stayed in Geneva. In Paris he could have made a career as a journalist or as a professional illustrator/cartoonist, or both at once, like Cham. In Geneva, he earned his bread in a very respectable and very Genevan occupation: as a schoolmaster, and then university lecturer. He occasionally...

  12. Chapter Eight VOYAGES EN ZIGZAG: HUMOR OF THE UNEXPECTED
    (pp. 128-142)

    With the enthusiasms of the Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his native countryside, with the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 by the naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure who thereby sparked awareness of the natural-scientific treasures of the Alps, and especially with the reopening of Europe to travel after the Napoleonic wars, Switzerland and notably Geneva became a prime tourist destination of Europe. Guide and travel books, dioramas and panoramas, poetry, engravings, and paintings proliferated. The wild Swiss Alps were the essence of the Romantic, with its essential components of picturesque and sublime. After Byron and his friends sojourned on the...

  13. Chapter Nine THE LEGACY
    (pp. 143-182)

    In an early assessment of Töpffer’s picture stories, the cleric Jean Gaberel predicted that the genre he invented could have no future without him.¹ How wrong he was. The impact of Töpffer’s new invention was immediate, long-lasting, European wide, and even reached the United States. It was first felt, logically, in France. The first true and consistent disciple of Töpffer in the appealing but difficult genre he created was a déclassé aristocrat from the illustrious house of the counts of Noé, whose title he inherited and never assumed. Charles Amédée de Noé took the acro-pseudonym Cham as the son of...

  14. Envoi
    (pp. 183-184)

    Considering that the comic strip, and the audience for it, barely existed in his own time, and that he had virtually to invent both medium and market, it is not surprising that Rodolphe Töpffer—in utterances both public and private—adopted towards them a casually deprecatory, throwaway stance. There are other examples in history of an author misreading the nature and future of an achievement: Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance, who wrote his title to immortality,The Canterbury Tales, in a hybrid Anglo-French vernacular rather than the fashionable court French, and apologized for the frivolity of its content. Töpffer, too, apologized,...

  15. Appendix A. HISTOIRE DE SÉBASTIEN BRODBEC
    (pp. 185-186)
  16. Appendix B. TÖPFFERʹS COMIC PICTURE-NOVELS
    (pp. 187-190)
    Fr. Vischer
  17. Notes
    (pp. 191-196)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-200)
  19. Index
    (pp. 201-207)