Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Rodolphe Töpffer (1799–1849) was a Swiss schoolmaster, academic, writer, and critic (and more) who, it is increasingly conceded, gave the world its first examples of the modern comic strip. Over a period of ten years or so, he published eight works of graphic narrative that can only be described as comic books or, in the parlance of our time, “graphic novels.” In Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), art historian David Kunzle provides the first critical English-language study of the Swiss writer-artist.
The book’s introduction, which contains brief sketches on Töpffer’s inspirations and his influence outside of graphic narrative, is somewhat uneven, although it does what it sets out to do. The second chapter, wherein Töpffer’s satirical themes are introduced and contextualized with examples from Töpffer’s works, is much stronger. Töpffer and his work are clearly positioned in the cultural and social milieu of Geneva and Europe of the day. After setting up the artists approval of the Swiss military, Kunzle notes that Töpffer, a patriot, directed his critique of the military to foreign powers and monarchial tyranny. And the satire was biting, depicting the military as moronic, stupidly grinning robots or brutal incompetents. Cholera, a serious issue around the time Töpffer did some of his work, was another source of humor, because the medical profession came off as quacks in their inability to understand it and in the remedies they produced, and the fear of its spread was tinged with superstition. Other topics that Töpffer used his pen against were bureaucracy, frontiers and customs regulations, religion (or, rather, religious superstition and institutionalized control), and peasants and the rural, treated with classic urban condescension.
The following chapter treats Töpffer’s early contacts with, and support from, the illustrious Goethe who, despite wanting to have no truck with satire, found the Genevan’s comic strips entertaining and worthy of praise. Chapter three begins Kunzle’s discussion of Töpffer’s works, introducing the artist’s first three published stories: Historie de Mr. Jabot, about a social upstart and a “safe” satire of society circles that turns more and more absurd; Story of Mr. Crépin, a satire on the many sloganeering and highly touted pedagogical theories publicized in the day, especially in Geneva, and in part an advertisement for Töpffer’s own private school type of teaching, as well as a critique of then-popular phrenological “science”; and Les Amours de Monsieur Vieux Bois, a parodic romp that targeted literary romanticism.
Chapter four opens by noting that, in 1839, Töpffer’s genre had found stable ground. He published a second edition of one of his works, his comics were pirated, and he emerged into the Parisian literary scene. A series of comics albums was even launched, containing both Töpffer rip-offs and new work. By 1842, Töpffer was proud of his work, and published an essay in which he revealed the technical “secret” of his own procedure for reproduction. The chapter also treats Dr. Festus, a graphic satire of science and scientists much appreciated by Goethe and published in 1840, in gloss, having been discussed twice before. Instead, Kunzle here mostly discusses Töpffer’s prose version of the story.
The brief fifth chapter deals with the album M. Pencil, a political commentary and a satire on scientific pretension and delusion, and Monsieur Trictrac, a comedy of mistaken identity. Chapter six then deals with Töpffer’s last two works, Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame and Histoire d’Albert. Cryptogame appears in Kunzle’s book not so much in its own right, as in the shape of two discussions; its genesis in the 1830s and the way it came to be redrawn for serialized publication in the mid-1840s by another artist (Töpffer’s eyesight had by this time greatly deteriorated, and his health was rapidly failing) are treated in detail, as are differences between the early manuscript edition and the later published version. Albert, a politically and locally polemic work, fares somewhat better in its delineation, its protagonist’s characterization being recounted with relevant political history and Töpfferian biography in Kunzle’s presentation. The chapter ends with brief recaps of Töpffer’s essays on aesthetic theory and the practice of drawing physiognomy, the latter of which gets the better treatment.
Chapter seven, in my opinion somewhat misplaced, discusses Töpffer’s view on his comics, his reasons for creating them, his feelings about publication, distribution and, the least appreciated aspect of public life, marketing. The section ends with a beautifully written piece about the writer-artist’s likely imagined audience, which would have served as a great place to end the part of the book focusing on Töpffer, before moving on to his influence. As it stands, the chapter continues with a discussion about the genesis of Töpffer’s albums in the classroom, seguing to a comparison with Lewis Carroll’s work that carries into the next chapter (but returns only in its second half). That chapter deals with Voyages en Zigzag, picture stories inspired by Töpffer’s sojourns into the Alps with his students between 1825 and 1842. It is a curious chapter, only loosely connected with the Töpffer that the book is supposed to be about, the “father of the comic strip,” focusing on some of his written work and on his fondness for different kinds of wordplay. Towards the end, it also addresses Töpffer’s growing conservatism, something that is ultimately used to make an ideological point (and to make a quick swipe at then-US president George W. Bush). The book proper then ends with a chapter that traces Töpffer’s immediate influence into France, England, the United States (where a British bootleg version of Töpffer’s M. Vieux Bois became the first comics album to be printed, and where the Swiss schoolmaster’s style was often cribbed), and Germany. (Appended to the book are a summary of an unfinished Töpffer story and a truncated translation of a 6,000-word essay about Töpffer from 1846.)
All in all, I find this to be Kunzle’s most uneven book. As has been hinted above in places, the book leaves the contents of several of Töpffer’s works oblique for the reader, which might owe to the fact that the book was published together with a facsimile edition of Töpffer’s works, edited by Kunzle. It is also repetitive, reiterating several examples within and between chapters, and Kunzle’ borrowing from his earlier writing on Töpffer is difficult to miss. The disposition also leaves something to be desired, vacillating sometimes between chronological and thematic lines.
But the book is nonetheless good and it makes an important contribution to Anglophone comics studies. Kunzle’s preface, besides setting up the book as part of his larger production of comics history, also reiterates a point he had previously made in his book on 19th century comic strips: “Recognition that an ‘obscure’ Genevan could be truly the father of the comic strip, way back in Europe in the 1830s, was delayed in Anglophone countries by a chauvinistic insistence in the U.S.A. that this arch-American phenomenon was invented there in 1896, with the advent of the newspaper supplement” (x). Despite the optimism expressed by comics historian a couple of years before this book was published, that “a transatlantic consensus nowadays acknowledges Töpffer as the first author of comics” (Of Comics and Men, xiv; more on this book soon) the claim that the medium was born in the United States still returns again and again. Father of the Comic Strip, ignored though it seems to have been since it came it, provides an important correction to Americentric comics history and provides new perspectives from which a more even-handed historiography can be undertaken.