Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
I have returned over the last few posts to Rodolphe Töpffer, anticipating him in the review of David Kunzle’s The Early Comic Strip, introducing him with Kunzle’s The Nineteenth Century, and delving a little deeper with Kunzle’s Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer. As these reviews suggest, one of the founding assumptions in much Anglophone comics studies, which often credit Richard Felton Outcault with birthing the comic strip in New York with his “Hogan’s Alley” and its “Yellow Kid,” is problematic. Comics historian Jean-Paul Gabilliet identifies Coulton Waugh and his 1947 The Comics, which was the first book exclusively dedicated to the history of comic strips, as the starting point for this dating (Of Comics and Men, 204). Bart Beaty, another comics scholar, claims that the “Yellow Kid thesis” has been most “aggressively” advanced by comics collector and critic Bill Blackbeard, who has had no lack of followers (Comics Versus Art, 28). Whoever first proposed the dating and whoever has advanced it most fiercely is secondary, of course; Töpffer’s work stands as a clear challenge to the this thesis for those of us who do not define comics according to content-based criteria.
(There is another school of thought that makes speech balloons and recurring characters requirements in their definitions of comics, but these are often self-contradictory and by necessity exclude much that would be formally deemed comics. What these definitions have in common, as Beaty notes , is that they bolster the Outcault-claim.)
So, as far as the best evidence tells us, Töpffer “created” comics (a thesis we will have to hold on to until such a time that a new archival discovery helps us date the first comics publication before Töpffer’s creating his first strip story in 1827). But Töpffer was Swiss, so what does he matter in American and New York comics history? As it turns out, quite a bit. The September 14, 1842, issue of the New York-published magazine Brother Jonathan contained as a supplement a bound, 11.5 by 9 inch book, the full title of which was the rather ponderous The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. Wherein are duly set forth the crosses, chagrins, calamities, checks, chills, changes, and circumgirations, by which his courtship is attended. Showing also the issue of his suit and his espousal to his ladye-love. Another bootleg version soon appeared. These alliterative adventures were, in fact, nothing less than a bootleg reprint of a British adaptation of Töpffer’s album Les Adventures de Monsieur Voix-Bois, that had first been printed in 1837.
Obadiah Oldbuck‘s story is simple enough (in a way). Oldbuck spots a woman and falls in love, trying to keep his passion at bay through study and musical practice. Unable to do so, he tries to kill himself and fails. He tries again to woo her, but fails and, again, tries to kill himself (all in all, he does so five times). Between suicide attempts, he gets caught up in increasingly absurd situations, before ultimately gaining his “ladye-love’s” hand in marriage. (The entire album is available for download at the Dartmouth College Library.)
The American version of the story is, admittedly, somewhat choppy, the pacing arguably a little off, and the narrative truncated compared to the original, but enough remains that it too is played out in drawings arranged horizontally in sequential order, forming a narrative that progresses from panel to panel and page to page in a series of interconnected scenes. Although several captions are purely descriptive, image and text generally mutually reinforce each other, with the latter anchoring the meaning of images that could otherwise be read in several different ways. It is a comic book, then, or perhaps, in the parlance of our time, a “graphic novel,” because, to borrow Töpffer’s words from an apologia for his comics published in 1837:
“This little book is of mixed nature. It is composed of a series of autographed line drawings. Each of these drawings is accompanied by one or two lines of text. The drawings, without this text, would have only an obscure meaning; the text, without the drawings, would mean nothing. The whole constitutes a sort of novel, all the more original in that it does not resemble a novel more than anything else.” (Quoted in Kunzle’s Father of the Comic Strip, 60-61.)
So, here we have the first known comic book printed in America. How many editions of the album were printed or distributed in the United States, all in all, is difficult to say. Kunzle and Gabilliet both single out the version that was published as a supplement to the magazine Brother Jonathan in September 1842 as the first, and their attribution seems correct. The edition linked above, credited to one Timothy Crayon, might not be the same, even though it was also published by Wilson and Company, the publisher behind Brother Jonathan. I haven’t been able to find out exactly how long Obadiah Oldbuck remained in print, or how many other editions were put in circulation by other publishers. But there appears to have been several over a period of decades. The publishing house Dick & Fitzgerald’s announced in the American Literary Gazette and Publishers’ Circular that it would be publishing an edition of the album, under the title The Mishaps and Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, in November 1871. (A Google Books search produces a D&F edition from as early as 1845.) Another D&F version of the album had the (again long) title: The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. Wherein are Set Forth His Unconquerable Passion for His Lady-Love, His Unutterable Despair on Losing Her, His Five Attempts at Suicide, and Surprising Exploits in Search of the Beloved Object. Also, His Final Success. Variations of the title continue to pop up sporadically in book lists, publishing magazines, and newspapers until as late as 1938. So there is, at the very least, no doubt that the story was available for a long time.
Kunzle remarks that Töpffer never really “took” in the United States (Father of the Comic Strip, 176), but it appears that his work was widely appreciated. According to a nostalgic article in The Book Buyer (p. 221-222)from 1898: “The book had a great sale, and when, in the following year, the Genevese artist brought out his ‘M. Cryptogame,’ the same American publishers [Wilson] eagerly snapped up the work and reproduced it under the title of ‘Bachelor Butterfly.'” The short piece gushes with praise, noting that “[t]he universality of real genius, even when expressed in comic pictures, was well illustrated in the world-wide acceptance of ‘M. Vieux Bois.'” By the 1860s (although, apparently, not for long), Töpffer’s lanky figure even seems to have become part of American language. His name was used in such different arenas as the New York Times’ California gossip column (on January 16, 1881; on April 9, 1862; and on November 14, 1862), in an 1869 book about “Fishing in American Waters,” and in an 1871 human interest story about an alcoholic who resolved to reform after his wife’s attempted suicide (see picture on the right). All of these sources name Obadiah in reference to “turning over a new leaf,” a thing the character does repeatedly in a sort of refrain. And, it would appear, they do so with apparent confidence that the reference would be familiar enough for the readership.
The attribution of Töpffer’s work to him, and its recognition as a part of comics history, have both come about in fits and starts. Today, articles and books are being written that clearly recognize Töpffer’s place in comics history. They are far from the first; a lengthy article in the November 1865 issue of The Atlantic Monthly identified Töpffer as the originator of Obadiah Oldbuck and sang his praises. Although the author of the above-cited 1898 piece mentions having read this article in 1865 (or perhaps a similar, briefer notice, which appeared in both the New York Evening Times and the Sacramento Daily Union),the knowledge apparently did not stick, or was not broadly circulated, because a December 23, 1899, New York Times piece, which identifies the album as a source of some controversy sometime earlier, ends with a question: “By the way, who was the guilty author of Obadiah?” It was mentioned as an early comic book in a 1949 National Geographic School Bulletin. The album returns as controversy fodder in a comics-critical 1952 child-rearing book titled The Child and His Play, where it is credited as the first comic book (explicitly supplanting the “Yellow Kid,” in fact). Ellen Wiesse’s 1965 Enter: The Comics contained an essay about Töpffer, his own essay on physiognomy, and his M. Crépin, attesting to his place in comicdom already in its title. In his 1973 book on fanzines, Fredric Wertham, the once-sworn enemy of American comic books, wrote about Obadiah in positive terms, citing an “abstracted” version published in a 1931 Reader’s Digest of Books. So it can be said, at the very least, that Töpffer and his step-child Obadiah never drifted completely beyond the horizon of living memory in the United States.
One final thing. As has already been noted, a second Töpffer plagiarism appeared soon after Obadiah Oldbuck. This, as far as archival research has been able to tell, was the second comic book printed in the United States. Following in its wake were several other albums, all bearing the marks of Töpffer’s style to some extent. In a while, I will discuss the Töpfferian Journey to the Gold Diggins, by Jeremiah Saddlebags, the first verifiably American-made comic book. Töpffer, then, left an indelible imprint also in the United States, and one that cannot be ignored. His place in comics history, as having come before Outcault, seems, to me and to many others, to be proven beyond doubt. Comics, it can be concluded, were not “born” in New York, even if their beginnings as imports from abroad have not decisively shaped and defined them since.