Apr/May 2008


Among other things, Rodolphe Töpffer invented the graphic novel

Chris Ware

In the winter of 1831, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, creator and appreciator of all things Kunst, was feeling blue. His loyal attendants, sympathetic to the great man’s depression, had heard of a taciturn Genevan educator who, in his spare time, wrote and drew farcical picture-stories to amuse himself and his students. So Frédéric Soret, tutor to the Duke of Weimar’s children and translator of one of Goethe’s scientific works, obtained one of these illustrated manuscripts and, placing it into Goethe’s hands, stepped aside. Thankfully, the gamble paid off: Goethe found the book “very amusing,” and it gave him “extraordinary pleasure,” though he chose to take this pleasure in small doses, so as not to suffer “an indigestion of ideas.” Soret also noted that Goethe thought the Genevan sparkled “with talent and wit,” and “if he . . . did not have such an insignificant text [i.e., scenario] before him, he would invent things which would surpass all our expectations.”

The Genevan in question was Rodolphe Töpffer—the inventor of the comic strip. Born in 1799 to the landscape painter (and occasional caricaturist) Wolfgang-Adam Töpffer, the young Töpffer did not follow in his father’s fine-art footsteps, finding employment instead as a schoolteacher who conducted unusual open-air hikes into the Alps before eventually settling into a post as professor of literature at the University of Geneva in 1832. Despite reported vision problems, his abilities as a draftsman were considerable, and his travelogues from these trips are illustrated with lushly scribbled pen drawings. But it was his rough-hewn fictional picture-stories—the loosely doodled satiric improvisations about society, government, and education he began in 1827—that garnered him lasting fame. However fearful Töpffer was of reprisal for indulging in such tomfoolery as caricature (and however worried he was about how it would weigh on the career of a freshly minted university professor), he nonetheless grew cautiously bolder after Goethe’s encouragement, passing out his hand-drawn books to select aristocrats, until it was generally known (wink wink) that the Genevan “RT” was the author of those amusing picture books everyoneespecially Goethe—was talking about. One of the original manuscripts even includes a handwritten exhortation to “please avoid crumpling, dirtying, or pulling the pages about, being careful to turn only by the edge,” revealing just how “underground” these books really were. A cross-century connect-the-dots to the comix movement of the 1960s is almost too easy: Much of Robert Crumb’s earliest work was done in sketchbooks and letters, and a book-length full-color love note to his first wife existed for years only in sketchbook form, until the artist’s fame compelled her to publish it (as The Yum Yum Book in 1975).

Twenty years ago, as an undergraduate painting student at the University of Texas, I’d occasionally seek inspiration in the sterile discomfort of the campus fine-arts library by flipping through the pages of an oversize book published in 1973 and insanely titled The History of the Comic Strip, Vol. 1: The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825. Although I was dutifully attending all my art classes, I was also trying, independently, to draw comic strips like those of Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Ben Katchor: a sort of literary, self-revelatory picture-story aimed at adults. I had no idea what I was doing. Young, confused, and seeking my own voice, I needed not only all the helpful examples I could scrounge up but also a little-known source of readily stealable graphic ideas. Fortunately, this strange tome provided just that. Shortly after graduation, I discovered that the author, David Kunzle, had also painstakingly assembled a second, even more impressively huge and obscure volume, which examined the nineteenth-century comic strip. (Its preface somewhat bitterly noted that “the ‘scientific literature’ of my discipline [art history] has tended to pass by Volume One”; a third volume, unsurprisingly, never appeared.) As years passed, I looked for other books to steal from, and Kunzle’s interests turned away from comics. Who could blame him? In 1990, writing a serious study of comic strips would have been tantamount to writing an analysis of MTV’s VJs.

I should have just waited another seventeen years. Now, when publishers sign “graphic novelists” with a fervor usually accorded only real novelists, and scholarly articles about comics appear nearly as frequently as tenured positions at colleges and universities, Kunzle has returned to the discipline he helped found—with not one but two new marvelous books that focus on the life and work of Töpffer, who not only was the first to codify the visual language of the comic strip but served as the raison d’être for Kunzle’s 1973 study. (Volume 1 of The History of the Comic Strip features an epigram by Töpffer on its frontispiece.) These books constitute the first complete set of Töpffer’s works translated into English, an unjustly late showing considering that the English-speaking world has long claimed that the flash-point invention of the comic strip occurred in 1896 with Richard Outcault, when he introduced speech balloons emitting from a phonograph horn in his strip The Yellow Kid. The material is divided neatly into Father of the Comic Strip, a critical monograph on Töpffer’s work, and The Complete Comic Strips, a 650-page hardbound collection of his published and unpublished picture-stories, translated by Kunzle from the original French. Thankfully, the volumes are devised such that it isn’t necessary to have the monograph on hand to appreciate the comics: Kunzle divvies up information so there is little crossover, and all biographical necessities are included to aid the casual reader (or art student hiding out in the library).

When Goethe tried to describe what he found so revolutionary in Töpffer’s work, he primarily observed that the sequential pictures suggest movement, which “freezes and unfreezes . . . in the spirit of imitation.” In this awkward but prescient observation, Goethe nails the strange mechanism Töpffer had stumbled on and finds metaphoric resonance with one of his own utterances: “Architecture is frozen music.” Kunzle deftly summarizes this mechanism as speed—the speed of drawing, thinking, writing, printing—which infects even the movements of the characters themselves: “Speed, leaving all inessentials aside: that was his aesthetic philosophy in a nutshell, all nuts and no shell, all essence, no mere surface description. So the doodle, first fling of his unconscious, was drawn out into faces, figures and scenarios, careering haphazardly, a little blindly one might say, turning obstacles into launching pads, and logic upside down. Graphic and narrative trajectories remained open.” From a Voltairean ensemble farce to a simple story of love-struck woe to a pragmatic tale of a husband and wife deciding how best to educate their children, Töpffer obviously enjoyed playing with the toy he had invented. Reading back and forth between images, he was the first to discover how to make pictures move.

Töpffer was also among the first to move picture books. By borrowing a lithography method theretofore relegated to advertising circulars and grocers’ bills, he upgraded from the salon and the circulated manuscript to the commercial distribution of the public bookshop. Without having to resort to writing backward on a lithographic stone or, even worse, to the calculated tracing of wood engraving, he was able to self-publish cheaply and to self-distribute selectively. He reaped a much more substantial profit without a middleman—thus becoming the first comic-book mogul, for better or for worse. Stan Lee, who has claimed that he wrote comics “to make a couple of bucks,” would certainly approve.

Töpffer was a serious critic, essayist, and apologist for his new medium, and among the most revelatory sections of Kunzle’s monograph are the chapters on the artist’s “Essay on Physiognomy” and “Essay on Autography,” latter laying out Töpffer’s method of cheap reproduction and how that technique allowed for more fluid drawing and consequent transference of ideas, as well as pointing toward a new way to approach fiction (that is, visually). Kunzle goes into welcome detail about Töpffer’s process, quoting the artist’s explanation of how one of his protagonists, and subsequently an entire story, emerged from idle doodling: “What gave us the idea of doing the whole story of Mr. Crépin was having found in a single stroke of the pen and quite by accident . . . the whole epic issuing much less from a preconceived idea than from a [facial] type and by chance.” This passage is especially significant in that it clearly shows the difference between cartooning and simple illustration. As any moderately serious cartoonist knows, one can think until the cows come home, but the second one puts pen to paper, all bets are off—drawing, and looking, open a whole new world of possibility. As a capper, Kunzle explains that Töpffer preferred to call his works histoires en estampes, which Kunzle translates as “engraved novels” or—gasp!—“graphic novels.” Is there nothing this Genevan didn’t invent?

What strikes the reader immediately on flipping through Töpffer’s work is his unusual sensitivity to human gesture, especially those gestures meant to influence or to deceive, something Leo Tolstoy made regular use of forty years later and which continues to make Anna Karenina and War and Peace feel so real and immediate. (The Russian novelist cited Töpffer’s most popular prose work, “My Uncle’s Library,” as an early inspiration.) One of the fundamental tools of comics is the wordless re-creation of the rhythms of human gesture, most easily accomplished by maintaining a fixed scale of character from one panel to the next, so that the only changes the eye registers are in the variations of posture between the repeating figures (a style more commonly seen before comics began imitating the camerawork of movies). Töpffer uses this device frequently, especially on the opening page of “Mr. Pencil”—one of the eight principal stories in The Complete Comic Strips—in which the main character, an artist, admires his own work, trotting around and coyly glancing at it from various viewpoints. Even without the explanatory text, the figure seems to come alive on the page, the rhythm of his actions revealing his self-satisfaction. A different tone is struck on the first page of “Dr. Festus,” where only the captions indicate that four years have passed between the first two panels. Such wild shifts in time and place, and even crosscutting, are everywhere in Töpffer; the sensation must have been particularly exciting and strange for his first readers, and the importance of these visual innovations should not be lost on historians of cinema, a medium his work unquestionably prefigures.

The flavor of caricature that Töpffer regularly employs—jutting chin and squarish, bulbous, protruding nose (what I think of as the “Punch and Judy” or “Lady Elaine Fairchilde” school)—feels somewhat outmoded today. Like the elongated s in eighteenth-century documents that reads as an f to modern eyes, Töpffer’s archaic style potentially trips up the possibility for empathy with his characters. The story that employs a less exaggerated visual approach, “The History of Albert,” thus ends up being among the most affecting. Unlike many of Töpffer’s other works, which immediately explode into pandemonium, “Albert” is refreshingly no-nonsense. Seemingly a satire of the Swiss educational system from a child’s vantage (Töpffer had ridiculed it in an earlier book from a parent’s point of view), it soon becomes, quite surprisingly, a satire of identity. Even more amazingly, Albert literally grows up before our eyes— and self-righteously so: “His genius starved of air and space by institutions. Criticism, filthy vampire of the dawn of genius.” Töpffer cannily presents Albert’s heartbroken longings and frustrations with a specificity that could, through a few wellplaced guitars, iPods, and mod hairdos, apply to the youth of today. As the young man matures, he tries his hand at being a poet, a law student, a political activist, a medical student, a wine merchant, a grocer, an educator, a cocoa manufacturer, a tutor, a candlemaker, a business agent, a lamplighter, and a newspaper publisher before finally “finding himself” at story’s end. Goethe’s hope that Töpffer might “invent things which would surpass all our expectations” is a potential best fulfilled by this tale.

A total of eight stories, dating from the 1820s to the 1840s, as well as a number of never-before-seen notes, fragments from unfinished works, and deleted scenes, are translated, annotated, and reproduced, making The Complete Comic Strips the true Töpffer boxed set. While all of his works were originally offered in landscape format (that is, horizontally), here they are presented sideways, in a vertically bound book. This means that all five pounds of Töpffer have to be read with the pages flipped up and held with one hand, like a school tablet. Fair enough, but that also means Kunzle’s extraordinarily informative, lively, and necessary footnotes are buried (vertically) at the end of the volume, with no numbers or citations for cross-referencing. (Oddly, Kunzle thanks the publishers in his preface for printing the book “in a format oblong like the original albums.”) Such a kvetch does not diminish the importance of these two remarkable books, however, which should be considered an indispensable part of any art or literature library. Kunzle has finally brought to modern readers stories that until now were, in a sense, unreadable. And Kunzle the scholar is anything but unreadable— those wary of academic writing should be instantly reassured by his genial, lively, and frank commentary. Töpffer, who disliked pretension, would have been quite pleased, I think. The Töpffer Kunzle conjures— believing in the democracy of his art, publicly self-deprecating, prone to magnifying minor slights in solitude—sometimes reminds me of the Charles Schulz of David Michaelis’s recent biography. In fact, the Genevan artist can be so familiar that at times it seemed I was reading a book about my own generation. It’s clear that not only did Töpffer invent the modern comic strip, he also invented the modern cartoonist.

In his two earlier books, Kunzle clearly showed that speech balloons have been a part of graphic narratives for centuries. However, in a recent article for Comic Art magazine, researcher Thierry Smolderen brilliantly reconciles the subtle shadings between the pre- and the postphonographic speech balloon: Before 1896, such balloons were general, internal summations of a character’s intent or desire, but after the appearance of the phonograph, they came to represent a direct transcription of sound, and thus became a theatrical—rather than simply a literary—component of the comic-strip language.

Chris Ware is a cartoonist based in Chicago and the author of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000).