Comic Transformations – Töpffer and the Reinvention of Comics in the First Half of the 19th Century

To mark the recent release of David Kunzle’s long-awaited collection of Swiss comics pioneer Rodolphe Töpffer’s comics work, as well as his monograph on Töpffer the cartoonist (read our review here), the Metabunker hereby presents the following introduction to the comics of Töpffer. It should be noted that the text is a slightly edited version of an essay I wrote as part of a class on the history of the print at the CUNY Graduate Center, Fall of 2004. It was supervised by Prof. Patricia Mainardi, who by the way recently wrote this informative article on the development of comics in the 19th Century.


Winsor McCay’s groundbreaking newspaper strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1926) is in many ways an embodiment of the modern comics form at its finest, in terms of artistic imagination, vision, and subversiveness. In a strip from 1908 (fig. 1), our heroes, Nemo, Flip the Clown, and the Imp, have wandered into the aptly titled Befuddle Hall and suddenly find themselves anamorphically distorted. Mind you, they do not see themselves distorted in a trick mirror; as can be ascertained from reading the dialogue, they are actually aware of being distorted on the paper itself: “The Imp has a face like an oyster! Look at him Flip!” says Nemo, gesturing at his companion to the left, and his cigar-toting, green-skinned friend answers him “Oh! I know! My face feels like it has been caved in! I wonder how we can get out of this place!” Despite the great originality of McCay’s vision in general and his many formal inventions exhibited on a page such as this, this example fundamentally embodies several of the characteristics that have been central to the comics medium through the 20th Century, and which have only in recent decades been challenged substantially by a proliferation of works fathoming more naturalistic forms of narration and representation – a remarkable development that falls outside the scope of this essay.

These defining characteristics of the medium in its modern form can be summed up, babuschka-style, in three main points, contained one within each other. First is a completely unfazed claim on the fantastic as the medium’s basic territory of exploration. Comics have through their modern history consistently been characterized by an effortless mise-en-scène of fantastic elements and situations, often juxtaposed with more down-to-earth components, such as the dialogue on the 1908 Nemo page. In comics, probably more than in any other narrative, visual medium, this juxtaposition seems natural and only rarely contrived. In comics you can juxtapose a naturalistically drawn character with a talking duck without the reader blinking an eye, or you can have the abstract décor of the background wax, wane and metamorphose without it affecting the diegesis of the shenanigans of the actors, as one sees it in George Herriman’s deceptively simple and hauntingly mysterious Krazy Kat (fig. 2, 1913-1944). The medium has, in other words, been consistently and insistently non-naturalistic in an age where other narrative media have largely striven toward naturalism or even realism.

Second is the reliance on the archetype as supremely exemplified in Charles M. Schulz’ masterpiece, Peanuts (1950-2000) (fig. 3). In the tradition of narrative forms of earlier times from both popular and refined cultural contexts – from folk tales and fables to Greek theater – comics have almost exclusively relied on the archetype as their basic character trope and on very clear-cut, archetypical plots and narrative structures, spanning from such staples as the sight gag to the basic out-and-home-again adventure.

Third is the self-reflexivity – The Imp, Nemo and Flip know the cartoonist is distorting them to entertain the reader, just as Sidney Smith’s Old Doc Yak gets evicted from the comics page because he cannot afford the price of the white space of the page, making way for the hopefully more financially reliable Gump-family (fig. 4). In comics, there is always a sense of Verfremdung in the Brechtian sense; of distance to the reality postulated by the image and text. Activating as they do the brain’s synthetic capabilities in demanding active participation from the reader in piecing together the narrative from the fragments of the individual images,1 comics constantly call attention to the fact that they are artifice, that they are an interpretation of reality, not a substitute for reality itself.

While these fundamental characteristics of the medium have their roots in the archetypical and the idiomatic manifestations of cultural production going back to ancient times, it is my not particularly controversial assertion that the medium more or less fully developed the basic form by which we recognize it in the first half of the 19th Century.2 This essay is an attempt to chart how these characteristics at this time experienced a reconfiguration in the synthesis of text and image in narrative form we have come to know as comics, driven by the hypothesis that this development forms an integral – if somewhat subversive – part of a more general development in visual culture towards a fragmentary conception of the world and the convincing simulation of reality, making comics a truly modern form.

For reasons of brevity, the focus will be on the groundbreaking work of the Swiss schoolmaster, author, playwright, journalist and cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846). Through its immediate and immense popularity, Töpffer’s comic strip work was the decisive formal factor in establishing the basic conventions and narrative tropes of the comic strip medium in subsequent decades and is thus essential to any endeavor of this type.3 The other seminal figure in this period is the French cartoonist Jean Ignace-Isidore Gérard, better known as J. J. Grandville (1803-1847), who mainly worked with single illustrations, often in series, or narrative work in which his drawings would invariably submit to an existing text,4 which, as we shall see, disqualifies him as a ‘comics’ artist in the eyes of many scholars, but who nevertheless embodies the characteristics sketched out above like few other artists of the period. He is a surprisingly solitary figure in the field, standing out against his precursors as well as his contemporaries and spawning few imitators or artistic heirs in his own century – a towering, albeit anomalous artistic presence deserving of a treatment similar to this one, which would surely yield complementary, but also contrasting insights into the birth of modern comics and the art of cartooning associated with them.

An elusive art
The purpose of this essay is not to reach a definition of what exactly constitutes comics – something, which, like any definition of its kind, is a notoriously elusive exercise5 – but rather to analyze an early 19th-Century phenomenon through the work of a preeminent artist. While, as is usual in the treatment of comics, an emphasis is here placed on narrative forms – primarily as constituted by multiple, juxtaposed images, often incorporating but rarely dominated by text – the shared heritage of sequential and non-sequential forms and the general lack of distinction between them on the part of the consumers at the time is both recognized and asserted. Whether serially juxtaposed or not, these images were regarded as caricatures or – to use an English word – cartoons, by their creators, their publishers, and their audience alike. There is a similar basic sensibility to them that sat them apart from the fine arts of the day, and there are similarly irreverent and humorous creative agendas behind them.6

The practice of telling stories through pictures, often mixed with words, goes back to the dawn of human artistic practice, and the more specific expressive elements such as speech balloons and stylized symbolic imagery representing movement, smoke and plenty of other things, which we have come to associate with comics, at least date back to medieval times. Caricature has existed since antiquity, and came to the fore once art again became mimetic in the Renaissance, with Leonardo, as in so many other things, being the pioneer. The Carracci consolidated it further, and printed broadsheets juxtaposing images and text to form a narrative more or less originated with the invention of printing, so comics, broadly and loosely defined, were nothing new. The assertion that is sought illustrated here is, however, that the late 18th and especially the first half of the 19th Century is a particularly dynamic and decisive period in the history of the medium – a period of transformation.

Comics Time!
Regardless of definitions and issues of originality, there are some basic facts that indicate this to be true. From almost exclusively dealing with political and social issues, in the form of satire and caricature, an offshoot of cartooning that was unabashedly humorous and often absurd started coming into its own around the turn of the 18th/19th Century. This, for all intents and purposes, new genre of cartooning, increasingly saw publication in the form of sequential narratives, and with the advent of Töpffer’s first published comics in the 1830s exploded to become an immensely popular form all over Europe.7 This development is the focus of the present essay, which thus does not attempt to claim that Töpffer or anybody else at the time ‘invented’ comics, but rather that what they did was sufficiently different and timely to warrant the description of something ‘new.’

The narrative juxtaposition of images with accompanying text had become reactualized in the 18th Century by the enormously influential William Hogarth (1697-1764), and was obviously a form to fit the time. Of direct Hogarthian lineage was the British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) who created the instantly popular character Doctor Syntax, a rashly romantic and generally comic professor with aspirations of greatness, whom Rowlandson from 1809-12 – in collaboration with writer William Combe – in Doctor Syntax; in Search of the Picturesque sent out in search of the much vaunted picturesque landscape and feel, lampooning the highly strung aspirations of the theoretically influential artist William Gilpin (1724-1804) in particular, and the Romantics in general. Rowlandson generally devotes one illustration to each scene in the story, only in one case (fig. 5 a, b, c), where the protagonist gets robbed and tied to tree – a distressful situation he subsequently gets out of through the intervention of a couple of bypassing damsels – condensing the narration in the way which will soon come to characterize comics. Syntax spawned several sequels as well as numerous imitations, while Rowlandson’s colleague George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was leaving his earlier, Hogarthian work increasingly behind in works such as the more frivolous Scraps and Sketches (1828-1832), and cartoonists such as Robert Seymour (1798-1836) and Pierce Egan (1782-1875) were starting to experiment with the form.8 This development was not confined to England, as several other European countries, amongst them the Netherlands and Sweden,9 saw similar developments. A constituent factor for the development of comics was the centuries-old tradition for publishing prints in series. A printmaker such as Goya (1746-1828) obviously organized his Caprichos (1793-1796) or his Desastres de la guerra (1810-1815) in deliberate sequence, although the narratives of those series are probably too elusive for them to be characterized as comics the way the term is usually understood. He did, however, create at least one sequence with a remarkably condensed narrative that one would be hard pressed not to describe as a comic strip, namely the 1806 series of four paintings documenting the contemporary incident of lay brother Fra Pedro de Zaldivia disarming a bandit trying to rob him (fig. 6 a, b, c, d, e, f). Though painted in oil, this sequence is closer to the tightly organized narrative of later 19th, as well as 20th-century comics than Rowlandson and most of Goya’s other contemporaries. It was ‘comics time!’ And a couple of decades later, in May of 1833, Töpffer came along and provided the most important single catalyst of the century with his first published comic, Histoire de M. Jabot.10

A Winter in Weimar
During the winter of 1830, the aging Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), mourning the recent death of his son in Rome, was shown two drawn manuscripts recounting the humorous escapades of a nature-lover11 on the run from his self-styled fiancée, and a rambling burlesque of mistaken identity, complete with talking trees, flying telescopes, and one-eyed astronomers, by his friend Frédéric Soret (1795-1865), who had just come back to Weimar from his native Geneva. The manuscripts – L’Histoire de M. Cryptogame (drawn in 1830) and Voyages et aventures du Dr. Festus (drawn in 1829) – were by a little known schoolmaster and author, Rodolphe Töpffer, Soret’s old schoolmate and friend. They were drawn in a loose, doodling style and possessed of a generally irreverent and anti-authoritarian streak, repudiating the romantic ideal of perfect fusion between man and woman and mocking the clergy, the military, and men of science. Despite his professed antipathy towards caricature, the strongly conservative Goethe surprisingly loved them, probably because they – in contrast to the work of the cartoonists he reviled, such as Gillray – were not overtly political in their content.12

In a letter to Töpffer, Soret wrote that “Goethe kept the two albums a few days, looking only at a dozen or so pages at a time, resting afterwards, because, he said, he risked getting an indigestion of ideas. After a while, he sent [them] to me with a letter, in which he wrote the following, which I hereby cite for you: “I send you, with thanks, the strange, small books. […] In the caricatured novels, one can only admire the multitude of motifs that he [the author] draws from such a small number of characters; he shames the most fertile inventor of combinations, and one must commend him for his innate, clear, and ever-ready talent.” Soret also wrote that Goethe said “It really is too crazy and strange, but it really sparkles with talent and wit; artistically, one remarks how the draftsmanship, the sketched work, exhibits how much M. Töpffer could achieve, if he realized his full potential.” 13 The letter also stated that Goethe promised he would write something on the albums, as soon as he got the time (something which he indeed did in the last, posthumously published issue of his literary journal Kunst und Alterthum in 1832), and contained an encouragement from Soret and Goethe’s editor, Johann Peter Eckermann (1792-1854), to publish the work.

Additionally prompted by the even warmer reception of his third album, Histoire de M. Jabot (drawn in 1831), which Goethe preferred to the others,14 Töpffer, who had drawn these humorous albums for the private amusement of himself and his students at the school he mastered and taught at in Geneva, decided to publish them – something he had until then refrained from, probably due to wariness that it might hurt his budding career as a pedagogue and a “serious” author.15 His first published effort in the form was M. Jabot in 1833, which met considerable success once it was distributed to bookstores in 1835, comfortably after his breakthrough novel, La Bibliothèque de mon oncle of 1832. This was followed up by M. Crépin and Les Amours de M. Vieux Bois in 1837 (originally drawn in 1827, his first comics story). Through their distribution in literary circles, these albums, which were all published in low print runs of around 500 copies, quickly became well known and much to Töpffer’s dismay spawned pirated editions in France and England, prompting him to release official editions in both countries. Eventually, his comics production amounted to 7 albums, which, in addition to those already mentioned, includes Monsieur Pencil (1840), Le Docteur Festus (a.k.a. Voyages et aventures du Dr. Festus, 1840), Histoire d’Albert (1845) and, finally, L’Histoire de M. Cryptogame (1845, drawn for the published version by the French cartoonist Cham (1819-1879)).16 The means of production was what he called ‘autography.’ Derived from the original term for lithography, ‘polyautography’, this described a lithographic process where the images were first drawn on transfer paper from which the stone was prepared, thus maintaining the orientation of the hand-written text beneath the images.17 The format for each is oblong, with a page count between eighty and just below a hundred, each page consisting of several juxtaposed images, separated by thin, often lightly undulating lines, with the text framed underneath them. In addition to their other groundbreaking features, to be detailed in the following section, they were, thus, also pioneer effort in the formatting of comics, which until the 1970s would almost exclusively be an anthologized or press-related phenomenon – the first line of separately packaged books, containing comics – i.e. what has today, for want of better terms, come to be termed ‘albums’ in most European countries, and ‘graphic novels’ in Anglophone countries.

‘Littérature en estampes’
As noted, Töpffer was slightly wary of publishing his comics due to the possible adverse effect they might have on his reputation. What exactly his reasons were, however, can only be guessed at. It is, in any case, apparent that he was keenly aware of the subversive and slightly improper nature of the form; in 1831, for example, he described doing them as an escapist and slightly suspect exercise that he had to undertake in the safety of his cellar:

… I feel choked, stuffed, indigestive, by politics. To me, it’s like a creaky door that I can’t fix by lubricating the hinges. And the Fine Arts, the Letters and other activities you know me for currently seem to me like strange, alien things. I hide myself to draw. I go into my cellar to compose my funnies, afraid to be accused of indifference towards Poland, of insensitivity to the grand, social movement, cold towards Belgium! And in my cellar, I’ve written a good handful of small pieces of theater since Briolet, some of which we have performed, others of which I would like to read for you. And, also, in my cave, I’ve written, since Vieux Bois and Criptogame, the truthful story of Doctor Festus – of M. Trictrac – of M. Jabot – and I’m now working on that of M. Pencil and that of Doctor Saitout.18

He was, however, also proud of his comics work and obviously believed in its potential, going on to become the first theoretician of the medium. His most important theoretical piece, the Essai de physiognomonie (fig. 7, 1845),19 which has been described as a precursor of semiotics,20 is essentially an exploration of the signification of human expression. The primary inspiration was the Physiognomonische Fragtmente of 1775-1779, a monumental theoretical study of human character, based on observation of physical characteristics and behavior, written by the Swiss philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), with some collaboration by a young Goethe, incidentally. Töpffer’s Essai adapts the contemporary scientific practice of physiognomony21 to his own purposes, being less interested in – and even dismissive of – its efforts to formulate specific relations between physical appearance and human personality and character, than in the conceptions of those relations as we form them in our brain. He was generally deeply skeptical of any science that claims to provide exact answers to human behavior, such as the widespread practice of phrenology, which attempted to assess the character and personality of people from the shape of their skulls. Essentially, his Essai is thus an exploration of the archetype – how we use it to understand people around us, and how it can be applied to paper to convey human qualities. He furthermore explores the possibilities of line – how it can reduce any form to its bare essentials, drawing out and accentuating the most important aspects of it. This is particularly relevant to the representation of individuals, he asserts, as a person’s or a fictional character’s personality or even ‘soul’ can be laid bare through simplification and caricature.

Fully aware of the originality of the form with which he was working, he dubbed his stories ‘littérature en estampes’ (‘literature in prints’), and – acknowledging the popular tradition of prints and the inspiration from Hogarth22 – intended them for a broad audience, with the newly alphabetized masses being the main target.23 In connection with this, he emphasized the clarity of their presentation and their unique synthesis of image and text.24 In what was presented as a thinly veiled of review of M. Jabot, but was really a kind of apology for his form and method, he wrote in 1837:

This book is of a mixed nature. It consists of a series of autographed drawings. Each of the 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 forms a kind of novel, all the more peculiar in that it no more resembles a novel than anything else. The author of this little oblong volume has not made himself known. If he is an artist, he draws feebly, but he has some practice in writing; if he is a man of letters, his writing is mediocre, but he does have, as a graphic artist, a pretty amateur talent. If he is a serious man, he has singularly comic ideas; if his genre is comedy, he is not lacking in a sense of the serious.25

In addition to pointing out the seamless synthesis of text effected by his organic handwriting – something which prefigures the ideals of future cartoonists to have their drawing and lettering amalgamate fully to become a kind of ‘artistic handwriting’ – he notes, in partial repudiation of the statements made in the letter of 1831, how the form is ineffably capable of entertaining, often in absurd and fantastic ways,26 and offering a serious point of view at the same time – something which, as noted in the introduction, has since been proven true by a century and a half of strips doing just that. When one peruses his work, this should be apparent. The antics of the clumsy but resourceful social climber M. Jabot – a direct descendant of Molière’s comic characters, and a clear precursor to both Harold Lloyd and Chaplin’s tramp – are simultaneously a panoply of rhythmically ordered sight gags, and an irreverent mockery of the bourgeoisie and its pretensions (fig. 8 a, b, c, d, e). The story is furthermore a good example of Töpffer’s inventive and confident use of his chosen form. A basic device, which he employs in all his comics, is the adoption of a peculiar and thus recognizable physiognomy for the protagonist, which makes him stand out amongst the generally less caricatured supporting cast. In his correspondence on the adaptation of Cryptogame for the published version with the publisher, Jacques-Julien Dubochet, and the cartoonist Cham – whom he chose on the basis of his loose, open, imprecise and ‘funny’ drawing style27 – he emphasizes vitality of expression over consistency. While he sees both of them as important, he stresses that too much accuracy of detail makes for lesser cartoons.28 Another staple of his work, which consolidates several of his archetypical protagonists, is the initial use of a Leitmotif defining them. In Jabot’s case it is the “position” which he assumes every time he has botched things severely enough for a fresh start to be necessary. In formal terms, this device adds to the rhythmic feel of the reading and makes use of the classic comic strategy of eliciting laughter through repetition – the exact effect it seems to have had on Goethe, who commended Töpffer for it.29

M. Crépin takes on a subject particularly near and dear to Töpffer, the education of children, which in many ways makes it his most didactic comics story. It is a scathing critique of the educational reforms being introduced in Geneva at the time, and some of the new theories of education sweeping the continent. The increasingly conservative Töpffer who himself taught according to some of these new principles stages a criticism of the old system of private tutors, as well as the increasingly prevalent institutions of mass education through a family’s – M. Crépin’s – desperate search for somebody to teach their large brood of badly behaved, completely identical looking kids. We thus both encounter a private tutor who professes to teach according to a perfect system that “proceeds from the general to the specific,” a neat slogan which, needless to say fails miserably when tested against reality, and a modern institution which claims to instruct by entertaining, teaching history by using dancing cardboard marionettes. By far the worst criticism is reserved for a phrenologist who claims to have all the answers and envisions a completely organized society where the wonders of his science will have abolished the need for religion, morals, or law, because everybody will be doing what they are meant to be doing – something which can be accurately divined from examining the shape of their cranium. M. Crépin promptly declares that he finds such a society as abhorrent as it is impossible (fig. 9).

M. Vieux Bois’ pursuit of his “desired object” – a woman who remains unnamed – is an irreverent sapping of romantic ideals of love and bucolic harmony, simultaneously offering a running gag of the protagonist’s dog sidekick gaining or loosing weight, or his rival suffering all sorts of humiliating accidents. At one point this leads to a particularly effective sequence where Töpffer, as he does in all his comics, makes effortless use of cross-cutting between scenes (fig. 10 a, b). The readability has here been taken into careful consideration through a variation in panel size between the concurrent scenes, clearly separating the main narrative track from the secondary one.(It is, furthermore, interesting to see how Töpffer employs the kind of flexible representation of time that is so central to comics storytelling – the dunking of our protagonist’s adversary at the mill surely taking less time than M. Vieux Bois and his love interest’s bucolic activities). No examples of earlier uses of crosscutting in narrative cartooning are known, and, as seems to be a general trend in comics during the 19th Century, it prefigures the similar technique in film,30 in which it would only establish itself with the cinema of D.W. Griffith in the early decades of 20th Century.

Dr. Festus offers a breathlessly paced, complex slapstick comedy of cross-dressing and mistaken identity that, as already noted, ridicules the main bodies of authority of modern society – the military, politicians, the church, and scientists: a comedic couple of soldiers follow the gestural “orders” of their commander’s jacket blowing in the wind, while a politician experiences a surreal dream of “Holding the scales of Themis” and a priest believes the protagonist, trapped in a tree, to be the presence of the devil. A little later, the good doctor finds himself floating through the skies on a giant telescope, accompanied by three scientists vigorously – and at one point even corporeally – debating their individual hypotheses, while astronomers that have gone blind on one eye from observing the Zodiac interpret them as an heretofore undiscovered celestial body plummeting towards the Earth (fig. 11).

M. Cryptogame further lampoons religious fanatics that alternately want to guard his chastity – he has, in a moment of weakness, joined a monastery to escape the attentions of his “lover,” Elvire – or to burn him at the stake for his lack of faith. It topically comments on the colonial conflict in Algeria31 by portraying the ‘Moors’ in the narrative as both stupid and cruel, while at the same time offering up the most delirious sequences, such as the one – incidentally singled out by Goethe32 – where our hero and his fiancée find themselves, and each other, on a ship (fig. 12 a, b, c, d). As he is wont to do throughout the story, he tries to flee her in desperation; she pursues him and is in turn pursued by his comic sidekick in the story, the Abbé. This prompts the aforesaid Moors to take up their own pursuit, which again gets the domesticated animals involved, until the birds, the rats and even the furniture also participates in the resultant merry-go-round and the vessel spins at 8 revolutions per second. This sequence additionally showcases Töpffer’s confidence with the form, repeating the running forms of Cryptogame and his two initial pursuers across one page, gradually narrowing the panel size on the next, accelerating the pace of the narrative, and finally opening up for a panorama shot of the rotating ship. It should be further noted that Cryptogame, in his efforts to escape Elvire, also gets swallowed by a whale, in the bowels of which he gets married to a cute provencale woman who happens to be there, and that he goes to the arctic and gets frozen stiff, only to be thawed by Elvire, who at a later point literally explodes from rage and jealousy, with Töpffer again exhibiting inventiveness in coming up with shorthand imagery that has since become the standard in comics (fig. 13).

Amongst Töpffer’s comics, M. Pencil is the most obviously inspired by the events of the Revolution of 1830, but at the same time offers what are perhaps his most spectacular and hilarious sight gags. One of the characters is trapped inside a crate by an ignorant and headstrong scientist believing him to be a specimen of an alien race, and thus through a large part of the story appears as an anthropomorphized coffin which at one point decides to commit suicide by hanging himself from a tree by the arm, and with sublime comedic timing changing hands when he becomes tired (fig. 14). In a concurrent narrative thread, a panicking dog balancing on the scales of a telegraph tower, in a satire on the fickleness of technology, accidentally transmits signals that throw the governments of several countries into disarray, almost resulting in full-scale war.

Töpffer’s last completed story, L’Histoire d’Albert, is the only one that stands out in terms of seriousness. Written at a time when Töpffer had moved away from his earlier, politically liberal disposition to become a concerned, conservative observer of the civil unrest in his country, it is less frivolous and more overtly satirical, presenting a bitingly sarcastic story of an immoral and opportunist rabble-rouser with bourgeois roots – a portrait of the contemporary radical leader Jacques Fazy33 – who irresponsibly throws the country into chaos and civil war. This story further contains one of Töpffer’s most spectacular narrative inventions, conveying a literal as well as a figural ascension through incrementally narrowing panel size and allotting more space to the text (fig. 15). It should also be noted that Albert contains the only example of a close-up in a comic by Töpffer, something which he probably eschewed in recognition of its limited use in a simplified idiom such as his.

What a formal examination of his comics reveals, in short, is that all the basic techniques of comics storytelling as we know it are already firmly established in them – the only recurring element he does not make use of in his comics is the speech balloon, but his use of it in other drawings shows this to be a conscious choice – he prefers narrating the way he does instead of having dialogue.34 Also, the basic characteristics of the medium as it would develop were established by him. Töpffer’s comics are irreverent, non-naturalistic, fantastic and archetypical. As for the meta-reflexivity mentioned in the introduction, Töpffer also made use of that in at least one, important instance. In what is probably his most complex and artistically comprehensive work, M. Pencil, the eponymous protagonist seems to play the role of the fickle narrator, Töpffer’s alter-ego, who most of the time stays in the background, but on a whim will enter the narrative and changes things around. We start out by seeing him sketching from nature whereupon a little, mischievous zephyr comes along and blows his work of art out of his hands and into the world, setting off the series of events that leads to the central conflicts of the story (fig. 16). Pencil stays fairly passive throughout most of most of the narrative until the end, where he once again steps up and, with a wave of his hand, reunites the sundered couples whose travails we have followed up until then (the doctor who mistook one character for an alien and imprisoned him in the crate gets to embrace himself, whereupon the lost dog who has caused all the trouble with the telegraph signals is also reunited with its master and peace again reigns in a Europe in the looming shade of the calmed telegraph towers. A typically ironic, “happy” Töpffer-ending (fig. 17).

The Shattered Spectacle
Emerging as it does out of an ages-old tradition for popular, humorous storytelling and imagery, it seems inevitable that cartooning would experience a major reconfiguration as popular culture was becoming mass culture. While the focus has here been on the first major innovator of sequential cartooning, it should once again be noted that most of the things that characterize the new comics of the 19th Century also largely apply to non-sequential cartooning. Since the Renaissance, popular traditions of expression had been largely divided from those institutionalized by the elite. With the rise of the bourgeoisie, the formerly so clear division between the two necessarily started collapsing. In the arts, this resulted in dramatic attempts at reconfiguring increasingly obsolete classical ideals, which eventually ended up having to give way to timely representations of the here and now, of modern life as it was happening. It seems natural that a form with its roots in popular imagery with its archetypical and humorous idioms, finding itself in sudden confluence with an artistic culture it had until then been largely separate from, would situate itself in opposition to it. Popular culture by definition being timely, this manifestation would naturally enough be one deeply engaged in the modern culture it was part of. But in opposition to most other manifestations of mass culture, such as the panoramas, dioramas, wax museums, and eventually photography and film,35 which all sought to replicate reality as convincingly as possible, cartooning, due to its roots, stayed archetypical, unnaturalistic, and irreverently anti-classical and anti-authoritarian. Unabashedly topical, it would directly reference and comment upon events, people and cultural developments around it, as well as its own role in the order of things. It therefore seems logical that it would remain in opposition to the naturalism that, in all its intense timeliness, in the 19th Century was an avant-garde, elitist project that turned out to have such resonance that it would largely dominate popular culture through the 20th Century.

This is not to say that comics and cartoons were not affected by the changes in visual culture. In the case of comics, one can certainly see the idea of juxtaposing images to form a narrative as a naturalist impulse; an attempt to provide the illusion of movement so sought after in visual media at the time. It has already been noted here how storytelling techniques such as cross-cutting in comics prefigure their use in cinema, something which seems like a clear indication that similar, modern visual approaches to storytelling were current across the board.36 One can furthermore see the fragmented, narrative world of comics as a symptom of the general fragmentation of the worldview ushered in by the collapse of the encyclopedic, ordered outlook of the Enlightenment in the late 18th Century. The splintered field of experience exhibited in the writings of the Romantics and the work of the plein-air painters would increasingly inform the creation of art through the 19th Century, with painting invariably presenting a point de vue on the world, rather than, as it had earlier, a self-enclosed totality. It does not seem like a huge stretch of the imagination to see the proliferation of sequential cartooning during the century as a manifestation of these trends.

Returning to Töpffer’s time, one of the decisive events in the development of the pictorial arts was the invention of photography. Louis-Jacques-Mandé-Daguerre (1787-1851) himself stressed, in 1839, that his invention, the daguerreotype, was not merely a way of drawing nature, but nature’s means of reproducing itself, while at its introduction at the Chamber of Deputies in Paris that same year, it was described in terms of “drawing,” and Daguerre’s fellow traveler at this juncture (‘photography time!’), Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), called his almost simultaneous invention of the paper-based negative “the pencil of nature.”37 Töpffer, however, was prompt in his rejection of the spreading notion that photography would replace the traditional representational arts, writing in a letter of 1839 that photography “… at each exposure is an identical reproduction of nature arrived at through the same process…”, while painting “… for each picture is a new reproduction of nature arrived at with different means, that is expression and not imitation.”,38 and in an article of 1841 that photography was merely “…a palpable confirmation of the largely ignored, but nevertheless so profoundly, so vigorously true fact that, in the arts of imitation, imitation is not the goal, but the means of the art.” 39 Ever ready to defend his art and the validity of expressiveness, this assertion can be seen as a confirmation of the tenacity of comics and cartoons in offering a refreshingly different alternative to other dominant visual forms. An alternative rooted in ancient, enduring forms and idioms, which they, since Töpffer’s first comics more than a century and a half ago, have managed to keep as fresh as ever.40 A consistent, life-affirming, subversive statement against the dominant Spectacle of modern society, to use Debord’s incisive term.41 Sometimes, Befuddle Hall – like Töpffer’s cellar – can be a welcome and illuminating magic mirror on the World.


Books and articles
Appelbaum, Stanley (ed.). Bizarreries and Fantasies of Grandville; 266 illustrations from Un autre monde and Les animaux. New York: Dover Publications, 1974.

Arago, Dominique-Francois, ”Report of the Commission of the Chamber of Deputies… Presented by M. Arago, Deputy of the East-Pyrénées, in the French Chamber of Deputies, on July 3, 1839,” in Trachtenberg 1980, pp. 15-25.

Ault, Donald. “Cutting Up” Again Part II: Lacan on Barks on Lacan,” in: Christiansen & Magnussen 2000, pp. 123-140.

Blondel, Auguste. Rodolphe Töpffer – L’écrivain, l’artiste et l’homme. Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1886.

Christiansen, Hans-Christian & Magnussen, Anne (ed.). Comics and Culture – Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer – On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception – Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Christiansen, Hans-Christian. Tegneseriens æstetik. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 2001.

Daguerre, Louis-Jacques-Mandé, “Daguerrotype” (1839), in Trachtenberg 1980, pp. 11-13.

Debord, Guy, La Société du spectacle. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

Dierick, Charles & Lefèvre, Pascal (eds.). Forging a New Medium: The Comic Strip in the Nineteenth Century. Brussels: VUB University Press, 1998.

Donald, Diana. The Age of Caricature – Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III. New Haven & London: The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art / Yale University Press, 1996.

Frahm, Ole. “Weird Signs – Comics as a Means of Parody”, in: Christiansen & Magnussen 2000, pp. 178-191.

Garcin, Laure. J. J. Grandville, révolutionnaire et précurseur de l’art du mouvement. Paris: Eric Losfeld, 1970.

Gautier, Léopold. “Soret, Töpffer et M. de Goethe” & “Avec Töpffer”, in: Études töpfferiennes vol. 1: Töpffer en zigzag – Chroniques et études, Geneva: Société d’études töpfferiennes (1977), pp. 70-78 & 112-116.

Goethe, Johan Wolfgang von. Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, Trans. John Oxenford. London: George Bell & Sons, 1874.

Goethe, Johan Wolfgang von. Goethes Gespräche mit Eckermann. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1955.

Groensteen, Thierry. “Rodolphe Töpffer scénariste”, in: Maghetti 1996, pp. 278-292.

Groensteen, Thierry. Système de la bande dessinée. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999.

Groth, Gary. ”Ralph Steadman – Into the Gentle Darkness…”, The Comics Journal #131, Seattle (1989).

Groth, Gary. “One of my main reasons to go on living is I think I haven’t done my best work,” The Comics Journal Library 3 (2004), pp. 12-63.

Kunzle, David. 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. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973.

Kunzle, David. “Goethe and Caricature: From Hogarth to Töpffer”, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 48, London (1965), pp. 164-188.

Kunzle, David. History of the Comic Strip vol. 2: The Nineteenth Century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.

Maas, Nop. “The Archeology of the Dutch Comic Strip,” in: Dierick and Lefèvre 1998, pp. 51-78.

Maghetti, Daniel (ed.). Töpffer. Geneva: Skira, 1996.

McCloud. Understanding Comics. Northhampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

Peeters, Benoît & Groensteen, Thierry. Töpffer – L’invention de la bande dessinée. Paris: Hermann, 1994.

Powell, Kirsten. Fables in Frames: La Fontaine and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century France. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Renonciat, Annie & Rebeyrat, Claude. La vie et l’oeuvre de J.J. Grandville. Paris : ACR: Vilo, 1985.

Renonciat, Annie (1996). ”Un théoricien de la « Littérature en estampes » ”, in: Maghetti, 1996, pp. 259-277.

Rowlandson, Thomas. Thomas Rowlandson’s Doctor Syntax Drawings – An Introduction and Guide for Collectors. Ed. Jerold J. Savory. London: Cygnus Arts / Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

Schwarz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities – Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1998.

Sello. Gottfried (ed.). Grandville – Das gesamte Werk. 2 vols. Munich: Rogner U. Bernhard, 1969.

Talbot, Henry Fox, “A Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art,” in Trachtenberg 1980, pp. 27-36.

Thompson, Kristin and Bordwell, David. Film History: An Introduction, 2nd edition. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. Drawn by George Cruikshank. London: Tilt and Bogue, 1841.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Histoire d’Albert. Geneva: Schmidt, 1845.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Histoire de M. Cryptogame. Drawn by Cham. Paris: É. Blot et fils ainé, 1850.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Histoire d’Albert. Redrawn by Francois Töpffer. Paris: Caillet/Garnier, 1860.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Histoire de Mr. Jabot. Redrawn by Francois Töpffer. Paris: Caillet/Garnier, 186?

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Le Docteur Festus. Redrawn by Francois Töpffer. Paris: Garnier, 186?

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Rudolph Töpffer’s komische Bilder-Romane – Lustige Geschichten und Karikaturen des berümten Verfassers der Genfer Novellen. Darmstadt: Melzer Verlag, 1975.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. “Réflexions à propos d’un programme,” in Groensteen & Peeters 1994, pp. 144-160.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. “Notice sur L’Historie de Mr Jabot, ” in Groensteen & Peeters 1994, pp. 161-163.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. “Notice sur la contrefaction de L’Historie de Mr Jabot,” in Groensteen & Peeters 1994, pp. 164-165.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. “Notice sur les Essais d’autographie,” in Groensteen & Peeters 1994, pp. 166-173.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. “Correspondence avec Cham” (1844-45), in Groensteen & Peeters 1994, pp. 174-183.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. “Essai de physiognomonie”, in Groensteen & Peeters 1994, pp. 184-225.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Rodolphe Töpffer – M. Jabot, M. Crépin, M. Vieux Bois, M. Pencil, Docteur Festus, Histoire d’Albert, M. Cryptogame. Paris: Pierre Horay, 1996.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Monsieur Jabot ; Monsieur Vieux-Bois : Deux histoires d’amour. Paris: Seuil, 1996.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Rodolphe Töpffer: Zeichnen als Abenteuer. Geneva/Angoulême: Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image, 1996.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Correspondance complète, 2 vols. Edited and annotated by Jacques Droin w/Danielle Buyssens & Jean-Daniel Candaux. Geneva: Droz, (2002 / 2004).

Trachtenberg, Alan (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

Wheeler, Doug, Behrbohm, Robert L. & de Sá, Leonardo (2004). “Töpffer in America”, in: Comic Art #3, St. Louis, MO: Comic Art, pp. 28-47.

Wivel, Matthias & Thorhauge, T. (2004): Forandringstegn – De nye tegneserier. Copenhagen: forlaget politisk revy.

Konkykru, Andy: “Early Comics”/ Töpffer section [online, cited December 19th, 2004]. Available from World Wide Web: (

Sá, Leonardo de, 2004. “Töpffer Summary” [online, cited December 19th, 2004]. Available from World Wide Web: (

Sackman, Eckart, 2005,“Fundstücke – Reise nach Hannover, 1827” [online, cited February 16th, 2005]. Available from World Wide Web: (

Smolderen, Thierry, 2003. Thackeray and Töpffer – The Weimar Connection [online, cited December 19th]. Available from World Wide Web: (

Wivel, Matthias, 2000. Hvem fører pennen? Interview med Ivar Gjørup [online, cited December 18th]. Available from World Wide Web: (

CoconinoWorld / Coconino Classics. Available from World Wide Web: (

List of illustrations
Fig. 1 – Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1908, offset. Fig. 2 – George Herriman, Krazy Kat sunday page, October 23rd, 1932, offset. Fig. 3 – Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts sunday page, August 1953, offset. Fig. 4 – Sidney Smith, Old Doc Yak, Sunday page, 1917, offset. Fig. 5 – Thomas Rowlandson & William Combe, Doctor Syntax; in Search of the Picturesque pages 4-6, 1809, lithograph. Fig. 6 – Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Fra Pedro de Zaldivia Disarming a Bandit, 1806, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago. Fig. 7 – Rodolphe Töpffer, Essais de physiognomonie p. 13, 1845, autograph. Fig. 8 – Rodolphe Töpffer, L’Histoire de M. Jabot pp. 9-19, 1833, autograph. Fig. 9 – Rodolphe Töpffer, L’Historie de M. Crépin, pp. 58-59, 1837, autograph. Fig. 10 – Rodolphe Töpffer, Les Amours de M. Vieux Bois pp. 61-68, 1837, autograph. Fig. 11 – Rodolphe Töpffer, Le Docteur Festus pp. 57-58, 1840, autograph. Fig. 12 – Rodolphe Töpffer, L’Histoire de M. Cryptogame panels 127-135, original manuscript version, 1830, pen and ink on paper [ink color and owner not given by sources]. Fig. 13 – Rodolphe Töpffer, L’Histoire de M. Cryptogame panel 194-195, original manuscript version, 1830, pen and ink on paper [ink color and owner not given by sources]. Fig. 14 – Rodolphe Töpffer, M. Pencil p. 46, 1840, autograph. Fig. 15 – Rodolphe Töpffer, L’Histoire d’Albert pp. 23-25, 1845, autograph. Fig. 16 – Rodolphe Töpffer, M. Pencil pp. 3, 1840, autograph. Fig. 17 – Rodolphe Töpffer, M. Pencil p. 72, 1840, autograph.>


  1. Comics are generally regarded as a ‘cold’ medium in the McLuhanesque sense – they require a relatively extensive level of active participation on the part of the reader, who has to piece together a coherent diegesis from fragmentary enunciators (images, sometimes with text). This activity, broadly understood under the term ‘closure,’ (a term derived from Scott McCloud, whose influence on the English vocabulary of comics theory has been seminal) finds its theoretical and scientific basis in phenomenological and neurobiological studies of how we constitute reality. See Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Northhampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993), 66-68 & Thierry Groensteen, Système de la bande dessinée (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999), 13-14. For a couple of intriguing perspectives on how this makes the comics form a particularly resonant representation of how we perceive and constitute reality, see Donald Ault “Cutting Up” Again Part II: Lacan on Barks on Lacan” & Ole Frahm, “Weird Signs – Comics as a Means of Parody,” Hans-Christian Christiansen and Anne Magnussen (eds.), Comics and Culture – Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000), 123-140 & 178-191. []
  2. There has for long existed the strangely uncontested assumption amongst many comics historians that the first comic strip was one by R. F. Outcault featuring his character, the Yellow Kid, which appeared in the New York World in 1896 – something which, as will be evident from the main text, has little basis in anything but misguided institutional consensus. This strip cannot be ascribed original status in any of the traditional definitions of the form, whether formal, content-oriented, or social/logistical: it was not the first strip to juxtapose images to form a tightly constructed narrative, nor the first to employ the speech balloon, the first to appear in color, the first to make use of an identifiable, recurring fictional character, the first to be produced primarily for purposes of entertainment, the first to appear in a newspaper, the first to reach a mass audience, and so on. Nevertheless the idea persists, despite there having been dissenting voices for many years, like David Kunzle, Benoit Peeters, Thierry Groensteen, and several others, who all point towards the late 18th, and especially the early 19th Century as the period in which the medium asserted itself in its modern form. Cf. David Kunzle, 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 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973) & David Kunzle, History of the Comic Strip vol. 2: The Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990); Benoit Peeters and Thierry Groensteen, Töpffer – L’Invention de la bande dessinée (Paris: Hermann, 1994). For surveys of the question, see Charles Dierick and Pascal Lefèvre, Forging a New Medium: The Comic Strip in the Nineteenth Century (Brussels: VUB University Press), 11-23 and Doug Wheeler et al., “Töpffer in America,” Comic Art #3 (2003), 30-39. []
  3. For accounts of Töpffer’s wide-ranging influence, see Kunzle 1990, Wheeler et. al., 44-47 & Peeters and Groensteen, 114-141. []
  4. There are important exceptions to this, most importantly his masterpiece Un Autre monde (1844), in which the nature of his collaboration with the writer Taxile Delord (1815-1877) is unclear, but definitely appears to have been helmed by Grandville. []
  5. Since all that comics, like most pictorial arts, require is some kind of marker and a support on which to make marks, attempts at formal or technical definitions invariably end up being either too inclusive for the definition to be useful in most contexts – incorporating everything from ancient Egyptian murals, the Column of Trajan, and the Bayeux Tapestry, to Maya codices and many Japanese e-makimono (painted scrolls), in addition to what most people normally understand to be comics – or too exclusive, counter-intuitively rejecting works that are, for example, not printed or distributed to a mass audience (why would something only become a ‘comic’ once printed or read by the multitude, and how many people exactly do you need to constitute a mass audience?), or is not drawn (why should the technique dictate the form? There are countless examples of ‘comics’ in other media than drawing, including, but by no means limited to, woodcut, acrylic, collage, digital, and even sculpture). Definitions based on content or subject-matter, such as only accepting works that make use of a recognizable, recurring character (there are many ‘comics’ that obviously do not), or rejecting anything that is based on a religious text or is somehow moralizing and thus not intended as pure entertainment, also seem contrived for the sake of convenience. The two central, and centrally important, formal criteria – what has almost become the ‘sacred cows’ of the comics definition-game – are the placement of images in some kind of sequence, and the form’s traditional synthesis of text and image, respectively. The former raises the problem of determining when exactly a given sequence constitutes the meaningful continuity normally required for it to be deemed comics (if any juxtaposition of images was comics you would have them almost everywhere); usually describing something as comics becomes easier the more condensed and continuous the narrative created by the images is, but hard-and-fast regulations of when exactly something is ‘continuous’ or ‘narrative’ enough are impossible to pin down. The latter is, probably more than any other single factor, the reason for comics’ ill repute in the West, ‘mixed’ media tending to have been regarded as ‘lower’ or impure forms since at least the High Renaissance. Defining comics through the amalgamation of image and text is, however, just as problematic as any other formal means of classification. You either end up excluding works that do not include text (countless examples of ‘silent’ comic strips, in every way but the inclusion of text similar to the ‘talkies’, exist) or use too much, having the text dominate or even dictate the pictures, turning the latter into illustration (this makes sense as it addresses the intuitively perceived difference between comics and illustrated books, but where do you draw the line?) See Groensteen 1999, 14-29, or Hans-Christian Christiansen, Tegneseriens æstetik (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 2001), 30-39 for thorough surveys. The former attempts its own loose, but complex definition, rejecting any specific criteria in favor of a semiotically based ‘system’ that, through its combination of signs, makes meaning as comics to its audience. Groensteen himself, however wary of any kind of normative definition he might be, ends up operating with the ‘panel’ as the basic enunciator of the form, embracing the notion of sequence as central to the understanding of it. Additionally, he tends towards an understanding where the image is dominant and thus to some extent keeps the ‘sacred cows’ alive. For a discussion of the issue of text, see Matthias Wivel and T. Thorhauge, Forandringstegn – De nye tegneserier (Copenhagen: forlaget politisk revy, 2004), 211-215, in which cartoonist Dylan Horrocks advances the notion of comics of pure text without images (e.g. ‘prose books’) as the basis for a discussion of the problem of definition. []
  6. We are dealing with cartooning here, whether manifest in single- or multi-panel form, and while it encompasses a broader range of works than what we usually understand as ‘comics,’ it is unquestionably a constitutive element of comics as they developed in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Comics as they have later developed do not necessarily involve ‘cartooning,’ depending on how you define the term, which is as vexing an exercise as defining ‘comics.’ It is generally taken to denote a special approach to drawing, intimately related to but not synonymous with caricature, which some cartoonists, such as Ivar Gjørup, sense has to do with the dominance and independent life of line one begins to see in drawing during the 18th Century (cf. Matthias Wivel. 2000. “Hvem fører pennen? Interview med Ivar Gjørup”, [online, cited December 18th 2004]), others, such as Ralph Steadman or Robert Crumb, attach to the term a special, socially or politically aware, popular sensibility, which is decidedly anti-idealizing and anti-classical, making the connection back to artists such as Brueghel, Goya, and Picasso (cf. Gary Groth, ”Ralph Steadman – Into the Gentle Darkness…”, The Comics Journal #131 (1989): 48-49, 90 & Gary Groth, “One of my main reasons to go on living is I think I haven’t done my best work,” The Comics Journal Library 3 (2004): 50-51). []
  7. For a survey, see Kunzle 1990, 1-17. []
  8. Cf. Kunzle, 1990, 18-22. []
  9. Examples of cartoonists from these countries working with sequential humorous narratives around the turn of the century include the Swede Nordquist, who amongst other series created the story of an unfortunate painter, Päder Målare och Munthen in 1801 (cf. Dierick and Lefèvre, 11), and the Dutch poet Willem Bilderdijk who in 1807 cast his son as the naughty kid Hanenpoot in an 8-page comics story intended solely for his family’s amusement and only published in 1977, cf. Nop Maas, “The Archeology of the Dutch Comic Strip,” Dierick and Lefèvre, 52-53. It should be noted that this is a largely unexplored area, making documentary information on these and other cartoonists scant. []
  10. M. Jabot – drawn in 1831 – while this, his first published comic, was actually the fourth long-form comic Töpffer made, preceded as it was by L’Histoire de M. Vieux Bois of 1827, the first version of Voyages et aventures du Dr. Festus of 1829, and L’Histoire de M. Cryptogame of 1830. A notable example of an experiment in long-form comics at the same time is the German Ludwig Emil Grimm’s (1790-1863 – brother of the Brothers Grimm) unpublished Reise nach Hannover of 1827 which over 12 double-page spreads tells the story of a visit to Hildesheim. Drawn in the same year as Töpffer’s first long-form comics narrative, L’Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, it demonstrates the ascendancy of the form during these years (cf. Sackman, Eckart, “Fundstücke – Reise nach Hannover, 1827” [online, cited February 16th 2005]). []
  11. This was the original manuscript for Historie de M. Cryptogame which would be the last of Töpffer’s comics to be published. Unable by that time to prepare the story for reproduction himself due to his failing eyesight, he in 1844 revised and expanded the manuscript and had the young French cartoonist Cham (1819-1879) adapt it for the published, wood-engraved version, which was serialized in his Parisian cousin and publisher Jacques-Julien Dubochet’s (years unavailable to present author) magazine L’Illustration in 1845, cf. Kunzle, 1990: 64-69. []
  12. Auguste Blondel, Rodolphe Töpffer – L’Écrivain, l’artiste et l’homme (Paris: Hachette, 1886), 108-112, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Gespräche mit Eckermann (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1955), 705 (entry of Tuesday, January 4th 1831), Léopold Gautier, “Soret, Töpffer et M. de Goethe”, Études töpfferiennes vol. 1: Töpffer en zigzag – Chroniques et etudes (1977): 70-78, David Kunzle “Goethe and Caricature: From Hogarth to Töpffer”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 48 (1965): 181-188, Kunzle 1990, 28-30; Thierry Smolderen 2003, ”Thackeray and Töpffer – The Weimar Connection,” [online, cited December 19th 2004]. []
  13. Letter from Frédéric Soret to Töpffer, beginning of February 1831; Rodolphe Töpffer, Correspondance complete vol. II (Geneva: Droz, 2004), 413-414/Letter 355. The editors of the Correspondance date the undated letter a year later (“early February 1832”) based on a letter from Soret to Goethe of February 3rd, 1832, which refers to the return of the two albums and some passages by Goethe on Töpffer that Soret sent on to the latter without translating them because he knew German. One can see how this could be taken to mean the passage in German in the letter quoted here, but it makes little sense in the context, because Soret sent Töpffer a dated letter on February the 9th talking about Goethe’s reception of Töpffer’s third album, M. Jabot, which he sent after the two others. It is highly unlikely that Töpffer would send Goethe another album before he heard his reaction to the first two, and it is equally unlikely that Soret would send Töpffer two letters on Goethe’s reactions to different albums within a week or so of each other. The passages referred to in the letter to Goethe must surely be the article on Töpffer which would be printed in the last issue of Kunst und Alterthum later that year. A profuse thank you is here owed Thierry Smolderen who helped sort out this particular problem. The two passages quoted in the main text are translated by the author, with some formulations adapted from the translation in Kunzle 1990, 30; this is the original wording of them: “… Goethe disoit: rien de plus fou ! rien de plus étrange ! mais il y a là dedans les germes de beaucoup de talent et d’imagination ; il y a sous le rapport de l’art tel croquis, telle esquisse, qui montrent tout ce que M. Töpffer pourroit faire s’il vouloit y mettre toute l’application dont il est capable. Goethe a gardé quelques jours les deux cahiers, ne regardant qu’une dizaine de feuilles de suite, et se reposant d’après, parce que, disoit-il, ce seroit quoi prendre une indigestion d’idées. Enfin il m’a envoyé le tout avec une lettre dans laquelle se trouve le passage suivant, que je vous copie textuellement sans le traduire […] : Die wunderlichen Büchlein kommen auch dankbar zurück. […] In den carrikirten Romanen sind bewundernswürdig die mannigfaltigen Motive die er aus wenigen Figuren herauszulocken weiss ; er beschämt den allertuchstigen Combinationsverständigen, und es ist ihm zu seinem angebornen, heitern, immer zur Hand bereiten Talente Glück zu wünschen.” The comments by Goethe are corroborated by Eckermann in his Gespräche with Goethe, in which he describes his employer’s enthusiasm for Töpffer’s comics in a very similar way, amongst other things quoting him as saying: “es [ie. Töpffer’s work] funkelt alles von Talent und Geist! Einige Blätter sind ganz unübertrefflich! Wenn er künftig einen weniger frivolen Gegenstand wählte und sich noch ein bisschen mehr zusammennähme, so wurde er Dinge machen, die über alle Begriffe wären.“ Cf. Goethe, 1955, 705 (entry of Tuesday, January 4th 1831); in John Oxenford’s English translation the quote runs as follows: “all sparkles with talent and intelligence. Some pages could not be excelled. If, for the future, he would choose a less frivolous subject, and restrict himself a little, he would produce things beyond all conception.”, cf. Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret (London: George Bell & Sons, 1874), 503. []
  14. Cf. letter from Frédéric Soret to Töpffer, February 9th 1832; Rodolphe Töpffer 2004, 417-421/Letter 356. It should be noted that Töpffer, along with Jabot, also sent Goethe a copies of his two latest volumes of the prose travel-narratives that he continued to produce, the Voyages en zigzag, but Goethe turned out to be almost exclusively interested in the comics. []
  15. Cf. Kunzle 1990, 38. []
  16. For a the most detailed and up-to-date, chronological survey of Töpffer’s publications history, see Leonardo de Sà,” Rodolphe Töpffer – Synopsis,” [online, cited December 19th 2004]. It should be noted that Töpffer wrote and drew an eighth story, M. Trictrac, which he never completed, but which must be almost finished; it can be seen at Andy Konkykru, “Early Comics”, [online, cited December 19th 2004]. []
  17. Rodolphe Töpffer, ”Notice sur les Essais d’autographie,” Peeters and Groensteen, 171-172. []
  18. Letter from Töpffer to his friend César-Henri Monvert, March 20th, 1831 – that is, after he had received the positive response from Goethe, but before he published his first comic. Töpffer 2004, 400-401/Letter 346, author’s translation. Briolet is a theatrical piece by Töpffer from 1829; Doctor Saitout is a lost story. In the original: “… je suis gorgé, bourré, indijectionné de politique. Elle est pour moi comme un bruit de porte que je ne puis faire taire en mettant de l’huile sur les gonds. Et puis beaux-arts, lettres et autres loisirs que vous me connaissez ont à présent l’air de choses de l’autre monde. Je me cache pour dessiner. Je vais dans ma cave pour composer mes drôleries, crainte qu’on ne m’accuse d’être froid à la Pologne, insensible au grand mouvement social, glacé pour la Belgique ! Et, dans ma cave, j’ai fait bon nombre de piécettes depuis Briolet, lesquelles nous avons jouées, lesquelles j’aimerais bien vous lire. Et, dans ma cave encore, j’ai fait, depuis Vieux Bois et Criptogame, l’histoire véridique du docteur Festus – de M. Trictrac – de M. Jabot – et j’ai maintenant sur le métier celle de M. Pencil et du docteur Saitout.” []
  19. Rodolphe Töpffer, “Essai de physiognomonie,” Peeters and Groensteen, 186-225. []
  20. Cf. Peeters & Groensteen, 49. []
  21. Not to be confused with physiognomy, which is a descriptive, exact science. []
  22. He directly refers to the great impression the series Industry and Idleness (1747) made upon him in his youth. []
  23. Rodolphe Töpffer, “Essai de physiognomonie,” Peeters and Groensteen, 187. Töpffer was quite skeptical of the spread of literacy to the masses if it was not followed up by a properly moral education. In “Reflexions à propos d’un programme,” (Peeters and Groensteen, 145-152) he describes the littérature en estampes as a form of literature especially suited to this new audience, and – with reference to Hogarth – emphasizes its moralizing mission. The strange thing, however, is that he did not seem to follow up these ideas in his own comics work, which rarely became even remotely moralizing, and which was published in low print runs, mostly distributed amongst a literary elite, cf. Peeters and Groensteen, X. []
  24. Rodolphe Töpffer, ”Réflexions à propos d’un programme,” Peeters and Groensteen, 144-160. []
  25. Rodolphe Töpffer, “Notice sur L’Histoire de Mr. Jabot” (1837), Peeters and Groensteen, 161. The translation is the author’s, with a large part appropriated from Kunzle 1990, 46. This is the original wording: “Ce petit livre est d’une nature mixte. Il se compose d’une série de dessins autographiés au trait. Chacun de ces dessins est accompagné d’une ou deux lignes de texte. Les dessins, sans ce texte, n’auraient qu’une signification obscure ; le texte, sans les dessins, ne signifierait rien. Le tout ensemble forme une sorte de roman d’autant plus original, qu’il ne ressemble pas mieux à un roman qu’à autre chose. L’auteur de ce petit volume oblong ne s’est pas fait connaître. Si c’est un artiste, il dessine faiblement, mais il a quelque idée d’écrire ; si c’est un littérateur, il écrit médiocrement, mais en revanche il a, en fait de dessin, un joli talent d’amateur. Si c’est un homme grave, il a des idées singulièrement bouffonnes ; et si c’est un esprit bouffon, il ne manque pas d’un sens assez sérieux.” []
  26. This he further emphasizes in a letter of November 17th 1844 to his French publisher Dubochet, concerning the adaptation by Cham of M. Cryptogame for publication: “The story abounds with folly which, if they had been expressed through language would seem absurd and uncalled for, but which, through direct representation, acquire the sufficient degree of reality to elicit laughter.”; in the original: “L’histoire abonde en folies qui, exposées au moyen du récit, paraîtraient aussi absurdes que peu récréatives, mais qui, au moyen de la représentation directe, acquirent un degré de réalité suffisant pour que rire s’ensuive.”, quoted in Annie Renonciat, “Un Théoricien de la « Littérature en estampes, » ” Daniel Maghetti (ed.), Töpffer (Geneva: Skira, 1996), 267. []
  27. Cf. letter from Töpffer to the publisher Dubochet, November 17th 1844, quoted in Peeters and Groensteen, 35. []
  28. Letter from Töpffer to Dubochet, December 18th 1844, quoted in Peeters & Groensteen, 15; Letter from Töpffer to Cham November 30th, 1844; Rodolphe Töpffer, “Correspondence avec Cham,” Peeters & Groensteen, 175-176. []
  29. Cf. letter from Frédéric Soret to Töpffer, February 9th 1832; Töpffer 2004, 417-421/Letter 356. []
  30. This is an interesting tendency which seems to indicate a larger shift in visual culture towards different kinds of narration and more fragmented imagery; for more on the subject, see Christiansen, 85-92. []
  31. The French invaded Algeria in June of 1830, touching off an extended conflict, lasting almost a decade and a half until the peace treaty of 1844, and ultimately continuing beyond that until Algeria’s independence in 1962. []
  32. Letter from Frédéric Soret to Töpffer, beginning of February 1832; Rodolphe Töpffer 2004, 413-414/Letter 355. []
  33. Switzerland was at the time embroiled in extensive civil unrest, centered in Geneva which saw violent street fighting. []
  34. Cf. Wheeler, Beerbohm and Sà, 28 & 39. The speech balloon, which had been used profusely in Great Britain, only found widespread use in the francophone countries after the influential cartoonist Alain Saint-Ogan (1895-1974) started using it in his strip Zig et Puce (1925-1950s), cf. Peeters and Groensteen, 69-70, 91. []
  35. For extensive surveys of these manifestations of popular culture, see Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer – On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception – Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), Vanessa R. Schwarz, Spectacular Realities – Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1998). []
  36. For an examination of comics’ prefiguration of, and concurrent development with cinema, see Christiansen, 85-92; for a survey of the techniques of emulating movement before the demonstrations of the earliest forms of film by Augustin le Prince (1842-1890?) in 1886 and Thomas Edison (1847-1931) in 1890, see Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 2nd edition (Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill), Chap. 1. []
  37. Louis-Jacques-Mandé-Daguerre, “Daguerreotype” (1839); Dominique-Francois-Arago, “Report of the Commission of the Chamber of Deputies… Presented by M. Arago, Deputy of the East-Pyrénées, in the French Chamber of Deputies, on July 3, 1839,” (the English translation used the word ‘pictures,’ but in the original French it is ‘dessins’); Henry Fox Talbot “A Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art” (from The Pencil of Nature,1844-1846), Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 13, 19 & 28-29. []
  38. “À chaque épreuve, c’est une reproduction identique de la nature par la même procédé ; à chaque tableau, c’est une reproduction nouvelle de la nature par d’autres procédés, qui sont d’expression et non d’imitation.”; letter from Töpffer to Xavier de Maistre, November 21st 1839 ; quoted in Peeters and Groensteen, 45, author’s translation. []
  39. “… une palpable confirmation de ce principe si peu répandu, et pourtant si profondément, si salutairement vrai, que, dans les arts d’imitation, l’imitation est non pas le but, mais le moyen de l’art.” From the 1841 article “De la plaque Daguerre, à propos des Excursions daguerriennes,” quoted in Peeters and Groensteen, 44, author’s translation. []
  40. It is, as mentioned in the introduction, intriguing to watch how comics during the last few decades have increasingly expanded to fathom naturalist idioms and descriptions, which – not surprisingly – coincides with the medium’s gradual institutionalization as an art form and its simultaneous loss of the mass audience it commanded through most of the 19th and 20th centuries. []
  41. Cf. Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1992). []

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