Töpffer in Zigzag

father_of_the_comic_strip.jpgDavid Kunzle deserves a large part of the credit for debunking the myth of the Yellow Kid as the point of origin, and bringing the history of modern comics before Hogan’s Alley to light in a fledgling academic field, dominated for years by collective denial. A substantial part of that effort has been the reintroduction of Swiss comics pioneer Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) to comics afficionados, initially in a couple of important articles, one on Töpffer’s strip M. Cryptogame in the journal Genava (no. 32, 1984) and another on the reception of his work by Goethe in the Journal of the Warburg and Cortauld Institute (vol. 48, 1985), and subsequently in a comprehensive chapter of his grand History of the Comic Strip vol. 2: The Nineteenth Century (1990). To have him return to Töpffer again, and finally see him publish a complete edition of the master’s strips, Rodolphe Töpffer – The Complete Comic Strips, as well as a monograph on Töpffer as a comics artist, Father of the Comic Strip – Rodolphe Töpffer, is therefore something of an event.

Not yet having seen the strip collection, which looks great, I will reserve judgement on that, but unfortunately the monograph, though full of interesting information, is not the book one could have hoped for from the world’s foremost authority on Töpffer’s comics. While up front about not wanting to cover the entirety of Töpffer’s life and work, but rather wanting to concentrate on his comics, it seems to me that Kunzle still wants to present us with something of an authoritative survey. The book is, however, rather a collection of more or less disparate essays. Instead of providing a thorough but accessible introduction to the man and his comics, it gets lost in detail and never achieves the sense of overarching structure the format traditionally suggests. It contains fine insights and presents a good deal of compelling research, but is at the same time confusingly structured, incoherently written and presumes prior knowledge to a self-defeating extent.

The central problem is that the book’s core – the excellent chapters that examine Töpffer’s individual comic books chronologically, informatively discussing their creation and their storylines, as well as examining their themes and situating them in their historical, social and political context – is bracketed by large amounts confusingly presented and unfocused material, some if it fairly marginal to the book’s avowed subject matter.

Kunzle starts with an introduction aiming to place Töpffer in his Genevan context, which seems rather idiosyncratic, even random, in what it presents, never becoming the accessible primer on him one would expect. After this comes a long chapter on Töpffer as a satirist, examining his comics in relation to specific themes, such as ‘War and the absolutist state’, ‘Bureaucracy’, ‘Cholera’, etc., without having taken the time to introduce the actual comics, which stories they tell, when they were made, why Töpffer made them, and other such information yet. This chapter seems to be there to set the historical scene, but it does so through the use relatively arbitrary categories, rather than according to a more general structure, and though it does provide some useful background information, it ends up seeming largely extraneous since the chapters on the comics do a more focused job of just that.

A more obvious starting point would have been the following chapter, on the octogenarian Goethe’s appreciation Töpffer’s comics, some of which he saw in 1830, several years before they were published – an extraordinary story and a turning point in Töpffer’s career. In other words a great place to start. Why is it placed here?

At the other end, one finds another couple of essays contributing to the disjunctive feel of the book. A short one, consisting of what appears to be table scraps, deals with Töpffer and the print world, as well as the story of how the comics started as a distraction for him and the pupils at the school he ran. These bits of text would have been much better served if included somewhere in the chronological survey, especially the part about the initial spark, which would have fit comfortably at the beginning of the book.

After this we get a long chapter on Töpffer’s many Alpine hiking diaries, the so-called Voyages en zigzag, which is interesting for the light it sheds on Töpffer’s humourous writing, but rather divorced from the rest of the book, since it does not deal with the comics yet goes on at comparatively great length. Lastly, there is a brief survey of some the artists across Europe, and even the United States, who drew comics around the time of Töpffer, and especially the ones that followed in his footsteps – Cham, Nadar, Pétit, Doré, Thackeray, Lear, etc. This at least ties up the book neatly.

Frustrating as it is, the book remains a thorough presentation of Töpffer’s comics, presented with obvious authority. It also contains a number of interesting analyzes, though at times one wishes they had been taken further. An example is the discussion on Töpffer’s comics theory as published in Essai de physiognomonie (1845) and Reflexions et menus-propos d’un peintre genevois (1848). Here, Kunzle examines how his thoughts anticipate those of the modernists, as well as hinting at the relationship to more recent theories of how our brains automatically project the human face and form onto the simplest constellations of lines, and how cartoons make use of this. Unfortunately, this section is frustratingly brief, almost as if Kunzle does not want to repeat anything said by Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters in their indispensable Töpffer – L’invention de la bande dessinée (1994). A shame, as a more developed section on this could have added a fascinating theoretical dimension to the book.

The particular scoop for people familiar with Töpffer’s thoughts about comics is a couple of letters newly acquired by the Geneva library, which Töpffer wrote to the French cartoonist Cham, advising him on his adaptation of M. Cryptogame for mass publication in 1845. One of them bears quoting in part here:

“…for purposes of invention and composition you must likewise, if you wish to catch any action of the hop, begin by shaking off as far as possible the yoke of reality, and the logical drag of some conventional succession of events, in order to charge more into an area of livelier, quicker, and easier relationships, those that the mind grasps between pictures bound to an idea; and then the graphic contour, with its power of illusion, almost never fails to gel into a whole with enough continuity of likeness, the bold or crazy, the fantastic or even absurd. Here again the truth of the idea, the charms of the intention, the apt, witty, or novel observation, may be stitched onto this slight fabric, becoming more relevant and more valuable than [literal] truth as such could ever be.”

With thoughts such as these informing his work, it is no wonder Töpffer’s comics are so smart and inventive. That they are also fun and humanly engaging is however what makes him a great artist. Despite its shortcomings, Rodolphe Töpffer – Father of the Comic Strip makes this abundantly clear. Though not the authoritative work we could have hoped for, it remains a solid, information-packed presentation that will be indispensable to anyone interested in the history of comics, all the while providing what, for anyone studying the broader issues of pictorial and narrative art in the 19th Century, will surely be a eye-opening glimpse into the strange and wonderful magic mirror of modernity that is comics and cartooning, as crafted by one of its most crucial early practitioners.

David Kunzle. Father of the Comics Strip – Rodolphe Töpffer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. 210 pages, $25.

Also, be sure to read our introduction to Töpffer here in the Bunker.

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