Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Graphic Lit: Rodolphe Topffer

Quiz time, ladies and gents. True or false: The comics are an American invention.

Sorry, but the answer is false.

Most people believe the comic strip originated here in the U.S. in 1895, when cartoonist R.F. Outcault began serializing the adventures of the yellow-shirted hooligan Micky Dugan in the Sunday strip “Hogan’s Alley.”

While that might be the first American newspaper comic strip (and heralded the birth of the Sunday funnies), the truth is that the art form had been around for at least 60 years, having been created in the 1830s by a Swiss author by the name of Rodolphe Topffer.

He is a relative unknown in America. Two books — “Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips” and “Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Topffer,” both by scholar David Kunzle — attempt to shed some light on this obscure artist.

The first book is a massive, 672-page, $65 hardcover collecting every single “picture story” (as Topffer called them) in existence, along with unfinished works and extensive notes and annotations by Kunzle.

The second, slimmer (and more affordable) volume is ostensibly a biography of Topffer, though it eschews the basic “lived-born-died” aesthetic in favor of a more critical analysis of the author’s work and legacy.

A sometime painter and owner of a boys’ boarding school in Geneva, Topffer initially produced his little “picture stories” to amuse his students.

Though reluctant to publish his stories (perhaps rightfully fearing that parents would not want their children taught by a headmaster that engaged in such gross caricatures), friends and patrons, including the German author Goethe, encouraged him to print them, which the author did using a then-revolutionary lithographic technique, which allowed Topffer’s handwriting as well as his art to be reproduced.

Success quickly followed, as Topffer’s “picture stories” became quite popular outside of Switzerland, to the point where they were being plagiarized and sold even in such far-off places as the then-nascent United States.

Topffer himself became known as a successful prose author in addition to his comics work, before dying prematurely in 1847.

The amazing thing about Topffer’s stories is how genuinely funny they remain more than 175 years later. Despite the obvious references to 19th-century politics and culture, these are often inventive and uproarious comics, full of an absurd energy and seemingly in constant motion.

You never quite know where a Topffer story is going to end up. “Monsieur Pencil,” for example, begins with the title character’s drawing flying away, which subsequently leads to the brink of war and riots in the street.

In “Monsieur Cryptogame,” a frenzied chase on a ship creates a whirlwind that has the boat spinning around like a top.

Although not as savage as his contemporary caricaturists, such as Honore Daumier and George Cruikshank, Topffer takes clear delight in making fun of sacred cows and stuffed shirts. His books satirize social upstarts, romance novels, government bureaucracy and the military, to name just a few targets.

If you wanted to be persnickety about it, you could easily make the claim that comics, or at least their antecedents, had been around before Topffer. English painter William Hogarth, for instance, had been telling moralizing tales in engravings like “The Rake’s Tale.” If you want to generalize even further, you could argue that things like the Bayeux Tapestry are essentially comics.

Be that as it may, Topffer was, for all intents and purposes, the father of the comic as we know it today, a fact that was not completely lost on him. Though initially dismissive of his work, he wrote at one point that he saw his work as “quite a new genre, where a prodigious harvest is to be reaped.”

The high price point for “Complete,” as well as the scholarly nature of “Father,” will no doubt turn away a lot of casual readers, which is a shame, as anyone interested in the history of comics should be reading these books.

Topffer is not just a pioneer who deserves his place in history. He’s an author who’s work remains sublimely entertaining.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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At 5:41 PM, Anonymous xlpharmacy said...

I appreciate this immensely. Like it? Eh. It is basically the first comics, so for such a huge formal leap, Topffer did amazing work. I mean, we can't expect the inventor of a medium to perfect it.


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