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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rodolphe Topffer

The central figure is a self-portrait (ca. 1840)...the others, probably not.

M. Vieux Bois, one of
Topffer's main characters.
Quite possibly there's not a day goes by that each of us doesn't follow at least one comic strip, either in the "funny papers" or online. For me personally, my day wouldn't be complete with out my daily dose of Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. With the passing of Charles Schulz several years ago, I find Trudeau to be at the top of my list as the most insightful, often the funniest cartoonist working today. Of course, humor, like art, beauty, religion, politics, and a whole host of other subjective topics are largely in the eye and mind of the beholder; so my pick is highly personal. When readers think of cartoonists today they seldom go back much before those whom they enjoyed in childhood. One of my childhood favorites, then and now, is Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace (now written and drawn by Ketcham's former assistants, Marcus Hamilton and Ron Ferdinand). If asked to name famous cartoonists, very few people would mention such greats as Thomas Nast, Al Capp, Walt Kelly, William Hogarth, Rube Goldberg, or even Walt Disney. And virtually no one would mention Rodolphe Topffer.

A Topffer cryptogram. Following his chain of thought (and humor)
isn't as important as the manner in which he presents it.
One reason for such a disturbing omission is the fact that Topffer was Swiss, and that he lived from 1799 to 1846--long before most of us were even born, much less collected comic books. Yet in perusing the pages of virtually every comic book printed today, the lingering influence of Rodolphe Topffer is quite dominantly present. Some have termed him the "father of cartooning." Mark Rosenfelder, a leading expert on cartooning now and then, claims that Topffer is directly responsible for about 75% of the basic tools and format employed by present-day cartoonists. He was among the first to regularly use panel structure; the interrelation of pictures and stories; a harmony between simple, as well as the satirical prose, and the sketchy art seen in most cartoons today. More importantly, Topffer was a master of comic pacing, narrowing his panels to speed up the action and flashing quickly between characters, in a manner nearly impossible in straight text.

River Landscape, 1820, Rodolphe Topffer
Rodolphe Topffer didn't set out to become a pioneering cartoonist. Born in Geneva, and educated in Paris, Topffer was first and foremost a pretty much ordinary school teacher of his time. Around 1823, he started a Geneva boarding school for boys and by 1832 was recognized for his instructional talents by being appointed Professor of Literature at Geneva University. Although relatively successful as an educator, during this time Topffer developed his talents as a landscape painter as seen in his River Landscape (above), from 1820; and in amusing himself and others by drawing caricatures. These he collected in books; the first of them, Histoire de M. Vieux Bois (The Story of Mr. Wooden Head), which was completed by 1827 but not published until 1837. It consisted of some 30 pages, each containing one to six captioned panels. In 1842, without his permission, his story was translated and republished in the United States as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (below). Copyright laws then, weren't what they are now.

I'm not sure, precisely, what the translated caption above refers to,
but Topffer's skill as a cartoonist is plainly evident.
Example of caricature with
phylactery, Rodolphe Topffer
Strangely enough, Topffer's comedic book (and it was wildly funny) was never intended for publication, but simply for the amusement of friends he showed it to. Among them was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1831 persuaded Rodolphe to publish his stories. Seven of them were eventually published in newspaper form across Europe. Later illustrated novels (comic books) included: Histoire de M. Jabot (1833), a dandyish bourgeois, who tries to enter society and after a series of misadventures marries the girl next door; M. Crépin (1837), who suffers the follies of various tutors he hires for his children; Les Amours de M. Vieux Bois (1837), an absurdly long journey toward matrimony; M. Pencil, (1840) a series of catastrophes, starting with the wind blowing away an artist's sketch and nearly leading to universal war; Le Docteur Festus (1846), a doctor who tours the world, unknowingly causing numerous upsets; Histoire d'Albert (1845, sampled below), the story of a somewhat dull young man who tries various careers before ending up as a radical journalist; and Histoire de M. Cryptogame, (1845), about a lepidopterist who exchanges his dull girlfriend for another, by methods including shiploads of pirates and a capacious whale. Although Topffer didn't actually invent the phylactery or "speech balloon" (above, left), he was the first to use it in the modern manner we're accustomed to now.

M. Vieux Bois, muddled attempt to hang himself.
Most of Topffer's texts were in the form of captions beneath his illustrations. If you've ever wondered as to the meaning of "phrenology, Topffer's Mr. Craiose offers an entertaining discourse on the subject (below), still amusing today, despite the many intervening years, and the vagaries of the translator.

Translation: Moving on to the demonstrative proof, Mr. Craniose unpacks his collection, and shows that phrenology is based on facts, that these facts are bumps, that these bumps indicate thievery in a head belonging to a thief, murder in a head belonging to a murderer, and knowledge in a head belonging to a scientist.
The stories are fairly long. M. Vieux Bois is about 92 pages, each containing a single row of drawings divided into panels. All the stories are light satire recounting absurd adventures, full of slapstick and gentle satire. Topffer was a conservative, which in those days meant taking a dim view of newfangled ideas like democracy and upstarts like the middle class (not too unlike today). His politics comes out strongest in the story of Albert, the eventual radical journalist; but Töpffer is never really malicious.

Mr. Vieux Bois kills himself. Fortunately, the cord is too long. After forty-eight hours, hearing the voice of the Loved One in the street, Mr. Vieux Bois forgets that he has been hanged, and rushes in that direction. Mr. Vieux Bois drags along the beam he has been hung from.

Which causes some disorder among the bourgeois.
As well as to the national guard. Mr. Vieux Bois almost reaches the Loved One.
The stories provide us a glimpse into early-19th-century Europe. It's a more rural world than we know today, the clothes are strange; the class divisions are acute, and individual horizons are quite regional. Still, the individual preoccupations are the same: getting ahead in society; education; finding the love of ones life; touring; staying one step ahead of the local constable, etc. That's not to say thee are not a few 'modern' elements such as telegraph wires and the radical newspaper started by Albert. But modernity was still mostly a political idea, and science very much an ivory-tower eccentricity.

The Topffer Monument, Geneva, Switzerland


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