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Rodolphe Topffer: A Primer

Rodolphe Topffer

R.M. Rhodes, comic creator and friend of French comics, returns to introduce the uninitiated to another classic artist, essential to the history of the medium…

Many art and comic historians consider Rodolphe Topffer to be the father of comics as we know them. The man in question lived in Geneva for the entirety of his short life, working as a schoolteacher and professor. He died young. By 1846, he had published eight full-length stories and left behind an additional six fragments in some state of non-completion. He was only 47.

A combination of factors combined to shape Topffer’s artistic output. His father was a painter with a strong anti-French outlook, who used his art to express his viewpoints through finely wrought caricature. The younger Topffer wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps but had poor eyesight, which kept him from putting as much detail into his drawings as he would have liked–he settled on cartooning in sequence as a compromise.

[ad#longpost]Topffer’s art style would fit right into the convention hall at Small Press Expo, but it is remarkable for the fact that he was more or less the first person to put the cartoons into a sequential format on the same page. Plenty of people had drawn cartoons and Topffer himself was heavily influenced by the moralistic engravings of Hogarth–which were essentially finely wrought single panels that each told a story.

While the art is good but not especially distinctive, Topffer was best known for his sense of humor. He had a keen wit and the stories are often concerned with poking fun at mannered society. There is also a strong streak of absurdity and a thread of surrealism that reeks of South American magical realism.

Records show that he developed the majority of his first drafts when he was at work, during long hours of presiding over study hall. He started drawing little adventures to entertain himself and, eventually, the boys he taught. Somewhere along the line, someone got copies to Goethe, who declared himself a fan and pressured Topffer to publish his works.

Topffer was so concerned about a negative backlash on his teaching career that he did not initially publish under his own name. He needn’t have worried–the works were so popular in Paris that numerous counterfeits showed up almost immediately. His publication is more or less synonymous with the beginnings of cartooning and political caricature in daily or weekly magazines–which lends itself to the idea that it was a trend whose time had come that Topffer was helping to shape, rather than inventing it wholesale.

Or perhaps the larger political passions (Topffer was a deeply committed social conservative) and printing/distribution methodologies of the time combined to thrust this kind of artwork and presentation forward as the best presentational compromise for a certain kind of political discourse. Infotainment has been around for a long time. Rodolphe Topffer is one of few that a lot of people all over the continent knew by name.

For further reading, David Kunzle has published a two-book study about Rodolphe Topffer. The first (smaller) book is a biography of the artist, providing political context and publishing details among other details. (I cribbed a lot of notes for this article from this book.)

The second book is Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips, a massive, six hundred page hardback book that has the heft of a New York City phonebook. Kuntzle has done an extraordinary job of translating everything into English and giving it an archival presentation that future scholars could use with ease. In our current golden age of comic strip reprints, this is an extraordinary get.