Introduction: The Nineteenth Century and Beyond

Article excerpt

The Editors

If comic art were to have its equivalent of the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes ['Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns'],1 it would be the polemic that developed in 1996 as an 'add-on' to the centenary celebrations of the invention of cinema of a year earlier. Following the assertion that the first comic strip was R. F. Outcault's Yellow Kid of 1896, French reaction was indignant. Speaking at a high-profile conference in Angoulême, Yves Frémion, media personality and Euro-politician, made a lengthy tongue-in-cheek attack on perceived American usurping of credit for key cultural creations (cinema, science-fiction, bluejeans, AIDS, the Olympics) before arriving at the following conclusion:2

Il me revient l'honneur, en commençant ce colloque, d'orienter le débat clairement pour éviter qu'il ne dévie vers un résultat mitigé, et pour que cette imposture soit démasquée sans ambiguïté. En réalité, tout ce que nous pouvons fêter cette année, c'est le cent-cinquantenaire de la mort de l'inventeur de la BD, Rodolphe Töpffer. (6)

[In opening this conference I have the honour of setting the debate clearly in the right direction so as to avoid it going off on a dubious tangent, and in order for such impostures to be well and truly outed. In truth, all that is to be celebrated this year is the 150th anniversary of the death of the inventor of the BD, Rodolphe Töpffer.]

Frémion's tirade, for all its humour, nonetheless underlines an important point: at a time when the bande dessinée was consolidating its cultural legitimacy, it was seen as paramount that it should have an authenticating lineage, and the birth of that lineage was to be assigned to the French-speaking world in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Thirteen years later the debate has moved on. Töpffer remains a key figure in the medium, but not necessarily as a terminus post quem marker. It is now generally accepted that his strips were part of a wider text/image current, and that the label of 'inventor of the comic strip' could equally be applied, depending on definitions, to William Hogarth, Jacques Callot or indeed many others. Previous scholarship - specifically David Kunzle's two-volume The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825,3 and The History of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century4 - had pointed to a Europe-wide phenomenon, as was also to be the case for Forging a New Medium: The Comic Strip in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Pascal Lefèvre and Charles Dierick.5 Nonetheless, Töpffer remains of interest as an exemplary figure in the spread of image narratives at a time of new mass technology, and, in terms of reception history, as a key figure in a comic strip canon.

The re-evaluation of the Töpffer/Outcault debate does lead us to assess the nineteenth century (and its aftermath) as we might assess the 'Golden Age' of the 1930s or the underground era of the 1960s and 1970s. In all of these cases, technological changes, social circumstances and national specificity have moulded the development of graphic storytelling. These are the very concepts under consideration in this volume.

We open with a contribution in which David Kunzle presents an artefact that returns us to the 1996 debate, and the puzzle of the origins of comics: a littleknown autograph manuscript by Töpffer, the Gourary manuscript of M. Jabot. Kunzle's article helps us to reflect upon creation and distribution techniques for the comic book (or roman en estampes ['novel of engravings'], as Töpffer called his books), its relationship to caricature, and the role of new technology, in this case auto-lithography, in the development of the form. Kunzle evokes a world of to-ing and fro-ing between author, audience and publisher, for a form that was still very much dependent on private distribution, almost akin to the salons of the pre-Revolutionary era.

Roger Sabin's article, 'Ally Sloper on Stage', analyses a cross-media phenomenon of the final decades of the nineteenth century, a cartoon character who migrated to the music-hall stage, and from there to circuses, magic-lantern shows and films (the latter as early as 1896). …