Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"This Strangest of Narrative Forms": Rodolphe Topffer's Sequential Art

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"This Strangest of Narrative Forms": Rodolphe Topffer's Sequential Art

Article excerpt

The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of communication media and practices. Like biological species along an accelerated timeline, narrative forms and technologies appeared and died off in a process that was already shaping the visual culture of the 1900s. Some, like the stereoscope or illustrated novels, roamed the francophone cultural horizon for a time, soon to become extinct in an ever-changing environment. Others, like animated photography and images d'Epinal broadsheets evolved into narrative genera that would not just survive but altogether thrive. Among such mutants, Rodolphe Topffer's histoires en estampes, or 'stories in etchings,' (1) constitute a salient case study. Composed between 1827 and 1844, these book-length narratives in comic strips with handwritten French captions changed sequential art forever by blending the narrative flexibility of the novel, the visual comedy of street theatre, and the sophisticated text/image interplay of the cartoon with the elliptic plotting of broadsheet stories that were popular in the early 1800s. Today, a consensus has emerged internationally whereby the Swiss master invented the comic strip, most notably through the leading research of such scholars as Thierry Groensteen in France and David Kunzle in the United States. This essay aims to highlight to what extent Topffer's comic strip was an atypical artifact within its initial environment and has remained a problematic cultural object to name and define ever since. It finds no more efficient way to illustrate this peculiar conceptual fuzziness than by outlining how Topffer's sequential art is different from things that it is like. More clearly, it frames it in contrast with such forms of representation as serial lithographs, storyboarding, and animation film. One comes away with the realization that the proverbial hybridity of Topffer's histoires en estampes is not just a factor of image and word, but also, at a different level or articulation, of static and dynamic.

Why did Topffer's graphic novels appear on the cultural landscape when they did? These composite narratives and their dissemination owe much to Geneva's cosmopolitan culture. Topffer's family was finely attuned to the arts and culture of France, Germany, and England. The son of renowned Genevan painter Wolfgang Adam Topffer, Rodolphe (1799-1846) was robbed of his own artistic ambitions by degenerative eye disease. Throughout a career devoted to both the word and the image, he became a schoolmaster, the director of a boarding school, and held the first chair in rhetoric at the Academy of Geneva, as well as a seat on the City Council. Besides his stories in etchings and early landscape paintings, the full palette of Topffer's works includes illustrated travelogues and short stories, art criticism, aesthetics treatises, political journalism, an edition of Demosthenes's political speeches, as well as theatre comedies unpublished until the late twentieth century.

Topffer's hardcover comic strips made their appearance at a time when caricature, the satirical art of synecdochic representation that thrived in England, gained momentum in France with Charles Philipon's publications, first at the pace of the weekly La Caricature, then with a daily Charivari, whose success, in a feedback effect, would contribute to creating Punch in 1841. Topffer's chosen proportion of text and image put his sequential narratives in the category of single-panel cartoons, broadsheet illustrated stories, and sequential lithographs. Sequential visual narratives had long earned their pedigree with the moralistic and satirical print series of such English artists as William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson. One of the closest ancestors to Topffer's histoires en estampes appears to be Rowlandson's popular Dr. Syntax series of prints, whose influence comes forth in some of Topffer's comedic situations (Illus. 1). At the moment when Topffer composed his first comic books, another form of sequential art had reached deep within France's countryside regions: the cheap moralizing broadsheet in six, twelve, or sixteen panels with simple captions for a popular audience. …

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