David Kunzle, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). xii +207 pp. ISBN: 978-1-57806-948-4 (paperback, $25.00)
Rodolphe Töpffer, Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips, compiled, translated and annotated by David Kunzle (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). xv + 650 pp. ISBN: 978-1-57806-946-0 (hardback, $65.00)
A new book of comics scholarship by art historian David Kunzle has always been a landmark event, and these latest two volumes are no exception. Together, they help consolidate the important place of Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) in the history of comic strips, and make the Swiss (Genevan) cartoonist and early theoretician of comics better known to readers of English. The son of a painter and caricaturist (Wolfgang-Adam Töpffer), the cartoonist engaged in a wide variety of other professional and artistic activities. He wrote prose fiction and travel literature, ran a private school for boys, taught literature at university and engaged in political journalism. Over the last dozen years or so, French-language scholars have laboured hard to give Töpffer the place that they feel he deserves, by commentary on his work and through the republication of six of his eight comic books.8 By contrast, until now English readers have had far less access to Töpffer. The publication of these two volumes has done a great deal to change that.
However, even before these two books, publications by Kunzle had been the main English-language sources on the early comic strip, and had been consulted by scholars in France and elsewhere, who delved into the history of the comics medium. In Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer, Kunzle reworks and expands upon his previous scholarship on Töpffer and nineteenth-century comics.9 Kunzle gives us a fascinating account of the cartoonist's life and its connections with his work. He shows us Töpffer moving from liberalism to conservatism during the course of his life, and describes the importance of Swiss patriotism and Genevan identity in Töpffer's worldview, at a time of Napoleonic imperialism and great social upheavals and transformations (revolutions, workers' strikes, cholera epidemics, the advent of mass tourism).
Father of the Comic Strip includes nine chapters. The first provides a richly contextualised and synthetic reading of important satirical themes, which Kunzle traces through Töpffer's comics: soldiers, war and absolutism; the ravages of cholera; bureaucracy; crime and punishment; the absurd; religion; peasants and the countryside; duelling; suicide; and the follies of science. Chapter 2 - on 'Goethe, Töpffer, and a New Kind of Caricature' - argues for both the novelty of Töpffer's art and its immediate consecration by Goethe. Chapters 3-6 provide fascinating, art-historical readings of the eight comic books by Töpffer: Jabot, Crépin, Vieux Bois, Festus, Pencil, Trictrac, Cryptogame and Albert. Especially in chapters 4 and 6, Kunzle situates Töpffer's comics with respect to his theoretical writings on the art form, particularly the 'Essai d'autographie' and 'Essai de physiognomonie'. Chapter 7 elaborates on two motifs that recur throughout the study: the amateur stance of Töpffer the cartoonist; and the 'genesis [of the comics] in the schoolroom'. These motifs undergird a core thesis of Kunzle's perspective on the genial, artistic contribution of the Swiss artist: that the lack of professional seriousness and the youthful imagination of Töpffer, inspired by the enthusiasm of his young students (but also stemming from his desire to distract himself from the tedious aspects of teaching), allowed him to produce works that were, and are still, fresh and funny, despite his increasing political conservatism as he grew older. Kunzle even suggests that precisely these elements - and poor eyesight, which prevented Töpffer from becoming a painter - are responsible for his invention of the comic strip. …