Rodolphe Topffer and Romanticism

By Willems, Philippe | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Rodolphe Topffer and Romanticism


Willems, Philippe, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


"En attendant l'ouverture des cours, Albert declame du Hugo. / Ce qui frappe Albert dans son Hugo, ce sont les prefaces, a cause des doctrines. / A partir de ce jour, Albert comprend pourquoi les elemens [sic] l'ont tant ennuye; c'est qu'il lui fallait des doctrines" (4). Thus begins an irresolute youngster's journey into post-1830 Romanticism in Histoire d'Albert, Rodolphe Topffer's last published histoire en estampes. Composed in Geneva between 1827 and 1846, these extended narratives in comic strips with underlying captions deliver a lively blend of philosophical satire and cartoonish comedy. They offer a rare perspective on Romanticism and posit a counter-discourse of legerete to its high seriousness. In view of the speed with which humor loses potency or even turns stale, Topffer's lampoon reaches us remarkably intact and fresh. Undoubtedly, the current peak in these early graphic novels' maturation cycle has played no small part in the recent scholarly interest in him.

Few today would contest the notion that Rodolphe Topffer (1799-1846) is the pioneer of the comic strip. His initial ambition had been to follow in the footsteps of his father, renowned painter Adam Wolfgang Topffer. After a degenerative eye disease forced Rodolphe to reconsider his options, he applied his oesthetic sensitivity, his semiotic intuition, and his verbal skills to a wide gamut of pursuits over the course of a brief but rewarding career as an educator, writer, and cartoonist. He held his first professional position as a schoolmaster, soon directed his own boarding school, and ultimately earned the first chair of rhetoric at the Academy of Geneva and a seat on the City Council. His writings include illustrated travelogues, short stories, aesthetics treatises, art criticism, political journalism, and a critical edition of speeches by Demosthenes, as well as theater comedies that remained unpublished until the late twentieth century.

Although Topffer is national hero in Switzerland and a revered figure of graphic-narrative connoisseurs across Europe, recognition came later in the United States, where his true contribution to comic strip history had to fight a well-entrenched pan-American tradition. While Topffer's books overall never ceased to be of interest to bibliophiles, Francophone and Anglophone scholarly research on his graphic novels proper slowly built up in the 1960s and 70s with Ellen Wiese's critical edition and translation Enter: The Comics: Rodolphe Topffer's "Essay on Physiognomy" and "The true Story of Monsieur Crepin" (1965) as well as the creation of a Societe d'Etudes Topfferiennes in Switzerland (1974). Since the 1990s, Thierry Groensteen and David Kunzle have dominated scholarly discourse on Topffer's comics internationally. The first has produced the widest array of Topffer-related publications and exhibitions, among which Topffer: L'Invention de la bande dessinee (1994); to the second we owe the peerless encyclopedic History of the Comic Strip, the second volume of which (1990) contained the most extensive study of Topffer's graphic novels until his 2007 monograph Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Topffer, published concurrently with the exhaustive Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips in English. Other notable publications mapping out and negotiating Topffer's new place in cultural history have included the rich Topffer (Boisonnas et al., 1996); "Topffer in America" in Comic Art (Wheeler et al., 2003), and "The Invention of Comics" in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (Mainardi, 2007), as well as the first three volumes of Topffer's Correspondance complete (1807-38, Droin et al., 2002-7).

From these various sources emerges a clear sense that the father of the comic strip entertained a complex and tumultuous relationship with his cultural environment. Certainly, the Genevan educator was far from averse to risk-taking, whether jeopardizing his academic reputation with petulant comic books or attempting to make a break into the French literary scene while launching a multifrontal assault on its reigning figure. …

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