Innovator Of The Form: Happy Birthday To Rodolphe Topffer
The history of comics can be hard to trace. Humans have been drawing pictures for as long as we've been human, and the instinct to tell stories by putting a series of pictures in sequence has existed for about that long. From ancient Egyptian friezes, to William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress in England in 1733, to the Hokusai Manga in Japan in 1814, there's a long and basically unbroken line of sequential art down through the ages. But it can be difficult to determine which of those works were directly inspired by which earlier works, and when it was just a matter of the same primal idea taking root in different cultures.
However, there's one figure we can absolutely say played a major role in the early development of what we now think of as European and American comics.
Rodolphe Töpffer was a Swiss cartoonist and caricaturist who created stories out of captioned panels. His 1837 book Histoire de M. Vieux Bois is regarded not only as the first European comic book, but it was translated into English and published in the United States as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842, making it the first American comic book as well. The book was created via a lithographic process called autography, which enabled loose hand drawings to be mass-printed for the first time, without having to flip the image backwards, as had previously been necessary.
Töpffer was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on the 31 January, 1799. His father, Wolfgang-Adam Töpffer, was also an artist. Rodolphe went to Paris for school, before returning to Geneva in 1820 to work as a school teacher. He founded a boarding school for boys in 1823, before becoming a Professor of Literature at the University of Genevain 1832.
He was a successful teacher, but Töpffer's real fame would come from his hobbies. He painted landscapes to some local acclaim, and also wrote short stories. But of course his most important work, although he couldn't possibly have imagined it at the time, was the cartooning he did mainly to entertain his students and friends.
He never intended his cartoons or the stories he built out of them to be published, but as everyone who saw them found them amusing and delightful, their publication became inevitable, leading to the aforementioned Histoire de M. Vieux Bois --- which Töpffer had completed just for his friends' amusement in 1827 --- being published in 1837.
Histoire de M. Vieux Bois is 30 pages long, with up to six panels on each page. It's considered a satire of 19th century Swiss society, and tells the rambling story of a man who falls in love with a young woman, and has a series of bizarre misadventures — including running from a vicious dog, cutting off a monk's beard, disguising himself as a highwayman, and being mistaken for a ghost — before managing to marry his beloved.
After the success of Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, Töpffer published more of his cartoon stories. Some were new works, and some were created before Vieux Bois was finally published. Monsieur Crépin, also published in 1837, is about a father who can't deal with the eccentric tutors he's hired for his children. 1840's Monsieur Pencil is an absurd tale in which an artist's sketch blowing away in the wind almost leads to a world war. Histoire d'Albert, from 1845, tells of a young man with no experience who can't find a job, so he ends up as a politically radical journalist. Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, also 1845, is the story of lepidopterist's absurd attempts to find a better lover to replace his current one. Le Docteur Festus, 1846, is about a wandering scientist who only wants to help people, but brings disaster wherever he goes.
Töpffer's comics inspired a medium not just with their use of sequential storytelling, but through his combination of expressively exaggerated cartoon figures and equally over-the-top stories.
As we've said, sequential art has always existed in some form, so if there had been no Rodolphe Töpffer, it's quite possible that we'd have something very much like comics in the world today. But when we look back at the history of comics as we understand it, Töpffer's influence and contributions are undeniable.