Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 2011
David Kunzle, ed. Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips Trans. David Kunzle. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. 672 pp.; 376 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781578069460)
David Kunzle Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. 224 pp.; 115 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (9781578069484)
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If Rodolphe Töpffer (1799–1846) can be called the “Father of the Comic Strip,” then David Kunzle is surely its godfather, for it is to him that we owe the establishment of the comic strip as a subject for scholarship. His two-volume History of the Comic Strip (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973–90), today a collector’s item, is still unsurpassed as the basic text about this art form, and he has now published two additional books that also are destined to become basic reference works. The first, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer, is a monograph on the artist focusing on his picture stories (as Töpffer called his comic strips). The second, Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips, is a facsimile edition of all Töpffer’s comics, including unpublished ones, accompanied by English translations.

Töpffer himself needs no introduction—or perhaps he still does. Although the graphic novel has become a recognized genre in contemporary art history, few of its scholars are inclined to look back to its origins. Indeed, in both these publications Kunzle is highly critical of the chauvinism inherent in the continued attribution of the invention of comics to American newspaper supplements of the 1890s, rather than to the Swiss schoolmaster of the 1830s. As Kunzle clearly demonstrates, Töpffer was the real inventor both of the medium of comic strips and of their marketing. Their long centuries of development from manuscript illuminations and broadsheets should not blur the extraordinary achievement of this mild-mannered Genevan who finally, in 1835, worked up the courage to publish the picture stories that he had been drawing and writing for several years. While he himself, with characteristic modesty, always cited William Hogarth as his inspiration and model, Töpffer’s stories are really quite different—wildly fantastical, whimsical, and rarely moralizing. He completed eight picture stories, as well as numerous essays, novels, reviews, and plays—a prodigious output for such a short life.

Father of the Comic Strip is a beautifully designed book, with numerous illustrations from Töpffer’s stories presented in facsimile and accompanied by English translations. Kunzle purports to discuss Töpffer’s life only in the context of his comics, although there is enough biography to provide an excellent idea of Töpffer the man. More to Kunzle’s taste than biography is the insertion of Töpffer’s work into a broad sociopolitical and cultural context, both of Geneva and of Europe in the nineteenth century. By so doing, he underscores the significance of Töpffer’s works and imparts to them a gravitas that counterbalances their effervescent wit. He writes eloquently about Töpffer’s comics, giving them the respect that art historians usually lavish on higher-status art, and he is as clear explaining Töpffer’s working methods as he is in discussing the interpretative possibilities of the works. Töpffer, for example, always drew the frames as well as the vignettes of his stories and even wrote their captions in his spidery handwriting. Kunzle writes: “Fancifully, one might see in the consciously wavering and trembling ductus of the frame-lines, which should be straight and were straightened in all the unauthorized copies, and which represent time intervals, a fracturing of the normal sensation of passing time. The occasional eruption of these frame-lines into squiggles and even little doodled faces suggest, subliminally, the suspension or diversion of time, a ‘time-out’” (45).

The book’s first chapter, “Töpffer the Satirist: Contexts for Themes,” is straight social and political history and makes a poor introduction to the book. We might call this the revenge of the social history of art, for Töpffer’s picture stories are used merely to illustrate a laundry list of themes. We are given long disquisitions on the military, cholera, bureaucracy, crime, religion, peasants, science, and more than we ever wanted to know about customs and border disputes. This is a series of history lessons with no context: social history is not used to illuminate the stories, but, instead, Töpffer’s stories are used as illustrations for history. When these issues are re-introduced later in the context of specific stories, on the other hand, they bring the works alive and add to their significance. An excellent example of this is Kunzle’s discussion of contemporary theories of education in chapter 3 in the context of Mr. Crépin, which recounts and depicts the hilarious problems a family encounters in finding an adequate tutor for its offspring. The reader might want to skip the opening chapter since much of the material is repeated in subsequent discussions of specific works.

The best chapters in the book are those where Kunzle’s considerable gifts as both a visual analyst and a historian are used to suggest rich multi-layered readings of the images. Chapters 3 through 6 fall into this category, with each of the picture stories treated in turn: in the context of Dr. Festus (chapter 4) Kunzle explicates the contemporaneous world of science, while The Story of Albert (chapter 6) is discussed both in terms of the radical politics of the period and of Töpffer’s own evolving conservatism. The inclusion of Töpffer’s Voyages en Zigzag (chapter 8), which is not a comic strip but a series of illustrated essays recounting his summer trips through the Alps with his schoolboys, enriches an understanding of the picture stories by placing them on the same plane as Zigzag, long considered the more serious work. One of the most intriguing sections of the book is “Töpffer the Professional Dilettante” (chapter 7), which reflects on the relationship between Töpffer’s career and his practice of this new art form that he had invented.

Other chapters in the book seem to be tacked on, often rehashes of Kunzle’s previous writings. He acknowledges as much in chapter 2, “Goethe, Töpffer, and a New Kind of Caricature,” where he discusses the admiration of the great German writer for Töpffer’s comics (192). The final chapter, “The Legacy,” investigates the debt that subsequent comic artists owe to Töpffer, but it seems more like a roll call, an Art 101 of comics, with Kunzle both over- and under-reaching. Throughout the book, Kunzle seems hesitant to claim for Töpffer a status equal to that of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear (127, 138); nonetheless, the evidence that he himself has marshaled makes an overwhelming case for the justice of such a claim. On the other hand, his referral of all subsequent comic artists back to Töpffer seems blind to the example of Grandville, whose influence (well-known in the case of Carroll) was equally important. The problem here lies in the discomfort art historians sometimes feel in evaluating a medium that is both ephemeral and reproductive; in the absence of a canon, all “high art” claims become problematic. Nonetheless, gratitude is owed to Kunzle, for he is a pioneer in the field. With this monograph he has clearly established Töpffer’s importance, not only in the history of comics, but within the larger history of art.

The facsimile volume, Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips, will be most useful to those who cannot read the original French. The translations, printed below the facsimile pages, are not disruptive and are, for the most part, adequate even if not elegant: “prendre un glace” (6), for example, could have a more felicitous translation than “to take an ice,” e.g., “to have some ice cream.” The book’s orientation (portrait rather than the landscape format of the original albums) means that the reader loses the forward momentum Töpffer established by including only one register per page: reading from left to right and then turning the oblong page gives a strong forward momentum to the story as it unfolds, a feature that Töpffer exploited to the fullest. It is strange that Kunzle did not insist on preserving this format, since he criticizes L’Illustration’s 1845 publication of Töpffer’s Story of Mr. Cryptogame (107–8) for losing this quality by shifting from horizontal to vertical and by combining three registers per page in lieu of Töpffer’s single register. This being said, however, the book will well serve its important purpose of making Töpffer’s stories accessible to a larger audience. For scholars who can read the original French, the book’s most valuable features will be its inclusion of fragments and unfinished stories, usually omitted from reprint editions, and its catalogue raisonné that includes complete bibliographic information on each work: editions, variants, publishing history, plagiaries, etc. Here, as well as in Father of the Comic Strip, Kunzle does a Herculean job of collating and interpreting all the material that went into (and was deleted from) Töpffer’s picture stories.

On a less positive note, in these two books Kunzle’s elegant prose is undermined by missing words, clumsy or incomprehensible phrases or sentences. How are we to understand this sentence: “My own view is that whether or not Busch could have seen Töpffer in the original or in the Kessmann edition (and forgotten about it later), it is unlikely if not impossible that the more or less Töpfferian variations listed above did not pass through his consciousness” (Father of the Comic Strip, 181)? We are told that Mr Cryptograme appeared in L’Illustration from January 25 to April 19, but the year, 1845, is omitted (Father of the Comic Strip, 95). Numerous quotations lack footnotes, as, for example, Töpffer’s statement that Aubert’s plagiaries of his work made him want to “break his neck” (Father of the Comic Strip, 74). If the study of comics is to be included in the history of art—as indeed it should be—then it should be held to the same professional standards of scholarship.

Patricia Mainardi
Professor of Art History, Doctoral Program in Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

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