Swiss artist Adam-Wolfgang Töpffer taught the Empress Josephine how to draw. He must have taught his son to draw too, because when Rodolphe Töpffer became a teacher in 1823, he knew how to entertain his students: he drew caricatures for them1. He must have been one of the cool teachers. Then Töpffer did something that has endeared him to kids everywhere:
He invented the comic book.
What's a Comic Book?
What made Töpffer's drawings different from an illustrated book is the technique he used. Rather than producing an engraving, Töpffer used pen and ink on specially prepared paper. This gave him a fluid line. The process was called 'autography'.
The conventions of modern comic-book writing hadn't yet been invented. Instead of speech balloons, Töpffer used captions. His first 30-page book, Histoire de M Vieux Bois ('The Adventures of Mr Wooden Head'), was written in 1827. He didn't find a publisher until 1837 however; it takes time for innovation to catch on. In the meantime, Töpffer kept writing and drawing.
Es ist wirklich zu toll! – That's really too cool!
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 4 January, 1831, referring to Töpffer's work.
Originally, Töpffer intended his little stories merely to amuse his friends. Fortunately for posterity, one of his friends was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe talked Töpffer into seeking a publisher for his work, although the great German poet did not live to see his friend's oeuvre in print.
Who Was Mr Wooden Head, and What Did He Do?
Histoire de M Vieux Bois wasn't just a comic book in the sense that it combined words and pictures. It was also an amusing story, told in pages, with from one to six images on each. Since Histoire de M Vieux Bois is often credited with being the first comic book, we might be interested in the plot, such as it is.
Mr Wooden Head does a number of interesting things:
- He falls in love with an overweight young woman, but his passion is not requited at first. He has adventures courting her, fighting a duel with a rival, trying to elope with her, etc.
- He attempts suicide. Unsuccessfully. More than once. (Note this early use of the 'running gag'.)
- He stages an elaborate jailbreak with monks as Keystone Kops.
- After many ups and downs, and hair-raising comical adventures, Mr Wooden Head and his honey marry and live happily ever after.
Did people fuss about this sort of thing? Yes. Critics said – and Töpffer admitted – that this kind of 'literature' appealed primarily to children and the lower classes. There must have been a lot of kids and lower-class readers: Histoire de M Vieux Bois was also published in the US as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, in newspaper supplement form.
Töpffer went on to publish Monsieur Pencil, about the dangers of runaway artwork, Histoire d'Albert, the adventures of a journalist, Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, about a butterfly collector, and a mad-scientist tale, Le Docteur Festus, as a tribute to his buddy Goethe. It does appear that no motif is new under the sun. Besides being entertaining, Töpffer was influential. He is cited as an influence on Wilhelm Busch, the inventor of Max und Moritz. In that sense, Töpffer has a lot to answer for.
Geneva, Switzerland, seems to be proud of the man. They put up a bust in his honour, and there is an award for young comic artists, the Prix Rodolphe Töpffer pour la jeune bande dessinée genevoise.
For Further Reading
Read the Histoire de M Vieux Bois online here.
Read the English-language version, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, online here.
If you don't find these terribly droll, blame your modern tastes. The art of cartooning has taken a number of different turns since then, and you may prefer webcomics. You may even be drawing your own.