“This little book has a mixed nature,” Rodolphe Topffer wrote of one his early books that many consider the first comic books. “It is composed of a series of autographed pictures. Each picture is accompanied by one or two lines of text. The pictures, without this text, would have only an obscure meaning; the text, without the pictures, would mean nothing. Together they form a sort of novel, all the more original in that it does not resemble a novel more than any other thing. The author of this little oblong volume is not known. If he is an artist, he draws badly, but he has some skill in writing; if he is a writer, he writes only moderately well, but in recompense he has a good amateur's drawing skills.” Born January 31, 1799, Toppfer was being much too modest in writing of such works as Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois (drawn in 1827, published in 1839; a panel from which appears above),which married the worlds of words and art in a way few had done before. Topffer taught and painted and drew such pictures on the side, for the amusement of his students, family, and friends. In the panels above, Monsieur Vieuxbois hangs himself in despair over lost love, only to return to the living when his true love calls, pursuing her with the rope still around his neck and the end of the rope still attached to the ceiling beam. Such lighthearted slapstick remains a staple of comics and cartoons today.
Topffer’s stories gained an audience in his lifetime. Unfortunately, the absence of copyright laws in the nineteenth century allowed rampant pirating of his works, robbing him of much income. In 1842, an English-language version of Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois, titled Obadiah Oldbuck (one panel is shown above), is published as the first comic book in America. Topffer dies in 1846, having published only seven of his books during his lifetime, with many others to follow, including numerous translations. Illustrators such as Gustave Dore point to Topffer as an influence in their approach to putting images to text. It’s hard to believe that in such simple doodles, the playthings of a playful professor, the entire genre of comics, from Superman to Peanuts to Doonesbury, was born.