Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Mixed Nature

“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.

Goethe saw Topffer’s comic books in 1830 and loved them, belying his reputation for high seriousness. Topffer later used Goethe’s kind words to acquire a publisher for his unique works. Topffer, however, in addition to his jabs at love and social status through Monsieur Vieuxbois, which Goethe loved, in Monsieur Pencil took aim on politics and warfare—two topics on which Topffer and Goethe saw less eye to eye on. Goethe never saw such panels as the one above in which a foolish scientist places Monsieur Pencil in a crate, thinking him to be some kind of alien. Despondent, Monsieur Pencil tries to hang himself by holding on to a tree branch while still trapped in the coffin-like crate, changing hands when one gets tired. Pencil’s misadventures multiply throughout the story, creating a domino effect that sets the whole country into turmoil. Through such absurdity, Topffer comments directly on the senselessness of the death and destruction surrounding the Revolution of 1830, aka The July Revolution, which replaced one king with another. By all accounts, Topffer himself was no liberal, but his conservatism allowed him to see the errors of France’s ways at that time and to gently point them out in his unique way.

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.

No comments: