Praise for David Kunzle's New Books

The Man Who Invented Comics

By Peter Sanderson
Note: The following originally appeared in Publisher's Weekly Comics Week on March 27, 2007

For decades the conventional wisdom among American comics enthusiasts has been that comics are one of the nation’s few native art forms, like jazz, and for decades they have been wrong. The father of comics was Rodolphe Topffer, who was born in Geneva, Switzerland, at the end of the 18th century. In April, the University Press of Mississippi will publish the first English-language collection of Topffer’s work, Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips, compiled, translated and annotated by scholar David Kunzle.

Simultaneously with the release of this groundbreaking collection, the University Press of Mississippi is also publishing Kunzle’s critical monograph, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Topffer, which delves further into the historical background of this pioneering cartoonist’s work.
In the collection, Kunzle calls Topffer’s work “comic strips,” but that may be misleading, since we usually think of strips as being published in daily installments. Instead, Topffer usually published his comics stories in book form, calling them “histoires en estampes,” which Kunzle translates as “engraved novels.” In other words, those of you who assumed that the graphic novel format originated in the late 1970s are off by well over a century. Topffer published his first graphic novel, Histoire de Monsieur Jabot, in 1833. An earlier story that Topffer did, Les Amours de M. Vieux Bois, was published in the United States in 1842 as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. Thus the first American comic book was actually a Swiss reprint!

Sequential art—communication through a series of pictures—goes all the way back to prehistoric cave paintings on cave walls. Topffer acknowledged as an inspiration the 18th-century artist and satirist William Hogarth, who created series of paintings or engravings that told a story, such as The Rake’s Progress (1735). But Topffer’s picture stories are the first that unmistakably resemble modern comics: book-length sequences of panels that combine words and pictures.

Although cartoonists such as the 18th-century political caricaturist James Gillray had long been using word balloons, Topffer did not, and very rarely employed dialogue. Instead, he provided a running narration throughout each book in the form of captions for each panel. Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant is the prime example of a more modern comics work that utilizes captions rather than balloons.

A man of multiple talents, Topffer was a university professor, the head of his own boarding school, a writer of prose novels and short stories, a playwright, a journalist and an adviser to Geneva’s government. He was also a serious illustrator, although his drawings of faces and figures in his comics seem crude.

That doesn’t matter, because Topffer got so much else in his artwork right: he was an amusing caricaturist and a sharp observer of facial expressions and body language. Most importantly, he was not only inventing comics storytelling, but he was already a master of the craft.

The great surprise in Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips is that these pioneering comics from 160 years ago hold up so well and are still genuinely funny.

Read this review in full here.