Rodolphe Töpffer is not only the first significant Swiss comics artist in history: he can also put a serious claim to the title "first comics artist in history". His work is much closer to our modern definition of a comic strip than any of his predecessors. Artists like Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Otto Van Veen, Jacques Callot, Francis Barlow, William Hogarth, James Gillray, Richard Newton, Isaac Cruikshank, Isaac Robert Cruikshank, George Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, Pehr Nordquist, Hokusai and Willem Bilderdijk all created mere one-shots or just a few sequential narratives. Even Hogarth, who made the most of them and who was one of Töpffer's strongest influences, was more a painter and engraver. Töpffer's picture stories were humorous tales about fictional characters, drawn and lettered in a distinctively "cartoony" style. The popularity of his characters 'Mr. Jabot', 'Crépin', 'Vieuxbois', 'Pencil', 'Dr. Festus', 'Albert' and 'Mr. Cryptogramme' was such that they were endlessly reprinted all throughout the Western world. By appearing in magazines they were the first comics reaching a mass audience, thus proving its commercial potential. Countless other 19th-century illustrators and cartoonists were inspired by Töpffer to make comics of their own, sometimes downright plagiarizing him. No other comics artist before him had a similar significant impact on the same scale.
Rodolphe Töpffer born in 1799 as the son of painter Wolfgang Adam Töpffer, a German emigrant who had settled in Geneva, Switzerland. Töpffer's father not only painted, but was a celebrated caricaturist in his own right. Unfortunately, due to an eye defect, Rodolphe was initially unable to pursue a career in visual arts like his father. Instead, he devoted himself to literature, writing short texts such as 'La Bibliothèque de Mon Oncle' (1832), 'Nouvelles Genevoises' (1841) and especially, 'Voyages en zig-zag' (1843), accounts of his hiking trips in Switzerland. Töpffer studied in Paris and became a teacher, working in several schools in Geneva, and becoming titular professor of rhetoric at the Geneva Academy of Belles-Lettres. In 1825, he founded a boarding school for boys.
Töpffer has earned most fame for his "histoires en images", picture stories which are considered predecessors to modern comic strips. He created seven titles, 'Histoire de M. Jabot' (created in 1831, first published in 1833), 'Monsieur Crépin' (1837), 'Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois' (created in 1827, published in 1837), 'Monsieur Pencil' (created 1831, first published 1840), 'Le Docteur Festus' (created 1831, first published 1846), 'Histoire d'Albert' (1845) and 'Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogramme' (1845). These works are in many ways distinctively different from either a painting, a political cartoon or a novel - even an illustrated novel. First of all, the drawing style is very simple. Everything is drawn in black-and-white with a pen. All characters and backgrounds are stylized. None of the eccentric characters are based on real-life politicians or Christian saints, but original fictional creations by Töpffer. The images follow clear narrative sequences over a course of many pages, rather than just a series of unrelated events. The text is written underneath the images, making them some of the earliest examples of text comics. Both text and images are so intertwined with that they can't be understood without one another. Even the graphical technique was groundbreaking. Töpffer used "autography", which meant he drew on a special paper, then placed a reversed copy on a lithographic stone and traced it. It made it much easier to create drawings quick and efficiently. By being able to do the lettering manually a more personal approach became possible too. In short, Töpffer had created a completely new medium.
Töpffer was even aware of his historical deed. In his books 'Essais d'Autographie' (1842) and 'Essais de Physiognomonie' (1845) he explained his graphic techniques and even shed light on his inspirations. The artist was familiar with the work of English caricaturists such as William Hogarth, George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson. In particular he cited Hogarth's 'Industry and Idleness' (1747) and Rowlandson's 'Dr. Syntax' series (1812-1821) as his direct inspirations. He explained the nature of his comics to his readers and defended them in 'Essai de Physiognomonie'. This would also make him the first comics essayist in history! Originally he drew his comics them purely for his own and friends' amusement. One of his comrades, poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, liked them so much (especially the 'Faust' parody 'Dr. Festus') that he encouraged him to publish his "littérature en estampes" ("graphic literature"). Unfortunately, the legendary German poet never saw this happen, as he passed away in 1832. Töpffer, on the other hand did live to see the success of his creations. His stories were printed in various magazines and translated in German, Dutch, English, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish.
In 1842, 'M. Vieuxbois', translated as 'Obadiah Oldbuck', was the first comic book ever published in the USA. It appeared as a supplement to the New York-based newspaper Brother Jonathan by John Neal. 'Monsieur Cryptogramme', was first published in the French satirical weekly L'Illustration in 1845, caused some locally produced spin-offs. In Germany, Julius Kell made a new text in rhyme to accompany the original drawings by Töpffer, called 'Fahrten Abenteuer Des Herrn Steckelbein' (1865). It was this edition that formed the basis for the Dutch translation, called 'Reizen en Avonturen van Mijnheer Prikkebeen', by J.J.A. Goeverneur in 1866. The version of Goeverneur was also made into a reworked edition of the book with new illustrations by Ben Mohr in 1943. The book publication of this story has been reprinted in Holland well into the 1950s. Also, Dutch comics pioneer Daan Hoeksema created a story based on the nephew of M. Cryptogramme, called 'De Neef van Prikkebeen', in 1909. Another Dutchman, Jac A. Hazelaar, made yet another spin-off in the 1930s, called 'Zoon van Prikkebeen', about Prikkebeen's son. Its fame in the Netherlands was such that it inspired no less than two hit songs, namely Boudewijn de Groot's 'Prikkebeen' (1968) and Rob de Nijs' 'Zuster Ursula' (1973), both based on the Dutch names of characters from the comic.
The fact that Töpffer's stories appeared in so many magazines are another reason why historians see him as the originator of today's comics publications. Before him most illustrated sequential narratives were just paintings, engravings or plates bought by noble- or clergyman who could afford them. Töpffer's works were deliberately created to entertain mass audiences and therefore appeared in popular weeklies and monthlies. He proved that there was a market for the medium. Many cartoonists, illustrators and other artists followed in his footsteps, including Gustave Doré, Christophe, Fritz von Dardel, Wilhelm Busch, Nadar, Léonce Petit, Edmond Forest, Charles Dubois-Melly, Richard de Querelles, Gabriel Liquier, Henri Hébert and Cham. Without Töpffer's success none of them might have even considered the idea of creating a comic. Taking all these impressive achievements in account Töpffer's work marked the birth of Swiss comics, French-language comics, European comics and even the entire commercialization and popularization of comics in general. After his death in 1846 his comics were posthumously anthologized in the series of volumes titled 'Histoires en Estampes'. A story left unfinished by Töpffer was 'Brutus Calicot'. Its manuscript is kept at the University Library in Geneva.
Besides Goethe, Töpffer was also admired by French playwrights Alfred Jarry (famous for 'Ubu Roi') and Jean Cocteau. Jarry even dedicated a chapter of one of his books to Töpffer. In 1921 Robert Lortac adapted one of Töpffer's comics into an animated short: 'Histoire de Monsieur Vieux-Bois'. A monument was erected to honour Töpffer in his native city Genève: it shows a bust in his image standing on a pillar. For those interested in Töpffer's life and his importance for the comics medium Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters' 'Töpffer: The invention of the comic strip" (1994), published by Hermann, Paris, is a must-read.