Rodolphe Töpffer was the son of painter Wolfgang Adam Töpffer, a German emigrant who had settled in Geneva, Switzerland. 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 Cryptogame' (1845). After Töpffer's death in 1846, were posthumously anthologized in the series of volumes titled 'Histoires en Estampes'. A story left unfinished by Töpffer was 'Brutus Calicot', the manuscript of which is kept at the University Library in Geneva. Another publication by Töpffer is 'Essais d'autographie' (1842).
All of his picture stories feature eccentric men caught up in humorous situations. The text is written underneath the images, making these some of the earliest examples of text comics. Distinctively different from a novel, even an illustrated one, historians have crowned Töpffer with the honorable title of being the first genuine comics artist in history. His work is also officially the first European comic strip. Originally, Töpffer drew these comics for the amusement of himself and his friends. 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.
In 1842, 'M. Vieuxbois', translated as 'Obadiah Oldbuck', was the first comic book that was ever published in the USA. It appeared as a supplement to the New York-based newspaper Brother Jonathan by John Neal. 'Monsieur Cryptogramme', that 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. Also, Dutch comics pioneer Daan Hoeksema created a story based on the nephew of M. Cryptogramme, called 'De Neef van Prikkebeen', in 1909. The book publication of this story has been reprinted in Holland well into the 1950s.
As an artist, Töpffer was inspired by William Hogarth, and Töpffer's picture stories have been an influence on many of the early "comic" artists that followed in his footsteps, such as Gustave Doré, Christophe, Wilhelm Busch and Cham.