Oldbuck, by Rodolphe Töpffer
'M. Vieuxbois', 1842, in the English translation: 'Obadiah Oldbuck'.

Rodolphe Töpffer is the first Swiss comic artist in history. He drew humorous picture stories about comedic men, all written and drawn in a distinctively cartoony style. His characters 'Mr. Jabot' (1833), 'Mr. Crépin' (1837), 'Mr. Vieuxbois' (1837), 'Mr. Pencil' (1840), 'Dr. Festus' (1846), 'Albert' (1845) and 'Mr. Cryptogame' (1845) were extraordinarily popular and influential at the time. They were reprinted, translated and even bootlegged. In that regard Töpffer is also widely considered the "first comic 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, Antonio TempestaOtto Van Veen, Jacques Callot, Romeyn de HoogheFrancis 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. On the same token Töpffer's comics were the first to reach a mass audience. He not only popularized this new genre, but proved its commercial potential at the same time. Countless other 19th-century illustrators and cartoonists were inspired by him to make comics of their own, sometitmes downright plagiarizing him. 

Early life and career
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 follow in his footsteps. He studied in Paris between 1819-1820, after which he returned to Geneva to become a school teacher. Töpffer established his own boarding school for boys in 1825. By 1832 he was a Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Geneva. In his spare time he wrote short stories, such as 'La Bibliothèque de Mon Oncle' (1832),  'Nouvelles Genevoises' (1841) and an account of his hiking trips: 'Voyages en zig-zag' (1843). 

Brutus Calicot, by Rodolphe Töpffer 1846
'Brutus Calicot' (1846).

The first comic artist
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). 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. 

From Essais d'autograhie, by Rodolphe Töpffer 1842
'Essais d'autographie'.

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 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. 

Monsieur Cryptogame, by Rodolphe Töpffer
'M. Cryptogame'.

International succes 
In 1839 the French magazine Le Charivari serialized Töpffer's 'Histoire de Mr. Jabot', yet halfway the story the originals were clumsily redrawn by a staff member to save costs. Publishing company Aubert nevertheless published this plagiarism in book format, without crediting or paying Töpffer. In the same magazine Cham created two comics "in the style of Töpffer", which led to 'Histoire de Mr. Lajaunisse' (1839) and 'Mr. de Lamélasse' (1839), both copying both the style and even entire ideas from Töpffer. 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 Cryptogame', 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' (1847). 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 1858. 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 comic pioneer Daan Hoeksema created a story based on the nephew of M. Cryptogame, 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. In 1972 the comic even inspired a Dutch TV series, 'Avonturen van Meneer Prikkebeen', which combined live-action with animation and was produced by Harrie Geelen.

Legacy and influence
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 DoréChristophe, Fritz von Dardel, Wilhelm Busch, Nadar, Léonce Petit, Edmond Forest, Charles Dubois-Melly, Richard de Querelles, Gabriel Liquier, Henri Hébert and Cham. In the United States the English translation 'Obadiah Oldbuck' (1842) was a strong influence on James & Donald Read's 'Journey To The Gold Diggins. By Jeremiah Saddlebags' (1849).  They and dozens of other artists often shamelessly borrowed gags, narratives and lay-outs from Töpffer. Even though this was undeniably plagiarism it must be said that comics were still a brand new medium at the time. Much of the iconography, visual execution, gag timing and characterisation still had to be learned from studying the one artist who pioneered most of it. 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. Outside the 19th century Töpffer's influence on cartoonists has been scarce, except for Kees Sparreboom and Oscar de Wit.

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.

Books about Rodolphe Töpffer
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. 

The adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, by Rodolphe Toppfer

Series and books by Rodolphe Töpffer you can order today:


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