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Rodolphe Topffer and romanticism.

"En attendant l'ouverture des cours, Albert declame du Hugo. / Ce qui frappe Albert dans son Hugo, ce sont les prefaces, a cause des doctrines. / A partir de ce jour, Albert comprend pourquoi les elemens [sic] l'ont tant ennuye; c'est qu'il lui fallait des doctrines" (4). Thus begins an irresolute youngster's journey into post-1830 Romanticism in Histoire d'Albert, Rodolphe Topffer's last published histoire en estampes. Composed in Geneva between 1827 and 1846, these extended narratives in comic strips with underlying captions deliver a lively blend of philosophical satire and cartoonish comedy. They offer a rare perspective on Romanticism and posit a counter-discourse of legerete to its high seriousness. In view of the speed with which humor loses potency or even turns stale, Topffer's lampoon reaches us remarkably intact and fresh. Undoubtedly, the current peak in these early graphic novels' maturation cycle has played no small part in the recent scholarly interest in him.

Few today would contest the notion that Rodolphe Topffer (1799-1846) is the pioneer of the comic strip. His initial ambition had been to follow in the footsteps of his father, renowned painter Adam Wolfgang Topffer. After a degenerative eye disease forced Rodolphe to reconsider his options, he applied his oesthetic sensitivity, his semiotic intuition, and his verbal skills to a wide gamut of pursuits over the course of a brief but rewarding career as an educator, writer, and cartoonist. He held his first professional position as a schoolmaster, soon directed his own boarding school, and ultimately earned the first chair of rhetoric at the Academy of Geneva and a seat on the City Council. His writings include illustrated travelogues, short stories, aesthetics treatises, art criticism, political journalism, and a critical edition of speeches by Demosthenes, as well as theater comedies that remained unpublished until the late twentieth century.

Although Topffer is national hero in Switzerland and a revered figure of graphic-narrative connoisseurs across Europe, recognition came later in the United States, where his true contribution to comic strip history had to fight a well-entrenched pan-American tradition. While Topffer's books overall never ceased to be of interest to bibliophiles, Francophone and Anglophone scholarly research on his graphic novels proper slowly built up in the 1960s and 70s with Ellen Wiese's critical edition and translation Enter: The Comics: Rodolphe Topffer's "Essay on Physiognomy" and "The true Story of Monsieur Crepin" (1965) as well as the creation of a Societe d'Etudes Topfferiennes in Switzerland (1974). Since the 1990s, Thierry Groensteen and David Kunzle have dominated scholarly discourse on Topffer's comics internationally. The first has produced the widest array of Topffer-related publications and exhibitions, among which Topffer: L'Invention de la bande dessinee (1994); to the second we owe the peerless encyclopedic History of the Comic Strip, the second volume of which (1990) contained the most extensive study of Topffer's graphic novels until his 2007 monograph Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Topffer, published concurrently with the exhaustive Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips in English. Other notable publications mapping out and negotiating Topffer's new place in cultural history have included the rich Topffer (Boisonnas et al., 1996); "Topffer in America" in Comic Art (Wheeler et al., 2003), and "The Invention of Comics" in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (Mainardi, 2007), as well as the first three volumes of Topffer's Correspondance complete (1807-38, Droin et al., 2002-7).

From these various sources emerges a clear sense that the father of the comic strip entertained a complex and tumultuous relationship with his cultural environment. Certainly, the Genevan educator was far from averse to risk-taking, whether jeopardizing his academic reputation with petulant comic books or attempting to make a break into the French literary scene while launching a multifrontal assault on its reigning figure. The present essay seeks to outline Topffer's relationship with Romanticism in light of preeminent Romantic writers' reactions to the provincial newcomer. While Topffer's prose fiction lived in delicate symbiosis with Romanticism, his graphic novels playfully deconstructed it and his aesthetic discourse unequivocally combated defining aspects of it. Hence, sponsored successively by Xavier de Maistre, Johann Wolf-gang von Goethe, and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Topffer subsequently brought upon himself Theophile Gautier's scorn. As such object of polemics, Topffer's work provides a useful lens for seeing the passage from one Romanticism to another.

Topffer's graphic literature round its first model at home; his caricature style owes much to his father's. Early biographical accounts also generally suggest that the young educator found inspiration for the comic strips in eighteenth-century English moralist William Hogarth's pictorial narratives in individual prints. More precisely noted by Groensteen is the influence of Thomas Rowlandson's Dr. Syntax satirical trilogy (1809-21)--sequences of twenty to thirty plates each with a narrative in verse by William Combe--in style, themes and motifs developed in Topffer's Voyages et Aventures du Docteur Festus (1829-40) (1) and Mr. Pencil, (1831-40) (Groensteen 68-72). In their dynamic depiction of wild chases and characters fumbling about with uncooperative objects, Topffer's sequential strips also find some roots in stage pantomime and puppet theater. While the captions tend to be minimalist in style, their overall thematics look back to highbrow Enlightenment-age societal satire. Topffer's brand of wit, his narratives' tongue-in-cheek irony and detached tolerance for the absurd, owe much to Montesquieu and Diderot's outlooks on their contemporaries. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg may also have offered a model to follow, although Topffer never made explicit any influence. Before him, Lichtenberg had been an academic who had earned acclaim as aesthete and satirist, painter and caricaturist, and counted Goethe among his readers. Furthermore, Lichtenberg's Uber Physiognomik, wider die Physiognomen (1778) lampoons Lavater's theory of physiognomy, as does Topffer's M. Crepin (1837). In that pictorial story, a practitioner of phrenology enters the lives of a well-to-do couple seeking the right private teacher for their children:
   Le repas est fort gai, mais ce qui contrarie Mr Crepin, c'est que
   sa femme raffole de la phrenologie, et meurt d'envie d'etre tatee.
   / [...] Madame Crepin n'y pouvant plus tenir engage Mr. Craniose a
   demontrer sur une bouteille, rien que pour voir. Monsieur Crepin
   s'y oppose vivement, en declarant que la phrenologie est une
   science immorale et materialiste. / Mr Craniose est charme
   d'entendre parler ainsi, afin d'avoir l'occasion de detruire des
   preventions aussi honorables qu'injustes. "La phrenologie,
   monsieur, la phrenologie est au contraire une science eminemment
   spiritualiste; en effet reduisant tout a l'organisation et a la
   matiere, elle laisse l'ame absolument en dehors de ses
   investigations. Donc, ne s'occupant pas de l'ame, elle est loin de
   l'attaquer." Madame Crepin donne raison a Mr Craniose / Passant
   ensuite aux applications les plus elementaires de cette science
   sublime a la legislation, a l'education, a la religion, a la
   morale, a l'hygiene, a l'anthropologie, a la polygamie, a
   l'ontologie, ... etc, etc, Mr Craniose recule en entrevoyant
   l'avenir qui attend les societes!!!! / Madame Crepin n'y pouvant
   plus tenir, exige de son mari qu'il lui permette de se laisser
   tater. / Mr Craniose, tatant sans rien dire, Mr Crepin lit dans son
   expression. / Mr Craniose ayant pousse un cri de decouverte, Mr
   Crepin pousse un cri involontaire. / [...] Mme Crepin fait tater
   [le crane de leur fils] Samuel. Craniose lui trouve la bosse des
   langues. / Samuel qui deteste le latin se met a pleurer. M[adame]
   Crepin demande pour lui une autre bosse. (49-62) (2)

Topffer had an ambivalent relationship with Lavater's system, rejecting its social implications while adopting its principles as reference in his graphic art. His 1845 Essai de physiognomonie contains the first theoretical work on comics in history. It reveals how he sought to design his characters in such a way as to suggest certain moral traits, and how he formulated their facial expressions as a combination of elements according to a structural model. While the written text in M. Crepin contains its own comedic resources, it conveys only half of the narrative; character's attitudes either amplify the caption or contradict it to create irony. The images carry their own humor: in the pantomime of Mr. Crepin's jealous skepticism, Mrs. Crepin's naive delight and Craniose's dramatic body language. Pedantry is a recurring object of mockery for the Genevan scholar-artist, as are melodramatic outbursts of lyricism. Throughout the histoires en estampes, heroic lovers, lone wanderers, smug artists and idealistic mentors are united in the excessive, stereotypical way in which they bare their inner feelings. Characters otherwise connoted as average bourgeois types suddenly break into contrived, theatrical attitudes, all in conventional romance wording, lyrical phrasing and emphatic body language. Should a traveler seek shelter in the wild after being robbed of his horse and equipment, he does not hide in any old cave to mope over his predicament, but rather "se refugie dans un antre sauvage ou il deplore sa destinee" (Les Amours de Mr. Vieux Bois 23). In response to the fundamental injustice that governs the attribution of heroic literary destinies, protagonists sometimes try to take shortcuts to greatness. Mr. Crepin's private tutor Fadet, for instance, attempts to jump-start a literary career by unnecessarily turning himself in to prison--for a minor bout of public disturbance caused by his students--where he hastens to throw down on paper "quelques quatrains sur sa captivite" (42).

Assorted Romantic motifs set the cultural tone for many of Topffer's histoires. Love happens at first sight; it is eternal and readily generates pledges to sacrifice one's life on the spot. Goethe's young Werther's archetype reigns supreme over movements of the soul. For Topffer's creatures, taking one's own life is always a viable option in matters of the heart or of honor, yet, as tragicomic figures, none are ever successful at it. His emblematic Romantic lover, Mr. Vieux Bois, tries to kill himself out of love no fewer than rive times throughout the eponymous story (1827-39). In Mr. Crepin, private tutor Bonnichon wanders aimlessly in a forest, contemplating "un abime sans fond," "se mefiant de lui-meme," (28) after suffering the humiliation of being clobbered out of his workplace by a house cook and her pans. In Mr. Jabot, a lady falls in love with an unseen stranger after she misinterprets a sequence of sounds coming from the inn room adjacent to hers as symptoms of Romantic fever. Reaching her wishful mind as a narrative of ardent passion, emotional despair and suicidal thoughts, the actual sequence of events instead reveals the oblivious Mr. Jabot crying out"Je brule! Je brule!!!" precisely because the back of his nightshirt has caught tire from a candle, then a spontaneous hunting-gun discharge triggered by the resulting heat, and finally, the man's tears as the smoke dissipates (37-41).

The emotional power of nature permeates these stories in a most Rousseauesque way and never fails to exacerbate Topffer's characters' lyricism. At the drop of a hat, beautiful landscapes rekindle passions and drive characters to wander about in appropriate emphatic tones [Fig. 1]. The fantasy of pastoral paradise is never farther than a lyrical tirade away. Mr. Vieux Bois gets a taste of it in a delightfully absurd interlude. Tucked in between frantic back-and-forth chase scenes between competing lovers, the episode humorously breaks up the narrative pace to reveal the winner, Mr. Vieux Bois, and his ladylove in an idyllic Alpine retreat. He has unilaterally decided to elope and remove her from society. Vieux Bois lives his one-sided Romantic fantasy to its fullest, in all its utopian fancy, complete with bucolic role-playing and therapeutic holistic dancing, oblivious to the woman's unwavering indifference. The expression l'objet aime never fit a character better than Mr. Vieux Bois' ladylove. Beloved, pursued, and overall endowed with all the character of a tea cozy, she is the least passionate romantic heroine to ever grace the pages of a fiction. Her interest in either of her two suitors appears equivocal at best, her movements mainly consisting in being carried back and forth alternatively by the two competing kidnappers. Never picked up by the written text, but unfailingly explicit in the figures, her absolute inertia comically contrasts with her lovers' obsessive frenzy, each so taken by his own role as romantic hero that he barely needs any response from her. Completely objectified, she is never identified any more personally than as l'etre aime or l'objet aime. Pushing a metaphor to its limits partakes of Topffer's campaign against intellectual laziness; so does his use of comedic repetition, for instance, to highlight the process whereby excessive reliance on stock phrases turns the most meaningful precept into a worn-out cliche.

At least since Epicurus, passion is said to blind people. This axiom becomes a leitmotiv in the story of Mr. Pencil. However, rather than keeping romantic sensibility in check, it rapidly veers off towards nonsense. Topffer proceeds to weave the classical adage intricately into the narrative, only to gradually strip it from any meaning through excessive repetition. Indeed, the coordinate clause "car helas la passion aveugle" appears no less than seventeen times throughout the 72 strips that form the text, nonsensically juxtaposed to an increasingly wide range of situations. Each recurrence comes slightly less relevant to its context than the previous, from "[La bourrasque] s'amuse a pousser le bourgeois dans les bras de Mde. Jolibois. Mr. Jolibois (car helas la passion aveugle) ressent les tourments d'une atroce jalousie" (6) to the absurd "Mr. Jolibois ayant reconnu son docteur (car helas la passion aveugle) rebrousse precipitamment pour lui echapper" (61). The last occurrence of the sentence comes with a twist: "Mr. Jolibois (car helas la passion ne l'aveugle plus) ... se jette dans les bras de son epouse pure et respectee. Mr. Pencil embrasse sa servante, et le Docteur s'embrasse lui-meme" (70), this final nonsensical variant evacuating any possible wisdom from the scene's expected triumph of reason over passion.

For all the iconoclastic mockery of Topffer's comics, however, his prose fiction far from shuns the pathos that his graphic novels lampoon. Contemporaries commonly defined his prose style as in the lineage of Laurence Sterne and Xavier de Maistre, his miniaturist-cum-novelist literary godfather. De Maistre's introduction to Topffer's short-stories collection Nouvelles genevoises (1841) recommends them as no less than "des ouvrages que je n'ai pas eu la possibilite de faire, [et] que je voudrais avoir faits.... une lecture qui ... fera presque a la fois sourire et verser de douces larmes" (v). Assuredly, the unaware reader might be hard-pressed to associate their author with that of the zany M. Pencil. There is no ironic distance when the sight of rolling hills ignites Topffer's literary characters' passions. Indeed, on the poet's experience, he offers the following insight:

a aucune epoque les poetes n'ont ete heureux [...] Ces tetes-la se forgent une felicite surhumaine que chaque jour decoit ou renverse; ils voient par-dela les cieux, et ils sont cloues a la terre; ils aiment des deesses, et ne rencontrent que des mortelles. Ceci est l'effet et la cause. C'est parce qu'ils sont poetes qu'ils eprouvent ces tourments, c'est parce qu'ils eprouvent ces tourments qu'ils sont poetes. De cette lutte qui se fait en eux jaillir, comme l'eclair de la nue, cette lumiere qui nous frappe dans leurs vers; la souffrance leur revele des joies, les joies leur apprennent la souffrance, leurs desirs vivent a cote de leurs deceptions; de ce riche chaos, de ces fecondes douleurs naissent leurs sublimes pages. Ainsi, ce sont les vents orageux qui tirent de si doux sons de cette harpe solitaire. (Bibliotheque 49-50)

Some among Topffer's most famous short stories, Le Presbytere (1832), La Bibliotheque de mon oncle (1832), L'Heritage (1834) or Elisa et Widmer (834), unreservedly exploit a wide gamut of Romantic staples. These tales of delicate psychology, introspection and bucolic flanerie all involve orphan lads whose innocent, secret passions for ever-blushing, virtuous daughters--all fitted with a modesty to make Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Virginie look like a cheerleader--get thwarted by possessive parents, social conventions or premature death. Hot tears are cried at every turn--mainly by men, in their quality of most developed characters, as in this scene of Le Presbytere:
   J'entrai dans un pre, et, m'etant jete sur l'herbe, mes regrets
   eclaterent en bouillants sanglots. A l'image de Louise, qui m'etait
   otee pour toujours, je poussais des accents confus de douleur. "Ah!
   Louise, murmurai-je avec desespoir, Louise ... vous qui m'aimiez
   ... Louise! ... pourquoi vous ai-je connue? [...] Puis, restant
   quelque temps dans le silence, des projets extravagants se
   presentaient a mon esprit, qui suspendaient mes pleurs, jusqu'a ce
   qu'ils vinssent echouer contre l'insurmontable obstacle de mon
   respect pour ceux memes qui en etaient l'objet. (34)

Is there a measure of self-satire in Topffer's comics, then? It could seem so when comparing two similar scenes of tender feelings triggered by the sight of nature in Les Amours de Mr. Vieux Bois and Le Presbytere--save for the fact that the graphic-novel parody came before the first-person short story. The truth of the matter lies elsewhere: Topffer's literary characters feel passion but do not express it with passion; instead, it remains within the bounds of classicist containment. Their tears are more Rousseau's than Chateaubriand's. Moreover, Topffer's cartoon characters do not really cry, they only display external signs of emotion. It is not sentimentalism itself that Topffer's comics target but a certain form of expressing it. Indeed, whether deconstructing metaphors or animating regular bourgeois characters with overemphatic theatrical behavior, Topffer's satire implicitly exposes the artifice behind expressions of romantic sensibility absorbed into mainstream culture. His histoires en estampes not only spoof literary stereotypes and the hold of trend over behavior, but in doing so, they also implicitly challenge Romanticism's status as privileged channel of spontaneity. The constant juxtaposition of literary cliches and contrived attitudes over spontaneous expressions of emotions creates such incongruous effects that it highlights their nature as cultural artifacts, as exercises of pure form. It mercilessly debunks Romanticism's claim to freedom from convention.

The best-known piece of trivia about Topffer's comic books is that Goethe enjoyed them greatly. (3) As notebook manuscripts, they had circulated first among a confidential circle of friends in Geneva's cultured class. In 1831, thanks to Topffer's friend Frederic Soret, also Goethe's French translator and confidant, they soon made it across the border to the philosopher's desk. Goethe thus discovered Histoire de Mr. Cryptogame (1830-44), Histoire de Mr. Jabot (1831-3), Mr. Pencil, and the playfully homonymic Docteur Festus in the last year of his life. Though he notoriously disliked caricature for its vindictive nature, he immediately took to Topffer's histoires, finding in them a faithful reflection of his contemporaries. "What gives all these pictures exquisite value," the old humanist declared, "is that they present a simultaneously sharp and light-hearted satire of the preposterousness of the day and of human weaknesses" (Soret, Feder-Zeichnungen 562). (4) Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret (1850) recounts the philosopher's enthusiastic reception of Topffer's comic books:

The number which contained the adventures of Doctor Festus, in light pen-and-ink sketches, gave quite the impression of a comic novel, and pleased Goethe highly.

"This is mad stuff, indeed!" exclaimed he, from time to time, as he turned over one leaf after another; "all sparkles with talent and intelligence. Some pages could not be excelled. If, for the future, he would choose a less frivolous subject, and restrict himself a little, he would produce things beyond conception."

"He has been compared with Rabelais," remarked I, "and reproached with having imitated him and borrowed his ideas."

"People do not know what they would have," returned Goethe. "I find nothing of the sort; on the contrary, [Topffer] appears to me to stand quite upon his own feet, and to be as thoroughly original as any talent I have met. (Eckermann 503-4)

Where Goethe finds the kindred of spirit non-existent, Kunzle mounts a compelling defense of Eckermann's appreciation, invoking the prose version of Dr. Festus (1840) (5) (Kunzle 2007, 81). However, the histoires en estampes bear no clear example of imitation or borrowing in situations, characters or tone. Even though Rabelais's verve had been a source of readerly pleasure to a young Rodolphe, it bears little visible influence on the professor of rhetoric's deadpan humor. Ebullient as his graphics may be, their captions follow a classical model of restraint. If some isolated instances of mildly scatological jokes--he removed them from the definitive editions--break a taboo likely to register as "Rabelaisian" the term applies only as blanket euphemism.

While the Weimar patriarch's encouragements validated Topffer's side-career as a cartoonist, France's reigning literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve did his best to downplay its importance--ironically so, with Topffer's best interest equally in mind. Sainte-Beuve indeed was another force at hand behind Topffer's international success, the next relay in the chain after de Maistre in launching the Genevan writer onto the Parisian literary scene. However, his endorsement stopped at the short stories gathered in Nouvelles genevoises; the comic books simply did not square with Sainte-Beuve's use for Topffer's works. Beyond his personal taste for Topffer's prose, this recognition also partook of a larger strategy of discredit of such contemporary novelists as Balzac and Sue, whom Sainte-Beuve deemed vulgar and venal in their prolixity. More precisely, Topffer had become the latest pawn in a bitter literary feud between Sainte-Beuve and the author of the Etudes sociales. The double aim of Sainte-Beuve's praise in his 1841 Revue des deux mondes article is manifest. He presents Topffer's literature as bucolic, pure, a breath of fresh air in a literary scene that has declined into a market aligned with the lowest common denominator; he commends the stories' "douce et saine saveur ... un talent naturel que n'ont atteint ni l'industrie ni la vanite" (Sainte-Beuve 1841, 491). The critic sets them up as "un exemple a opposer veritablement a nos oeuvres d'ici, si raffinees, si infectees" (491) that he bemoans have left France in a state of moral anarchy since the early 1830s. Sainte-Beuve even takes care to set Topffer apart among his compatriots. The newcomer, he vouches, "se trouve anterieur de quelques annees [...] a cette generation romantique qui, vers 1828, se remua a Geneve ou a Lausanne" (494). Topffer's Genevan citizenship made him all the more relevant to the face-off between Sainte-Beuve and Balzac that the latter previously had thought judicious to disparage the critic's professional connection with Lausanne's intelligentsia (Jackson 931-32). Within the context of this trench warfare, an exchange during which "the critic misrepresented him [Balzac] on various occasions," as Joseph F. Jackson wrote in the PMLA in 1930, "even going so far as to impugn his literary sincerity" (936), Sainte-Beuve's cherry-picking of Topffer's qualities is as conspicuous as it is unfortunate. Going through the trouble of locating cultural relevance for Topffer's fiction in a historical-linguistic perspective, he awkwardly dismisses the histoires en estampes as inconsequential. Claiming his skill as critic stops short of being able to describe them, he attempts to trivialize them as "histoires folles melees d'un grain de serieux," as "albums grotesques [qui] coururent de main en main" (1841, 496). "L'humour que M. Topffer repand en ses autographies," he resolves, "nous retrouvons litterairement, a dose plus menagee, dans plus d'un chapitre de ses ouvrages" (496). Assuredly, this was a delicate exercise for Sainte-Beuve. As Kunzle reconstitutes the situation,
   With respect to the "impure" genre Topffer had invented,
   Sainte-Beuve was in a quandary; he designed his essay as biography
   as well as literary appraisal, and Topffer had been particularly
   forthcoming, in the autobiographical sketch he had furnished the
   critic with in advance, on the subject of the comic albums, their
   origin, and the role they played in his life and current
   reputation. Topffer had already acknowledged his pride in their
   authorship and popular success. But Sainte-Beuve was put off by the
   examples Topffer had sent him and refused to enter into any
   discussion of this, to him dubious, aspect of the writer's oeuvre.
   Rather, using Topffer's own description ("crazy stories mixed with
   a touch of the serious"), Sainte-Beuve recounts briefly their
   origin, character, and favorable reception by Goethe (who, as the
   critic condescendingly puts it, "did not disdain anything human"),
   evidently in order to cast his, Sainte-Beuve's, role as patron as
   the fulfillment of one first assumed by Goethe. (1990, 51)

Topffer's death noticeably toned down Sainte-Beuve's reservations. His eulogy in the preface to the posthumous novel Rosa et Gertrude (1846) concedes that "le crayon jouait sous ses doigts, et la saillie accompagnait le crayon, comme un air qu'on sait suit naturellement les paroles" (1846, xlii). Still, Topffer's premature demise did not bring about only homage. Another literary critic took issue with Topffer's work--not his comics or short stories, but this time with his views on art. Until this point, Topffer's fiction work had generated varied critical response from pre-eminent literary figures. Goethe had liked the comics but never read the short stories, de Maistre enioyed both (6)--though he had praised only the second publicly--and Sainte-Beuve lauded the prose fiction while denigrating the cartooning. All united in their enthusiasm for one or the other aspect of Topffer's fiction work, these three veterans of Romanticism also shared distaste for the 1830 revolution and the new claims of freedom in French literature.

The posthumous assault on Topffer came precisely from a member of this new wave, a veteran of the bataille d'Hernani, Theophile Gautier. Shortly after Topffer's death, Gautier published a very critical review of Reflexions et menus propos d'un peintre genevois, the collection of Topffer's essays on aesthetics written in the 1830s. Built along a rhetorical crescendo, the Revue des deux mondes article entitled "Du Beau dans l'art" begins with a concession to the consensus over Topffer's literary talent. Le Presbytere, l'Heritage, and La Bibliotheque de mon oncle, the future author of L'Art Moderne acknowledges, "sont de petits chef-d'oeuvres ou Sterne, Xavier de Maistre et Bernardin de Saint-Pierre se fondent heureusement dans une originalite d'une saveur toute locale" (887). However, behind the flattering analogy with celebrated authors hides an implicit alignment of Topffer with the old guard, in contrast with the nouvelle vague that Gautier himself represents. He goes on with a mention of "les albums comiques ou, dans une suite de dessins au trait, il nous a deroule les aventures de Messrs. Crepin, Jabot, Vieux-Bois, Cryptogame et autres personnages grotesques de son invention" (887-88). Gautier then twists a string of barely masked unfavorable comparisons with the popular cartoonists of the time into an insincere endorsement of Topffer's distaste for academism and embracement of naivete in art. "Il serait difficile," he asserts spitefully,
   de trouver en France des equivalents pour faire comprendre le
   talent de M. Topffer comme dessinateur humoristique: ce n'est ni la
   finesse elegante de Gavarni, ni la puissance brutale de Daumier, ni
   l'exageration bouffonne de Cham, ni la charge triste de Travies. Sa
   maniere ressemblerait plutot a celle de l'Anglais Cruikschanck
   [sic]; mais il y a chez le Genevois moins d'esprit et plus de
   naivete: on voit qu'il a etudie avec beaucoup d'attention les
   petits bons-hommes dont les gamins charbonnent les murailles avec
   des lignes dignes de l'art etrusque pour la grandeur et la
   simplicite; c'est meme le sujet de l'un des plus charmants
   chapitres de son livre. Il a du egalement s'inspirer des byzantins
   d'Epinal.... Il en a appris l'art de rendre sa pensee, sans lui
   rien faire perdre de sa force, en quelques traits decisifs, dont la
   preoccupation des details anatomiques et de la verite bourgeoise ne
   vient pas troubler une seule minute la hardiesse sereine. (887-88)

Gautier's last remark reflects blatant unfamiliarity with Topffer's sequential art in all its substance and form. Its sophisticated satire, tight pacing, and dynamic editing open to bold experimentation sharply contrast with the succinct, placid, conventional image d'Epinal broadsheet stories printed for barely literate readers. On the other hand, this attempt to disparage his graphics inadvertently captures an essential dimension of Topffer's work. By characterizing them, not as a matter of art, but as the expression of an innate human drive, a matter of communication, of raw representation, Gautier ironically outlines Topffer's very motivation in the first place. As his Traite de Physiognomonie makes clear, the compulsive doodler's iconic narratives are not exercises in aesthetics, but rather, in semiotics. The very stripped-down nature of the figures reflects a concern for efficiency in the transmission of information; each of these comic-strip panels is a syntagm. The privileged place of the ellipse in this iconic system, he explains, "fait ressembler [le trait graphique] au langage ecrit ou parle, qui a pour propriete de pouvoir ... dans une description ou dans un recit, supprimer des parties entieres ... des evenements narres" (1845, 20). Topffer's comics partake of a remarkably prescient linguistic approach, going as far as anticipating the theory of communication and structuralist linguistics, as I discuss in more details elsewhere (Willems 4-8). Topffer had not just composed narratives, but designed an entire experimental narrative medium. At any rate, the critic's enmity had nothing to do with comic books and everything to do with ideology. Indeed, born with the century like Gautier's comrade Victor Hugo, Topffer had followed the opposite political trajectory.

Young humanist Rodolphe had enjoyed a deft and quite exceptional climb up the social ladder. Driven by passion, an exacerbated sense of cultural identity and an ambivalent relationship to France's cultural hegemony, he had come to be a fierce adversary of the impending democratic reform in Geneva as a member of the ruling class himself. This monarchist citizen also took issue with some of Romanticism's most liberal manifestations. He rejected the political direction taken by a new generation of poets, which he perceived as utopian and superficial, devoid of any true consideration for art, and embracing rebellion for its own sake. As Topffer grew increasingly conservative, so did his satire of romantic types become more direct, constituting the very focus of Histoire d'Albert (1844-45). This twisted Bildungsroman directly targets the ideological dimension of post-1830 French Romanticism, his main character incarnating a whole generation of consumers of the derided cultural model.

In this story, Topffer's critique of Romanticism goes deeper than the mere light-hearted parody of cultural postures. The graphic novel tells the tale of a shallow, misguided young man falling prey to the sirens of utopian demagoguery as professed by the likes of Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine and Carbonari revolutionaries. Punctuated by unheroic scenes of Albert getting kicked in the derriere or skipping town repeatedly, Histoire d'Albert depicts its main character desperately in search of a path in life. Throughout the narrative, Topffer characterizes Romantic discourse as a mere medium, a conduit for escapist liberal ideology to seduce impressionable, idle minds away from the straight and narrow. Hugo figures as main offender; his insidious literature fuels the young Romantic's chimera: even though he is forced to go to class, "Albert y porte son Hugo et il s'y repait de Djinns, de neant, de mort, d'oceans et de doctrines" (10). Repeated exposure to Hugo's doctrines will lead Albert to mistake rebellion for talent and critical discourse for oppression. He soon picks up the pen himself, buying, like a normal modern adolescent, into the illusion of individualism through mass behavior. Through him, Topffer spoofs uniform standards of temperament and expression:
   Albert s'essaie a peindre en vers le vide intime de son ame: la
   tombe qui ouvre a sa jeunesse decoloree une gueule seduisante. /
   Son ame, que tord le doute! / et que detord l'esperance. / Son
   genie a qui les institutions refusent de l'air et de l'espace. / La
   critique, immonde vampire du genie a son aurore. / Surpris par sa
   mere, Albert lui lit l'ode sur sa tombe, et cette bonne dame trouve
   si beau, mais tout triste! (10-11)

However, Histoire d'Albert does not make Hugo the sole responsible for the epidemic of self-satisfied poets. Throughout the text, references to other idols of the July-Monarchy generation pop up with various degrees of precision and subtlety. Lamartine intervenes to validate young Albert's self-indulgent poetry. With a certain amount of self-derision on the cartoonist's part, his fictional letter verse borrows Xavier de Maistre's real-life compliment for Topffer's own prose:
   [Albert] donne suite a son projet d'adresser des odes a M. La
   Bartine [sic] en lui marquant le desir d'avoir son avis avant de
   courir les chances d'une publicite precoce. / [Manuscript reply:]
   Vos vers, monsieur, sont venus faire une agreable diversion aux
   preoccupations politiques qui me poursuivent jusque dans ma
   retraite de Cinq Points. Tout ce que je puis vous en dire, c'est
   qu'ils m'ont plu infiniment et que je m'estimerais heureux de les
   avoir faits. Poursuivez, monsieur, dans cette noble carriere: c'est
   desormais a la poesie de completer les destinees de l'humanite.
   Agreez, etc. / Enchante de cette reponse, Mbert fait imprimer ses
   odes avec la lettre pour preface et son portrait en tete. / Le
   livre est lance sous le titre de Harmonies orageuses et Mbert ne
   s'occupe plus que de ressembler a son portrait. / Les gens lisent
   l'affiche et Mbert jouit de sa celebrite naissante. / Retourne aux
   cours, Mbert ecoute avec gravite, mais il trouve la matiere bien
   peu approfondie et son professeur bien peu celebre. (12-13) [Fig.

If Michelet, Quinet, or Mickiewicz come to mind and, in connection with the aforementioned names, frame a definite cultural paradigm, the term "Romanticism" itself never appears in the satire, looming too large as implicit horizon to offer a valid target. Unfortunately for Albert, in spite of an aggressive marketing strategy, his bombastically titled collection of poems ultimately fails to find readers. Renouncing poetry, he turns to politics, associating with shady Trans-alpine revolutionary types. After a string of questionable schemes to make a living, he will end up as a journalist. Solely dictated by the aim of selling paper, his divisive demagogic discourse will mindlessly provoke agitation among citizens. Breakdown of social order and full civil war will ensue. Conveniently entrusting to others the actual fighting of the revolution, the twisted picaresque character will leave the resulting chaos behind and settle into a comfortable bourgeois life. If Sainte-Beuve did not appreciate Topffer's comic strips, this particular story could not have done better to put them on the right side of him. Histoire d'Albert echoes some of Sainte-Beuve's pet peeves: men of letter in politics, commercialism in art, refusal of critique and social agitation. Without assuming that Sainte-Beuve ever came to embrace comic strips, one notices that Topffer's death toned down his dislike of them in his posthumous tribute.

As to Gautier, does Histoire d'Albert have anything to do with his own satire of romantic types Les Jeunes-France published twelve years earlier? Did the change from the initial title Histoire de Jaques [sic] to Histoire d'Albert aim to evoke Albertus or Les Jeunes-France's protagonist Albert? Despite obvious differences, some glaring similarities could suggest so. Like Les Jeunes-France, Topffer's comic book satirizes the preface as Romanticism's center of gravity and the literary work itself as a mere vehicle--an oxymoronic pretext, as it were. Both novels feature context-building references to Hugo as the very embodiment of Romanticism and youthful agitation. "'Je veux perdre mon nom et manquer une premiere representation d'Hugo, si je ne deviens pas fou de cette femme avant qu'il soit deux jours d'ici,' vows Jeune-France Rodolphe in his stylist's approach to love. "De retour chez lui," the narrator goes on, "quoiqu'il fut une heure du matin, il se mit a donner du cor a plein poumons; il declama tue-tete deux ou trois cent vers d'Hernani, puis il se deshabilla, jeta son gilet sous la table et ses bottes au plafond en signe d'allegresse, apres quoi il se coucha, et dormit sans debrider jusqu'au lendemain midi" (108). Still, however lighthearted Gautier's references to Hugo, they never cross the line to irreverence. The story also clearly marks any criticism of the literary hero as reactionary, while Hugo-bashing is a hobby to Topffer.

Undeniably, Gautier's brother-in-arms held a special place in Topffer's ideological line of tire; the Genevan conservative worked hard at debunking the myth surrounding the writer. His critical essays attempt to paint Hugo as both a false prophet and a scattered rabble-rouser. "La foule" Topffer writes in a piece featured in Reflexions et menus propos d'un peintre genevois (1848), later reviewed so harshly by Gautier, "est toujours la foule, qui ne se passe pas d'autels et qui ne manque jamais de pretres. 'Shakspeare [sic] est dieu, dit-elle, et Hugo est son prophete" Et c'est vrai que les prefaces de M. Hugo ressemblent a des chapitres du Coran bien plus qu'a des prefaces" (173). In response to the writer's groundbreaking literary boldness, Topffer lashes out: "M. Hugo [use] de la liberte conquise, tantot en formulant dans chaque preface une poetique nouvelle, tantot en experimentant avec une precipitation trop grande et avec trop peu de reelle puissance dramatique toutes les franchises une fois obtenues de la langue et du drame" (389). In contrast, Topffer's claims to liberty are relative, not absolute. He makes a crucial distinction between rules that smother artistic creation and constraints that stimulate it. To him, a dogmatic, a priori rejection of rules in literature does not constitute a valid remedy to the excesses of neo-classicism that contrived French poetry throughout the previous century. He warns his contemporaries against banishing time-tested rules carelessly, only "to replace them with new rules assumed to be much better ones but no less futile" (388-89). (7) Overall, Topffer aims to denounce no less than the demagogy of a discourse selling the public a simplistic way to art and the illusion of a democratization of talent. "C'a ete une des grandes mystifications de notre temps," he accuses, "que d'avoir persuade aux [sic] gens que, les poetiques otees, la poesie reviendrait" (174). Indeed, he never hides his distaste for the dogma of art for its own sake, which he rejects it as puerile, misled and overly formalist, denouncing it as the very negation of its own goal. "L'art pour l'art," he laments,
   c'est en effet la forme pour la forme, la forme servant a elle-meme
   de but et de moyen; c'est, pour le dire en termes clairs, la
   negation absolue, non pas seulement de la nature elle-meme,
   envisagee comme fournissant a l'art les types visibles de ses
   creations [, mais du] beau lui-meme au nom duquel et pour lequel
   l'art chante, sculpte, cisele, peint, ecrit. Et en effet, le beau,
   reduit ainsi a n'etre qu'une independante experimentation de formes
   combinees, qu'une plus ou moins brillante diversification de
   procedes changes, repris, laisses, renouveles, n'a plus ni
   principe, ni base, ni regle, soit en lui, soit en nous, soit en
   dehors de nous, en sorte qu'il n'y a moyen de le sentir ou de
   l'apprecier par relation.... le lien est rompu entre l'oeuvre et
   les forces intelligentes du concours desquelles l'oeuvre devrait
   resulter: l'on n'apercoit a la place de ce concours que le jeu
   desordonne de l'imagination affranchie du contrepoids des autres
   facultes toutes ensemble. (204-05)

Ultimately, Topffer charges, the implications of l'art pour l'art extend as far as absolute skepticism and the negation of any value and belief. Combined with his animosity for Hugo, this frontal assault on a fundamental precept of the second Romanticism casts much light on Gautier's virulent reaction. "La grande erreur des adversaires de la doctrine de l'art pour l'art et de M. Topffer en particulier," he retorts in "Du Beau dans l'art," "c'est de croire que la forme peut etre independante de l'idee; la forme ne peut se produire sans idee, et l'idee sans forme. L'ame [sic] a besoin du corps, le corps a besoin de l'ame; un squelette est aussi laid qu'un monceau de chair qu'une armature ne soutient pas" (900). Then, without naming him, Gautier moves on to defend Hugo: "Puisque nous en sommes a chercher chicane a M. Topffer, reprochons-lui des attaques de mauvais gout contre un des plus grands poetes de notre temps, dont les vers sont dans toutes les memoires et sur toutes les levres. Ces tons de pedagogues vont fort mal a l'esprit fin et delicat capable d'ecrire les Nouvelles genevoises; ces critiques arrierees ont quelque chose de provincial et de suranne" (901). Thus Gautier's review opposed both Goethe's appreciation of Topffer's sequential art and Sainte-Beuve's assessment of his literary value as an outsider. Not without his own shot at humor, the dolo duelist tops the jab with a pastiche of the dead satirist himself: (8) "Le defaut du livre de M. Topffer, c'est d'etre a la fois trop grave et trop frivole: trop grave si c'est une fantaisie a la maniere du Voyage sentimental [Laurence Sterne 1768] ou du Voyage autour de ma chambre [Xavier de Maistre 1794]; trop frivole, si c'est un traite serieux oU la question du beau soit consideree d'une facon purement esthetique" (906). Lauded by voices that had contributed to shaping Romanticism in France, Topffer was now identified as a retrograde adversary of liberty in art--the current defining concept of a modernity that had outgrown its own convictions.

Clearly, all of Topffer's spoofs and diatribes against his own generation of Romantics do not make him an enemy of Romanticism per se. Rather, the introspective sensibility deployed in Topffer's prose fiction, the taste for naive art expressed in his works on aesthetics, the importance of flanerie professed in his travelogues and the over-arching presence of nature in all of his oeuvre, take the reader back to a pre-Romantic, Enlightenment-Age cultural paradigm. In its English and German influences, this brand of Romanticism also reflects the nineteenth-century cultural situation of cosmopolitan Geneva more than that of self-sufficient Paris. Topffer's discourse is not against Romanticism but only against its post-1830 liberal stance.

Regardless, while Sainte-Beuve and Gautier approached Topffer from different perspectives, they both resolutely sacrificed his cartoon stories on the altar of higher ideals. Supreme irony: in so doing, the two critics ultimately overlooked the very part of Topffer's works that defines his lame in cultural history beyond Europe's borders a century and a half later. Only the old Goethe--who, in contrast, had quietly passed over Topffer's writings that had been sent to him along with the comics--had intuited where Topffer's unique talent lay. In restrospect, this fundamental disagreement between the spearhead of l'art pour l'art and the creator of the least criteria-bound narrative form, a medium with a confirmed maverick streak, appears ironic--not the least because the first to follow Topffer in political sequential art would be another very close friend of Gautier's. Indeed, in 1849, thirteen weekly installments of Nadar's vitriolic Vie publique et privee de Mossieu Reac pushed the ideological satire farther in Pierre-Jules Hetzel's Revue comique a l'usage des gens serieux, albeit in the opposite direction. However, the future photographer contented himself with following the established template; he did not explore the formal possibilities offered by the new storytelling medium as much as other Topffer followers like Cham and Gustave Dore did. Paradoxically, the graphic novel had opened new horizons in visual culture with groundbreaking pacing and layout experimentation (9) while its creator had firmly opposed classicist discipline to the fancy of l'art pour l'art.

It has become a cliche to say that the comic strip is a hybrid narrative form. Yet, it seems impossible to ignore the duality that surrounds Topffer's comics. They are composite in form and content, blending text and image, slapstick and wit. Whatever the perspective, his situation within nineteenth-century culture is paradoxical: simultaneously part of the rearguard at a key juncture of a cultural paradigm shift and at the vanguard of a narrative revolution that would open the way for one of the next century's most freewheeling forms of storytelling.




De Maistre, Xavier. "Lettre a l'editeur." 1839. Nouvelles Genevoises. Rodolphe Topffer. Paris: Charpentier, 1842. i-v.

Eckermann, Johann Peter and Frederic Jacob Soret. Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret. 1850. Trans. John Oxenford. London: George Bell & Sons, 1882.

Gautier, Theophile. "Du Beau dans l'art." Revue des deux mondes. Vol. xix. 1847. 887-88.

--. Les Jeunes-France: Romans goguenards. Suivis de Contes humoristiques. 1833. Paris: G. Charpentier, 1880.

Groensteen, Thierry. "Naissance d'un art." Topffer: L'Invention de la bande dessinee.

Groensteen, Thierry, and Benoit Peeters. Paris: Hermann, 1994. 65-142.

Jackson, Joseph F. "Balzac and Sainte-Beuve." PMLA. Vol. 45. No 3. 1930. 918-38.

Kunzle, David. Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Topffer. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2007.

--. The History of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century. 2 vols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Sainte-Beuve, Charles Augustin. "Poetes et romanciers modernes de la France. XLIII. M. Rodolphe Topffer. "Revue des deux mondes. Vol. 1. 1841. 490-509.

--. "Notice sur Rodolphe Topffer." 1846. Rosa et Gertrude. 1847. Paris: Hachette, 1855.

Soret, Frederic Jacob and Johann Peter Eckermann. "Ueber die Feder-Zeichnungen von Topfer [sic] in Genf." Ueber Kunst und Alterthum. Von Goethe. Stuttgart: Cotta, 1832. 552-3.

--. "Frederic Soret a R[odolphe] T[opffer]." Early February 1832. Letter 355 of Correspondance complete: Rodolphe Topffer. Ed. Jacques Droin. Vol. 2. Geneve: Droz, 2004.

Topffer, Rodolphe. "Essai de physiognomonie." (1845). Essay zur Physiognomonie. Siegen: Machwerk Verlag, 1982.

--. Histoire d'Albert. 1844-45. Paris: Horay, 1996. 217-38.

--. Histoire de Mr. Jabot. 1831-3. Paris: Horay, 1996. 11-38.

--. Les Amours de Mr. Vieux Bois. 1827-39. Paris: Horay, 1996. 85-132.

--. "Le Presbytere." 1832. Nouvelles Genevoises. Paris: Charpentier, 1842. 1-45.

--. Mr. Crepin. 1837. Paris: Horay, 1996. 39-83.

--. Mr. Pencil. 1831-40. Paris: Horay, 1996. 133-70.

--. "Notice sur L'Histoire de Mr Jabot" (1837). Topffer: L'Invention de la bande dessinee. Eds. Thierry Groensteen and Benoit Peeters. Paris: Hermann, 1994. 161-65.

--. Reflexions et menus propos d'un peintre genevois ou Essai sur le Beau dans les arts. 1848. Paris: Hachette, 1858.

Wheeler, Doug, Robert L. Beerbohm, and Leonardo de Sa. "Topffer in America." Comic Art (Summer 2003): 28-47.

Wiese, Ellen. "Introduction: Rodolphe Topffer and the Language of Physiognomy." Enter: The Comics. Rodolphe Topffer's "Essay on Physiognomy" and "The True Story of Monsieur Crepin." Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. ix-xxxii.

Willems, Philippe. "Form(ul)ation of a Novel Narrative Form: Nineteenth-Century Pedagogues and the Comics." Word & Image 24.1 (January-March 2008): 1-14.

Philippe Willems

Northern Illinois University

DeKalb, IL 60115-2854


(1) Dates indicate first versions (often unpublished) and definitive ones, as was the case for many of Topffer's graphic novels. The original albums consist of a single strip per page.

(2) Although page numbers differ from those in the 1996 Horay reprint listed in the bibliography, each strip/page of Topffer's graphic novel carries its own number, regardless of edition.

(3) See, for instance, Soret, "Ueber die Feder-Zeichnungen von Topfer [sic] in Genf" and "Frederic Soret a R[odolphe] T[opffer]"; Kunzle 2007, 49-56.

(4) "Was aber allen diesen Bildern einen vorzuglichen Werth giebt, isst, dass sie alle eine scharfe und zugleich heitere Satyre auf die Verkehrtheiten des Tages und menschlichen Schwachen darbieten." Translation from the German by Jessamine Cooke-Plagwitz.

(5) The only one of Topffer's stories to exist both in prose and graphic versions.

(6) As shown in a letter cited in Kunzle 2007, 19.

(7) "Mais quand, apres Corneille, apres Racine, apres Voltaire ... il s'est agi de produire le beau par les regles, et que, serrees de plus en plus pres, les regles ont donne le beau de moins en moins et enfin plus du tout, alors seulement on s'en est pris aux regles, les uns, comme Nepomucene Lemercier, pour les echanger avec d'honorables precautions contre d'autres regles tout aussi oiseuses qu'ils croyaient bien meilleures; les autres pour deprecier la valeur de ces regles et par la comparaison des theatres etrangers jusqu'a des principes d'art plus eleves, plus generaux, plus feconds"

(8) Topffer's playful "Notice sur L'Histoire de Mr Jabot" published in La Bibliotheque de Geneve (1837) contained the following self-deprecating description: "L'auteur de ce petit volume oblong ne s'est pas fait connaitre. Si c'est un artiste, il dessine faiblement, mais il a quelque idee d'ecrire; si c'est un litterateur, il ecrit mediocrement, mais en revanche, il a, en fait de dessin, un joli talent d'amateur. Si c'est un homme grave, il a des idees singulierement bouffonnes; et si c'est un esprit bouffon, il ne manque pas d'un sens assez serieux" (Reproduced in Groensteen 161).

(9) See Groensteen 93-98.
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Date:Mar 22, 2009
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