• Steven Heller

Rodolphe Töpffer and The First Sequential Visual Narrative

On this July 4 (I know its only July 3 but it is the correct week) its only fitting that we celebrate the birth of our national treasure, the American comic strip, actually invented by the Lafayette of the sequential picture/narrative revolution, Paris-educated, Swiss-born Rodolphe Töpffer (1799–1846), a author, painter, cartoonist, and caricaturist, known for his ittérature en estampes, “graphic literature”), which the earliest sequential narrative. He is known as the father of comic strips (or what we now generally call graphic novels. This is a translation of his most famous and brilliantly constructed (see the way he uses panels and the long handwritten tracts of text – no speech balloons, though). He was also a schoolteacher and ran a boarding school, where he amused his students with caricatures.

This, for me, is Töpffer’s layered ittérature en estampes, “The True Story of Monsieur Crépin,” first published in 1837, featuring the adventures of a father who employs a series of tutors for his children and falls prey to their eccentricities. Read it in its entirety below.

He wrote six more “novels,” popular selling satires of 19th century society. Another story Histoire de M. Vieux Bois was brought to a United States audience as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck and published in 1842 as a supplement in the New York City newspaper Brother Jonathan , essentially the first American comic book and launch of the graphic novel. You might say, a declaration of independence from the word-only book. And here is a PDF of another story Histoire Albert.

The eminent comics historian David Kunzle wrote in Father of the Comic Strip Rodolphe Töpffer: “Töpffer developed a graphic style suited to his poor eyesight: the doodle, which he systematized and also theorized. The drawings, with their “modernist” spontaneous, flickering, broken lines, forming figures in mad hyperactivity, run above deft, ironic captions and propel narratives of surreal absurdity.”