“This Strangest of Narrative Forms:” Rodolphe Töpffer’s Sequential Art

[Mosaic. A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. Vol. 41.2 (June 2008): pp. 127-147]

Abstract: This article highlights the extent to which Töpffer’s comic strip was an atypical artifact within its initial environment and has remained a problematic cultural object to name and define ever since.


Rodolphe Töpffer. Monsieur Pencil, 1840. Source: Töpfferiana.

Töpffer’s groundbreaking pictorial storytelling strategy burst through the confines of his era’s narrative practices in more ways than one, and its hybrid nature was not just a factor of image and word, but also of representation of the static and the dynamic. It blended the narrative flexibility of the novel, the visual comedy of street theater, and the sophisticated text/image interplay of the satirical cartoon with the elliptic plotting of the early 1800s single-leaf popular print stories.

In retrospect, Töpffer’s graphic stories evoke an improbable collaboration between Diderot and Buster Keaton. Indeed, their first reviewer, Goethe, called this narrative medium the ‘strangest of forms,’ defining his own readerly experience of these texts in near-cinematic terms and dwelling on the efficiency of communication between the artist’s idea and the reader’s reception of it. I argue in this essay that fuzzy definition played a part in impeding the graphic novel’s recognition on the cultural index in spite of its extreme artistic richness and efficiency as a narrative medium.


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