Early bande dessinée

Cartooning in the Age of Realism: Rediscovering Léonce Petit’s ‘Les bonnes gens de province’ & ‘Histoires campagnardes’

[Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. Vol. 14, ISSUE 3 (Autumn 2015)]

Abstract: Léonce Petit stands out for broadening the horizon of cartooning, both figuratively and literally. Recognized as a master in capturing the essence of rural life in lithographs and comic strips, Petit introduced landscape art and a fresh outlook on country folks to press cartooning. From 1863 to 1884, he delivered his gentle satire through a series of genre scenes known as Les bonnes gens de province (the good people of our provinces) and comic strips published as Histoires campagnardes (country tales). His captioned genre scenes were more poetic and naturalistic than the rest of the Journal amusant that hosted them; they swarm with action in comparison with the pictorial physiologies that had preceded them for three decades. His comic strips carried a sense of realism that did not exist in a narrative form then focused on caricatural characters.

This article highlights the singularity of Petit’s visual/textual narrative strategies and examines his work in relation to its cultural environment. Petit’s cartooning is relevant to issues at the core of today’s research on the comic strip, but his memory was not always kept well. This study notably aims to rectify an unreliable characterization that has followed his remembrance since the turn of the twentieth century. We retrace the evolution of his work and map out a network of influences and confluences in cartooning, literature, and painting that make it a rare body of poetic realism for nineteenth-century word/image studies. In the end, Léonce Petit’s work is a largely unrecognized landmark in French-language comic-strip history and in the history of cartooning as a whole.


Perspective Games: Cham’s Heritage and Legacy

[European Comic Art, Volume 7, Issue 1 (Spring 2014): 6-30]

Two inked-over panels (an entire strip) in Cham’s Histoire de Mr. Lajaunisse (Paris: Aubert, 1839), 8.

Cham. Histoire de Mr. Lajaunisse, 1839. Source: Yale University Library.

Abstract: This article draws attention to the transition in print culture that took place between the 1830s and the 1850s, allowing for a new flexibility in format and new relations between word and image. Within this wider context, Cham was an innovator who adapted literary techniques such as mise en abyme, oxymoron and synecdoche to visual storytelling. The article focuses on links between Cham’s work and Tristram Shandy, shows how Cham introduces Sterne’s reflexivity into his comic strips, using unorthodox framing and inserting blind panels as a deliberate interference in transmission, impeding the reader’s privileged point of view. Cham deploys a number of parodic devices to demystify canonical texts: for example, in an incursion across diegetic boundaries, he kills off characters from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables with a few well-aimed swipes from a vast pen.

Laurence Sterne. The Life and Opinions of tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759. Source: Glasgow University Library

Rhétorique texte / image, minimalisme et jeux de perspective : l’héritage de Cham

[Comicalités – Etudes de culture graphique (avril 2014)]

Résumé: Aujourd’hui oubliée, l’influence de Cham sur la culture visuelle pourrait, de par son étendue, surprendre nombre de connaisseurs en bande dessinée, en cinéma et en sémiologie. A l’époque de Louis-Philippe, il a doté l’image narrative d’une dynamique du cadrage et d’une réflexivité dont la première moitié de cet article en deux parties esquisse les tenants et aboutissants à travers auteurs et médias. Certains procédés narratifs du roman Vie et opinions de Tristram Shandy, gentilhomme (1759-67) de Laurence Sterne mettent en évidence à la fois l’originalité et la postérité des travaux de Cham. L’humour débridé de Cham a su s’affranchir de normes immémoriales de la représentation et de l’économie narrative telles que le portrait en pied des personnages, la redondance entre image et légende, et, dans la foulée, le devoir même de représentation d’un sujet.

Cham. Deux vieilles filles vaccinées à marier, 1840, p. 13. Source: Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image, Fonds Cham (collection numérisée disponible sur le site de la Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image).

Cham. Deux vieilles filles vaccinées à marier, 1840, p. 13.
Source: Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image, Fonds Cham.

Sequential narratives in the age of panoramas

Surely, one of the most encompassing perspectives on nineteenth-century culture has been Walter Benjamin’s reading of the 1800s as the age of panoramas. Studies of manners, photographic surveys, universal exhibitions, the periodic table of elements, to name but a few, characterize an entire facet of modernity as approaching knowledge through cross-section slices of the world.

Nadar. Journal pour rire, 1850.

Nadar. Journal pour rire, 1850.

In the publishing industry of the 1830s-1850s period, this panoramic outlook fostered the blossoming of the magazine and informed the proliferation of the printed image. Pictorial satire thrived in thematic galleries of prints, surveys in vignettes, and kaleidoscopic sets of individual cartoons. Such non-narrative ensembles, sometimes in multiple-page spreads featuring up to a hundred captioned images, were the most common form of cartooning in France. Simultaneously, the comic strip emerged from an opposite perspective, barely registering on the cultural radar as a narrative form on its own right. Ironically enough, some of its pioneers quietly achieved a goal that many a new illustrated magazine of the era pledged to concretize in its initial program, without any real breakthrough: to invent new rhetorical forms blending words and images.

This is where Ferdinand de Saussure meets Benjamin. From a linguistics perspective, a panorama is a paradigm, an overview of possibilities within a given environment without regard to chronological order. Any form of storytelling, on the other hand, involves a syntagm, the articulation in time of a selection among possible elements (subject/character + verb/action + object, etc.) that forms an utterance, i.e. a sequence. From a semiotics point of view, then, the sequential art form that is the comic strip, in league with the serial novel, the theory of evolution, and the motion picture, occupies a perpendicular axis to the panorama.

Comics studies, perhaps because of the growing pains they experienced finding a consensual definition for their object of study in the 20th century, have often needed to construct it in isolation from its panoramic original environment, at the risk of missing a larger picture. However, as David Kunzle’s research amply documents and the title of Thierry Smolderen’s history Naissances de la bande dessinée (births of the comic strip, 2009) makes plain, the roots of the comic strip are more complex than a simple lineage from one pictorial form to another. These are some of the notions that frame my current research perspective.

Use and / or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Philippe Willems with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Early Comics and Steampunk at TSU – San Marcos

HautevillePosters1HautevillePosters4HautevillePosters2HautevillePosters3How could I resist displaying the beautiful posters produced by the Department of
Modern Languages at Texas State University – San Marcos for a series of lectures gathering French graphic-novel scriptwriter Fred Duval, Dr. Melanie Hawthorne of Texas A&M, and yours truly?

Thank you, Dr. Jennifer Forrest, for having the good taste of inviting us to discuss such a flavorful blend of literatures, and for organizing such a friendly visit to the beautiful Austin-San Marcos area. If work was always like that, who would need vacations?

Between Panoramic and Sequential: Nadar and the Serial Image

[Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. Vol. 11, Issue 3 (Autumn 2012)]

Abstract: This paper takes a look at both Nadar’s pictorial work and the early comic strip from a historical perspective framed by the multiplication of the serial image. The overview has a double aim. One is to outline an area of Nadar’s activity that usually gets only partial scholarly treatment because of its cross-platform nature: his experiments with the sequential image. Nadar played with graphic narratives and chronological photography at different points in his career. These efforts remained sporadic and spread out over several decades. Yet, beyond their documentary value, as I suggest, they shed insight on both the history of the comic strip and Nadar’s outlook on the image as a whole. They are emblematic of a tension between two axes of nineteenth-century culture: the sequential and the panoramic. To better understand Nadar’s approach to cartooning, it seems appropriate to place the early comic strip within its native ecosystem of thriving serial-image forms competing for the urban literate’s attention.

Nadar, “Vie publique et privée de mossieu Réac.” La Revue Comique #22, April 7, 1849.

Nadar, “Vie publique et privée de mossieu Réac.” La Revue Comique #22, April 7, 1849.

Thus, the first half of the article details some of the related graphic species that accompanied the emergence of the comic strip, from the classic gallery of caricatures to the ephemeral flip-print micro-narrative. Against that background of proliferation and cross-pollination between species, the roots of the comic strip appear more rhizomic than ever.

Rodolphe Töpffer and Romanticism

[Nineteenth-Century French Studies. Vol. 37.3 & 4 (Spring-Summer 2009): 227-246]

Abstract: This article outlines Töpffer’s relationship with Romanticism in light of the discourse surrounding his introduction to France’s literary scene. While Töpffer’s prose fiction lived in delicate symbiosis with Romanticism, his graphic novels playfully deconstructed it and his aesthetics treatises unequivocally combated defining aspects of it.

RTRomPic4 copy

Rodolphe Töpffer, Histoire d’Albert, 1845. Source: Wikimedia.

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 attacking its literary hero, Victor Hugo. Born with the century like Hugo, Töpffer had followed the opposite political trajectory, from liberal to conservative. Hence, sponsored successively by reigning literary figures Xavier de Maistre, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Töpffer subsequently brought upon himself Théophile Gautier’s scorn as “retrograde adversary of liberty in art.” This essay aims to show that, as such object of polemics, Töpffer’s work provides a useful lens for seeing the passage from conservative Romanticism to its liberal next phase.

Töpffer’s 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.