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.

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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.

“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.

Form(ul)ation of a Novel Narrative Form: Nineteenth-Century Pedagogues and the Comics

[Word & Image, Vol. 24.1 (January-March 2008): 1-14]

WillemsFNNFFig7Abstract: This article examines the often overlooked, yet seminal role played by two distinguished francophone educators in the birth of the modern graphic narrative. Its founding father, Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846), and his most devoted disciple, Georges Colomb (1856-1945), a.k.a. Christophe, were faculty members at the Academy of Geneva and at the Sorbonne, respectively. Neither could have anticipated the full cultural relevance of their experimental works.

Töpffer created the comic book and the graphic novel with Goethe’s encouragement, and Christophe’s graphic narratives generated a teaching method that shaped France’s scientific education for several generations. The comic strips of Töpffer and Christophe clearly emerged from pursuits in perfect synch with some of their century’s most eminent intellectual endeavors, and the underlying theories of narration developed by their authors stand at the crossroads of pedagogy and linguistics. They contain in embryo some of the most defining concepts of Western 20th-century thought such as structural linguistics and communication theory. To both Töpffer and Christophe, sequential art was not a diversion from academic pursuits, but on the contrary, part of a reflection on efficient methods of communication.