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Rodolphe Töpffer



This international synopsis covers the first crucial years of Töpffer's comics. It was compiled from some very dispersed titbits existing in print and also from the lively discussions at the PlatinumAgeComics e-list, where it was first posted on February 19, 2001 and again in a more elaborate form on May 14 that year. I’ve also included some never before disclosed data. Acknowledgements are due to Robert Beerbohm, Alfredo Castelli, Darrell Coons, Scott Deschaine, Joe Evans, Michel Kempeneers, Mike Kidson, Andy Konkykru, Arthur van Kruining, John Ronan, Antoine Sausverd, Thierry Smolderen, Arnold Wagner, and Doug Wheeler (I hope I haven’t forgotten anybody). Any suggestions about further key information are highly welcomed, of course.


1827 - Swiss schoolmaster Rodolphe Töpffer started composing his picture-stories for his pupils' and friends' amusement, being highly influenced by the physiognomy theories of Johann Kaspar Lavater, which he applied to caricature. The first one he drew was Histoire de Mr. Vieux Bois, in 1827 - but he had previously flirted with sequential picture narratives, as can be seen in several illustrated letters dated well before that year. "I hide myself to draw. I go to my basement to compose my pleasantries" ("Je me cache pour dessiner. Je vais dans ma cave pour composer mes drôleries"), he stated in a letter to a friend in Neuchâtel.

1829 - Töpffer drew the first version of Voyages et Aventures du Dr. Festus. The manuscript carries the two dates of July 14 and September 9.

1830 - First version of Histoire de Mr. Cryptogame, with manuscript dated July 30, 1830. Töpffer's friend Frédéric Soret borrowed the original booklets of Mr. Cryptogame and Dr. Festus and showed them to Goethe in late 1830. In spite of his hatred of caricature, the elderly German writer loved the picture-stories.

Probably also in 1830, Töpffer started and nearly completed the story of Monsieur Trictrac, but the manuscript was stolen from him and only resurfaced much later. It was finally published in a limited edition in 1937, more than a century after it had been drawn, and reprinted in 1988, together with the fragment of another unfinished story, Histoire de Mr. Boisec.

1831 - Inspired by Goethe's favourable response to his first two picture-stories, Töpffer concocted a new narrative which he called Histoire de Mr. Jabot. This was started in January 29 and finished in February 5. It was sent over to Weimar by the end of the year, together with writings by the Genevan. Töpffer also started on the manuscript of Histoire de Monsieur Pencil, dated August 31, 1831, but the author chose not to send it to Goethe, because of the antimilitarist and political nature of the story. The story was left unfinished in its manuscript version.

1832 - Goethe's impressions of Rodolphe Töpffer's picture-stories were published shortly after the German writer's death, "incorporated into a long article compiled by Eckermann [Goethe's editor] and Soret for the last, posthumous, issue of Kunst und Alterthum, the journal Goethe edited and co-wrote. The article is true to Goethe's own preference in that, although entitled generically "On the Pen-Drawings of Rodolphe Töpfer [sic]," it deals almost exclusively with the caricatures" (Kunzle, vol. 2, p. 30). This was Kunst und Alterthum no. 6, from 1832, before the first publication of any album by Töpffer. It's true that in book form, the piece on Töpffer did not appear right away but only in 1848, after Töpffer's own demise. But Goethe's reflections on the Genevan's comics and caricatures were known to the literati and critics (virtual synonyms in those days), and are quoted in several appreciations at the time of the first publications of the picture-albums. It was also Goethe's enthusiasm that originally decided Töpffer to publish his picture-manuscripts.

1833 - Rodolphe Töpffer's first published album - Histoire de Mr. Jabot - was autographed by the author at the J. Freydig lithography shop in Geneva in May 1833, with a print run of 800 copies. It was at first only distributed privately to the author's friends and finally put into bookstores only in 1835 (Töpffer himself withheld its sale until his professional position as schoolmaster was stable). The artist chose the autography printing process, a kind of light lithography that allowed him to sketch his drawings directly and without reversing them in print, as all other print methods would have done. Modern wood engraving was unheard of in Geneva and would still remain so by the end of the author's life. Geneva also lacked modern commodities like the railway - and it should be noted that Switzerland, unlike Great Britain, France or Germany, didn't have any illustrated magazines. The traditional book form, rather than serialization, was thus the obvious choice of format.

1837 - Histoire de Mr. Crépin, his second published album, came out in 1837 with 500 copies, autographed by the author at the Frutiger shop in Geneva. It had been originally drawn in the same year.

Les Amours de Mr. Vieux Bois (a.k.a. Histoire de Mr. Vieux Bois), his third published album, also came out in 1837, again published in Geneva with a print run of 500 copies at Frutiger's. The original version had been drawn in 1827, and had been his first attempt at a sequential story.

1839 - Rodolphe Töpffer's first albums (or comic books if you prefer) had rapidly become well-known throughout Europe - literary authors and critics, among others, had taken care of that - even before three fake albums appeared in early 1839. Also, Töpffer himself had a private distribution "network" which allowed his albums to be sold by book-dealers in different countries: Cherbuliez in Paris, Jules Gerster in Neuchâtel, in Tübingen (Germany), in London, etc. Töpffer's mistake lay in not having provided the Parisian bookstores with enough copies of his works - thus leaving room for a demand which could be filled by the fakes (these fakes were in fact legal, even if morally condemnable, in the absence of any international laws on copyright, as Kunzle reminds us). Thus, the fact that Töpffer's albums were famous provoked the bootlegs into existence and not the contrary. The first tentative imitation was an unauthorized copy of Jabot in Charles Philipon's well-known Parisian daily illustrated paper Le Charivari, with a first installment appearing in no. 58 (eighth year), on February 27, 1839, which nevertheless remained without follow up. Instead, by April, Philipon and his brother-in-law and business associate, Gabriel Aubert, produced pirate album copies of the three stories published up to then, starting with Jabot, under Aubert's own imprint. These were redrawn by some anonymous hack and were sold for 6 francs, versus 10 francs for the originals. Thierry Groensteen describes those first Aubert editions as follows: "The fakes published by Aubert are not solely distinguishable from the original albums because of their poor graphic quality and some alterations in the sequential order of the panels. Engraved and no longer autographed, they offer a very different aspect: the drawings are inverted (that is to say they are reproduced backwards, in the same way that Cham would do with those in Cryptogame), and the images, encased, are separated by white space of variable dimensions." ("Les contrefaçons d'Aubert ne se distinguent pas seulement des albums originaux pas leur piètre qualité graphique et quelques manipulations dans l'ordre séquentiel des vignettes. Gravés, et non plus autographiés, ils offrent un aspect très différent: les dessins sont inversés (c'est-à-dire reproduits à l'envers, comme Cham fera avec ceux de Cryptogame), et les images, encadrées, sont séparées par un blanc d'épaisseur variable.") (L'Invention de la Bande Dessinée, 1994, p. 117)

In that same year of 1839 Töpffer made a second, improved edition of Mr. Vieux Bois to counteract the first Aubert pirate edition, later on also giving orders for the booksellers to decrease his original albums' selling price from 10 francs to 6 francs, the same price as the fakes. The new version was put out in April, at Ledouble, librairie, in Geneva, with 92 numbered pages and 220 drawings for the story itself (plus the frontispiece) compared with only 88 pages and 198 drawings in the first edition. At the same time, Töpffer published an article against the Aubert fake in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, new series, t. XX, April 1839, pp. 342-343, "Notice sur la Contrefaçon de l'Histoire de Mr Jabot".

Töpffer's protests about the bad quality of the fakes (rather than against their very existence) apparently led Aubert to produce second editions of the three stories, now closer to the originals. According to Pierre Cailler, for the Mr. Jabot edition: "Dans les dernières contrefaçons, l'éditeur - ému sans doute par les protestations de Töpffer - a suivi d'une manière plus précise l'édition originale. Il y a alors 52 feuillets et non plus 48."

1840 - Monsieur Pencil was published in Paris by Abraham Cherbuliez (whose family had Genevan roots), autographed by the author at the Lithographie de Schmidt, Geneva. The print run was 500 copies. It had originally been drawn in 1831.

This same year saw the publication of Le Docteur Festus, a.k.a. Voyages et Aventures du Dr. Festus, again by Cherbuliez in Paris, and autographed by the author at the Lith. de Schmidt, Geneva. The album was published simultaneously as a fiction novel (it had first appeared in this written format in 1833). The picture-story had originally been drawn in 1829.

1841 - Late this year, the album The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck was published in Great Britain by Tilt & Bogue, in London, produced at Woone's Gypsography, and sold for seven shillings. This was a fake of sorts, taken from Aubert's Mr. Vieux Bois fake. The French publisher had an authorized London agent, Delaporte's in the Burlington Arcade, so Tilt & Bogue could easily have found the album there. According to Robert Patten: "In November 1841, when the Omnibus was winding down, Tilt and Bogue entered into an arrangement with [George] Cruikshank whereby they got the Jabot and Vieux-Bois plates copied at 8s. [shillings] per page and went equal partners with Cruikshank on the British adaptations" (George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art, volume 2: 1835-1878, p. 203). Robert Cruikshank did the frontispiece, or, as George put it, it was "copied from a French book by my Brother."

1842 - This British oblong edition was reprinted in the USA in upright format by Wilson and Company, New York, as a supplement to the magazine Brother Jonathan Extra no. IX, dated September 14, 1842. The story was reprinted by the same American publisher in 1849, this time in oblong format, and again later on by Dick & Fitzgerald, New York.

Probably also in 1842, or the following year at the most, The Comical Adventures of Beau Ogleby was published undated in Great Britain, once again a fake, taken from Aubert's M. Jabot fake. It was was sold for six shillings. No American version of this is known to have existed. A beautiful hand-coloured edition of the British album can be seen in its entirety at the MSU website.

1845 - Töpffer's sixth album, Histoire d'Albert, was published in January 1845 in Geneva, autographed at Schmidt's shop. This was signed by "Simon de Nantua", but also carried the initials of Töpffer in the last page, making it clear to any inhabitant of the country who the author was. The story had "narrower" Swiss political implications, so it didn't travel as well as the other albums. It had originally been drawn a couple of months before as Histoire de Jaques, manuscript dated November 8, 1844.

Töpffer's seventh published story, M. Cryptogame, first drawn in 1830, came out under his supervision and approval in eleven installments in the highly popular and widely distributed Parisian magazine L'Illustration, January 25 through April 19, 1845 (the first comic strip there). His pictures were adapted by Cham for wood engraving, each page of the magazine carrying three pages of the original story. The engravings are signed with an interlaced "ABL" monogram, that is, the collective names of Andrew, Best & Leloir (not by "anonymous engravers" as stated by Kunzle). L'Illustration - already one of the leading magazines in Europe - had a print run of 20,000 copies, a large number by the standards of the day, ensuring widespread reputation and distribution. For this edition, Töpffer alone (not counting Cham, the engravers et al) was paid the formidable sum of 1,000 francs. L'Illustration was then sold for 75 cts. per issue ("la collection mensuelle 2 fr 75 / Ab. pour Paris, 3 mois, 8 fr. - 6 mois, 16 fr. - Un an, 30 fr.", with prices slightly higher for the provinces and foreign countries). The deal also involved Töpffer and the publisher, his cousin Jacques-Julien Dubochet, sharing profits from the French albums and foreign languages editions. Referring to the second comic strip published in his L'Illustration a while later ("Les Aventures de Scipion l’Africain" by Benjamin Roubaud), Dubochet wrote to Rodolphe Töpffer on July 1, 1845: "You have created the genre and you haven't yet seen the last of your imitators." ("Vous avez crée le genre et vous n'avez pas encore vu le dernier de vos imitateurs.")

The third British edition was the authorized Cryptogame translation, The Veritable History of Mr. Bachelor Butterfly, published by D. Bogue, London, in July 1845, and was sold for five shillings. This edition was taken from the serialization of Cham's drawings in Dubochet's L'Illustration. It was made from stereotypes furnished to David Bogue by Dubochet himself (in a "disgusting" journey to London in June that year) and predates the first French album collection.

1846 - This story was reprinted as The Strange Adventures of Bachelor Butterfly by Wilson & Co. in New York, 1846, thus making it the second earliest known sequential comic book printed in the USA. It was reprinted subsequently by Dick & Fitzgerald in New York, as The Strange & Wonderful Adventures of Bachelor Butterfly.

Also in 1846, the Librairie Allemande de J. Kessmann published a German-French edition of the first six published albums (omitting Cryptogame). Announcement of the bilingual edition appeared in L'Illustration no. 158, March 7, 1846, as still "to be published". The whole was redrawn on stone by M. Fr. Bode, a German lithographer from Reutlingen, and Töpffer commented that he had trouble distinguishing the lithographs from his autograph versions. The deal for this edition had been made with Töpffer himself in late 1845.

Unhappy with Cham's version of his Cryptogame, Töpffer had started his definitive version of this story in 1845, but failing health prevented him from finishing the work. He managed to autograph only the first sixteen pages at the Lith. de Schmidt, Geneva. This original version was first published much later, by J. Jullien in 1896.

Cham's version of M. Cryptogame for L'Illustration finally appeared in album format in French (with changes in seven panels, made at Töpffer's request) published by Dubochet, in Paris, in October 1846. This occured already after Töpffer's death, which happened on June 8, 1846, He had been born on January 31, 1799, and was 47 years old at the time of his demise. Only seven picture-stories were published during his life. His autographed albums' initial print runs were comparable to those of any books of the time — and several, if not all, had reprints during his short lifetime still.

M. Cryptogame in particular appeared in several foreign editions throughout the 19th century. In France, picture-stories inspired by Töpffer's began in 1839 with several narratives by Cham himself, in a series that Aubert called the Albums Jabot - in reference to the first title issued, copying the Swiss original. Artists like Nadar, Gustave Doré and many, many others followed.

Page officially created April 21, 2003

Updated January 16, 2006