Topffer article in The Comics Journal


I have a longish essay in the latest Comics Journal, #294, which is now out. The essay is on Rodolphe Topffer, one of the early pioneers of the comic strip; his work has been collected in English translation only recently. He’s one of my favorite artists, and in the article I try to get at some of his innovations — to quote myself:

From a superficial glance, his work might seem to share much in common with his predecessors; for centuries artists had been creating images in sequence, using captions to explain the storyline. Töpffer didn’t even push forward to adopt the last piece of the formal puzzle that would make his work unarguably “comics,” the leap into speech balloons (or at least not in his published work — he toyed with them in a notebook and then abandoned the approach). But there are two crucial differences in his method – differences that were in fact innovations – which keep his work feeling “modern,” functioning as stories rather than specimens of graphic history.

The primal innovation was the injection of speed into the graphic narrative, both in the execution of the drawings themselves, and in the time that exists between the images. He’s not drawing scenes, but moments. His images don’t languish in a buffer of time, adrift in temporality like islands at sea – they flow one after the other with a kind of ticking impatience. The sort of time he captures is unthinkable without the metronomic guillotine of the clock. There’s a bit of a conundrum in this, in that each image seems to have a lesser duration (each panel sticks in the eye less than the framed quasi-theatrical dioramas of a typical broadsheet) – and yet more images are needed to elaborate the full circumference of an event, to feed the impatience of time.

Töpffer’s other major innovation was his realization that the text and image need not support each other in a kind of explicatory unity (or redundancy), where one converges with the other toward a mutual vanishing point of agreed-upon meaning. Rather, text and image can exist on fundamentally parallel tracks, supporting each other in contradiction.

Text and image perform a dance of mutual commentary, not explanation. Two cohabitating modes of expression are yoked together in one singular medium, producing a habitat whose primary mode of meaning is divergence: in short, a universe defined by irony.

To find out why the rather pedestrian image below is one of my favorite panels in all of comics, you’ll have to read the whole article.


The issue also has, among other things, interviews with the cartoonists Jason and Mark Tatulli, and an excellent article by R. Fiore, reviewing two books on the censorship of comics in the 50s, which is online in its entirety.

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