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The Rhetorical Invention of Comics: A Selection of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Late Reflections on Composing Image-Text Narratives

By Sergio C. Figueiredo

The father of the modern comic in many ways is Rodolphe Töpffer, whose light satiric picture stories, starting in the mid-1800’s, employed cartooning and panel borders, and featured the first independent combination of words and pictures seen in Europe.
— Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics


The short texts translated below and my observations on their significance are from Rodolphe Töpffer’s 1845 Essai de Physiognomonie,1 and documents observations and ‘lessons’ learned over nearly two decades of applied writing work in visual narrative and graphic storytelling. Anachronistic histories of comics notwithstanding (cf. McCloud, Understanding), Töpffer’s essay may also be the first formal study of comics, particularly in terms of examining methodologies of multimodal composition, rhetorical significance, and printing and publishing technologies. In chapter three of the essay, for example, Töpffer addresses the potential of new innovations in lithographic printing techniques for adding color to his little books.

In the two (of twelve) chapters translated here, Töpffer offers a self-reflective rhetorical analysis of ‘literature in prints’ as a multimodal practice and pedagogical method, with a focus on engaging with cultural and political critique, often by means of parody—particularly for students with little to no formal skill/training in the fine arts. Much of his focus on minimal skill and ease of composition may be a result of his own dashed aspirations to become a serious painter, as David Kunzle suggests: “He visualized the funny little worlds around him as easily in pictures as in words, and wanted to be a painter like his father. Fortunately he was afflicted with poor eyesight at an early age, which led him to evolve a manner of sketching as quick as thought and quick with ideas, so that he mutated almost unconsciously into pictorial storytelling: the narrative comic strip” (Father of the Comic Strip 3). Töpffer’s affliction—a degenerative eye disease—developed while he was in Paris studying Greek classics and modern French literature, which, as nineteenth-century French literary historian Philippe Willems argues, “forced [Töpffer] to reconsider his options” (227).

After completing his university studies, Töpffer returned home to Geneva, starting a position as a schoolmaster (and, later, owned his own school) from 1822 until 1832, during which time he started composing narrative comic strips. In 1832, he was appointed as “chargé de cours in rhetoriqué et belle lettres (modern literature), the equivalent of assistant professor in the United States today”; in 1835, he was promoted “to titular (or tenured) professor” (Kunzle, Father of the Comic Strip 57). According to Willems, Töpffer held the first position of its kind (in rhetoric), having earned the position for his work on writing and illustrating “travelogues, short stories, aesthetic treatises, art criticism, political journalism, and a critical edition of speeches by Demosthenes, [and] theater comedies” (227). By 1842, Töpffer had earned an appointment of Chair in the Rhetoriqué et Belle Lettres department, a position he held until his death in 1846.

A year before his death, Töpffer wrote Essai de Physiognomonie, documenting his reflections and experience writing and drawing comics—a kind of artist’s statement—addressing the values, skills, and methods of composing comics; of the essay’s twelve chapters, two appear here: chapters three and four. In the third chapter, Töpffer explains some aims and purposes of comics (“to invent some kind of drama”), required composition/drawing skills (“even people with little talent could exercise a useful influence by using literature in prints”), and “autographic methods.” In chapter four, he addresses some visual composition techniques (“it is entirely a means of conventional imitation”) and the benefits of visual composition (“the graphic line is nevertheless a method that suffices, moreover, with all the requirements of expression, and especially those of clarity”).

My purpose in translating this text is to recover some of the lost history of the invention of comics as a form and method of writing within a chronological framework. Where anachronistic histories of comics offer much in the way of understanding the form and practice of writing comics, Töpffer’s late reflections on the formal (and rhetorical) invention of the form offers an opportunity to theoretically ground the practice in image/text, multimodal, and mixed-media composition practices. Viewed chronologically, Töpffer may even be considered one of the earliest adopters (and perhaps the first practitioner) of multimodal writing.

A Note on the Translation

This is a translation of a handwritten transcript found on Google Books, which I have compared to Thierry Groensteen’s 2003 French edition.2 I have attempted to remain faithful to Töpffer’s distinctive writing style, including sections that may, at first, be difficult to fully grasp given the complexity of Töpffer’s sentence structures—and especially in terms of comma usage. Below the translation, I have included a transcript of the original French for comparison.3

Chapter Three: How Literature in Prints Can Independently Cultivate an Advanced Culture in the Arts of Design. Advantages of the Autographic Method.

To make literature in prints, it is not necessary to establish oneself as an artisan given to drawing and everything that entails to the bitter dregs. It is not meant to be put at the service of uniquely grotesque fantasy from the pencil of a simple jester [un crayon naturellement bouffon4]. It is also not to stage a proverb or a representation of a pun; it is really to invent some kind of drama, whose coordinated parts are successfully designed as a whole; it is, good or bad, tragic or lighthearted, crazy or serious, to make a book, and not only to trace out a moral or to set a refrain in couplets.

But there are books and there are books, and many very profound, many very worthy of admiration for the beautiful things they contain, which are not usually quickly perused by the largest number of people. Of the most mediocre, provided that they are sound in themselves and engaging for the strong of spirit, they often exercise a better understanding of an action and, in this regard, are more advantageous. This is why we think that with some talent in line drawing, along with some discipline, even those with undistinguished skills can exercise a very useful influence by using literature in prints.

And the proof that one does not need to have extensive knowledge or skill [d’habileté] to make literature in prints is that we have done it ourselves; since, without having acquired any real understanding of graphic representation, and even without being primarily preoccupied with anything other than to produce, for our own amusement, a kind of reality from the most foolish whims of our fantasies. From this have emerged small books like Mr. JabotMr. Crépin, or Mr. un tel,5 which have been adopted by a large public, quite happily. If only the one or two critics who attack the failings of these little books, or who tease their stylistic follies, would instead emphasize a useful way of thinking, is it not true that they would well have reached readers who would not go searching for their sermons, as well as those that are rarely found in novels?

In any event, it is in drawing these little books without knowing how to draw, and by the results of quick graphic representation of the people who are figured—even when they are often the most absurd members, by their traits or stature—without stopping to say for better or for worse what they are meant to express, we have collected some observations on physiognomy that we want to explain: not as another grand system, but as another small book. Here we would like to suggest above all, the appealing advantage presented by the autographic method in a field of study for which the primary concern is the power to explain by graphic examples, which have value only when traced directly from the pen of the writer, and only to the extent that such examples are necessary.

In addition—and incidentally, as much as it is the question of literature in prints, which is to say a series of sketches where accuracy counts for little and where, by contrast, the clarity of the idea, quickly, elementarily expressed, counts for everything—nothing is comparable to the speed, the convenience, the economy of the autographic method that requires neither an intermediary engraver, nor that we draw in reverse for the printed image to be found correct, nor to wait more than an hour before the image is ready to be etched onto the engraving stone,6 ready to produce one thousand, [or] two thousand copies. For the greatest speed and least embarrassment, we will not employ, ourselves, such a process only crude enough for printing invoices [factures] and circulars, but we have enough practice to be well convinced that its use has the potential to be perfected indefinitely, to the point of producing equivalent results as those of etchings supported by dry point and burin.7

Chapter Four (of Twelve): Advantages and Properties of Line Drawing.

If, as from our point of view, the autographic method presents incontestable advantages, those of the method of simple line drawing are just as obvious.

Indeed, although it is entirely a means of conventional imitation, in the sense that it does not exist in nature and that it disappears into the complete imitation of an object, the graphic line is nevertheless a method that suffices, moreover, with all the requirements of expression, especially those of clarity. In this last respect, in particular, that of clarity, the bare simplicity that it comprises, contributes to rendering a clearer sense and an easier understanding for a common mindset. This is due to the fact that it gives the object in its essential characteristics, omitting those that are secondary, in such a way, for example, that a small child will depict imperfectly on a canvas, according to all the requirements of complex art the figure of a man, an animal, or an object, [but] will never fail to be quickly understood if, extracted by the means of simple line drawing, the figure is stripped of extra details [dénudée d’accessoires] and reduced to its essential characteristics.

Figure 1

Now, here is a man, a gosling, a wheelbarrow, and above all here is an ass, since it is a four-legged animal, with long ears, a large stomach, and no one can mistake it; but with shading, we finish off this ass; its shading becomes more or less confused with similar shades: its shape combines with other shapes, as they might be arranged in a painting. Already, the ass is no longer an ass, at least for the little child, in the same way it is when reduced to a few simple expressions [termes]; that is, made of a few traits that are casually aligned.

Figure 2

If I disrupt the overall form, the clarity remains unchanged, because other than the principal characteristics surviving the rupture and because of the graphic simplicity [of the image], the [viewer’s attention] is not distracted from the principal object, and the least-trained eye fills the lacunae of the contour with detail, and otherwise the [principal characteristics] make uniform the gray shades of the skin, in harmony [harmonisant] with the gray belly.

Figure 3

Another advantage of the graphic line is the complete freedom that it leaves with regard to the choice of the features to present, a freedom that no longer allows a fuller imitation. Should I want an expression of dazed awe8 (No. I), of unpleasant and sharp humor, of stupor, of silly curiosity and indiscretion all together (No. II, III, IV), I confine myself to the graphic signs that express those sentiments by releasing them from all the others associated with them or those that would distract from a more complete imitation. This, above all, allows the clumsy to indicate sentiments and passions well enough, in the sense that it helps their weaknesses in not having to express more than one thing at a time by a means that is effective precisely because of what it is isolated from. And note it well, even the least-practiced eye supplies the gaps of the imitation, with ease and sincerity, above all else, that works entirely to the advantage of the designer.

Figure 4

Now here we have some heads, of a gentleman and a lady, which exhibit broken lines to the greatest degree, of the most neglected discontinuities in contour, and nevertheless still, that, for the designer, are just as much abbreviated forms that advantageously conceal the absurdity [ânerie9] of making an exact and complete design, without doing much harm its vitality, to the expression or to the emotion of the figure; they are, for the viewer, so many blanks that her/his imagination populates, fills, completes by habit, without effort and with fidelity. This leads us to think that in making lively designs, sketched, quickly, there is everything to gain by being an ass and, without daring to affirm something so strange in an absolute manner, we would go as far to as to say, that in doing daily sketches intended to shed light on a lively and distinct [nette10] idea, the sentiment that is found is more rewarding [plus heureux] than the knowledge that imitates; for the briskness that does damage to the forms and also skips over the details better serves the wit [of the image] than the cautious ability to politely fill in the forms by marking the details. Finally, as in all pleasant subjects, or crazy fantasies, an audacious absurdity [ânerie] that jumps out a bit too brutally onto an idea that one has in mind, at the risk of omitting some features and of breaking some of the forms, has often reached the aim better than one with a well-exercised talent, more timid, that slowly follows all the meanderings of an elegant execution and a faithful representation. In addition, this explains why, in these kinds of subjects, the English win out over the French; it is because they are, generally, artists who are much less precise and much less scrupulous. This is why, dealing with the high and mighty and without much respect for forms, their sketches of current events achieve a vigorous comic buffoonery and humorous verve, which is not commonly reached by a witty pencil, but very strict and correct, even in farcical, even in the eccentric, work of the French.

The ease offered by the graphic line in omitting some imitative features of an image that are not the aim of the image, so as to use only those that are essential, causes it to resemble written or spoken language, which has the property of being able, with much greater ease, in a description or in a narrative, of removing entire parts of depicted images or of narrative events, leaving behind only those traits that are expressive and that contribute to the purpose [l’objet]. In other words, the graphic line, by the very reason of what meanings it makes clear, even without the imitation being complete, admittedly, demands enormous omissions of properties and details, with the result that, whereas in a finished painting the slightest discontinuity in the image simultaneously marks an eyesore and a gap, in the graphic line, by contrast, monstrous discontinuities are neither stains nor gaps; even when they are not, as often happens, desired by the author and merely the happy use of a brevity method.

In conclusion, and to end with line drawing, it is incomparably advantageous when, as in an ongoing story, it is useful to draw cursive sketches just waiting to be strongly critiqued, and that, as links in a series, figure only as recollections of ideas, as symbols, as rhetorical figures scattered throughout a speech,11 and not as integral chapters of the subject.

Figure 5

And so, for example, we remember having seen a story in print, not just this symbol returning repeatedly to express the turmoil [orages] of a somewhat brutal paternal education, nor this other only reminding also repeatedly that the hero of a book is a Jackass [Aliboron12] that constantly changes trades [métier], but also hyperbolic truths [véritables hyperboles] graphically executed in a manner that has the nimbleness of hyperboles, written or spoken. In the first case, it applies to the same Aliboron that, having become a wine merchant, receives a visit from some political friends who help him to go bankrupt, and it is the quick efficacy of the means employed that is addressed in the hyperbole. In the second case, it applies to the same Aliboron who, having become a traveling salesman, goes from door to door selling an image metaphysics [métaphysique pittoresque13], and the hyperbole includes both the multiplicity and the obsequious importunity of his opportunistic visits.

Figure 6

Chapitre troisième

Faire de la littérature en estampes, ce n’est pas se constituer l’ouvrier d’une donnée, pour en tirer, et jusqu’à la lie souvent, tout ce qu’elle comporte. Ce n’est pas mettre au service d’une fantaisie uniquement grotesque un crayon naturellement bouffon. Ce n’est pas non plus mettre en scène un proverbe ou en représentation un calembour; c’est inventer réellement un drame quelconque dont les parties coordonnées à un dessein aboutissent à faire un tout; c’est, bon ou mauvais, grave ou léger, fou ou sérieux, avoir fait un livre, et non pas seulement tracé un bon mot ou mis un refrain en couplets.

Mais il y a livres et livres, et les plus profonds, les plus dignes d’admiration à cause des belles choses qu’ils contiennent, ne sont pas toujours les plus feuilletés par le plus grand nombre. De très médiocre, à la condition qu’ils soient sains en eux-mêmes et attachants pour le gros des esprits, exercent souvent une action plus étendue et, en ceci, plus salutaire. C’est pourquoi il nous paraît qu’avec quelque talent d’imitation graphique, uni à quelque élévation morale, des homme d’ailleurs fort peu distingués pourraient exercer une très utile influence en pratiquant la littérature en estampes.

Et la preuve qu’il n’est pas besoin d’un gros bagage de savoir ou d’habileté pour pratiquer la littérature en estampes, c’est ce qu’il nous est advenu à nous-même; puisque sans posséder réellement aucun savoir acquis d’imitation graphique, et sans d’ailleurs nous être préoccupé primitivement d’autre chose que de donner, pour notre propre amusement, une sorte de réalité aux plus fous caprices de notre fantaisie. Il en est résulté des sortes de petits livres appelés M. JabotM. Crépin, ou M. un tel que le bon gros public a adoptés tels quels, bien amicalement. Que si ces petits livres, dont un ou deux seulement s’attaquent à des travers ou taquinent des extravagances à la mode, eussent au contraire tous mis en lumière une pensée utilement morale, n’est-il pas vrai qu’ils auraient atteint bien des lecteurs que ne vont pas chercher ces pensées là dans les sermons, tandis qu’ils ne les rencontrent guère dans les romans?

Quoi qu’il en soit, c’est en dessinant ces petits livres sans savoir dessiner, et en brusquant par conséquent l’imitation graphique des personnages qui y figurent au point qu’ils sont le plus souvent absurdes de membres, de traits ou de stature sans cesser pour cela d’exprimer que bien que mal ce qu’ils doivent exprimer, qu’il nous est advenu de recueillir quelques observations physiognomiques dont nous voulons faire non pas un grand système de plus, mais un petit livre encore. Ce qui nous y convie surtout, c’est l’attrayant avantage que présente le procédé autographique dans une matière où il s’agit avant tout de pouvoir s’expliquer par des exemples graphiques qui n’ont de valeur qu’autant qu’ils sont tracés directement par la plume même de l’écrivain, et au fur et à mesure qu’ils sont nécessaires.

Au surplus, et pour le dire en passant, dès qu’il est question de littérature en estampes, c’est-à-dire d’une série de croquis où la correction ne compte pour rien et où, au contraire, la clarté de l’idée, cursivement, élémentairement exprimée, compte pour tout, rien n’est comparable en célérité, en commodité, en économie au procédé autographique qui n’exige ni le concours intermédiaire d’un graveur, ni que l’on dessine à l’envers pour que l’image imprimée se retrouve à l’endroit, ni que l’on attende plus d’une heure avant que le dessin décalqué sur la pierre soit devenu gravure et prêt à donner mille, deux mille exemplaires. Pour plus de vitesse et moins d’embarras, nous n’avons jamais employé, nous, que le procédé tel quel et bien grossier encore qui sert à imprimer des factures et des circulaires, mais nous l’avons suffisamment pratiqué pour être bien convaincu qu’il serait susceptible d’être perfectionné indéfiniment et jusqu’au point de donner des résultats équivalents à ceux de l’eau forte étayée de pointe sèche et de burin.

Chapitre quatrième

Si, au point de vue qui nous occupe, le procédé autographique présente des avantages incontestables, le procédé du simple trait graphique en présente de tout aussi manifestes.

En effet, bien qu’il soit un moyen d’imitation entièrement conventionnel, en ce sens qu’il n’existe pas dans la nature et qu’il disparaît dans l’imitation complète d’un objet, le trait graphique n’en est pas moins un procédé qui suffit, et au-delà, à toutes les exigences de l’expression, comme à toutes celles de la clarté. Sur ce dernier rapport, en particulier celui de la clarté, cette vive simplicité qu’il comporte, contribue à en rendre le sens plus lumineux et d’une acception plus faciles pour le commun des esprits. Ceci vient de ce qu’il ne donne de l’objet que ses caractères essentiels, en supprimant ceux qui sont accessoires, de telle sorte, par exemple, qu’un petit enfant dénotera imparfaitement dans tel tableau traité selon toutes les conditions d’un art complexe et avancé la figure d’un homme, d’un animal ou d’un objet, ne manquera jamais de la reconnaître immédiatement si, extraite de là au moyen du simple trait graphique elle s’offre ainsi à ses regards dénudée d’accessoires et réduite à ses caractères essentiels.

Figure 1

Voici un homme, un oison, une charrette, voici surtout un âne, car c’est un animal à quatre pattes, à la longues oreilles, à grosse panse, et nul ne saurait s’y tromper; mais colorez, achevez cet âne; que par ses teintes il se confonde plus ou moins avec des teintes analogues; que par ses formes il se combine avec d’autres formes ainsi qu’il peut arriver dans un tableau, déjà cet âne ne sera plus, pour le petit enfant du moins, de compréhension aussi intuitive qu’il l’est, réduit même à ces termes, c’est-à-dire fait de quelques traits pas trop bien alignés.

Figure 2

Que si je romps la forme d’ensemble, la clarté demeure la même, car outre que les caractères principaux demeurent la rupture, à cause aussi de sa simplicité graphique, ne distrait pas de l’objet principal, et l’œil le moins exercé supplée les lacunes du contour par leurs détails, tandis que d’autre part ils uniformiseraient par leurs tons de grise écorce, s’harmonisant avec la panse grise.

Figure 3

Un autre avantage du trait graphique, c’est la liberté entière qu’il laisse quant au choix des traits à indiquer, liberté que ne permet plus une imitation plus achevée. Que je veuille dans une tête exprimer l’effroi hébété (no. I), l’humeur désagréable et pointue, la stupeur, la curiosité niaise et indiscrète tout ensemble (nos. II, III, IV) je me borne aux signes graphiques qui expriment ces affections en les dégageant de tous les autres qui s’y associeraient ou qui en distrairaient dans une imitation plus complète. Ceci surtout permet à des malhabiles d’indiquer pas trop mal des sentiments et des passions, en ce que c’est un secours pour leur faiblesse de n’avoir à exprimer qu’une chose à la fois par un moyen qui devient puissant en raison même de ce qu’il est isolé. Et notez le bien, le regard le moins exercé supplée les lacunes d’imitations, avec une facilité et une vérité surtout qui tournent entièrement à l’avantage du dessinateur.

Figure 4

Voilà, et des têtes, et un monsieur et une dame, qui présentent au plus haut degré des traits rompus, des discontinuités de contour pas mal négligées, et néanmoins tandis que, pour le dessinateur, ce sont là tout autant de formes abrégées qui dissimulent avantageusement son ânerie en fait de dessin correct et terminé, sans nuire beaucoup à la vie, à l’expression ou au mouvement de sa figure, ce sont pour le regardant, tout autant de blancs que son esprit peuple, remplit, achève d’habitude, sans effort et avec fidélité. Ceci conduirait à juger qu’en fait de dessin vif, croqué, rapide, il y a tout à gagner à être âne, et, sans que nous osions affirmer une chose si étrange d’une manière absolue, nous irons pourtant jusqu’à dire, qu’en fait de croquis courants destinés à mettre en lumière une idée vive et nette, le sentiment qui trouve est plus heureux que savoir qui imite; que la brusquerie qui fait violence aux formes tout en enjambant les détails sert mieux la verve que l’habileté circonspecte qui courtise les formes en se marquant dans les détails, qu’enfin dans les sujets plaisants surtout, ou de folle fantaisie, une ânerie audacieuse qui saute un peu brutalement sur l’idée qu’elle a en vue, au risque d’omettre quelques traits et de briser quelques formes a le plus souvent mieux atteint le but qu’un talent plus exercé, mais plus timide, qui s’y dirige lentement au travers de tous les méandres d’une exécution élégante et d’une imitation fidèle. Et au surplus, ceci explique pourquoi dans ces sortes de sujets, les Anglais l’emportent sur le Français: c’est qu’ils sont en général dessinateurs bien moins corrects et bien moins scrupuleux. A cette cause donc, traitant de haut et sans grand égard les forme, ils atteignent dans leurs croquis de publicité courante à une vigueur de gaîté bouffonne et de verve humouristique, à laquelle ne s’élève pas communément le crayon très spirituel, mais trop strict et correct, même dans le bouffon, même dans l’excentrique, des Français.

Cette facilité qu’offre le trait graphique de supprimer certains traits d’imitation qui ne vont pas à l’objet, pour ne faire usage que de ceux qui y sont essentiels, le fait ressembler par là au langage écrit ou parlé, qui a pour propriété, de pouvoir avec bien plus de facilité encore, dans une description ou dans un récit, supprime des parties entières des tableaux décrits ou des événements narrés, pour n’en donner que les traits seulement qui sont expressifs et qui concourent à l’objet. En d’autres termes, ce trait graphique, en raison même de ce que le sens y est clair, sans que l’imitation y soit complète, admet, demande des dispenses énormes d’accessoires et de détails, en telle sorte que, tandis que dans une peinture achevée, le moindre discontinuité d’imitation fait tache et lacune à la fois, dans le trait graphique, au contraire, des discontinuités monstrueuses ne font ni tache ni lacune, alors même qu’elles ne sont par, comme il arrive bien souvent, l’heureux emploi d’une concision permise par le procédé et voulues par l’auteur.

Enfin, et pour en finir avec le trait graphique, il est incomparablement avantageux lorsque, comme dans une histoire suivie, il sert à tracer des croquis cursif qui ne demandent qu’à être vivement accusés, et qui, en tant que chaînons d’une série, n’y figurent souvent que comme rappels d’idées, comme symboles, comme figures de rhétorique éparses dans le discours et non pas comme chapitres intégrants du sujet.

Figure 5
Figure 6

Ainsi, et par exemple, nous nous souvenons d’avoir vu dans une histoire en estampes, non pas seulement ce symbole-ci revenant à plusieurs reprises pour exprimer les orages d’une éducation paternelle un peu brutale; non pas cet autre seulement revenant aussi à plusieurs reprises pour exprimer que le héros du livre est un aliboron qui change constamment de métier, mais aussi de véritables hyperboles exécutées graphiquement de manière à avoir presque la portée des hyperboles écrites ou parlées. Je vais les transcrire. Dans la première il s’agit de ce même aliboron qui, devenu marchand de vins, reçoit la visite de quelques amis politique qui lui aident à faire faillite, et c’est la rapide efficacité du moyen employé sur laquelle porte l’hyperbole. Dans la seconde, il s’agit du même aliboron encore, qui devient commis voyageur, va d’étage en étage proposer l’achat d’une métaphysique pittoresque, a l’hyperbole porte à la fois sur la multiplicité et sur l’importunité obséquieuse de ses visites intéressées.

Figure 7


[1] This essay has been translated by Ellen Wiese in her 1965 Enter the comics…, but it is not currently available from the publisher, University of Nebraska Press. In addition, the rationale for this translation is grounded in some questionable choices in Wiese’s English version of the text. I am currently working on a book-length project that includes a translation of this essay alongside two other essays and one of Töpffer’s essays on his pedagogical philosophy. This book-length translation is under contract and in pre-production with Parlor Press.

[2] Töpffer, Rodolphe. Essai De Physiognomonie. Ed. Thierry Groensteen. Paris: Kargo, 2003. Print.

[3] I would like to thank the editors and anonymous reviewers at ImageTexT for offering feedback and guidance on the initial version of this piece. Their comments and suggestions have helped strengthen this translation.

[4] This might also be translated as: “of a naturally comic pencil.”

[5] These works can be found in David Kunzle’s Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips (2007).

[6] This is likely a reference to the then-recent lithographic printing processes.

[7] Here, Töpffer is referencing emerging innovations in lithographic printing techniques using a metallic needles and plates.

[8] Hébète may also mean “fear” or “terror.”

[9] ânerie may also mean stupidity, silliness, inanity, or nonsense. The choice to use ‘absurdity’ in place of these other possible translations is informed David Kunzle’s biography of Töpffer, Father of the Comic Strip, and Philippe Willems’s analysis of Töpffer’s conflicted relationship with Romanticism and with Søren Kierkegaard’s (a contemporary of Töpffer’s) philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ (Willems, 2009).

[10] Nette is the feminine conjugation of net, and may have a variety of meanings, including, ‘clear’, ‘pure’, ‘clean’, and ‘fair copy’.

[11] Perhaps a reference to Demosthenes’ speeches, and the critical edition of those speeches that Töpffer edited and published earlier in his career.

[12] This is the name of a donkey in the Jean de la Fontaine’s (1621-1695) fables represented as a foolish donkey (an ass) that attempts to play the role of a connoisseur.

[13] While one reviewer asked that I reconsider the rendering of this phrase (suggesting that it is an idiom), I have decided to use this translation. During the course of my research for my forthcoming book-length translation of Töpffer’s work, I discovered that the Essai de Physiognomonie was partially a response to the following section of Hegel’s lectures on the fine arts (1822-29): “About physiognomy I will only mention here that if the work of sculpture, which has the human figure as its basis, is to show the body, in its bodily forms, presents not only the divine and human substance of the spirit in a merely general way but also the particular character of a specific individual in this portrayal of the Divine, we would also have to embark on an exhaustive discussion of what parts, traits, and configurations of the body are completely adequate to express a specific inner mood. We are instigated to such a study by classical sculptures to which we must allow that in fact they do express the Divine and the characters of particular gods. To admit this is not to maintain that the correspondence between the expression of spirit and the visible form is only a matter of accident and caprice and not something absolutely necessary. In this matter each organ must in general be considered from two points of view, the purely physical one and that of spiritual expression. It is true that in this connection we may not proceed after the manner of Gall who makes the spirit into a bump on the skull.” (Aesthetics 716) See my curated slideshow juxtaposing Töpffer’s work with these selections from Hegel’s Aesthetics during the 18—22 Jan. 2016 issue of In Media Res: A Media Commons Project on the theme, “Philosophy in/as/of Media.” (A direct link to this project was not made available at the time of submission.)

Works Cited

De Lafontaine, Jean. The Complete Fables of Jean De Lafontaine. Trans. Norman R. Shapiro. Chicago: U of Illinois, 2007. Print.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (2 Volumes). Trans. T. M. Knox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975/2010. Print.

Kunzle, David. Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2007. Print.

—. Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2007. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

Töpffer, Rodolphe. Enter the Comics…. Trans. Ellen Wiese. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1965. Print.

—. “Essai De Physiognomonie.” Google Books. Schmidt, 10 Sept. 2009. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.

Willems, Philippe. “Rodolphe Töpffer and Romanticism.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 37.3/4 (2009): 227-46. Project MUSE. Web. 25 June 2014.

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