måndag 13 juni 2011

David Kunzle: Father of the Comic Strip. Rodolphe Töpffer

The most amusing part of this book about the Swiss creator of comic albums – or "graphic novels" as they are now rather pompously called in many circles – was the idea that he created comics because he was a pretty good writer and a pretty good artist, but not able to make a full career out of either, because that is what Charles Schulz said about his own tremendous success with "Peanuts". Unfortunately, that's about as amusing as it gets, because while Kunzle is undoubtably knowledgeable on his subject, he's chosen to structure the book in a way that makes it less accessible, and his writing would have been well served by being less convoluted and having fewer speculations on this and that inserted here and there.

Now, were I to write a book analyzing a comics creator's oeuvre, I'd probably do it the traditional and somewhat boring way: start by describing the works to be analyzed; then analyze its protagonists and themes that pop up in it, etc; and then perhaps look at some IMO interesting details. It's the safe, if somewhat boring, way to do it.

Instead, Kunzle jumps right into enumerating the themes he's found in Töpffer's work, before dealing with the stories themselves. For somebody who hasn't already read them, that sort of leaves you hanging a bit. (Having compiled, translated and annotated an edition of Töpffer's comics, perhaps Kunzle was just too intimately knowledgeable of them to distance himself sufficiently from his text to give due consideration to the fact that not all of his readers would share his knowledge of the stories.) Also, Töpffer's biography is given sort of "as the criticism rolls along", not in a chapter of its own, which I think would have made more sense.

Another problem is his language. I don't know how many learned books about comics I've read that have lost part of their value to me because of unnecessarily meandering language. You want to learn how to write legibly about comics without the text losing any of its analytical/informational value? Read Brian Walker's excellent The Comics, or just about anything by Frederik Schodt; their writing is crisp and clear, and that detracts nothing from the quality of their thinking. Kunzle, OTOH, obscures his own reasoning with unnecessarily complicated language and sometimes not particularly relevant speculations – and, in one case, a dig against the Bush administration. (I certainly think that particular dig was well-deserved – in fact, I could think of quite a number of other digs that the Bush administration would deserve – but it's so completely out of place in a critical analysis of Rodolphe Töpffer's comics that it just stopped me in my tracks for a moment, thus detracting from what the book is supposed to be doing; namely, educating the reader about Töpffer and his comics.) 

Anyway, I'll give an example of both the language and the speculation, so that you can judge for yourself:
"The scenario by which the blameless petty bourgeois is 'exposed' (accused of a crime, found naked, in itself an offense) plays on the shame and confusion surrounding the ethics of getting on – in business, in the world, where all is appearance anyway. Trictrac is Töpffer's comedy (or farce) par excellence of  mistaken identities, his classic vis comica, involving abrupt and often involuntary switches of costume. These are symptoms of the flux of social roles in the real world, of temptations and pitfalls, of the need to appear as something other than what one is, or was, and the tendency to be taken for what one is not.
The petty-bourgeois fascination with the criminal, who stalks tall through the nineteenth-century popular novel, the man from the margins capable of great acts of power, like the Count of Monte Cristo, is a fantasy of those excluded from power, or given paltry symbols of it, like the grocer-national guardsman. To imagine oneself arrested as a  petty criminal is thus a deterrent against, or advance punishment for, harboring criminal fantasies."
Apart from the somewhat dubious psychological theories, I think most of those sentences could be improved by removing 10-15% of them (and I say that as someone who is constantly struggling to not overload my own sentences with words and clauses). 

OK, so that's what I don't like about the book. What do I like?

Well, it does give you a lot of info the man, his work and the world he lived in, even if it doesn't do it in as structured way as I would prefer. His father was an accomplished artist, and he himself was no slouch, if not good enough to make a living from it – partly from bad eyesight. He worked as a schoolmaster and professor of literature, and would write criticism and fiction, and published his comics stories on the side. His stories found their way to Goethe, who found them very amusing, and somewhat later, he started publishing them for a larger public to buy. (Exactly why he finally chose to publish his stories isn't quite clear to me from Kunzle's text, and with the biographical data spread out over more or less the whole book, it's hard to go back and check particular facts without re-reading the whole book.) 

Anyway, the albums were quite successful, and Töpffer sold them himself instead of via a publisher, and apparently made good profits off them. They became rather well-known, and inspired both plagiarists and original works by other artists. He developed his own sort of theory about how to create graphic novels, about the interplay between words and pictures, about the need for clarity and the need to let go of realism to get pictures full of movement and action.

Working in autolitography, a technique that allowed him to simply draw his stories instead of going through the tedious woodcut or engraving procedures, Töpffer created lively, farcical works that attracted the attention of many. Kunzle offers a chapter on the influence Töpffer had on those who came after him, and how the sort of picture story he pioneered fared in the following decades. He also offers a look at what might bee seen as the precursor of Töpffer's own comics albums, his illustrated diaries of the Alp-hiking summer trips he took with the boys of his boarding school.

All in all, this could have been a great book if it had only had a more reader-friendly structure. As it is, it's not a waste of time, but it's unnecessarily hard work for the info and insights to be gained. My favorite part is actually the appendix where Kunzle has translated a critique from 1846 by a Professor Fr. Vischer, capturing IMO the essence of good comics creation:

"While Gavarni captures as it were in flight single moments with epigrammatic intensity, while the piquant glimpses we are allowed through the keyhole give us a synthetic view of society today in compilations arranged loosely around various themes and going from point to point, Töpffer by contrast is quite continuous, he never lets go of his topic in order to switch to another. Rather he develops the same topic, lets one scene grow organically out of another, and does not stop until he has spun it out fully, exhausted all the motifs he has seeded there and brought to fruition; he narrates, he draws novels. (...)
A comic character thus constitutes a plot pivot in each of the albums, This character is inescapably prisoner to some inexorable caprice, passion, or weakness. No experience, no obstacle, no humiliation can teach him better."

I would submit that such perspicacious comics criticism is still not particularly common today, despite all the talk about how far we've come. Too much of it is aimed at either establishing the critic's learned status, or at scoring points against stuff he/she doesn't like, or at satisfying his/her childhood nostalgia. (Of these problems, the last one is the least problematic, however. Because the nostalgic isn't moved by ulterior motives, his/her research into a comic's or creator's history, motivations, etc, will likely be perhaps a bit too uncritical, but it will be thorough and extensive, which will make it an excellent source for other comics researchers to draw upon as well.)

Anyway, I can't really recommend this unless you're specifically interested in Töpffer and his contributions to creating the medium of comics. At the very least, I'd recommend that you start out by reading Kunzle's edition of Töpffer's collected works, which is in itself an excellent contribution to our understanding comics history and worthy of respect and praise.


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