by T. Hodler
Thursday, July 17, 2008
The July issue of Harper’s magazine includes a long review (subscription required) of David Kunzle’s two recent and indispensable books on Rodolphe Töpffer. Written by art critic Jed Perl, it’s generally a smart, thoughtful piece, and displays none of the condescension you commonly find in articles like this printed in the mainstream press. He still gets comic books wrong, of course, but it’s kind of interesting (to me) just how he goes astray.
Most of the review is about Töpffer and the books themselves, and Perl only addresses Töpffer’s relationship with comic books in general near the end of his article. First, he takes issue with Kunzle’s speculation that Töpffer’s work has been neglected by American comics fans because of “a narrowness of vision, a chauvinism that cannot bear to see the invention of so fertile, popular, and American a genre conceded to a European master.” Perl disagrees:
I’m not sure that the problem with Töpffer is that he is European so much as that his work is nearly two hundred years old. After all, much of the comic illustration done in nineteenth-century America can feel equally anachronistic to cartoon aficionados of our day. It is in the very nature of the popular arts, which are overwhelmingly oriented toward the present, that even their most powerful traditions will be reformulated with a vengeance that crushes the sort of art-historical niceties that quite naturally interest a scholar such as David Kunzle. Intellectually, I can see that Töpffer is on a continuum with the contemporary graphic novel, just as I can see that the silent movies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are on a continuum with the comedies now playing at the multiplex. But viscerally, what I feel very strongly, perhaps most strongly, are the differences. What is most striking in contemporary graphic novels is the dizzying overlay of influences, the thickening stew of twentieth-century allusions. Graphic novelists like to mix elements of earlier comics and noir movies and potboiler mysteries and art deco and art moderne and create a contemporary brew, a brew that’s frequently laced with irony. And when I turn back from this work to Töpffer’s picture books, I find that I’m face to face with an unself-consciousness that feels alien, strangely and wonderfully so.
First of all, on the question of why Töpffer’s neglected, I favor Kunzle slightly more than Perl, though both of them are basically right. (The fact that good, readily available English translations of the strips didn’t previously exist probably hasn’t helped.) What’s more interesting to me, though, is just how alien and anachronistic Perl thinks Töppfer’s work is. The most surprising thing about reading Töpffer, in fact, is just how contemporary and of-the-moment his comics seem. (Incidentally, I also think Perl’s wrong about Keaton and Chaplin, whose films haven’t aged poorly at all; there are still plenty of people who watch their silent movies for fun today, far more than watch dramatic silent films such as, say Intolerance. They aren’t as alien as all that. I wonder if humor ages better than drama?) Barring the clothing styles, and the occasional reference to politics, culture, and then-current events, Töpffer’s strips aren’t that different (except in terms of quality and skill) from many of the mini-comics you can find sold at MoCCA or SPX.
Perl goes on:
The aggressiveness of so much comic art is fueled, at least in part, by a need to compete in the commercial world. I sense that pressure in the work of Hogarth and Daumier, whose caricatures can be fearsomely real, with evil and folly solidly evoked. Even Winsor McCay’s magnificent early-twentieth-century Surrealist dream-worlds have a sharp punch to them; they are meant to stand up to all the other news in the Sunday papers. Töpffer is a very different case. He approaches even the least sympathetic of his imperious professors and self-indulgent young men with a certain gentleness of spirit. It’s significant, I believe, the Töpffer originally conceived of his picture books as entertainments for his family and friends; he was, at least initially, remote from the commercial world, and could afford to affectionately embrace his nutty subjects.
Perl’s kind of right here, and a lot wrong, in totally charming ways. First, while I take his point about commercial concerns, that argument cuts both ways; there’s a reason for the cliché that satire closes on Saturday night. Daniel Clowes’s “Why I Hate Christians” wasn’t exactly a blockbuster money-making idea, for example. And, you know, Ziggy and The Family Circus seem to have done pretty well. Secondly, I think it’s kind of wonderful that he thinks that “graphic novelists” are actually competing in the commercial marketplace. Outside of a few superstars and flukes, the newspaper strip world, and the DC/Marvel axis, comics has to be one of the least profitable media businesses in
the world North America. It would be kind of great if this misconception spread around, though. And third, I think a trip to the USS Catastrophe site is in order for Perl. Töpffer’s not the only artist making minimalist, gently humorous picture-books primarily “for his family and friends” and “remote from the commercial world.” Signing himself up for a subscription to King-Cat wouldn’t be a bad start, either.
I’m really not trying to pick on Perl here, because in the main, this is actually a fine, smart article. His errors of interpretation are only worth highlighting for the way they suggest that the public conception of the form may be changing (and the ways it definitely isn’t). It would be kind of hilarious if this idea of the aggressive, wealthy, alpha-male cartoonist really caught on.