The Comic Books of the Enlightenment


Cover page of Voyages en ZigZag.

Rodolphe Töpffer, Voyages en Zigzag ou Excursion d’un Pensionnat en Vacances

Printed in 1844 in Paris

There was this failed painter in Geneva, who – due to an eye disease – barely got a job as assistant teacher at a boarding school. He proved himself and opened his own private boarding school in 1824. The man’s name was Rodolphe Töpffer and he was an educational genius. His students loved him. He took those who could not spend the holidays with their parents on long journeys by foot. These journeys could cover distances of several hundred kilometres and lead them for example across the Alps to Venice.

What Rodolphe Töpffer did with his students would be called outdoor education in today’s world. His boys had to prove themselves with the help of the few things they could carry on their backs. They didn’t have hostel reservations. They spent the night wherever they could. In a farmer’s barn, in the attic of a tavern. And if there was no farm or tavern on their way, they simply slept on the ground while their stomachs growled with hunger.

That’s Just the Way Boys Are

Rodolphe Töpffer, who experienced the hardships together with his boys, was an outstanding observer, who did not only capture his memories with a great deal of humour in a diary, but also by means of a pencil. It appears that he preferred observing to commanding. His boys are the stars of his drawings and, with a smirk, we notice that they behave the same as little and big boys do today:

They climb trees, catch questionable animals, are always hungry and fall into bed completely exhausted in the evening – regardless of what this bed looks like. Töpffer reports twice on all minor and major events, once by means of words and, additionally, by means of pictures.

For example, he describes in detail the outrage he felt when a greedy landlady, supported by a slightly brutal-looking man, wanted to rip him off. She demanded 400 francs solely for the wine! Töpffer was willing to pay 40 francs – for everything: wine, food and accommodation. The accompanying drawing immediately captivates the reader. We sympathise with the small, modest teacher standing in front of the neat landlady with his double chin, his big belly and his shabby skirt. How firmly he defends the interest of his students!

The students at home have probably laughed a lot about this scene since Töpffer did not make his notes and his drawings in order to publish them. At first, he simply used them to make a nice album with the sole purpose of telling those that had stayed at home about the things that happened during summer.

The First Picture Stories

The first volume of “Voyages en zigzag” was published quite late – in 1844 – in Paris. At that time, Töpffer had already made a name for himself with his picture stories. Today, he is celebrated as the founding father of comic books: In fact, his picture stories were a mixture of pictures, in which the actors interacted with each other like they did in stage plays, and short texts explaining the events. The innovation about it was the fact that the texts could not exist without the pictures and the pictures could not exist without the text – just like it’s the case with comic books today.

These picture stories had been created much earlier – Töpffer drew the first one in 1827 – and, just like the travel reports, they were solely meant to be read by the students of his boarding school. However, a friend sent two of them including a travel report to Goethe. And the great Goethe made extremely positive comments about the work: “It is really amazing! Everything is full of talent and genius! Some of the drawings are absolutely unsurpassable! If he chose a less frivolous subject in the future and pulled himself together just a little bit more, he would create things past comprehension. […] It appears to me that Töpffer […] stands on his own two feet and is one of the most inventive talent I have ever seen.”

If a genius praises you in such way, that’s obviously an incentive to publish the material after all. Thus, Töpffer revised his drawn stories and, in 1835, he commissioned a Geneva printer to produce a few hundred pieces of them. They sold like hot cakes! New editions had to be issued all the time. And soon, translations were published as well. In Germany, for example, a bilingual version was published as early as in 1846 and was an indirect inspiration to Wilhelm Busch.

When he died in 1846, Töpffer was well-known throughout the entire educated world. His works were published in Great Britain, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, in France, Germany and – in the form of a pirated edition translated into English – even in the USA.

The entire text of the French first edition “Voyages en zigzag” can be accessed online at by ETH Zurich.

Olivier Hoibian published a French article on this book.

In 2019, an exhibition on Rodolphe Töpffer took place in Geneva, the SRF reported about it (in German).

Furthermore, swissinfo published an article summarising the most important facts of the history of (Swiss) comic books.

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