Rodolphe Töpffer (January 31, 1799 - June 8, 1846) was a Swiss teacher, author, painter, cartoonist, and caricature artist. He is also considered to be the first modern comic creator.
He was born in Geneva to Adam-Wolfgang Töpffer (May 20, 1766 - August 10, 1847). His father was a professional painter and occasional caricature artist. The elder Töpffer's main claim to fame is serving from 1804 to 1807 as "Drawing Master" of Joséphine, Empress- consort of the First French Empire.
Rodolphe sought an education in Paris, France from 1819 to 1820. Then he returned to Geneva where he found employment as a school teacher. By 1823 he was able to establish his own boarding school for boys. In 1832 he was appointed Professor of Literature at the University of Geneva.
Relatively successful in his chosen profession, Rodolphe would gain his fame from the activities he pursued in his spare time. He depicted a number of local landscapes in paintings considered influenced by the contemporary movement of Romanticism. He became an author of short stories and occasionally entertained his students by drawing caricatures.
The later two of his activities would be combined in a number of illustrated comedic accounts. The first of them was completed by 1827. Histoire de M. Vieux Bois (The story of Mr. Wooden Head). It consisted of 30 pages, each containing six drawn panels with a caption of narration on top.
The story goes as following: Mr. Vieux Bois encounters a seemingly overweight young woman and instantly falls in love with her. His initial attempts at courting her are apparently ignored. Each failure is followed by short periods of desperation. He attempts to suicide first by falling on his own sword and then by hanging himself. Both attempts fail.
He discovers the existence of a rival suitor and challenges him to a duel. He proves more effective in the use of his dueling sword and his rival has to flee. The victor then contacts the parents of his object of affection, seeking her hand in marriage. He returns home and starts to loudly celebrate for three hours. His celebration ends with his arrest for disturbing the neighbours at night. The marriage is called off and he again wishes to suicide. He asks for hemlock but is given herb soup instead.
He decides to travel but soon falls prey to highwaymen. Seeking refuge in a lair, he encounters a hermit who persuades him to join the local cloister. After 15 days M. Vieux Bois is back to health and escapes the cloister while dressed in drag. He looses his right eye on his way home and starts wearing an eyepatch.
At home he founds a letter from his love interest, finally returning his affection. At night he is under her balcony with a musical bow and a large but unspecified string instrument. Then they jointly flee on top of his horse which visibly struggles to support the young woman's weight. But Mr. Vieux Bois is apprehended by monks and returned to prison. He throws himself out of a window in his fourth unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Released he revisits his object of affection and they again flee. Returning to his home by way of the local river they are discovered by a "little hermite". Mr. Vieux Bois keeps the boy's head under the water till he dies from drowning. He finally can arrange for their marriage without opposition from the monks.
On his wedding day Mr. Vieux Bois leaves his home for the church but then returns to place his dog as guard outside the house. Consequently he arrives late for his own wedding. His in-laws had tired of waiting and had called off the marriage again. He attempts to place a bullet in his own head but misses his aim. He has survived his fifth suicide attempt with a scratch on his cheek. Having lost consciousness he is mistaken for dead and buried. Crows digging at his grave finally manage to awake him. He is "called back into existence".
Dressed in a shroud, he is mistaken for an undead ghost and a couple of local peasants chase him with their pitchforks. His return home terrifies his inheritors. As soon as he changes his clothes, he is again arrested for assault. His bullet had entered a neighbour's leg. He defends himself in court but nevertheless ends up sentenced to imprisonment for a year. His only cellmate is his loyal dog.
They soon manage to escape by opening a roofhole. He jumps to the roof of the neighbouring house but his dog fells into the chimney. The house belongs to his object of affection and her parents. The later are scared by their canine visitor but their daughter recognizes it and hugs it. Mr. Vieux Bois pulls at the rope around his dog's neck and is surprised at its weight. The rope brakes and he falls from the roof and into a street lamp. He flees the local police. Meanwhile the resident family climbs the chimney to the rooftop in order to meet the dog's owner. They find nobody and are then trapped on the roof.
Three days later Mr. Vieux Bois returns disguised as an officer. He searches for his lady love and is informed that the whole family is still missing. He leaves to search for them. The following day, a chimney sweep discovers the whole family. Mr. Vieux Bois encounters one the monks responsible for his imprisonment. He cuts off his beard in revenge but then has to flee a legion of vengeful monks.
He returns empty-handed to his hometown. The little chimney sweep informs him of the rescue of his lady. Led to the roof, he finds his lost dog. He stays on the roof for nine days in an effort to communicate with his love ... not realising the family has moved. On the ninth day he leaves the roof and reestablishes contact with his lady. They flee again with horse and carriage. Mr. Vieux Bois is rushing the horse and manages to cover 18 leagues in three hours ... only to find that the carriage containing his lady was lost at some point of the road.
The carriage has been loaded on a stagecoach heading for Paris. But its weight eventually overturns the stagecoach into the local river. A passenger seeks refuge on the river-floating carriage. He is identified as the rival driven away at the duel months ago. He drives the carriage to the shore and attempts to release the woman from it. Before he can do so Mr. Vieux Bois arrives, posing as a highwayman. He threatens his old rival with if he does not keep his face on the ground. Then he enters the locked door of the carriage, releases his lady, forces his rival to enter it and throws it to the river again.
The lady complains of exhaustion and seems to have lost weight. Her lover leads her to the mountains where she can pursuit a fattening diet. Meanwhile he adopts a pastoral lifestyle under the name of "Tircis". Several pages are devoted to the sleeping woman changing hands between the two persistent rivals for her affection. When she awakes she finds M. Vieux Bois with a new donkey, taken from his opponent.
On their way home they have to cross the grounds of the local monastery where they have several enemies. The man disguises himself as a miller and the woman as a sack of flower. The monks stop them anyway to examine the cargo. The are scared to find it squeling. The "miller" assures them it contains the Devil. The monks flee but return with reinforcements. The couple are condemned as sorcerers and sentenced to execution by burning. The execution is carelessly prepared and the prisoners take advantage of the smoke to flee towards the river. There their old carriage is found standing. Two pursuing monks are approaching. Knowing them well, Mr. Vieux Bois throws some coins around and enters the carriage with his lady. The monks believe that the carriage is filled with coins. In their greed they decide to keep it for themselves. They dig a pit in order to bury it. When it gets deep enough, their prey exits the carriage and buries them up to their necks. Leaving the monks, the duo has
one last encounter with the rival suitor before the story ends happily with their marriage.
The comedic story was not originally intended for publication but Rodolphe continued to create others in his spare time to entertain his acquaintances. Notable among them was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who in 1831 persuaded Rudolphe to publish his stories. Seven or them were eventually published in newspaper form across Europe but Goethe would not live to see them.:
- Histoire de M. Jabot - created 1831, first published 1833. It features the adventures of a middle class dandy who attempts to enter contemporary High Society.
- Monsieur Crépin - first published in 1837. It features the adventures of a father who employs a series of tutors for his children and falls prey to their eccentricities.
- Histoire de M. Vieux Bois - created 1827, first published 1837. The above mentioned story.
- Monsieur Pencil - created 1831, first published 1840. An escalating series of events beginning with an artist loosing his sketch to the blowing wind and almost resulting in a global war.
- Histoire d'Albert - first published in 1845. The adventures of an inexperienced young man in search of a career. After many attempts he ends up as a journalist in support of radical ideas.
- Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame - first published in 1845. The story of a lepidopterist who goes to great lengths to replace his current lover with a more suitable one.
- Le Docteur Festus- created 1831, first published 1846. A scientist wanders the world, offering his assistance. He is blissfully unaware that disaster marks his path.
All seven are considered satirical views of 19th century society and proved popular at the time. In 1842 Rodolphe published his autobiography. On September 14, 1842 the Histoire de M. Vieux Bois was first introduced to a United States audience as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. It was published in comic book form as a supplement to that day's edition of Brother Jonathan, a New York, New York newspaper published by author John Neal (August 23, 1793 - June 20, 1876). It has come to be considered the first American comic book.
Rodolphe is considered alternatively the father or at least an important precursor to the modern art form of comics. He is also considered to be an influence to younger comic artists such as Wilhelm Busch (April 15, 1832 - January 9, 1908), creator of Max and Moritz.