Butterfly hunters, dentists and the history of the comic book

Spiderman never knew a certain Monsieur Jabot or Obadiah Oldbuck. But if he had, he would have thanked them.

For these are the trailblazers who paved the way for Calvin and Hobbes, for X-Men and the Hulk. These are the heroes of our earliest comic books, now on display at Beinecke’s “Comic Inventions: The Pre-History of the Graphic Narrative in the Nineteenth Century,” on view through Jan. 7. The exhibition traces the development of comics from Switzerland to France to the United States.

Curator of Modern Books & Literature Timothy Young, who is responsible for this exhibition, has always been drawn to comics and graphics. With “Comic Inventions,” he hopes to disprove the notion of comics as “kids’ stuff” and to “reclaim the talent, ability, and importance of telling stories with pictures,” he told the News on Oct. 11.

At first glance, “Comic Inventions” is not impressive. The exhibition is small, housed in two glass cases on the second floor of the Beinecke. It begins with the works of Swiss schoolteacher Rodolphe Töpffer, who began comic illustration as a pet project. Encouraged by positive feedback from friends and contemporaries – including that of the notoriously grumpy Goethe, who usually opposed the graphic genre – Töpffer created characters such as Monsieur Jabot, Monsieur Cryptograme —a “comic butterfly hunter”— and Monsieur Pencil. Look closely at these caricatures, and the exquisiteness of Töpffer’s drawings will quickly prove that first glance wrong. Töpffer draws with great detail and hinges mostly on farcical, slapstick humor. Monsieur Pencil’s struggles include an unruly umbrella and the sudden eruption of geysers on his daily stroll.

Beinecke recently acquired a nearly complete collection of Töpffer’s work, which includes not only comics, but also drawings, essays regarding his technique and a fan decorated by hand with images of mystical creatures. Even Töpffer’s perfect cursive reflects his dedication to the little things: his details are miniscule, his craftsmanship beautiful. Also included is the 1845 issue of Illustration magazine, in which Töpffer’s Monsieur Cryptograme became the first serial comic ever printed.

Because of vague copyright laws at the time, much of Töpffer’s work was pirated and distributed to mass audiences, most notably in Paris. Piracy also brought Töpffer’s comics to the United States in the form of Obadiah Oldbuck, the American adaptation of Monsieur Vieux Bois. The second half of the show focuses on the trajectory of the comic genre in the United States. The exhibition’s main weakness, though, is its division, for the two cases of comics stand on opposite sides of the Beinecke’s second floor.

The American section begins with a story of Obadiah Oldbuck published in 1842, incidentally the first American comic book and the “golden fleece for comic collectors,” according to Young. The 1840s led to a proliferation of comics about the California Gold Rush, in addition to one of the funniest pieces in the show: an 1849 edition of “Ichabod Academicus,” a parody of one Yale student’s life. In the first panel, Ichabod gallops away on a goat-like creature, attempting to escape a menacing skeleton. The caption reads, “Ichabod is initiated into a secret society.” Later, Ichabod smokes his first cigar, “feels the effects,” and barely manages to attend class the next day.

The strength of the American comics lies in their variety. Young includes an accordion book by George Cruikshank on the perils of dentistry, as well as a panel displaying a pantomimed American Revolution for kids. It was not until the turn of the century, Young explained, that comic books really became the colorful, heroic stories that we know today. The 19th century saw such variation in the comic genre because “everything was sort of up for grabs,” Young said.

“Comic Inventions” handles this diversity well. Young’s selections span a wide range of tastes, subjects, and techniques. Though perhaps initially underwhelming, the exhibition proves to be a hidden gem and well worth the investment of close examination. The more you look, the more the illustrations reveal of their composition, style and effect. The display encourages us not only to look closely, but also to consider our own comic processes. It forces us to think about why we laugh, how images portray humor, and what exactly it is that we even find funny. It invites us to ponder how we define the comic genre.

“Most writers and scholars define a comic book as something in which the pictures and the words have equal weight and they cannot exist without each other,” Young told us.

Comic books connect our visual and literary expierence through the synthesis of story and illustration. We recall Young’s assertion that comics are more than just “kids’ stuff” and, thanks to Obadiah Oldbuck, Ichabod Academicus and co., we find that he’s right.

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