Comic Inventions: The Pre-History of the Graphic Narrative in the Nineteenth Century. Oct. 10 -- January 7, 2012. Beinecke Library.

Comic books actually began as comic tales. The man who started it all was a Swiss schoolmaster named Rodolphe Töpffer, son of a painter, who began in the 1820s to create serial panels depicting the buffoonery of several characters: Mr. Pencil, an artist, Dr. Festus, an adventurer, and Mr. Cryptogame, a butterfly hunter. Töpffer's work inspired a response to the new form from no less an eminence than Johann von Goethe, the grandest of grand German geniuses, who found the work delightful even though he was no fan of caricature. Goethe's benign comments on his manuscripts encouraged Töpffer to produce Histoire de M. Jabot (Story of Mr. Jabot) in 1833, using the printing process autography which allows the artist to draw the images without reversing them for printing as lithography does.

It's with this first comicbook that the Beinecke's small but delightful exhibit begins, displaying as well other examples of Töpffer's productions through the 1830s and 1840s such as Mr. Crépin and Mr. Vieux Bois (or Old Wood). Just like modern newspaper comics pages, all are done in strips of narrative panels, drawn in Töpffer's spidery drawing style, comical and exaggerated, a poor man's Daumier. Töpffer's Mr. Cryptogame was the first comic strip to be serialized in a magazine—called Illustration—in 1845. The large panels of the magazine show better production values than Töpffer's individual comics and are quite striking; other impressive works in the exhibit are Töpffer's Zig Zag, an illustrated travel chronicle, and Benjamin Roubaud's Scipio Africanus, the second comic to be serialized, about the travels of the famed Roman statesman. There are also pages from the series of "albums Jabots" produced by Charles Philipon of the illustrated daily Charivari, ripping off Töpffer despite the latter's notice of 1836 against pirated editions of his work. An extra treat is a page from the final Philipon production, showing the early comical work of a teenage Gustave Doré whose incredible draftsmanship is already apparent.

The exhibit continues in a second display case with the fortunes of Töpffer's work in England, where Mr. Vieux Bois was pirated by George Cruikshank, the brilliant illustrator of Dickens, and translated into English as Obadiah Oldbuck, in 1841, and then in the U.S. in Brother Jonathan, the first American comicbook. A few pages from Cruikshank's The Bachelor's Own Book, lampooning the social pretensions of Mr. Lambkin (1844) show rapid improvements on Töpffer's format. The idea of panel narratives amusing readers with foolish action and spastic drawings may have originated with Töpffer but there's no end to the productions that follow in his wake. Not to be missed: a work which may be the first original (as opposed to a Töpffer rip-off) U.S. comicbook: The Experience of Ichabod Academicus, a caricature of a type of local fauna that is still very much with us, in panels such as: "he makes his maiden speech; he is initiated into a secret society; he smokes his first cigar, and feels the effects"—the latter a nice image of puking.

Other works on display that give us a feel for how comicbooks developed, independently of newspapers and illustrated magazines, are an accordian book produced by Cruikshank, Tooth-ache (1849), and, in the 1860s, modern paperback size books of jokes and droll stories, both examples depart from the typical comicbook format of 40-80 bound pages, oblong in size so that the narratives can stretch across the page.

No political caricatures appear in the exhibit; the earliest form of comics seem content to mock recognizable social types doing the kinds of things we all can laugh at, much as we do Dilbert or Garfield—one large panel book shows the misadventures of a Garfield-like crow where every comeuppance is a little rhymed lesson. It seems even comics should better us somehow.