Art Museum hosts talk on birth of comic strips

Rodolphe Töpffer: Self-portraitWho doesn’t love comic strips? These entertaining mini-narratives have become a universal language, but how did they originate?

Philippe Willems, associate professor in the NIU Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, will answer that question at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 15, in Room 315 of Altgeld Hall.

His lecture, titled “Rodolphe Töpffer and the Birth of the Comic Strip – 1820s-1850s,” is presented by the NIU Art Museum in conjunction with its Graphic Novel Exhibition Suite.

Töpffer’s French-language comedic “stories in etchings” were the turning point between the pre-1820s sequential image and the modern comic strip, Willems said.

In his lecture, Willems will examine Töpffer’s work within its historic and cultural context, including how the Genevan art critic’s novels in captioned pictures differ from previous types of serial images and the role that his parallel careers as a schoolteacher and professor of rhetoric played in the elaboration of his groundbreaking narrative system.

Willems also will showcase the humor behind these Romantic-age, hard-cover comic books and evoke how they owe their success to the most influential thinker in Europe at the time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Under the general heading of “word-and-image studies,” Willems’ research interests lie at the intersection of cultural history, semiotics, and media studies. His master’s thesis surveyed the place of the graphic novel in 20th century French culture, and his Ph.D. dissertation examined the concept of mimesis in 19th century culture and the strategies of realism deployed in the futuristic novels of Jules Verne, Albert Robida and H. G. Wells.

Willems is currently working on a book about French-language graphic literature and sequential narratives in the 19th century.

The Graphic Novel Exhibition Suite, which runs through Friday, May 25, is sponsored in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; the Friends of the NIU Art Museum; and the Dean’s Circle of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, NIU Foundation.

Call (815) 753-1936 for more information.

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