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The World According to Sempe
posted December 31, 2003
 

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Creator: Jean-Jacques Sempe
Publishing Info: The Harvill Press, $25, 128 pages, 2001
Ordering Numbers: 1860468845 (ISBN)

In his introduction to Jean-Jacques Sempe's attractive hardcover collection The World According to Sempe, Independent columnist Miles Kington argues that the cartoonist's work is distinguished mainly by its degree of visual thoroughness. One may laugh at a Sempe cartoon, or find it rueful, or simply enjoy it on its merits as a drawing, but one is always exposed to the artist's ability to build a world through accumulation of detail. Kington's observation aptly describes one of Sempe's most admirable qualities as a cartoonist. It also provides a first step in understanding the artist's sense of humor, and through it his way of seeing the world. Introductory essays should always be this insightful.

Sempe's choice to build his cartoons so meticulously isn't an affectation of style but a explicit strategy utilized by the artist to bring about an intended effect. He certainly seems capable of telling stories in a direct, simplistic manner when required. The volume reprints several pieces featuring characters in stand-alone jokes against an empty background, standard gag cartoon pieces. Additionally, Sempe is probably best known to comic books as the artist behind the Le Moustique and Pilote feature "Le Petit Nicolas," with stories by Rene Goscinny. The "Nicolas" stories were popular with fans in France, but have also long been a favorite of North American French-language students who appreciate the humor, the familiar kid-strip settings and the appealing art. Many of those stories seem to have been told using a very familiar and relatively conservative panel-to-panel approach.

The work in this volume is more of a kind with the bulk of Sempe's cartoon work for French magazines and the North American cartooning and illustration showcase juggernaut The New Yorker, where Sempe has been published on a frequent basis since his 46th birthday in 1978. That magazine has given Sempe a lucrative outlet in his long autumn as a world cartoonist, and he in turn has given it some of it classiest and most delicately realized work. In terms of what he chooses to depict, Sempe frequently hews a line close to the traditional humorist. He focuses on moments of irony drawn from out underlying assumption that things will work out. He draws good-natured people suffering unfortunate setbacks, and bad-natured people celebrating moments of selfish and undeserved victory. Some of this he does through the well-worn technique of using the caption to throw new light on what has been depicted through the art. But the best cartoons realize their full comic effect only when all the verbal and visual evidence is on the table. In these cartoons it might be the punchline that comes through on the initial scan, but the rest of the joke has to be built one tiny detail at a time -- this empty chair is part of the set-up, while this person's expression adds poignancy. It's an enjoyable way of reading humor because your appreciation deepens, and your smile grows wider, with every new discovery. There is often a great deal of work that the reader must do. Sempe uses large landscapes, multiple figures, and details within these settings in a way that a less assured artist wouldn't dare for fear of losing their joke. The tiny, telling moment in a sea of visual splendor isn't just a cartooning technique for Sempe, it's his way of depicting how life usually works: in throwaway moments against a grander canvas, where things become significant only as we notice them.

There are a couple of other story modes on display in the collection. A few pages are largely abstracted drawings near which is placed a longer block of text that reveal character and express loneliness rather than attempt to make a joke. These are compelling pieces, although they would work better as variations on a theme than as stand-alone moments in a battery of more humorous observations. Some of the work collected in The World According to Sempe is simply cartoon drawing. These include some of the best individual pieces in the volume, particularly one lovely painting of a bicycle race as it winds through a town. Although various profiles seem to make a big point of Sempe's lack of formal art training, his drawing is extremely expressive and the non-representational work is never confusing. Even when Sempe is working in extreme short-hand, as in an amusing cartoon about a crowd paying attention to a speaker behind them that uses little angles to depict most of the heads, the clear staging aids the initial survey for meaning while the drawing itself holds up to sustained study.

An attractive book assembled by British Random House division Harvill, this sturdy volume is well priced at $25 and will make a solid addition to anyone's comics library. In fact, it's the type of book that once it goes out of print will likely cost more used than it did new. Sempe may work in a minor storytelling key as compared to other cartoonists of his equivalent skill. No one is likely to have his personal outlook changed by a brief exposure to Sempe's art, or remember an individual observation for long after the book is placed back on its shelf. But the elegance with which Sempe cartoons, the balance he finds between individual detail and evocative whole, makes his work worth every long moment it takes to fully appreciate it.

Originally published in The Comics Journal #258image

Title: The World According to Sempe
Creator: Jean-Jacques Sempe
Publishing Info: The Harvill Press, $25, 128 pages, 2001
Ordering Numbers: 1860468845 (ISBN)

In his introduction to Jean-Jacques Sempe's attractive hardcover collection The World According to Sempe, Independent columnist Miles Kington argues that the cartoonist's work is distinguished mainly by its degree of visual thoroughness. One may laugh at a Sempe cartoon, or find it rueful, or simply enjoy it on its merits as a drawing, but one is always exposed to the artist's ability to build a world through accumulation of detail. Kington's observation aptly describes one of Sempe's most admirable qualities as a cartoonist. It also provides a first step in understanding the artist's sense of humor, and through it his way of seeing the world. Introductory essays should always be this insightful.

Sempe's choice to build his cartoons so meticulously isn't an affectation of style but a explicit strategy utilized by the artist to bring about an intended effect. He certainly seems capable of telling stories in a direct, simplistic manner when required. The volume reprints several pieces featuring characters in stand-alone jokes against an empty background, standard gag cartoon pieces. Additionally, Sempe is probably best known to comic books as the artist behind the Le Moustique and Pilote feature "Le Petit Nicolas," with stories by Rene Goscinny. The "Nicolas" stories were popular with fans in France, but have also long been a favorite of North American French-language students who appreciate the humor, the familiar kid-strip settings and the appealing art. Many of those stories seem to have been told using a very familiar and relatively conservative panel-to-panel approach.

The work in this volume is more of a kind with the bulk of Sempe's cartoon work for French magazines and the North American cartooning and illustration showcase juggernaut The New Yorker, where Sempe has been published on a frequent basis since his 46th birthday in 1978. That magazine has given Sempe a lucrative outlet in his long autumn as a world cartoonist, and he in turn has given it some of it classiest and most delicately realized work. In terms of what he chooses to depict, Sempe frequently hews a line close to the traditional humorist. He focuses on moments of irony drawn from out underlying assumption that things will work out. He draws good-natured people suffering unfortunate setbacks, and bad-natured people celebrating moments of selfish and undeserved victory. Some of this he does through the well-worn technique of using the caption to throw new light on what has been depicted through the art. But the best cartoons realize their full comic effect only when all the verbal and visual evidence is on the table. In these cartoons it might be the punchline that comes through on the initial scan, but the rest of the joke has to be built one tiny detail at a time -- this empty chair is part of the set-up, while this person's expression adds poignancy. It's an enjoyable way of reading humor because your appreciation deepens, and your smile grows wider, with every new discovery. There is often a great deal of work that the reader must do. Sempe uses large landscapes, multiple figures, and details within these settings in a way that a less assured artist wouldn't dare for fear of losing their joke. The tiny, telling moment in a sea of visual splendor isn't just a cartooning technique for Sempe, it's his way of depicting how life usually works: in throwaway moments against a grander canvas, where things become significant only as we notice them.

There are a couple of other story modes on display in the collection. A few pages are largely abstracted drawings near which is placed a longer block of text that reveal character and express loneliness rather than attempt to make a joke. These are compelling pieces, although they would work better as variations on a theme than as stand-alone moments in a battery of more humorous observations. Some of the work collected in The World According to Sempe is simply cartoon drawing. These include some of the best individual pieces in the volume, particularly one lovely painting of a bicycle race as it winds through a town. Although various profiles seem to make a big point of Sempe's lack of formal art training, his drawing is extremely expressive and the non-representational work is never confusing. Even when Sempe is working in extreme short-hand, as in an amusing cartoon about a crowd paying attention to a speaker behind them that uses little angles to depict most of the heads, the clear staging aids the initial survey for meaning while the drawing itself holds up to sustained study.

An attractive book assembled by British Random House division Harvill, this sturdy volume is well priced at $25 and will make a solid addition to anyone's comics library. In fact, it's the type of book that once it goes out of print will likely cost more used than it did new. Sempe may work in a minor storytelling key as compared to other cartoonists of his equivalent skill. No one is likely to have his personal outlook changed by a brief exposure to Sempe's art, or remember an individual observation for long after the book is placed back on its shelf. But the elegance with which Sempe cartoons, the balance he finds between individual detail and evocative whole, makes his work worth every long moment it takes to fully appreciate it.

Originally published in The Comics Journal #258