Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Graphic Lit: Jean-Jacques Sempe

October is near, bringing changing leaves, colder weather and yet another Halloween.

This October, however, also brings us lots of Sempe, as in Jean-Jacques Sempe, the famed French illustrator and cartoonist.

Though he is well-known in his home country of France, most Americans see his work mainly in the New Yorker, where his wistful characters have graced the cover of the magazine many times over the past couple of decades.

Now, Phaidon is set to release an onslaught of Sempe material on these shores. Gag collections, stationary, children’s books — it’s all heading to a bookstore near you this fall.

Things already got under way earlier this summer, with Phaidon’s release of the “Nicholas” books ($19.95 each), a popular series of children’s books by Rene Goscinny (co-creator of Asterix) that Sempe provided illustrations for.

Also in stores right now is the delightful “Martin Pebble” (120 pages, $19.95). This coffee table-size children’s book tells of a young boy who, for unknown reasons, can’t stop blushing.

Ostracized because of this peculiarity, Martin eventually finds true friendship with another lad who can’t stop sneezing. Then what starts out as a tale about being different gently shifts gears as the youths separate, only to reunite many years later.

Lest this story sound too twee and whimsical, let me assure you that it is anything but. Sempe’s warm, vibrant drawings and knowing text make the book a pleasure for young and old alike.

Next month, meanwhile, sees the release of “Monsieur Lambert” (64 pages, $14.95). Here, a group of businessmen are perturbed when a member of their party starts showing up late at their regular luncheons. Their annoyance quickly turns to delight when they discover his lateness is because of a new love affair.

Sempe’s fondness for poking fun at middle-class foibles is in full effect here, as the gentlemen start reminiscing about their own past, fabulous love affairs. Affairs which, in all likelihood, never took place.

“Lambert” and “Pebble” are lovely, but the main treasure trove can be found in Phaidon’s release of four oversize collections of Sempe’s gag cartoons: “Nothing is Simple,” “Everything is Complicated,” “Sunny Spells” and “Mixed Messages” ($24.95 each).

These books find Sempe in his element, displaying his brilliance with pen and ink while mining familiar tropes involving psychiatrists, artists, long-married couples and urban life in general.

Often the delight in his work lies not in the gag itself but in discovering it. A two-page spread of the bulls running in Pamplona only becomes funny once you see one of the bulls has entered a nearby home and is threatening the owner. A picture of two men squaring off with pistols doesn’t make you grin until you see the two women at the top of the picture getting ready to battle it out in a less refined manner.

Of course, that’s not all. Phaidon is also releasing a number of Sempe-illustrated stationary, postcards and journals, including “From the Couch” ($14.95) a handsome hardbound journal featuring Sempe’s psychiatry-themed cartoons.

Sempe’s work is so detailed and lush that often the cartoons become art objects themselves. He often goes beyond what’s necessary to depict a joke or scene, setting up not just a gag, but an entire universe. You stare in awe at the artistry on display first, then you laugh.

Even when his humor is black, there remains a warmth, a love for humanity and life that makes his work such a treat to read. Though he frequently skirts the edge of sentimentality, Sempe never crosses over into it.

In publishing these books, Phaidon has unearthed a veritable gold mine. If you care at all about comics, cartooning or just good art, you would do well to check them out.

Also in stores

“Bardin the Superrealist”
by Max
Fantagraphics, 80 pages, $19.95.

Another extremely talented but little-known (at least here) author is the Spanish cartoonist Max. We can hope “Bardin” will be the start of more releases down the road.

The book, a surreal tour de force that echoes artists such as Bunuel and Dali, focuses on a meager everyman who is transported to a weird dimension. There, and back on Earth as well, he encounters strange creatures, heckles a jealous god and tackles a variety of nasty nightmares, sword in hand, until ... but why spoil it?

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


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