Sempé, famous for “Le Petit Nicolas” and front page pictures on The New Yorker, opened France’s premier comic book festival. Getting the man who doesn’t like to be associated with the genre was a big coup for the organisers.
The guest of honour at this year’s Angouleme comic book festival is Jean-Jacques Sempé, creator of “Le Petit Nicolas” whose unique and startling cartoons have graced the covers of The New Yorker since 1978.
Comic books and graphic novels are a very big deal in France. They occupy huge sections of most bookshops, and pride of place on bookshelves across the country.
The annual “BD” (Bande Dessinée, literally “Drawn Strip”) festival at Angouleme, running since 1974, is the genre’s holy of holies.
Speaking to a rapt audience at the opening of the festival on Thursday, Sempé explained how he first fell in love with east-coast America on a visit in 1965.
The artist was totally unknown in the US at the time. In France, he was famous for his artwork in “Le Petit Nicolas”, a children’s book written by Asterix author René Goscinny and which first appeared in 1959.
Sempé also fell in love with The New Yorker. The weekly magazine, a high-brow intellectual publication dedicated to politics, culture, art as well as high quality cartoons, has been in print since 1925.
But it would be more than a decade before Sempé’s pictures would grace the pages of this cultural icon of the American media. His aristocratic sense of humour, the elegance of his forms, and “Monsieur Lambert”, the trademark “gentleman” featured in many of his pictures, appealed to the editors.
His first front page on August 14, 1978, was a memorable picture of a bird with a human head, wearing a bow tie and sitting on a high New York building, contemplating the city beneath.
Nothing to do with comics
Over the next three decades, The New Yorker would publish many scores of Sempé’s unique pastiches on life in the “Big Apple” – capturing scenes in Central Park, the sky scrapers of Broadway, the contrasting images of a flautist or ballerina set against the stark background of the gritty city. There are recurrent themes and characters of birds, cats and especially bicycles (a firm favourite owing to Sempé’s days as a cycle courier).
Despite these ties, Sempé was never tempted to settle on the other side of the pond. “I can barely speak their language,” he admitted. “And I don’t sit there drawing scenes in front of me, I do it all from my studio, from memory.”
Sempé believes his pictures are neither cartoons nor comic strips, in fact, he hates being associated with the “BD” genre. Ironically, this is why his presence centre-stage at Angouleme is such a coup for the organisers.
He prefers to call his works “stories-in-a-picture” and compares them to the jazz music he loves. “What jazz and humourous pictures have in common is that they suggest so much”, Sempé said
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