The cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe is a little like Brigitte Bardot or Charles Aznavour. He's a national institution who has acquired an almost universal appeal by remaining quintessentially French. His precise, elegant drawings are often set in a Paris that even Parisians dream of: a city of mansard roofs, high windows and wrought-iron balconies, where all the cars still look like Deux Chevaux or 1950s Citroens. Dwarfed by their surroundings, his figures — smallish men, balding, a little portly, with big noses and tidy little mustaches, their double-chinned, nicely coiffed wives in polka-dot frocks — are Gallic Everymen, dignified and put upon at the same time, in the way that only French people can be. They nevertheless speak to the international human plight: the Thurberian power struggle between men and women, the daily need to keep up appearances, the unending cycle of tiny victories and middle-size defeats.
Sempe, now 74, has been drawing this way since the early 1950s. Some of his newer cartoons have timely references. There are several involving cell phones, for example, and one, a dig at the doping scandals always hovering over the Tour de France, showing a little old lady shooting up before pedaling her bike along a steep country road. But most of his work is timeless, set in a mythical and changeless present, and even an expert would have a hard time distinguishing one decade's drawing from the next.
Phaidon Press, normally a publisher of high-end art books, has recently embarked on an ambitious program of reissuing, or in many cases publishing in English for the first time, much of Sempe's extensive oeuvre. The project came about more or less by accident when the company's owner, Richard Schlagman, attended the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of years ago, hoping to acquire from the French publisher Denoel the rights to a book about the English artists Gilbert and George. But his eye kept wandering, he said recently, to some images at the back of the booth. They were Sempe drawings, and though Schlagman barely knew who the artist was, he wound up making an offer for virtually his life's work.
This month Phaidon is bringing out Martin Pebble, a children's picture book; Nicholas Again, one of a series of children's novels Sempe illustrated for Rene Goscinny, who later created Asterix; Monsieur Lambert, a 1965 graphic novel set entirely at a little bistro called Chez Picard, where the same men gather every day to dream and to lie about the three great French themes of sex, politics and soccer; and four volumes of collected cartoons. Dating from 1962, 1963, 1999 and 2003, these collections in effect bookend Sempe's career, and, taken sequentially, their titles add up to a lyrical little precis of the Sempe way of looking at things: Nothing Is Simple, Everything Is Complicated, Sunny Spells, Mixed Messages.
Ruddy and white-haired, Sempe is more vigorous than his cartoon alter egos. He is also more intrepid about traveling, and was recently in New York, a city he loves to visit, and draw, precisely because it is so different from Paris.
"Paris is kind of gray," he said, speaking both in English and in French. "Here the light is stronger, and everything is more colorful." The people were different too, he added. There were more of them, and they were much more various. "The most interesting thing is just to watch the people in the street," he said. "Nothing is more fun."