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Cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé turns 85

Torsten Landsberg ct
August 17, 2017

Cartoonist and children's book author Jean-Jacques Sempé created his own world far from the traumas of childhood for his protagonist "Nicholas." The master is now 85.

Jean-Jacques Sempé
Image: picture alliance/dpa/IMAV editions Goscinny-Sempe

The artist in search of perfection is seldom pleased with his work. That is likely why Jean-Jacques Sempé wasn't being coy when he once said that his work was rarely fun for him. "In my images, I only see flaws," the illustrator told the German newspaper Süddeutschen Zeitung in an interview.

Jean-Jacque Sempé, the cartoonist and children's book author turns 85 on Thursday, used his drawings to create a new world for his protagonist, little Nick. In the books, Sempé composes cheerful motifs with moments of fine-tuned irony. That's especially transparent in the figure of the young boy with a devilish grin who, adorned in a school uniform replete with tie and knee-high socks, symbolizes a longing for a carefree life.

Yet these stories have little in common with reality, said the artist, neither can their inspiration be found in life. "You always have to make them up," said Sempé. In little Nick, Sempé projects his ideal, cloaked in his character traits.

Read more: Man of few words: Cartoon Illustrator Mordillo turns 85

Creating other worlds at 12

Illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé signing books
At 12, Sempé had already decided to only draw worlds in which people were happyImage: picture alliance/dpa/MAXPPP/BEP/T. Laurent/Sud Ouest

Jean-Jacques Sempé grew up in Bordeaux - a childhood he looks back on with a critical eye. There was constant arguing; his mother slapped him, his father had a problem with alcohol. At school, Jean-Jacques daydreamed, creating other worlds that he began sketching at the age of 12.

It was soon clear that he wanted to bring happy people to the page. After being kicked out of school, he made the decision to leave his home behind as well: Sempé falsified his date of birth to make himself older in order to join the military in Paris. That he would at some later point make his sketches into a career was something he admits could only happen because of his limited abilities elsewhere. He simply could not have done anything else meaningful, he thought.

And he turned out to be quite successful with his cartoons. His books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into 30 languages. His works have appeared in publications like Paris Match and the New Yorker. Large sheets of paper with his drawings on them have sold for thousands of euros.

A breakthrough at 20

A drawing of little Nicholas, about to dive in
An iconic figure - and not only in FranceImage: Goscinny/Sempe/Diogenes Verlag

The first story of "Petit Nicolas" (as Nicholas is called in the French original) was published in March 1959 in the regional newspaper Sud-Ouest. Just like his creator, Nicholas is not good at school. He puts everything else outside of school first.

Sempé himself has said that his thoughts are constantly elsewhere. In Nick, he was able to put to words those things he had dreamed about as a child: beatings that don't hurt and arguments that don't end in separation. The text itself was written by René Goscinny, author of the Asterix series, who died in 1977.

The stories are a refuge for Sempé as well as for his readers. In the 2011 book "Enfances" (Childhoods) the master gives a peek into his formative years. "I don't know if anyone could say they had a happy childhood."

Read more: German illustrator Wolf Erlbruch receives top award for children's literature

Sempé's own marriage fell apart and he had little contact with his own children. "Being human demands an enormous amount of fortitude," he said, speaking of the difference between art and reality.

He smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, as Parisian artists do, and is said to be anywhere from reserved to difficult. Another passion of the "comic genius," as US composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein has referred to him, is music: Sempé listens to bebop and admires jazz greats like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

The difference between art and reality

Jean-Jacque Sempé (left) with René Goscinny
Jean-Jacque Sempé (left) with René GoscinnyImage: DR

In 2009, in honor of the 50th anniversary of little Nicholas, a live-action film version of the cartoon hit theaters. Nick's figurative father marked the occasion with new drawings of the little hero - the first in decades. And that, despite the fact that he had just two years previously suffered bleeding on the brain after a skiing accident that resulted in a months-long coma. He had to learn everything anew: walking, talking, even sketching.

At the beginning, he taped his fingers together to prevent the shaking in his hands from impacting his sketches. Later, he used his left hand to guide the index finger of his right. Nevertheless, these limitations are not recognizable in his work.

Even today, Jean-Jacques Sempé sits at his drawing board in a studio above the roofs of Paris and draws. He believes he himself is not an exacting observer - yet his works display his tremendous attention and ability to not get wrapped up in the past.

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