Veteran cartoonist still has his edge

For somebody whose renowned cartoons have made millions of people laugh, Jean-Jacques Sempe, quite paradoxically, has a stern look in his eye. But the impression of a seemingly inpenetratable man gradually fades and is replaced by the kind of character you could expect to associate with «Petit Nicolas,» the highly popular cartoon series created by Sempe in the 1950s. Despite his age, the 75-year-old likes to poke fun and cast a sharp look on everyday life. His curiosity is as alive as ever. The renowned French cartoonist was recently in Greece for the preparations of an exhibition at the Nees Morfes gallery (which ends tomorrow). Well-dressed and tanned following a few days on Hydra, he agreed to an interview with Kathimerini. Born in 1932 in Bordeaux, Sempe is an entirely self-taught artist. He went on to establish himself as a cartoonist with work appearing in some of the world’s best-known publications, among them the New Yorker, Punch, Paris Match, and Express. Sempe has published numerous books. Despite the years, his drawing pen remains zestful and rebellious. «I didn’t expect to be so well-known in Greece. I admit that I’m impressed,» said the cartoonist, who first visited Greece 35 years ago to sketch the Acropolis for a foreign newspaper. His work, which carries distinct childlike innocence, freshness and universal appeal, has been translated and published in many countries. Sempe’s cartoons are based on simple yet intelligent ideas that quickly spring to life. «I began working as a cartoonist when I was 17, but decided to join the army because I couldn’t find work very easily,» recalled Sempe. «So I never got any specialized training, which I consider to be necessary for the profession’s know-how – knowing about paper qualities and inks. Despite all that, I managed.» Simply being able to draw well does not suffice, Sempe noted. For a good cartoon, he explained, sketch and idea need to go hand in hand. «I’m often asked what talent is. The truth is that I don’t have a clue. Most times, you can pick up on lack of talent, but not talent itself. In cartoons, the most difficult part is inspiration – to feel propelled to create humor,» Sempe explained. «As you know, these days people are less humorous. Sometimes, when I come up with a joke to a bunch of people, I’m looked at strangely. [Humor] doesn’t annoy me. Humor these days is under threat because we’re no longer self-satirical… Turning the arrows of humor against yourself is a sign of health and humbleness, but not necessarily self-awareness. The older I get, the more I realize how little I know myself,» he added. One thing that Sempe is absolutely certain of is that, during this seventh decade of his life, he remains a child. Extremely undisciplined at school, Sempe was eventually expelled. «I haven’t lost my character’s rebellious nature,» he said. It is the duty of a good cartoonist to steer clear of self-censorship, said Sempe. «The cartoonist has got to be rude, subversive, and needs to stick his or her tongue out at the establishment. That’s rare these days. I see it in my younger colleagues, who are declining in numbers as time progresses,» said Sempe. «A few good ones have popped up in the USA, but I think our species is gradually headed for extinction,» he added. Sempe directly links self-censorship with efforts to maintain a conservative political correctness in society. «A year ago, I was in Nafplion and was interviewed by a Greek journalist,» he said. «We were talking about children’s books that I’ve published, and he asked me for my opinion about today’s youngsters. I told him that when I was a kid I got spanked frequently by my father and that I deserved getting most of it. He was so shocked by my belief that spankings serve well that he considered me to be a fascist. I realized this when the ensuing article was translated for me into French by a Greek friend. What should I have done, avoided being honest to not be misunderstood?» On a wider level, political correctness, Sempe said, has become a dominant force in France. «Things aren’t as obvious as they are in the USA, but more discreet. The crucial aspect is that everybody practices self-censorship from their posts and social positions,» said Sempe. «I’m often criticized for cartoons I did 40 years ago, because when illustrating masses, I’d use only white characters and not a single black. But, 40 years ago, we didn’t have any immigrants in Paris. And if I did use a few colored individuals, it would have looked like I was stigmatizing them. This is all just hyperbole,» he added, while noting that he was neither interested in politics nor correctness. «In my career, I never focused on current affairs. I haven’t entirely turned my back to the scene, but I consider it absurd for somebody to try and deal with everything. I was always interested in things that occupy mankind eternally,» said Sempe. Feeling indifferent to the news of the day, Sempe said he seeks his inspiration from alternative sources. «I sit at my desk for days,» he said. «I start feeling despair and begin to think that I’ll run out of money to live on. But if I insist, I’ll come up with something by the 10th day. I know that something will come to my mind, but I don’t know when. I’m definitely sure that watching television won’t generate ideas. I think that, because of television, the process of Americanization is progressing more readily. Human relationships are drying up. We’re also turning into caricatures. The speed of thought and assimilation is increasing dangerously. Most times, our opinions of reality are based on TV. That’s what happened in France during the uprising in the suburbs last October. People panicked over what they saw on television. In May, 1968, Paris burned in front of my very own eyes and everybody else’s, but nowhere did I observe such fear and panic as I did in last year’s coverage. «The more people are scared, the more appealing [conservative] politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy will be. They won’t vote for him because of all that he says, but because he offers comfort to citizens terrorized by what they see on television. Even music today terrorizes – the intensity, density, and distortion. Cartoons, on the contrary, are a popular means of expression, but not populist. That’s why their existence is so useful in our era.» Jean-Jaques Sempe, at the Nees Morfes gallery (9A Valaoritou, Athens, tel 210.361.6165).