Highs and Highs


Jean Jacques Sempe

Sweetness is poison. There is probably not a more horrible epithet to throw at any modern artist -- in any field. The word conjures up fields of Hallmark sentiments draped in saccharine emotion and as light as a souffle rapidly collapsing. In short, sweetness sucks. Big time.

But, in fact, the problem is not with sweetness as an emotion per se, but with the absolute difficulty, almost impossibility, of delivering it in a fresh, meaningful -- real way. It's too easy to fake, and there's too much easy money to made doing so. To deliver true sweetness, it has to be laced with tragedy, with a hard edge, and with supreme craft.

When it comes across -- it is remarkable. And anything but Hallmark. One could argue that Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" embodies sweetness. Or Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane." Spike Lee's early short films were sweet -- in this impossible fashion. Mozart. Parts of Sedaris. Eggers.

All of which is a rather long pre-amble to the new book of cartoons (really more conceptual drawings, but who's counting?) by the venerable French cartoonist (artist -- but who's counting?) Jean Jacques Sempe, Highs and Lows. These drawings are sweet, and hard, and real, and irreplaceable. Thanks to Phaidon for taking on the task of republishing this work for America. This particular collection was first published in France in 1970. It is testimony to Sempe's artistry that, despite being almost 40 years old, these picture stories have not aged. The first thing the book slings is delight. And then, each time you dip back into it, for a page -- or a whole perusal (once you flip one page, it's almost impossible to not sit down and finish the whole book) you are lifted, provoked, shocked a little.

That is the power of good sweetness.

It could take hundreds of pages to describe exactly how Sempe energizes his simple images so, if you even could. But a few observations must be made. A: the ideas are stunning, fresh, eternal ironies. You can get a smile from a mere description:

* a man is at home with his wife, bored, watching TV; he excuses himself after a while to sprint across town with abandon, only to join his mistress at her apartment and -- watch TV.

* the panorama of hundreds apartment house windows revealing all manner of parties, dinner parties, conversations, cocktail parties wherein the inhabitants are all lamenting the fact that conformity will spell the end of civilization.Irony, with a capital I. 

Where these finely honed ideas really take off, however, is when you combine them with the Frenchman's magical line and the sweep, the scale of his work. So we have Sistine Chapels of fine squiggles, universes of ant-like humans, the expansive scope of the world -- all bearing down on the individual. The image on the glorious cover hints at what's in store: a man inching across a tightrope in the sky, his world right behind him -- as close to Fellini's 8½ as we're ever likely to see short of the film itself.

This part, the drawing part, the line part -- this is a taste, like food. You can't really get it through a description. You can't really get it from a plastic internet screen -- or even virtual Kindle paper. You have to hold this in your hands and marvel at it. At least I had to. - Ken Krimstein

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Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.