Throughout the 1930s, Lynd Ward created long-form “silent” novels that used only woodcut illustrations, in sequence, to tell a narrative. In his case, he acknowledged his predecessor Frans Masereel, but their work lacks most of the apparatus—speech balloons, panels, modern concepts of layout design, the interplay between words, images, and elapsed time—that makes up the grammar of comics. Other artists—Rodolphe Töpffer (the Swiss pioneer of the comic strip) in the 1840s, William Hogarth a century before that—basically created the long-form comic, in formats that were ultimately not taken up en masse. Oodles of children’s books, including pop-up books, could be characterized technically as graphic novels, in that the text and the images complement each other. In the mid-20th century, the French and the Belgians produced graphic novels (48-64 pages)—think of Tintin and Asterix—but these were serialized before being collecting in book form.
It’s not until Will Eisner’s 1978 book A Contract with God consciously called itself a “graphic novel” that the form became standardized. Contract, though, is a sort of aberration, given that it consists of four loosely-connected vignettes about 1930s tenement life in the Bronx, rather than a singular narrative. Art Spiegelman’s Maus further legitimized the form—though it, like Tintin, was too originally serialized.
Despite the aforementioned caveats, Contract more or less created the template for the graphic novel—stand-alone story not connected to previously existing characters; a tendency to veer away from pulp-fiction genres; a length substantially longer than the 24-page pamphlet; in a predominantly vertical trim size similar to a regular book. The most important distinction is that graphic novels have taken the structural form of comics, and not any of the other attempts to combine text and image that percolated before 1978.
Among these attempts was Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Monsieur Lambert in 1965. His wispy, whimsical line captures the foibles and pretensions of middle-class people in quick strokes. Sometimes, he draws a full background, but more often he gives us just enough to suggest the full contours of a place, as if his pen were a spotlight illuminating a chosen corner of an otherwise dark room. He shines that light, almost always, on the perfect spot that displays the telling, funny detail.
The famed French cartoonist and New Yorker cover illustrator primarily works in single-panel cartoons, not comics.
Monsieur Lambert is, in a sense, no different. Each page consists of variations of a single scene—the interior of the restaurant Chez Picard, populated by its regular customers. The image is crowded by speech balloons that give us context. To the left, a group sits at a long table, arguing politics, specifically whether or not the Left is in decline since 1936. In the top middle, Monsieur Cazenave dines alone, hurriedly, much to the consternation of the waitress Lucienne. Two groups of three sit—one group seems animated and jovial, while the group nearest to us (in terms of Sempé’s slightly titled, birds-eye perspective) eats every day in silence. To the right, there’s a group of four, discussing soccer. This is Lambert’s table. Although each gentlemen (and there’s all men except for Lucienne) dresses about the same, our eyes immediately go to Lambert. He’s younger, thinner, and has more hair than all the men around him.
Each page’s image has a caption underneath it. The caption comments on the action above it, in the first-person plural. Even so, we know that the speaker is a member of Lambert’s table—Sempé sets him off subtly by his dark, shaded jacket; everyone else, Lambert included, dresses in white.
An example: Early on, we realize that Lambert’s most notable by his absence. When he breaks the routine of the everyday lunch by not showing up—and thus also breaking up the repetition of images—everyone wonders why. His first no-show causes the lunchtime crowd to bring on a cascade of speech balloons, crowding the frame: “Isn’t Lambert coming? That’s funny…” “What have you done with Lambert?” “I hope he’s not unwell?” Only Lambert’s table of friends is silent. Turn the page, and they respond: “He never said a word to us. Well, actually, we didn’t ask him…” says one. Another proclaims, “We don’t like to be nosy about our friends’ private lives.” The third is even loftier: “That’s what friends are for…”
Underneath the two images, however, lies a subtle truth. The running caption reads: “Of course, Lambert’s absence didn’t go unnoticed. However, we were able to field the rather pointed questions easily enough… after all our little group is well known for its profoundly liberal attitude. This made us feel Lambert’s worrying absence even more acutely.”
The caption thus works simultaneously with the page’s image (as a propulsive element, moving the narrative along through the eyes of one of its characters) and against it (as a contradiction, providing thoughts that contradict what we’re seeing). Unlike most children’s books, the illustrations, speech balloons, and captions often work against together, as counterpoints, or running two parallel lines of thought that only initially seem unrelated.
Lambert’s absence is benign. He’s found a girlfriend. Knowing this, the dry joviality of the bistro seems a little sad, a little hermetically sealed. These men get together every day for lunch out of friendship, but also out of loneliness. They discuss the same old things every day with slightly different variations and know each Monday what they’ll be having to eat. Lambert’s out there chasing a woman and living life to the fullest.
When he’s there, Lambert regales them with tales of his beautiful girlfriend, which sets off stories about the older men’s romantic escapades. When Lambert’s gone, the love/sex talk continues. All of this occurs within the above image despite the captions’ insistence that football and male camaraderie are the primary topics of conversation.
The drawings are marvelous, reflecting the same-old-same-old (but delicately varied) conversations that we get scene after scene. Despite the fact that each image takes place in the same bistro, and that the restaurant is seen from the same angle, Sempé inserts sly details—the ever-present cat, a single-line curl of smoke from a cigarette, the minimalist but exact facial expressions, the portions of background shown and hidden—that differentiate between the images.
Still, the images are basically static. The variations and winsome but slight and, without the captions (telling us what day it is, what today’s menu is), each one could be a stand-alone variation of the same image—a sketchbook of a bistro. (Indeed, the narrative is bookended by Chez Picard’s menu.) The speech balloons settle almost on top of each other, and it’s not always clear from their layout that everyone’s not speaking at the same time. That’s part of Sempé’s point about conversation in restaurants—the talk overlaps. Still, it’s clear from how we’re expected to read the book that it is an illustrated novella, a graphic novel that is not quite a comic.
We see this a lot, as previously mentioned, with children’s books. But Sempé’s model didn’t catch on, and there’s not a lot of adult graphic novels of its kind. Monsieur Lambert is a quiet, small gem, but also a somewhat lonely one.