Rough Age
by Max de Radiguès
One Percent Press

I remember seeing the movie Gregory’s Girl in high school and enjoying it fine, but also being a little put-off by the portrayal of teenage boys as being clueless at best and just plain dumb at worst in regard to romance. In the movie, girls are like gods, like the Wizard of Oz, manipulating everything behind the scenes to such a degree that the boys don’t know that they are being steered into specific relationships. This aspect of the film seemed to give girls that I knew the license to knowingly smirk about it, which, I think, is more what I was reacting to than the movie itself.

I eventually realized the movie was basically right. For the time anyhow. I have no idea if it’s portrayal rings true 40 years later, though.

Rough Age reminds me Gregory’s Girl in that way. Following a group of teenagers though a series of interconnected vignettes, de Radiguès paints a picture of pining. Clueless pining. And it’s aimed at girls, or more specifically the idea of girls, which is wrapped around more direct pressures like passive-aggressive masculine bullying between the boys that treat physical interaction with the girls as trophies to be paraded around during private moments between them. A kiss is a bragging right, and these are routinely pulled out in contests of one-upmanship that attempt to mask the vulnerability that the girls are all too aware of but the boys have no clue the girls are actually aware of.

The simplicity of de Radiguès’ cartooning plays to the deadpan humor within Rough Age, realized through the interaction of an ensemble of kids grappling with their places inside the social circle. The boys focus on whether girls like them, the girls spend some time with that, but have other things to think about, including maintaining friendships with boys that the boys invariably want to make more of.

There’s just enough plot running through Rough Age to keep up some drama, which usually leads to comedic calamity, and de Radiguès prefers to keep it all on its own terms rather than make larger statements about the situations and actions involving his characters. Rough Age is about 10 years old now, collected from a series of min-comics, and while it feels like we are eons away from a world where charming, humorous comics about the romantic cluelessness of teenage straight males feels very necessary.

At the same time, the work itself is solid and de Radiguès’ intuition in his portrayals, and his fluid understanding of body language as a part of a character and slapstick as the result of the emotional and the physical coming together in a way that undercuts any unintentional self-importance, was as skilled a decade ago as it is now. And if he’s covering territory that’s been gone over and over through decades of Archie Comics and eventually given crucial dimension through works like Freaks and Geeks — and, of course, Gregory’s Girl — he does so with his own rhythm and originality, and the work fits in with the best of these coming-of-age studies.

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