Belgian cartoonist Max de Radigués has recently put out a couple of critically acclaimed graphic novels in the U.S.: Moose, a surprisingly dark book about bullying and Bastard, a violent mom-and-son crime spree comic. Both are black and white, edgy fare with “indie” sensibilities similar to the work of Charles Forsman (a contemporary of de Radigués and fellow graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies). However, his latest English language release, Simon & Louise, is a brightly colored coming-of-age graphic novel for young adults that is actually more in line with the bulk of de Radigués’ French-published catalog. That's not to say this is kids’ stuff. Rather, it’s an astute consideration of the emotional differences between boys and girls and how they handle the complexities of being in a relationship.
At the start of Simon & Louise, two high school sweethearts part ways for the summer. Louise joins her parents, aunt and uncle and cousin at the beach in Montpellier in the south east coast of France, leaving her boyfriend Simon 500 km away on the south west coast. When Simon notices Louise’s relationship status on Facebook change to “single”, he texts her in a panic and she replies that her dad doesn’t approve of their relationship (in case you’re wondering, de Radigués first made this comic back in 2012 when young people actually used Facebook and relationship status changes were a visible enough feature of the platform to build a plot point like this around). Poor Simon vows to win Louise back and resolves to hitchhike his way across the French countryside to do so.
We see the Facebook breakup and its aftermath told in two parts, first from Simon’s perspective and then from Louise’s. De Radigués publishes all of his comics in serialized zine formats first, and he actually published Simon and Louise’s individual sides of the story as separate books in France, while always intending them to be eventually collected together as one book. In the first part, Simon embarks on a romantic, man vs. nature journey to win back Louise only to find her already seemingly lost to him. In the Louise section, we learn that everything we thought we knew from Simon’s point of view is far more complicated.
While Simon’s little adventure has some moments of anxiety, it’s the nuance in Louise’s story that elevate the book as a whole. Simon’s passion sends him off half-cocked into some dangerous predicaments – hitching a riding with a sexual predator, getting lost in the woods, nearly contracting dysentery – but Louise’s predicaments – making out with another boy, getting lost in the city, discovering her own inner strength – are less cliched and more interesting. She seems to learn something about herself by the end in ways that makes Simon’s own adventures seem unfulfilling.
De Radigués’ expertly clean and simple cartooning is driven by character. He focuses a lot on faces and mannerisms which he depicts with effortless simplicity, using simply dots for eyes and little triangles for noses. In the “Louise” chapter, there is a noticeable confidence to his line that comes from his evolving skills but maybe also from a preference to Louise and her story. He draws her as a recognizably real young woman with a quiet, self-effacing demeanor. Her down-to-earth vibe is in stark contrast to Manon, her fiery-red-haired cousin who instigates most of the trouble the two of them get in. The bright colors act as a significant element of the story too. Simon, all go-go-go, is dressed in a green shirt and spends his story amidst the lush, green woods. Louise, cautious and putting her relationship on hold, is dressed in yellow as she spends her time on the yellow sand beach.
The two parts of the book, with their competing point of view, are less a Rashomon-like deconstruction of the truth behind Simon and Louise’s breakup than it is an insight into the emotional differences between males and females at this age. Boys are all action with little emotional reasoning. Girls are all consideration, sometimes getting swept up by events around them. Boys try to fix things. Girls question what needs to be fixed in the first place. Boys run off with no real plan to win a girl back. Girls step back and contemplate the relationship as a whole and question their own place in it. Boys are devoted puppies running across the countryside trying to find their way home. Girls are cats, poking at their favorite toy, hoping to bust it open and see what’s really inside.
Then again, maybe de Radigués is not trying to make these kinds of generalizations about the sexes and simply has more to say about Louise. Simon’s story is made more interesting by the context and nuance that Louise’s provides, while hers doesn’t really need any help from his. Louise’s story, the heart of this book, is good enough to easily stand on its own.