Like most readers, I was first introduced to Jeff Lemire through his Essex County trilogy, in which the Canadian comics writer and artist told a series of interconnected stories set in Canada’s southernmost province. For his latest, Roughneck, Lemire takes readers much further north—into a small, snowy town miles from anywhere, where ex-hockey player Derek Ouellette suffocates his sorrows by drinking and fighting. It’s a bleak, chilly story of muted but undeniable emotion, and a return to form of sorts for Lemire, who’s dabbled in mainstream comics with stints on well-known characters like DC’s Green Arrow and Marvel’s Hawkeye.
His entire upbringing, Roughneck’s Derek has been taught that he’s good at only one thing: going berserk on the hockey rink. When his pro career ends and it’s time to step off the ice, he’s emotionally stunted, relying on his fists to deal with problems. One day, his younger sister Beth turns up unannounced in his small town. The siblings haven’t seen each other for years, and they have some reckoning to do with their shared family history. Beth is on the run from a violent ex-boyfriend, and in the throes of a crippling addiction to painkillers. The two also have to confront the memories of their difficult upbringing, at the hands of a violent, drunken father and a Cree mother whose heritage the children have not absorbed into their lives.
Although there’s punching, this is as far as you can get from a wham-bang comic book. Roughneck reads more like a terse, sad novel, with Lemire’s panels exhibiting a mournful beauty. Boots crunching through snow are one of Lemire’s repeated visual motifs, and his panels are daubed in frost-white and bruise-blue, turning simple lines and strokes into quiet, sorrowful winterscapes—you’ll want to put on a sweater after glimpsing just a few pages.
Roughneck’s emotional undercurrent is not quite as engaging as its visuals, although Lemire tells his story carefully and lovingly. The character arcs are uncomplicated, even predictable—Derek’s life would be much better if he stopped punching people, and Beth needs to quit drugs. And yet Lemire finds resonance in these familiar plot lines, mostly through the patient understanding in his art and the snow swept landscape he expertly depicts. Roughneck shows how time can be as numbing as ice, and the importance of keeping blood pumping through your veins—through movement, through love, through growth. Otherwise, you’ll freeze in your tracks.
by Jeff Lemire