After making his name with the award-winning Essex County, cartoonist Jeff Lemire moved in the last decade to superhero work for corporate publishers. (His latest books for Image, Plutona, and Dark Horse, Black Hammer, have combined both superhero genre conventions and his focus on small character moments in a hybrid of his past efforts.) With Roughneck, though, he’s returned to the closely observed tales of Canadian country life that first brought him to attention.
Derek Ouelette was a star hockey player, a bully in a field where his uncontained temper was seen as a sign of strength. But he washed out a decade ago after a particularly violent encounter, and since then, returning to his small hometown, he’s filling the role of town drunk. Then his runaway sister Beth comes back to town, fleeing an abusive boyfriend. The two of them wind up in a friend’s fur trapping shack out in the woods.
Roughneck is a substantial work, an oversized hardcover with almost 300 pages, and Lemire uses the space to take his time in laying out Derek’s moods and the encounters he struggles through. Lemire does an amazing job in staging. So much of the story is told through either conversation or wordless moments, but the panels are never boring, full of plenty of background detail and expression.
The book is full color, but only in the flashbacks, and the blood when Derek loses his temper. The current days are a bleak blue-grey monochrome, suited for the feeling of the snowbound town with nothing to do but drink and watch hockey.
Roughneck reminded me of the prototypical Great American Novel (except it’s Canadian) — a character-driven portrait of a lost soul and the life turning point that once again gives him purpose and meaning. Derek isn’t a character to sympathize with, since he brought his struggles on himself, and he has few redeeming qualities, but Lemire makes him understandable, even though many of the motivating elements are familiar to the reader, including an abusive father and a drug addiction.
I wish we’d gotten more of the same insight for Beth, who is more of a plot device than a full person, although she gets a tasty speech late in the book. Still, I liked the theme, that we are damaged by lack of connection and healed when we have others to take care of us and that we can care for.