Wednesday, May 3, 2017


by Jeff Lemire

I've been a fan of Jeff Lemire's work since I first read his Essex County trilogy, and I really feel like he's returned to his roots, only as a better cartoonist, with Roughneck, his latest project.

Set in the town of Pimitamon (which means 'crossroad' in Cree), a fictional community in Northern Ontario, Roughneck digs into one man's relationship to his family, childhood, and the source of his anger.

Derek Ouelette played professional hockey for a short time before being kicked out of his league and returning home, where he seems to split his time between working at the same diner where his mother used to work and getting into drunken bar fights with tourists who recognize him.  Derek's world is pretty small - he is friends with the local ranking OPP officer, Ray, and that has kept him out of jail for a while now, and with Al, an older man who lets him live in the janitorial room at the local hockey arena.

Derek's sister, Becky, who he hasn't seen since he originally left town, shows up one day with a black eye, a drug habit, and some other surprises.  This book is, from that point, about the re-establishment of a fractured family.  His story brings in elements familiar to Northern Canadian communities - alcoholism, domestic abuse, opioid addiction, the legacy of the residential school system, and disconnection with traditional ways of living.  At the same time, it also weaves in the importance of connecting with the land, and the strength of familial bonds.

This is a very mature work from Lemire, who I imagine, got the idea while visiting Northern communities in preparation for his (short-lived) run on Justice League United at DC, which featured DC's first Cree superhero.  There is a definite understanding of these communities evident here, but also a strong sense of character that propels the story.

Artistically, this is definitely one of the best things that Lemire has ever done.  His pages and panels are expansive and broad, and he allows the landscape, and the characters' relationship to it, to tell much of the story.  There are a few pages that are quite touching, such as when Al takes Derek hunting for moose, and his use of colour, which is limited to a blue wash with red highlights unless the scene is a flashback, adds much to the comic.

I'm not really sure how I feel about the end of the book, but I also can't say much about that without spoiling the story.  I just feel like it might not have been fully justified, although I did enter Derek's confrontation with Becky's ex with trepidation.

While Lemire has received a lot of attention lately for his Secret Path project with Gord Downie, this is by far the stronger graphic novel, and will likely turn up on many best-of lists at the end of the year.

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