Jeff Lemire’s latest graphic novel, Roughneck, is a beautifully illustrated backdrop to a troubling story that Canadians, sadly, have seen played out so many times. Set in the fictional Northern Ontario town of Pimitamon, Derek Ouellete is a ‘has-been’ hockey player battling his demons from a troubled childhood and hockey career as an ‘enforcer’. While being a ‘thug’ during his career was his role, using his fists in his civilian life has become his mode of communication and the patience of the local constabulary is running thin.
The story accelerates with the arrival of his sister Beth, who has clearly been on the wrong end of her boyfriend’s punch. Having escaped from Pimitamon to the urban lights of the big city as a teenager, Beth has lived a life unknown to her friends and family back home. As Derek discovers, Beth is also struggling with addiction and when a crisis point is reached, old friends help Derek to get Beth to a safe place to begin the withdrawal process and hopefully, her healing journey. Both Derek and Beth need to unravel a harsh upbringing in order to have any chance of finding peace in their hearts and minds. Together and apart, they piece together the harshness of their childhoods and with the strong bond of sibling love between them, manage to start looking at the world in a different way.
The thread that breaks and binds the relationships in the tale is the Indigenous blood both Derek and Beth possess, a gift from their maternal side.
The artwork is stunning, eloquently and quietly communicating this unfolding drama without the overuse of dialogue. You feel the intense desperation that has gripped both Derek and Beth as they face their demons. Even something as simple as walking on a snow-covered road is brought to life vividly. Jeff Lemire is a master of the graphic novel genre!