Review time! with ‘Roughneck’

“Just last night, I was reminded of just how bad it had gotten and just how sick I had become”

Jeff Lemire has been on a bit of a streak this year, as he drew (probably mostly in 2016) A.D. After Death, which is excellent, he’s writing Black Hammer, which is quite good, and his latest series, Royal City, is amazing (I know he’s written other stuff, too, but I can’t list them all!). Now he adds Roughneck to the list, his graphic novel that is published by Gallery 13 and costs $29.99 for a nice, thick hardcover.

As you might recall, I’ve been a fan of Lemire for a decade, since I read the first part of Essex County, but he’s awfully prolific, so I don’t read everything he does and occasionally I don’t love what he does. I’m actually a fan more of his long-running series more than his graphic novels, because he is able to let the characters breathe a bit in his serials, rather than trying to wrap everything up in one book. I liked The Nobody and Underwater Welder, for instance, but I don’t love them. But I still wanted to read Roughneck, because it sounded like something more in the vein of Essex County and Royal City. Aren’t you glad I let you into my thought processes?

Its length allows Lemire to get into the characters a bit more, so we really get to know Derek Ouelette and his sister Beth and even the ancillary characters in Roughneck. Lemire tells the story slowly and deliberately, and we get into the mood of the comic quickly and find it hard to get out. It’s a long book, true, but Lemire knows the value of wordless panels, so a lot of the book has very little “sound” – either ambient or vocal – and we can linger on every detail of the artwork, making the experience immersive and gripping. The book is set in northern Canada, and Lemire is Canadian (although I don’t know where he grew up; he lives in Toronto), so it feels like he knows the landscape very well. The isolation of the town of Pimitamon (which is fictional) is an easy metaphor for the isolation that both Derek and Beth feel before and even after they reunite, but it works because Lemire doesn’t just use it as a metaphor – it’s a real town with real people in it, and as Derek and Beth rebuild their relationship, Lemire slowly shows that the town, though isolated, is crucial to their lives as well. Again, it’s not the most original idea in the world, but because Lemire puts the time in, it’s a powerful mirror to what’s going on with Derek and Beth.

There’s nothing shocking about Roughneck, and that’s really why I don’t love the book more than I do. Derek is a washed-up hockey goon, living in the janitor’s closet in Pimitamon’s hockey rink and working as a line cook at the local diner. He has an anger problem, so he’s always punching people when he gets drunk (which is all the time) and getting away with it because the sheriff is a childhood friend. His sister shows up with a drug problem and an embryo, and her abusive baby daddy isn’t far behind. Derek is convinced to go into the woods to chill out for a while after his latest assault, and he takes Beth to sober her up and hide out from the boyfriend. We learn about their childhood, which, needless to say, wasn’t pleasant. A family friend brings them food and teaches Derek a bit about his Indian (on their mother’s side) heritage. The boyfriend, naturally, tracks them down, and Derek feels like he has to confront him. The ending is inevitable and inexorable, and we can see it coming a mile away.

So why is this any good? Well, Lemire’s plot might not be anything to write home about, but the way he gets through it is gripping. Lemire knows the value of silence, as I noted above, and he also knows the value of words, so he doesn’t overuse them. Every conversation in the book feels fraught, as if the weight of decades is behind these characters, pushing them to places they don’t want to go but can’t resist. Lemire doesn’t dwell too much on the abuse Derek and Beth suffered when they were kids, but that only makes it more ingrained in their characters and informs the way they live their lives. When Beth gets angry at Derek for leaving her for the greener pastures (such as they are) of hockey, it’s illogical but makes sense from her point of view, being the younger child and having to stay with an abusive father. Their father’s rage seeps into their lives, and Lemire does a wonderful job showing us this without letting the characters know or care too much about it. The characters are in pain, and it’s obvious to us, but they don’t know how to get out, and that makes the story, as predictable as it is, sadder than it otherwise would be. Derek and Beth aren’t bad people, but as Lemire unspools the threads of their lives, we see how they made terrible choices that brought them to this desolate town in northern Canada. He does such a good job with the characters that when they reach the end and the inevitable happens, we still appreciate how difficult the steps they take are and how much it hurts to take them. The book is powerful in spite of its plot, not because of it.

Part of this, of course, is because Lemire draws the book as well as writes it. By now you should know whether you like Lemire’s style or not, and he doesn’t do anything different there, but as I noted above, he understands the power of wordless panels, and the art helps that immensely. One theme he uses throughout the book is a panel showing only the feet of his characters, as they trudge through the snow. He adds a small “crunch” sound effect to those panels, which is supposed to be quiet (the lettering is generally small) but which echoes in the quietude of the isolation. We see mostly snow boots, but one character wears slicker boots, placing him apart from the rest of the book. The “crunch” of the boots on snow helps create a sense of silence and unease, while also showing how separated these people are from both the outside world and even the others in town, as they need to walk everywhere thanks to the deep blanket of snow. Naturally, he makes the people look beaten up by life – Derek has a sloppy buzz cut and a mashed-up face, Al (their mom’s friend who supplies them) has scraggly hair on his head and face, Ray the sheriff looks older than he is, Wade (Beth’s boyfriend) is skinny and skeevy, and Beth has unwashed, flippy hair. Lemire does amazing work with their eyes and mouths, as they’ve all seen too much pain in their lives, and Beth and Derek, especially, carry that with them. When they remember what their father was like and what their mother had to do to get away from him, we see it in their eyes. Lemire gives them a casualness when they speak that shows their sibling relationship, without forgetting that they have problems with each other even if they still love each other. The book is full of nice details about the town, making it feel real, and Lemire has a good feel for the forest, as well, so that Derek and Beth feel even more isolated when they go out there. He paces the book well, with long, beautiful scenes punctuated by violence, which we know is coming but never when and even from whom (even though it’s usually Derek, it’s not always him). His art creates those beautiful pages, but Lemire is also quite good at ugly violence, so when it comes, it feels visceral and angry. He uses watercolors, so the sky is not just blue, it’s stained blue, and the mournful quality that gives it settles on every scene. Lemire colors the present blue (with some crucial exceptions), which matches the melancholy tone, and he uses “regular” colors for the flashbacks, which even though they show some of the violence Derek’s and Beth’s dad perpetrated, it’s still a “happier” time, and the tone is definitely different for the flashbacks, as if both Derek and Beth, despite the hardships they were living through, had some hope. As I usually say with Lemire, if you don’t like his art style there’s nothing else to say, but if you look at the way he uses his art, you can see that he really does some cool things in his comics.

Ultimately, Roughneck isn’t quite great, but it’s still pretty darned good. Despite its predictability, Lemire gets us through the plot with gripping writing, and we’re always on the edge of our seats even though it’s such a quiet book. Lemire knows what he wants to do and tells the story in a way that pulls you in, dazzling you with his haunting art and keeping you engaged with the characters even as you feel the inevitable pull of the end. It’s a powerful book nevertheless, and it’s worth a look.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

As always, if you’re interested in this book, you can get it at the link below. If you’re not interested in this book, you can do some shopping through the link below and it’s still good for me! Thanks!

3 Comments

  1. Rantel

    Regarding Lemire’s origins, he actually grew up in Essex County (a real place, believe it or not), which is in fact the southernmost point in all of Canada (it’s adjacent to Detroit). He may have spent some time up north researching this book, but he’s not from there.

  2. Simon

    Nice art, though strangely not in full-color throughout as was advertized? (And apparently following the Disney-Warner formula of very few panels a page so as to artificially double page count and price?) But surely this overpriced mousetrap will land the library?

    – “her abusive baby daddy”

    Her baby’s abusive? And he’s her daddy? Ain’t that pushing hick inbreeding a little far? …Oh.

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