Jeff Lemire has forged himself a fascinating career in comics. He’s spanned mainstream comics such as X-Men series and Bloodshot at Valiant Comics through creator-owned work like Sweet Tooth and Plutona through to bona fide graphic novels such as Underwater Welder and his latest mainstream work, Roughneck.
Like much of Lemire’s non-genre work, Roughneck takes place deep in the vast Canadian wilderness, a seemingly endless landscape of snow and solitude in which footprints scrunch on the permafrost, a “snow machine” is as necessary as a car, and people believe the vast wilderness will allow them to run away from their troubles. But as Lemire reminds us in this heartfelt and moving volume, no matter how far someone tries to run from their problems, their past traumas continue to haunt them.
Roughneck takes place in tiny Pimitamon, a remote First Nations village deep in the Canadian wilderness. Former hockey player Derek Outlette lives a quiet life there, brawling his way through alcoholic nights and haunted of his lost potential and broken family life. One thing Outlette never expects is the reappearance of his long-lost sister Beth, who fled the small town for the mixed glories of big-city Toronto. Beth returns to Pimitamon on the run from an abusive ex-boyfriend, who journeys north to find his fellow heroin addict, fists ablaze all the way.
The story plays out in much the way you might expect, though with a few very interesting twists along the way and some intriguing character growth. But the plot of this book is less important than the world Lemire creates with his characteristically austere art style. Much of Roughneck takes place in the vast isolated north country, a place of deep solitude in which a person can run away from their big city troubles but never quite escape the problems inside their head.
Lemire delivers the setting with just a handful of small strokes – small groves of hardscrabble trees that emphasize the snowbound vast emptiness of the spaces in which people scramble to survive, and the endless, bleak snow that covers everything like an all-encompassing shroud. The desolation of the landscape matches the desolation the characters experience, emphasizing the all-too-human terror of drug withdrawal and of the lack of true human connection that many people feel.
The landscape Lemire presents is both symbolic and realistic. He presents the impression that terrible thing can happen in the middle of nowhere, that no matter how strong a person is, they might never be able to halt the pain that distorts their soul. Lemire emphasizes this theme with a wonderfully moving conclusion, in which the reader is shown that transcending violence, allowing the good graces of personal growth to occur, can provide green shoots of budding growth amidst the dark wasteland of a broken human soul.
Jeff Lemire has had a fascinating career in comics. No matter what genre he works in, he seldom forgets the most important element of his story. He always puts interesting and realistic-feeling characters at the center of his stories. This tale of tiny Pimitamon presents a small handful of characters who feel like tropes. He gives us a washed-up hockey player, a small-town drug abuser, an innocently friendly police officer – but under Lemire’s steady hand, each of these characters become their own fully fleshed-out selves.
Roughneck is a gritty graphic novel, full of marvelously desolate landscapes and wonderfully interesting characters. Like Lemire’s best work, it sticks in your mind and does not let go.