Monday, February 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #43: Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

There are at least two Jeff Lemires. One is the writer of big superhero adventures -- I hear good things about him, from people who actually enjoy big superhero adventures, but I don't expect to ever meet him. Another one writes and draws comics about damaged people in Canada (Essex County, The Underwater Welder, The Nobody), and that's the Lemire I know pretty well. You could say, I guess, that there's a third Lemire, who tells stories of other kinds, somewhere in the middle -- the Lemire of Trillium and Sweet Tooth and Descender and Plutona -- and that one combines the strengths of the two extremes of Lemire. You could say that.

But what I have here is a book by the pure second Lemire, a book deeply Canadian, set in a small town way out in the cold and the emptiness, about a big palooka who used to play hockey and his kid sister who used to not be a junkie. Roughneck is a book about a lot of "used to be"s.

Derek Oulette is from a little town "up north" called Pimitamon -- "The Pit" to locals. To the north of it somewhere is a First Nations reservation where Derek's mother came from, a ways to the south is Timmins, which isn't much bigger than The Pit. All around is snow and pine trees and wildlife and snowmobile trails, and not much else. Derek got out of there young, away from an abusive father, to play hockey for the Rangers for a few years -- but, even there, he was "never really a hockey player...I was just a thug."

As Roughneck begins, he's back in The Pit, slinging eggs in the local greasy spoon and spending his evenings trying to drink quietly in the one bar in town. But there's always some yahoo who wants to get a rise out of the ex-pro, and it's really easy to get a rise out of Derek. The only reason Derek isn't in jail is because he lives in a small town where everyone knows everyone, including the cops.

And then one day Beth comes back -- Derek's younger sister, fleeing an abusive relationship of her own. They haven't seen each other for more than a decade: Beth ran off to Toronto not long after Derek went into pro hockey, both of them somewhere in their teens. And they're both pretty damaged, by their horrible father and what happened to them after they got away from him.

But Roughneck is the story of how they get beyond that. Derek does not have to be a roughneck. Beth does not have to be a junkie. Their horrible father does not have to define them.

Lemire tells this story mostly in muted blue-green tones, as chilly as the world he's drawing. Memories and flashbacks bring more color, to set them apart. The people all have Lemire faces: beaten down (or up) by life, lined and seamed, usually gigantic noses. This is a rough world he's writing and drawing about. But the message of Roughneck is that you don't need to be rough yourself to get through a rough world -- and that's a good message to hear.

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