Saturday, 10 June 2017

Roughneck by Jeff Lemire Review

Derek Ouelette is a has-been hockey goon. Thrown out of professional hockey for allowing his rage to get the better of him, Derek lives in a small Canadian town spending most of his time surly drunk and picking fights with anybody. When his estranged junkie sister Bethy drops by, pregnant and addicted with a shiner from her drug-dealing boyfriend, the two must confront their shared past trauma together to find their future.

Yeah, fucking grim, eh? Roughneck is also Jeff Lemire’s best book in years.

Lemire entered comics with a fine debut in Lost Dogs but rightly made his name with the Essex County trilogy, a series of quietly compelling slice-of-life dramas strongly imbued with the character of his native Canada. They’re still my favourite Lemire comics and, after many years since then working for Marvel, DC and Image producing books of, ahem, varying quality (“Extraordinary X-Men” – what an ironic title!), I’m delighted that he’s returned to the style and genre of storytelling that he’s best at so successfully with this book. It’s probably because Roughneck could easily be a lost chapter to Essex County that I enjoyed it so much. That said, you needn’t have read anything by this guy before to appreciate it by itself – Roughneck is a standalone.

Lemire slowly peels back the layers of the story masterfully, introducing us to our thug protagonist and then showing us how he came to be, gradually making him a real and sympathetic person. Taken by themselves, the story is full of dramatic clich├ęs – the deadbeat father, the drinking, the regret, the strained family relationships, abuse of many kinds – but Lemire skilfully combines these aspects, reconstituting them into something unique here. The beats of the story, the juggling between the past and the present, is brilliantly handled, effortlessly draws you in, holds the attention and is never boring.

I really liked the two small ambiguities subtly woven into the narrative that are left up to the reader’s interpretation: the dog who seems to haunt Derek could simply be a wild dog but could also represent his dead mother’s spirit, his spirit animal (he’s half-First Nation Aborigine), or something else – a representative of his true self? And the ending: did he die after all that or did he survive? The beauty of that ending though is that it doesn’t really matter; either way Derek found peace at last.

Roughneck also has some of Lemire’s finest art yet. The book is full of splash pages of gorgeous rural landscapes filled with moody, piercing watercolours that perfectly complement the tale, switching to full colour for the vivid flashbacks to match their intensity.

I loved it. It’s a sad but wholly satisfying and unputdownable read by an enormously gifted creator at the top of his game. Whatever my opinions on his work-for-hire, when it comes to his own books like Roughneck it’s undisputable that Jeff Lemire is a true master of the art-form, a powerfully original and singular voice and one of the most talented storytellers working in comics today. Roughneck is his latest masterpiece and easily one of the best comics of the year.

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