Jeff Lemire has now become my favorite creator making comics today. While I think most people would agree that his artwork is pretty darn good, lately his writing has been what has drawing me in. This is not to say he has never been a strong writer, but because of the quality of his artwork, it feels like his talents as a writer and storyteller get overlooked sometimes. His Marvel work was one of the few bright spots of their line every month, and the first issue of his new Image series Royal City was a great debut. So, I had pretty high expectations for his original graphic novel Roughneck, the debut graphic novel from new imprint Gallery 13 from Simon & Shuster.
It is a return to the type of storytelling we got from him back in his Essex County days, small town, personal stories that are both heart-breaking and surprising hopeful at the same time. Roughneck is the story of a former hockey player named Derek Ouelette, an enforcer on the ice who wrestles with retirement and anger issues while drinking himself into oblivion. Now living in his hometown of Pimitamon, he lives above his childhood hockey rink, and spends all of his time in the bar and getting into fights with the locals for things as small as wanting to take pictures with him. Everything changes one day when his long-lost sister Beth shows up unexpectedly one day on the run from her abusive boyfriend and asking for help. When it turns out she is also now addicted to drugs, they head out to a secluded cabin in the woods to confront themselves, their complicated past, and try to get ready for the inevitable confrontation with Beth's ex.
Right from the first page, Lemire's art provides the perfect visuals for a story like this one. The dull, grey tones really make the town and its people feel downtrodden, and I loved the use of color as a way to portray the violence in the book as well. It made all of the times that someone got hurt in the book feel even more sad and depressing. I felt unnerved whenever Derek would be standing there, covered in red blood, blank expression on his face like he didn't care at all what he had just done. And the violence is quite a sight to behold, very visceral. You feel every punch, you feel every bruise. As always, Lemire's art is visually stunning. He has a way with expressions that few artists these days can match. The slighest sneer or the biggest smile leaps right off the page.
What really stood out to me and turned this into a page turner were the characters themselves. I found myself feeling very attached and rooting for Derek right from the start. As each new revelation about his past with his family is revealed, your heart breaks more and more for him as you realize he just never stood a chance not turning into the person he is with the upbringing he faced. Doubly-so for Beth; I love the scenes of her when she was a child, at first ignorant to what is happening in front of her eyes, and then slowly the monster that is her father hardens her to the world and she spirals out of control. It all builds to an ending that you do not see coming at all, but I respect him for making the choice that he does make. It fits the story very well. I love the no frills approach all around, and Lemire really proves that he can deftly pen and type of story and make it memorable.
This is one of his best efforts all-around. From a story-telling standpoint, from an artistic stand-point, and from an emotional standpoint. Lemire can do pretty much anything, and you should join him on this journey.
Roughneck, written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, from Gallery 13 is available today.