One of the best writers and artists in the medium, Jeff Lemire’s latest graphic novel, Roughneck, is sure to be one of the best of the year. With the recent tragic deaths of Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche in Portland at the hands of a white supremacist, Lemire’s narrative of sacrifice feels even more timely and necessary.
Roughneck tells the story of Derek Ouelette, a former NHL player forced out of the league for his violent conduct. He returns to his hometown in rural Canada, where he works as a short order cook and drinks his nights away at a local dive bar. When his estranged sister Beth returns, she unearths memories of their violent upbringing, a cycle to which she is falling victim all over again. Determined not to see Beth follow their mother’s path, Derek intervenes in a surprising and redemptive way, putting his life on the line for hers.
Though set in the rural Canadian tundra, Lemire’s Roughneck is a universal story of love, loss, addiction, violence, and generational trauma. The First Nations background of its characters adds a layer of depth to the narrative but doesn’t undermine its broader appeal. The frigid nature of the environment heightens the narrative’s grittiness and the sense of communal and individual desperation. Lemire captures all of this in sparse, beautiful watercolor.
Pop culture often does a good job of portraying (and contributing to) the cyclical nature of violence and its prevalence in our communities. Few content creators have the wisdom, vision, or guts to imagine a different way. With Roughneck, Lemire has done just that. In a world seething with anger and escalating verbal and physical violence, Lemire has dared to remind us of the self-sacrificial and salvific nature of love, if indeed love is what it will take to save our world. It’s not pretty or, least of all, safe and probably looks more like two dead men on a Portland bus than much of what we see in film or on television or hear from our pulpits.
Roughneck (Gallery 13) is a brilliant mixture of ugliness and beauty, despair and hope, with a conclusion that is both satisfying and true.