The post-career road for brawny ex-pro hockey player Derek Ouelette is crushing him, but the years that came before were absolutely pulverizing. In award-winning comics artist and writer Jeff Lemire’s ink and watercolor graphic novel Roughneck, a pugnacious former defenseman can’t steer through a weekday without a drink. It’s a crippling habit for the emotionally isolated loner that leads to altercations at his corner bar as well as a stream of memories of the abusive alcoholic father who terrorized him. The weight is only lifted when his sister returns to their hometown to ask for his help. In two new comics from Lemire — Royal City from Image, and Roughneck, the first work from Simon and Schuster’s graphic books imprint Gallery 13 — the artist portrays a pair of families’ difficult pasts as well the obstacles that crowd their paths ahead.
The Ouelettes’ story unfurls beneath a small Canadian province’s smoking chimneys and ash-toned winter skies. Roughneck’s broken, broad-nosed protagonist beats a bar patron senseless in the snowy present-day fictional town of Pimitamon during a violent first act. Physical attacks here viscerally call attention to a past that Ouelette spent in the penalty box or enduring the wrath of his family’s drunken patriarch. When Lemire breaks from the comic’s subdued blue gradients and deep blacks for full-color flashbacks, we see middle-aged Ouelette’s glory days as an “enforcer,” an unofficial hockey label for a player who racks up penalties when responding to an opponent’s violence. The hockey minutia conjures Lemire’s popular Essex County, but I was also reminded of deceased Saskatchewan-born player Derek Boogaard, and not just for his given name. Like Roughneck’s similarly burly character, Boogaard was raised up north, and his time in the NHL ended while playing for the New York Rangers. The New York Times reported that he traversed Western Canada’s “dark and icy landscapes” as a kid for scrimmages before he went pro. Things aren’t nearly as tragic for Ouelette as they were for Boogaard, who died at 28 from an accidental overdose and was discovered to have had a brain disease. But just as an injury halted the pro’s career, the beating that Roughneck’s enforcer delivered on the ice ended his own.
“I was never a hockey player, Al,” says Ouelette to a family friend, mulling the dirty play that got him expelled. “I was just a thug.”
Lemire’s balding “thug” has slitted eyes and lumpy cheekbones. His boxy shoulders swallow up a full-width panel’s real estate when he’s maneuvering in and out of the book’s many small spaces. After line-cook shifts at a diner, Ouelette sleeps in a local hockey rink’s janitorial closet. His job is depicted in maddening panels that bounce the reader from a wall clock’s face to a frying pan — a nod to Lemire’s work in downtown Toronto kitchens that’s reminiscent of Mimi Pond’s Over Easy. Ouelette’s contact with others is limited to Al or Sheriff Ray, who is often tasked with arresting him for assault (or trying to — for all of Lemire’s realist endeavors, his character breaks the law and walks with ludicrous frequency). Outdoors, widescreen naturalist scenery envelopes Ouelette. He’s suddenly slight and vulnerable amid a range of black-silhouetted pines or snow-capped water towers on Roughneck’s splash pages. Al, a father figure who grew up with Derek’s beloved mother, teaches him to hunt in the still Canadian bush. Otherwise Ouelette just lingers, gazing skyward and fishing whiskey from his parka to quiet memories of his ferocious father.
When his sister Beth shows up, Ouelette pulls back on the drinking. It’s been years since they talked — after Derek shipped off to the NHL, Beth was left to fend for herself on a path that led her to homelessness, opioid abuse, and into the arms of a scruffy criminal named Wade whose red-checked flannel pops from Lemire’s primary-color palette. He differs little from their father.
“You left me,” Beth tells Ouelette. “I was thirteen and you left me alone here, Derek!”
Difficult circumstances force the siblings to hide away — out of Wade’s reach — at Al’s remote hunting cabin. There’s trouble ahead for Beth, and its related tension is paired with a reopening of fresh childhood wounds. But when she seeks out her father at his blue-collar job near Pimitamon, it feels extraneous and inauthentic. The confrontation has all the limpness of an afternoon soap opera compared to the artist’s portrayal of the decades-old trauma that Derek and Beth finally sort out at the cabin. The siblings’ austere temporary quarters are darkened with robust ink strokes and sapphire paint washes, and Lemire revisits the type of familial responsibility that bubbled to the surface in his magnificent graphic novel The Underwater Welder three years before he finished Roughneck. Tucked deep into richly visualized woods, Derek commits to shielding Beth from the kind of danger that characterized their past. But he’ll need to do it without so much as throwing a single punch.
Royal City, one of Lemire’s several monthly comics, abounds with sentimental overtones and supernatural flourishes that mirror those in The Underwater Welder. Here, the artist chronicles domestic strife and a reckoning with the past à la Roughneck. When a stroke lands their father in the hospital, the three adult Pike children and their mother grapple with a fracturing present and the traumatic years behind them. The full-color first arc of Royal City isn’t without problems, but this is only part of an already evocative drama that takes shape just within the muted facades of a small factory town’s ranch houses and riverside smokestacks.
Graying husband and father Peter Pike collapses in his workshop overnight while repairing one of the scores of antique tabletop wood-cased radios that line its organized shelves. Static, which Lemire relates as swirling smoke trails, filters out of the radio’s dusty speaker grill. It’s punctuated by the voice of a child.
The voice belongs to Peter’s son Tommy, who died when he was just 14. His ghost is integral to Lemire’s script. Tommy is drawn like a flesh-and-blood character, and for reasons that connect directly to their own struggles, each family member experiences visits from differently aged versions of his restless spirit.
Blocked author and oldest adult son Patrick Pike returns to his hometown, Royal City — and to its accompanying baggage — when he hears about his dad. He visits with a lanky version of Tommy at the age of his death and looks to him for his next novel’s source material. His sister Tara, an ambitious land developer, meets regularly with a young, pajama-clad version of their dead brother, who has a spiky crop of yellow hair. The alcoholic screw-up Pike son, Richie, is gaunt and unshaven, with perpetual troubles and lines under his eyes that lend him a look of fatigue not entirely unlike Derek Ouelette’s. Richie drinks with an older version of Tommy who never came to pass. Owing to a recent blunder, their mother Patti’s considerable guilt yields a version of Tommy as the priest she hoped he’d become, a wholesome figure to whom she looks for absolution and forgiveness.
“Priest” Tommy and his mother clutch a rosary in Peter’s dismal gray-and-algae-green hospital room. The scene follows a lush, dreamlike interlude in which the unconscious father stands on a two-page-length street corner, surrounded by building-sized replicas of the Philco vintage radios he resuscitates in his workshop. Three inset panels layered atop the big ornate consoles reveal antennas that are broadcasting Peter’s own pre-teen version of Tommy.
No family member knows of the others’ encounters with Tommy, and he’s never in the room with more than one relative. The first issue’s narration borrows from his 1993-era journal, which Patrick carries with him and mines for book ideas. Its wide-ruled pages suggest that the youngest Pike took his own life.
“Would anybody notice if I wasn’t even here at all?” Tommy writes.
Royal City’s characters feel familiar to me, and their pining for days gone by is a relatable notion, even while some of their present-day hurdles feel forced. Pat’s battles with his literary agent are well-worn clichés, and Tara’s marital discord owes mostly to her land-development proposal — one that you’d never risk a relationship over. But these conflicts accentuate the story’s notes of nostalgia and reverence for adolescence. Pat’s novel will keep Tommy’s story alive, and a reckless real estate deal would surely disrupt the unassuming suburb’s quaint aesthetic — the way they know it, the way it’s always looked. This is borne out in precise architectural details of the row homes and factory mills that spill over into the comic’s inside front and back covers.
Clad in a Nirvana shirt, Patrick “wanders the house [he] grew up in like a museum” in the fourth issue. He ponders his family’s inability to fully move on since their loss, and in impressive, abstract illustrations that open the comic, he embodies their state of limbo and his own, locked between his adult self and the “person [he] worked so hard to leave behind.” Like Derek and Beth Ouelette, Pat’s family make a go at unshackling themselves from the past, but it isn’t easy. There’s comfort for the Pikes in the years gone by — before the walls of adulthood closed in, back when they still had their baby brother.
“How old is too old to start over?” asks Pat at the water’s edge. Lemire breaks up the river’s temperate wash of purple and navy blue hues with inked squiggly ripples. “At what point does all the shit I’ve done weigh me down so much I can’t move forward anymore?”