Exploring Life After Hockey and Family in Jeff Lemire's Roughneck

Sometimes the lessons from our childhoods are the hardest lessons to unlearn. When he was a kid, all Derek really learned from his father was how to be a sonovabitch, a lesson that served him well as an enforcer in the NHL until he went too far. Instead of having a long and fulfilling career playing hockey, Derek now spends his days as a short-order cook and his nights getting drunk, watching hockey, getting into bar fights and barely avoiding spending the night in jail in the town he grew up in. Jeff Lemire’s latest book Roughneck shows a man trying to live his life by a toxic masculine code that was handed down from generation to generation.

When Derek’s sister Beth returns to their hometown, it’s not so much that she brings trouble with her (which she does) but that she gives Derek another chance to be a brother and part of a family. But Derek doesn’t even really understand what that means. Both Derek and Beth carry some serious emotional damage with them that was inflicted on by their cruel father that caused them to leave home as soon as they could, one through hockey and one running away when there was no other alternative. Lemire is often interested in how people’s past shapes who they are now but Roughneck is all about that as Derek and Beth are such products of their hometown that, for better or for worse, everyone’s natural actions are to protect and shelter them.

What’s striking in this book is just how quiet and still Lemire lets it be. It’s the cold stillness that you can only experience during or right after a snowfall when the rest of the world is wisely inside and warm but you’re not. Lemire seems comfortable letting his drawings tell the story. Without getting the details, you can see both Derek’s hardness toward his world which melts to a protective tenderness when Beth re-enters his life. As always, Lemire’s characters carry the weight of their world in their faces and on their shoulders, allowing Lemire visually tell his stories through the narrative transformations of Derek and Beth.

As this brother and sister try to run away from their past, it’s no wonder that they end up in their hometown where it all started. This return to their childhood home hasn’t been any kind of return to childhood for them. Derek is haunted continually by his own failed hockey career as people keep trying to get his picture or measure their own toughness in comparison to him. When Beth shows up, she’s on the run from an abusive boyfriend and quickly falls into old habits that force Derek to be brotherly. And the only way he knows how to do that is to beat up the men who are hurting Beth. That’s the one and only lesson Derek ever learned from his father; let your fists do your talking for you.

So everything that’s happened in Derek and Beth’s lives have led them back to their childhood home, the people they knew when they were kids and a chance to make all the old mistakes again. While Lemire’s storytelling is really evocative and compelling, the story itself feels very basic as ultimately this is a story about characters with daddy issues. Even the events of their lives feel very afterschool special-like as the choices that the characters make don’t really challenge themselves or the readers in any illuminating way. Roughneck is laced with a lot of potentially interesting avenues he could explore but for some reason or another, Lemire doesn’t have the room to really delve into any of them.

Jeff Lemire’s Roughneck is an ultimately average story that’s full of some great comic storytelling. Lemire’s story is solid but there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in any of these kind of stories before. As he moves through the paces of this story, Derek and Beth’s paths feel very plotted out because we’ve seen this type of story before about adults who never really learned how to be anything but their parent’s children. Lemire’s cartooning continues to dazzle. There’s no one else who shapes the story visually the way that he does. Roughneck’s story just doesn’t have the narrative weight behind it to keep up with its storytelling.