November 14, 2019

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Drawn and determined

Lemire explores Cree culture, colonialism and small-town hockey in new graphic novel

Jaime Hoge photo</p><p>Best-selling cartoonist and author Jeff Lemire combines his interests in Cree culture and the legacy of residential schools with his passion for hockey and smalls towns in his latest work, Roughneck.</p>

Jaime Hoge photo

Best-selling cartoonist and author Jeff Lemire combines his interests in Cree culture and the legacy of residential schools with his passion for hockey and smalls towns in his latest work, Roughneck.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/5/2017 (922 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/5/2017 (922 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hockey, small towns, winter and survival run through Canadian literature and popular culture. Look closely, though, and there are also the darker currents of family dysfunction, domestic violence, addiction, racism and colonialism.

Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel Roughneck takes on both the idealized and suppressed elements of our national mythology through indigenous characters and experiences.

Based in Toronto, Lemire is a best-selling cartoonist who crosses over the mainstream (he works on DC Comics’ Green Arrow and Marvel’s Extraordinary X-Men) and the more literary graphic novel. His 2008 Essex County, a graphic novel about the dark secrets, family ties and love of hockey that bind a farming community in southwestern Ontario, earned numerous awards and accolades.

Last year, Lemire teamed up with the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie on Secret Path, the graphic novel and animated true story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died of exposure while running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 1968. Lemire, who is non-indigenous, spends time in northern Ontario communities teaching youngsters and learning about Cree culture. In 2014, he introduced the first indigenous superhero to the DC Universe, Equinox, in the five-issue story arc titled Justice League United.

Roughneck combines Lemire’s interests in Cree culture and the legacy of residential schools with his passion for hockey and small towns. The setting is the fictional northern Ontario town of Pimitamon (the Cree word for "crossroads") near Timmins. The main character, Derek Ouelette, is a down-and-out thug whose violent temper flares at the slightest provocation. We slowly learn that he used to be an NHL enforcer who now suffers depression and dulls his chronic pain with pills and booze. He lives in a makeshift room in the hockey arena and works in the local diner.

The story begins when Derek’s drug-addicted sister, Beth, runs away from an abusive boyfriend and enters Derek’s life again, shortly after he is in trouble for yet another fistfight. Their childhood friend, Ray, now the town police officer, arranges for the siblings to go out to a hunting cabin in the bush for Beth to detox and Derek to stay out of trouble. The cabin’s Cree owner was a childhood friend of their mother, a residential school survivor who died in a car crash while fleeing her abusive husband.

As the story unfolds, Derek and Beth come to terms with their troubled pasts and work through their individual, family and collective traumas. By the end, Lemire suggests they have both chosen better paths for the future by reconnecting with their Cree heritage and each other.

Lemire’s signature scratchy backgrounds and expressionistic caricatures emphasize the characters’ deep yet unspoken feelings. He is expert at pacing, taking time to unfold key moments slowly and balancing these more meditative sequences with action-packed flashbacks to hockey games. Past and present often collide on the same page as the characters relive memories and traumas.

There are also sequences of visual surrealism, such as jail-cell bars that morph into birch trees as Derek recalls happier times and a stray dog who haunts Derek wherever he goes.

Although Secret Path and now Roughneck are being well received for their masterful cartooning and depiction of residential school experiences, they also raise questions about cultural appropriation and the politics of representation. Lemire has a genuine desire to use graphic narratives as part of the reconciliation process and he works with indigenous advisors who support his efforts.

At the same time, numerous indigenous cartoonists (including Winnipeg’s David Alexander Robertson) are telling indigenous stories in comics and picture books to much less fanfare and publicity.

Social media rumblings about this situation and criticisms of Lemire’s tendency to depict indigenous characters as victims and martyrs — albeit within his usual pantheon of traumatized and damaged characters — cannot be ignored. If the Canadian public’s embrace of Lemire’s graphic novels about indigenous characters paves the way for indigenous cartoonists’ works to become more widely known and celebrated, all the better.

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.

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