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Books The all-star: With Roughneck, Jeff Lemire shows why he’s one of Canada’s best storytellers

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The all-star

Jeff Lemire, seen in his Toronto studio, says he loves ‘bouncing between things,’ as evidenced by all the projects he’s working on at the moment.

Jeff Lemire's comic books are beloved by both fanboys and the literary crowd. This week he published his first graphic novel in five years, Roughneck, the harrowing tale of a former NHL enforcer. Mark Medley faces off with one of Canada's best storytellers – in any medium

The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs, and Jeff Lemire is ecstatic. All right, the team is technically still one agonizing point away from clinching a spot, but Lemire, sitting in his east-end Toronto studio on a rainy Thursday morning, is giddy with possibility. He's been talking about comics for the better part of an hour – specifically his just-released graphic novel, Roughneck, about a ruined former NHLer – but it's only when the conversation turns to his favourite team that the soft-spoken, 41-year-old cartoonist breaks into a silly grin, his voice quivering with the fervour of a diehard fan.

"It's been incredible," says Lemire, who has tickets to the final home game. "It's the thing I've been waiting for since '93."

He's played the sport his entire life – not well, mind you, but "I'm not the worst guy." He's an all-purpose forward on the famed Flying Burritos of the GTHLA – the Good Times Hockey League of the Arts, a Toronto beer league lousy with writers, musicians and artists, in which Lemire has been playing since he was a line cook working the night shift at a local Tex-Mex joint (thus the team name) and not one of the biggest names in contemporary comics.

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"Hockey is my only escape from comics," he says. "All I do, all day, is comics, every day. It's the one time I shut that part of my brain off and do something else."

It's not hard to believe. His studio, which is part gallery and part comic-book store, is evidence of the breadth and depth of his work, which ranges from contemplative coming-of-age stories to complicated space operas: shelves crammed with books and collectibles; the walls overtaken by original art, not only by Lemire but artists he's collaborated with and friends in the industry; drawers crammed full of plastic-wrapped comics; multiple desks, depending on whether he's drawing or writing. "I love bouncing between things," he says. "It's kind of gotten addictive. I always want more stuff all the time."

The walls of Jeff Lemire’s Toronto studio are covered with artwork from other graphic novelists.

It's reached a point where one wonders how he meets all his deadlines. Lemire writes several monthly titles, including Thanos, Moon Knight and Old Man Logan for Marvel Comics, and recently collaborated with the singer Gord Downie on Secret Path, a graphic novel based on Downie's record of the same name, about the death of residential-school student Chanie Wenjack, a book that has sold close to 100,000 copies since being released last October and that has introduced his work to a whole new audience. His work has reached The New York Times bestseller list, and a number of his books are being developed for film and television.

This week, Lemire published his first standalone graphic novel in five years, Roughneck, about a down-and-out hockey enforcer living in small-town Northern Ontario. It explores many themes readers familiar with Lemire's sizable body of work will recognize: history, family, alienation and, of course, hockey. With Roughneck – along with another new monthly series, Royal City, which debuted in March and tells the story of a fractured family dealing with the death of one of its members – Lemire has returned to his creative roots, stepping away from the capes and cowls of his superhero work and other genre fare and toward the "grounded" storytelling of his breakthrough book, Essex County. Both are intelligent, deeply mature works, and show why Lemire is a writer whose work appeals to both "traditional comic-book fanboys" and "the literary crowd."

"They're two different audiences, and I've been lucky that I can straddle both worlds, and be successful in both," he says.

Lemire was able to quit his day (night) job and devote himself to comics, full-time, in 2008. Like any other creative industry, cartooning is precarious employment at the best of times, but Lemire has managed to make a good living doing it. While he works with the big players, Marvel and DC, for cartoonists of Lemire's stature, it's much more lucrative to concentrate on "creator-owned" titles for the likes of Image Comics, which publishes Royal City and Descender, his sci-fi epic following the adventures of a young android named TIM-21 in a universe where his kind have been outlawed. Lemire gets a page rate when working for Marvel and DC, a standard fee depending on the length of the book and royalties once a book passes a certain number of units sold; on the other hand, Image handles printing, distribution and marketing costs, and once they've earned back those costs – roughly 4,000 to 5,000 copies – all profit goes to the creators. (The rule of thumb is a buck a book.) The first issue of Royal City sold 30,000 copies; Descender, which he produces with artist Dustin Nguyen, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in various forms.

While Lemire works with big players, Marvel and DC, it’s more lucrative for him to focus on ‘creator-owned’ titles.

"Not everyone can sell a creator-owned book," Lemire says. "Image publishes dozens of books every month, but there's only a handful of us that are actually selling really well. I'm lucky – my name sells books."

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It wasn't always this way. While Lemire self-published his first book, Lost Dogs, in the fall of 2005, he didn't achieve prominence until publishing Essex County, a trilogy of interwoven graphic novellas that rank among the best books – comics or otherwise – to come out of Canada this century. (It hit the mainstream when it was selected for CBC's Canada Reads in 2011, although it was the first book voted off, a choice bit of irony considering the public broadcaster is currently adapting the book for TV.) The stories – about a lonely comic-book obsessed boy and his uncle; a pair of former hockey players, both brothers and rivals; a middle-aged country nurse bringing comfort to the residents of her farming community – were rooted in Lemire's own childhood, in Woodslee, Ont., in the countryside east of Windsor.

"I had a fairly lonely childhood," he says. "I was a kid who loved art and comics and movies, and was surrounded by factory workers and farmers who had nothing in common with my interests. I had sisters, but I had really no one to share that with." I ask if he's still lonely, working by himself in the small studio where he spends hour upon hour each day. "It's very solitary, but there's a difference between being alone and being lonely. I prefer to be alone, to be honest with you. Or else I wouldn't do what I do."

Loneliness and alienation is a subject that has followed Lemire throughout his career, whether in The Nobody, his 2009 interpretation of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man, or Sweet Tooth, his dystopian series about a half-human, half-deer boy, or The Underwater Welder, from 2012, about a haunted father-to-be working on the ocean floor, the movie rights to which were recently snapped up by a group which includes the actor Ryan Gosling.

"I feel most comfortable telling the stories of outsiders, or outcasts," Lemire says.

Derek Ouelette, the protagonist of Roughneck, is both an outsider and an outcast. Despite a violent, alcoholic father and a tragedy that left Derek and his sister alone in the world, he became a professional hockey player, only to have his career cut short after an anger-fuelled incident on the ice. He returns to the fictional Pimitamon, his hometown, where he gets a job at the local rink and drinks himself into oblivion most nights. The book follows Derek as he reunites with his sister, a troubled young woman on the run from her violent boyfriend.

Lemire looks through artwork for Roughneck, in his Toronto studio.

Lemire actually began Roughneck many years ago – it was first announced in late 2013 – around the time that several former NHL players – Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard – died young, either by accidental overdose or their own hand. The life of the hockey enforcer interested Lemire; it's a job whose sole description is to protect your teammates. But what happens when their career is over and there's no one around to protect them?

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"That became really fascinating to me," he says. "These guys who lived this life of violence – that's how they made their living, [was] to fight. And then, suddenly, the game doesn't want them any more, or they get too broken down or old to play any more. And they're still the same people – they've never known anything but travelling with the team, and fighting and being violent, and often there's substance abuse that goes along with it. And they're left with all this baggage and nowhere to put it. There's nowhere to put that violence. Suddenly they're not on the road any more, they're stuck wherever they land. It's tragic, but it's also fascinating, psychologically. It's a very specific thing to hockey, to that sport and to those guys."

Around this time, Lemire travelled to Northern Ontario for the first time, visiting the communities of Moose Factory and Moosonee near the shores of James Bay. "I became aware of how little I knew about Canada as soon as I got there, and how little I knew about First Nations and Indigenous culture and history," he admits. Soon after his trip he introduced Equinox, a teenage Cree girl whose superpowers transform with the seasons, into DC's Justice League, which he was writing at the time. It was also when he began Roughneck, which explores the cycle of violence and addiction facing many remote communities. (Derek and his sister are part Cree.) Then, when Lemire was about two-thirds of the way through Roughneck, he was approached by Gord Downie and his brother Mike, who were fans of Essex County and offered him the opportunity to illustrate Secret Path.

Lemire works in his studio. With Roughneck, Lemire has returned to his creative roots of 'grounded' storytelling.

Having now completed three projects that touch on Indigenous culture, to varying degrees, Lemire knows that questions of appropriation, and whether these stories are his to tell, are unavoidable. It's a conversation that has grown even more heated in recent months thanks to the Joseph Boyden controversy. (Advance copies of Roughneck thanked Boyden, whom Lemire has travelled with in Northern Ontario; tellingly, his name is absent from the final version.)

"There's a big difference in the way that Joseph presented himself," Lemire says. "I've never claimed to be anything other than what I am, and I've never claimed to be a spokesperson for Indigenous rights, or anything like that. I'm just a white guy. If anything, these projects were a way for me to learn more about something I'm very ignorant about. That's what art is. For any artist, you're trying to learn something. For me, this was a big part of Canada and a big part of our history that I didn't know enough about, and I still don't know enough about. By going up there and doing these books I know more than I did, and maybe if I can share what I learned with people who otherwise wouldn't read about this stuff, then it's worth doing."

In addition to the numerous monthly titles he's currently committed to, Lemire is writing the screenplay for the adaptation of his series Plutona, about a group of children who discover the body of a dead superhero in the woods, and has been sitting in the writers' room of the Essex County adaptation. He has another monthly series, Family Tree, about a girl who's turning into a tree, coming out later this year, too. Hearing this, I remind Lemire that earlier he told me he vowed to himself, during one particularly busy stretch of work last year, to be more selective when it comes to projects. "I know. I can't stop."

For that, his fans thank him.


Review

Roughneck

By Jeff Lemire

Gallery 13, 272 pages, $34.99

You might not expect a book about a has-been hockey enforcer to be much for complex psychology or subtle emotion, but you could certainly expect it to hit harder. In its story of bar-brawling Derek Ouelette, an ex-NHLer living a life of hard-drinking penury in the remoteness of Northern Ontario, Roughneck festers with old wounds inflicted by alcoholism, residential schools, opioid addiction and spousal abuse. Jeff Lemire reveals these traumas in full-colour flashbacks that bleed through the steely blue inkwash he uses for the wintry numbness of Derek's present-day life, but there's rarely any doubt that the bruiser – or his prodigal little sister, Beth, fleeing her criminal boyfriend down south – will heal. Still, the arcs that these characters trace, though predictable, are pleasurably clean. This is a book of big panels, big chunky lines and big feelings. Not all of them are convincing – hockey players on ice move like cardboard cutouts; Beth's confrontation with her cruel, violent father is stagey and forced – but they serve their purpose in keeping this ornery book lunging forward. As in Essex County, his previous story about shattered lives in the wake of pro hockey or his science-fiction entertainments Sweet Tooth and Trillium, Lemire's plotting plays out partly with messy impetuosity and partly with clockwork inexorability. As Derek and Beth struggle toward redemption, Roughneck's hits may not all land, but Lemire certainly throws them with gusto.

Sean Rogers, Special to The Globe and Mail


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