Depending on which aisle of the comic book store you frequent most, you probably know writer and artist Jeff Lemire for such super heroic books as Hawkeye: Hawkeyes or Moon Knight: Lunatic, for his ongoing sci-fi series Descender, or for such real-world stories as Essex County. It is in the latter section that we find his new graphic novel Roughneck (hardcover, digital), an emotional story of a man whose glory days are behind him.
photo credit: Jamie Hogge
So what is Roughneck about?
Roughneck is the story of an ex-NHL tough guy named Derek Ouelette, who is ten years past his prime and living in the remote norther community where he grew up. Derek is stuck in a cycle of violence and alcoholism until his younger sister, whom he hasn’t seen in decades, returns and together they are forced down a path of self-discovery and healing.
Where did the original idea for Roughneck come from, and how different is the finished book from that first concept?
In the Summer of 2012 there were several NHL “enforcers” who died of tragic circumstances. These were men who found their place in the world by fighting and when the game left them behind they were physically and emotionally damaged and suddenly they had to skill set that fit into the “real world.” Where does that violence go when you no longer have an outlet or a purpose every night? It turns inward. That was the spark for this story. And it grew to include wider themes, particularly issues facing Canada’s indigenous people, as I started to travel more to the north and connect with people in communities similar to the one I was exploring in the story.
As you said, the main character in Roughneck, Derek Ouelette, is a former pro hockey player. Do people need to know anything about hockey to appreciate Roughneck?
You absolutely do not need to know anything about hockey, or even like sports to appreciate this story. It is a part of that character’s past and it is not what this story is really about.
Now with the art for Roughneck, the bulk of it is monochromatic, but there are whole sections that are colored, as well as parts where only bits on a page have color, like in the Sin City books, though Roughneck certainly doesn’t look like Sin City. When did you decide to do this, and what prompted that decision?
It really came from me wanting to start to color my own work. Up until this point, my work had either been black and white or it was colored digitally by another artist. And I really wanted to start to control color more and make it an extension of my natural style. So I started by adding a single tone, the blue tone, as a way of experimenting with watercolor and different tones. And this stark blue tone also echoed the mood of the setting and the story. Then I slowly started to play with color, but I wanted it to be in service of the story rather than just random. So I used color for anything that takes place in the “past.” This simple narrative set-up let me experiment and learn to watercolor my work as I went.
In terms of the writing and the art, are there any authors or specific books that were a big influence on Roughneck that are not just an influence on your writing style as a whole, or weren’t as influential on your earlier books?
I was really inspired by one of my best friends and one of my favorite cartoonists, Matt Kindt. Matt had started water coloring his own work a few years earlier with his series Mind MGMT. And seeing him do that, and really take control of every aspect of his artwork, inspired me to try it as well and I often turned to Matt for tips and pointers.
I terms of the story, I was inspired by a lot of indigenous Canadian writers, primarily Thompson Highway, Richard Wagamese, and Edwin Metatawabin.
What about non-literary influences? Are there any movies or TV shows that were big influences on Roughneck?
Film has always inspired me. And in this case, there was one film in particular that really helped to trigger the initial ideas for Roughneck, and that was the Liam Neeson film, The Grey. Particularly the opening scenes with his character living and working in the remote Alaskan village. There was a certain mood to these scenes that really got to me.
You write a lot of different comics these days. How has writing such disparate books as the sci-fi story Descender and the superhero comic Old Man Logan impacted what you write in such real-world comics as Roughneck?
I think doing all that genre work has just made me hungry to return to some of the more grounded and literary territory of my earlier work. I genuinely love doing surer heroes and sci-fi, and probably always will, but I realized that I needed more balance in the types of stories I was doing, too.
Speaking of working in so many different genres, when you sit down to start a new story, do you think of the plot first and then decide what genre it would best be served by, or do you sit down to write in a certain genre and then come up with the story?
No, I never think that way. I never thing about what “type” of story it will be or what genre I want to work in, or what theme I want to explore. I just get an idea or a mood or a character that sticks in my head and I start exploring that. All that other stuff comes later. But it always starts with an image or a character and builds out of that.
Movies and TV shows based on comic books are big these days. Has there been any talk of making a movie or TV show out of Roughneck?
The film of Roughneck is in development by a few friends of mine here in Toronto. I can’t really give any details at this point.
Cool. So who would you like to see play Derek and the other major characters, and why them?
I’m not sure who could play Derek. He is a very specific type, physically, so it would be tough to cast. But there was a Canadian actress who I always had in mind to play Beth and that is Cara Gee [The Expanse]. She is an incredible actress.
Finally, if someone enjoys Roughneck, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?