Armchair Book Club: The art of the graphic novel

Jeff Lemire has mastered the art of the graphic novel

Some people argue that graphic novels are just glorified comic books. After all, they are full of pictures and don’t usually take more than an hour or two to digest. But take in a few masterpieces such as Maus by Art Spiegelman or Louis Riel by Chester Brown, and you will be convinced otherwise.

Jeff Lemire is a Canadian cartoonist who draws in many genres, including for DC and Marvel comic books. He has also mastered the art of the graphic novel. He respects the graphic novel as a serious art form, wanting his latest graphic novel Roughneck to be published by Simon and Schuster, a well-respected publishing house, in order to distinguish it as a work of literature.

Graphic novels should take their rightful place amongst other important works of literature. A reporter from The Oregonian commented on the back cover of Roughneck: “When Princeton and Duke are offering graduate degrees in the graphic novel form twenty years from now, a lot of students will be writing their master’s thesis on Lemire…”

In Roughneck, Lemire draws the life of Derek Ouelette, whose glory days are behind him. Derek’s hockey career ended a decade earlier in a violent incident on the ice. Since that time, he’s been living off his reputation as an enforcer in the small northern town where he grew up. He drinks too much and fights too often. One day his long-lost sister drags herself and her troubles into town, and together they face their past.

Every page in Roughneck is beautifully wrought. To depict the north, in winter, Lemire’s drawings are etched in hard-bitten lines of black, white and ice blue. Only when Derek fights, does the colour red spatter onto the page. When Derek thinks of his past, the pages bloom into full colour. It’s as if, without words, colour itself can tell the story.

Lemire so convincingly depicts the cold and empty spaces of a small town in winter, lingering on panels of felt pack winter boots crunching across snow; snowmobile tracks disappearing into white. Just for the drawings alone, I had to force myself to pause to give them as much admiration as they deserved.

Lemire’s pacing is near perfect. His characters interact with minimal, realistic dialogue, and the story contains only the subtlest references to the profound effects of the Sixties Scoop and residential schools. Nothing is overt, and because of that, everything is keenly felt.

Last year, Lemire released the graphic novel Secret Path to accompany Gord Downie’s album of the same name. He is perhaps even better known for his Essex County Trilogy, which was a 2011 Canada Reads selection as one of the essential Canadian novels of the decade. I’m sure the accolades and awards for Roughneck will be coming soon.

Heather Allen is an avid reader and contributor to the Western News.