TORONTO — Jeff Lemire’s “Roughneck” wasn’t supposed to be a companion piece to Gord Downie’s “Secret Path,” but in some ways the two will be forever linked.
The Toronto-based illustrator was halfway through writing his latest graphic novel when Downie approached him about three years ago. Meeting at a local coffee shop, the Tragically Hip singer expressed his admiration for Lemire’s stark portrayal of Canadian life and urged him to partner on a new project.
Downie had just finished recording an album recounting the life of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school. He hoped the artist would be willing to bring a visual element to the story.
Even though Lemire was deep into “Roughneck” — a fictional tale about a part-Cree family dealing with their own demons — he found it hard to shake Wenjack’s heartbreaking real-life tragedy.
“The story really gets in your bones pretty quickly,” Lemire says.
“I went back to my studio that day and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started envisioning how I would draw it, how I would structure his story as a comic.”
So he set aside ”Roughneck” to bring Wenjack’s story to life through a book and animated film. Every week, Downie would drop by his downtown Toronto studio to assess the progress.
“If there was something that wasn’t sitting right, he’d talk about what his lyrics meant to him,” Lemire says.
That was before the Hip singer was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Neither of them could predict how “Secret Path” would provoke national conversations about residential schools.
In its own way, “Roughneck” pushes readers to dissect the complexities of addiction and violence, particularly in isolated northern communities.
The story follows Derek Ouelette, a former professional hockey defenceman booted from the ice after a violent confrontation with an opponent. Despite his career being destroyed in that instant, Ouelette’s snap temper never escapes him.
As he returns to his fictional hometown of Pimitamon he’s faced with balancing his own troubles with the urgent needs of his sister, who’s fleeing an abusive boyfriend and fighting addiction.
Lemire says the story melds personal experiences with ideas he drew from the headlines. Around the time he started the project he was fascinated by news stories of former hockey enforcers who were forced to confront their violence tendencies after retirement.
“You start off at a young age and that’s all you know. When that leaves you behind, you don’t really have a place for that violence,” he says.
“Roughneck” marks Lemire’s most fervent return to the darkness of his “Essex County” trilogy, a collection of stories about the secrets and pain bottled up in the residents of a fictional Canadian farming community.
It also revisits his themes surrounding Canada’s relationship with indigenous communities, the plight of the outsider, and intrinsic ties between family. All of those have been a vibrant part of his work in the Marvel and DC Comics superhero universes in recent years.
He’s written issues of “Justice League,” “Green Arrow,” and “Old Man Logan” alongside his acclaimed work on his own comics “Sweet Tooth” and “The Underwater Welder.”
None of those carried the same weight that Lemire felt writing “Roughneck”; he grappled with being a white storyteller portraying indigenous characters.
“In no way was I ever intending to create a piece of work that would represent a community, speak for a community or indigenous people,” he says.
“That would be very wrongheaded in my point of view, especially as a white guy. I have no business telling their stories.”
To get a better grasp on his characters he visited northern Ontario communities Moosonee and Moose Factory. His friends connected him with locals and he visited a high school to talk with students about comic books.
“Obviously I’m not from there so I’ll always be an outsider,” he says. ”But by doing that I learned a lot more.”
Lemire found getting back to reality — or at least stepping outside the world of superheroes — to be rewarding and he wants to do it more often.
This year he’s been dividing his work hours between comics and the CBC, where “Essex County” is under development as a TV series. He says listening to other people dissect his characters and reshape the storylines initially didn’t sit well with him.
“There was a couple months where I really started to feel sick about it,” he says.
“I thought maybe I’d made a mistake by optioning it, because that book in particular was my first book and so personal to me. And then to see another writer writing my characters, it really took me aback.
“But once you get over that initial (feeling), it became two different things in my mind. I started to realize this doesn’t affect the book.”
Watching CBC expand the “Essex County” universe by adding new characters is fuelling new ideas, he adds. For years he’d dismissed revisiting the characters with a new storyline, but now he’s starting to think the new characters might deserve their own spinoff comic.
“I can almost see doing a small comic that introduces them into the comic book world of ‘Essex County,’” he says. ”It could be fun.”