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Roughneck

by Jeff Lemire

Hostage

by Guy Delisle; Helge Dascher (trans.)

MayReviews_HOSTAGE_ROUGHNECK3

In 1997, Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André was kidnapped while working in the town of Nazran, located in Ingushetia, a small Russian republic west of Chechnya. André was held captive for 111 days before he escaped, weak and malnourished, his unsteady feet torn to shreds.

For the past 15 years, Quebec cartoonist Guy Delisle has collaborated with André on the graphic memoir of his abduction. Hostage is a departure for Delisle, who has received international accolades for his personal travelogues and, more recently, his wryly humorous series on modern parenting. The text in Hostage is based on interviews with André, which arguably places the book into the growing category of reportage graphica, much like Sarah Glidden’s bestselling Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, published by Drawn & Quarterly last year.

At 436 pages, Hostage is a formidable undertaking and achievement, both visually and textually. André spends most of his captivity in an empty room, with his arm chained to a radiator; his only interactions are with the men who feed him watery soup or guide him to a makeshift washroom. There is no common language or meaningful exchange: André is alone with his thoughts and the growing panic that he may die in that room. Every sound, every new voice, every deviance from the routine only adds to the tension. The only time the anxiety is broken – and it is much needed for both prisoner and reader – is when André tries to distract himself by imagining his homecoming, his sister’s forthcoming wedding, or recalling details of famous historical battles.

Delisle’s minimal linework, shadowy grey palette, and tightly boxed-in panels add to the overwhelming sense of physical and psychological confinement. Dialogue-free spreads of boarded-up windows and bare walls help place the reader in the room, while cinematic aerial shots zooming out to show André lying on the bare mattress, stiffly curled on his side, inspire even greater feelings of helplessness.

Another form of imprisonment takes place in Roughneck, which has Toronto artist Jeff Lemire returning to familar themes such as family drama, cyclical violence, and grief. Visually, there is little to connect Delisle’s controlled imagery in Hostage with the art in Roughneck, which spills across pages much like the blood splatter that makes many appearances throughout the graphic novel. Yet both books demonstrate work by masters at the peak of their careers.

Lemire is best known for his Essex Country trilogy, which was nominated for an Eisner Award and was the first graphic novel to appear on CBC’s popular Canada Reads. Last year, he collaborated with Gord Downie on the graphic novel Secret Path, about Chanie Wenjack, an indigenous boy who ran away from a residential school and froze to death trying to get back home.

Roughneck follows Derek Ouellette, a half-Cree former NHL enforcer whose career ended after he sent another player off the ice on a stretcher. Now living in a remote northern community, getting drunk between his shifts at a diner, Derek tries to maintain a quiet existence, but his on-ice temper persists, earning him a regular spot behind the bars of the local jail.

Despite his formidable size and appearance – Lemire draws Derek’s face as a series of hard crooked lines and scars – there is something physically shuttered and small about his demeanour, as if he is a shell of a human. That is, until he is triggered and explodes in almost monstrous anger, all fists, with his hulking body literally busting out of panels.

When Derek’s long-lost sister, Beth, shows up, pregnant and drug addicted as she tries to outrun an abusive boyfriend, the two take shelter in a friend’s cabin in the woods, where both realize they need to break free of their past if they’re going to survive. Although Roughneck initially comes across as a straightforward story about redemption and hope, Lemire throws in visual twists. Flashback scenes from Derek’s childhood are illustrated in full-colour wash, which normally would suggest happier times, as compared to the dark ink and thick lines that dominate the present-day story. But Derek’s colourful memories, even those of his first glory days in hockey, are filled with raw images of his abusive father. It’s almost as if Lemire is peeling back another layer, hinting that despite a satisfyingly hopeful ending, there’s a long journey ahead if Derek and Beth are ever going to escape their prison.