Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"I was never really a hockey player... I was just a thug. At least now I don't have to pretend to be something I'm not."
The doyen of downbeat is back with a frosty contemporary fiction feast of self-destruction and misery. Straight out in graphic novel form, unlike his equally excellent new ongoing mildly mysterious monthly series ROYAL CITY, this is Jeff firmly smack bang against-the-boards back in ESSEX COUNTY territory. Even to the extent of having a former professional ice skating central protagonist, hence the body check...
I'm starting to think Jeff is a frustrated plumber. By which I actually mean an ice hockey player who likes to go get the puck out of trouble, working in the dirty areas of the rink. Because that's exactly how he writes. He drops his characters in a whole world of pain, leaving them slipping, sliding and scrapping on the metaphorical thin ice for their lives, the Zamboni bearing down on them for good measure... then writes a way out for them, even if they don't exactly all make it out intact. But then, getting run over by a Zamboni will do that to you.*
Here, in the frostbitten, half-forgotten arse end of Canada that is the small (ice-)burg of Pimitamon, known locally as The Pit, we find Derek Ouelette, temporarily assuaging his ever present despair with an equally ever handy bottle of beer and / or shot of the hard stuff. Plagued by headaches from his days as an enforcer out on the rink in the NHL, before the red mist took his career in a spectacularly brutal, gruesome loss of temper, he's now barely making ends meet as a short order cook back in his home town, whilst sleeping on a cot in the janitor's office at the local ice rink.
He's still willing to fight all-comers, though, being one stubborn Cement Head who's clearly not learnt his lesson yet, but this time his opponents seem entirely to be those idiotic enough to taunt someone whose former profession was repeatedly battering people in the face for fun. They might think they have a chance against someone who's slightly the worse for wear and seemingly over the hill, but given Derek used to give people a good beatdown whilst dancing around on ice skates, I hardly think a few beers is going to prove too much of an impediment to his balance or indeed fisticuffs technique. It doesn't.
So, it seems like Derek is on an endless cycle of drink, beat, repeat which is only going to end up with him getting sent to prison, killing someone or possibly even both. So what will make him change his ways? Not even repeated 'final' warnings from his old school friend, and police officer, Ray, can make him hang up his metaphorical gloves. Enter stage left Beth, his long lost sister, who ran away from home as a teenager, down to the bright lights of the proverbial big city Toronto, ending up drug-addled and sleeping rough for a few years, before allegedly getting clean and her shit together. So if that's the case, how come she's turned up back in The Pit, penniless, with a black eye?
Well, she hasn't got her shit together, obviously, she isn't clean either, but she is pregnant... and the fruitcake future father with the free-flying fists is in hot pursuit... Guess it's at times like this that having an equally psychopathic brother to turn to could come in handy. Except... remember what I said about Derek being on the probable path to killing somebody and winding up in jail...? Still, it's difficult to imagine him suddenly turning into the type of guy who he'd once of described in hockey parlance as having 'eggs in their pockets'...
As much as I love Jeff's writing, no matter who is illustrating, it is always wonderful to see Jeff wield the pencils and paints himself too. He's gone for a typically subdued palette here, just black lines and shading with light watercolour blues, reflecting the chilly northern landscape and stunted, alcohol and oxycontin-anaesthetised emotional vibe, similar to ESSEX COUNTY and THE UNDERWATER WELDER. Where we have full colour panels here, as with his TRILLIUM and SWEET TOOTH, it is always either in flashback to scenes of the kids' (in-)tense family life growing up with an abusive Cannuck knucklehead father and their put-upon Native mother, or Derek's glory days out on the ice. And hallucinations...
It's a device that well serves to further impress upon us the oppressive situation and circumstances of Derek and Beth's lives. Then, there is an exquisite use of a single additional colour on two other pages which, well, I have perhaps said enough already, so I shall leave you to discover those masterstrokes for yourselves. In summary, another contemporary classic from Jeff.
* No Zambonis were hurt in the writing of this graphic novel; however several Hosers do get a good thwacking from the Cement Head.