{comic} the underwater welder

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The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

Top Shelf Productions, 2012; trade paper, 220 pages.

Moving home with a wife after earning a degree in English Lit, Jack Joseph works as an underwater welder on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. Deep-sea work is a dangerous job, and the time to live dangerously is not when your first born is due to arrive any day now. But Jack is compelled to return to the deep again and again, but in search of what? Well the timing is not coincidence, impending fatherhood, Halloween… Jack returns to his childhood and interactions with his father, all moving toward a fateful day steeped in anger and guilt, buried deep. What happens to Jack is supernatural in effect and incredibly poignant as consequence.

“Equal parts blue-collar character study and mind-bending mystery, The Underwater Welder is a graphic novel about fathers and sons, birth and death, memory and reality, and the treasures we all bury deep below the surface” (publisher’s comments).

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You may hear/read Twilight Zone when people speak about Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder, and much of that has to do with the paranormal aspect (“travelling through […] a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”–Twilight Zone), the black and white—and I suspect the tinge of horror to the mystery. There is that intonation of fear, but I found the sadness the more engulfing emotion. Jack has a life, a loving wife and a child on the way, and yet he is haunted by something that would jeopardize everything. Or has it been in jeopardy and Jack is finally go to search it out and confront his past aka his father. But will he have run out of time (an oxygen) in the attempt.

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The story is more image than text, and Lemire is exceptional in silence and sequence. The rough line work is part of the characterization. He doesn’t draw pretty people, smooth and unlined and shiny. The subtle echoes between the grown son and the father have an organic substance and play with the reader’s visual read. The boundaries between present and memory and that internal landscape Jack enters are a rippling in the water. Lemire is smooth without edging clever into confusing. He keeps us as off-balanced as his protagonist while yet experiencing that strange lucidity that is effecting Jack Joseph throughout The Underwater Welder.

The use of the occupation, the sea, the setting…Jeff Lemire is a craftsman. The imagery, (of which I adore the womb/birth imagery the most), the metaphors, the echoes, that pocket watch. The earnestness carved from a working people’s life. Lemire has that indie quality without the loftiness and his wit is in the sense of astonishment when the story is closed. Lemire is quiet and he sneaks up on you. He is a marvelous storyteller.

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recommendations: young people could read this, but I think it finds its greatest impact with the older crowd, especially those experiencing/anticipating fatherhood–w/ anxiety or no. for those who find pleasure in the craft of comic storytelling. and if you haven’t tried Essex County, do.

{all images belong to Jeff Lemire}

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