The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire (Galley)
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Genre: Fiction, graphic novel, science-fiction, drama, relationships, “Twilight Zone” with less pig monsters and more heartbreak
Rating: 4.92 out of 5 stars
Summary: Workaholic and expectant father Jack is an underwater welder with a tragic past. Haunted by the disappearance of his father who drowned on Halloween night, Jack goes through an existential and hallucinogenic crisis at thoughts of fatherhood- literally jumping through time and space to face his problems. Not your typical indie graphic novel, this science-fiction drama will give you all the feels. ALL OF THEM I SAY!!!
Reason number one to fall in love with The Underwater Welder: the introduction touts this as akin to a great, never aired episode of “Twilight Zone”. And it does not disappoint, with it’s gorgeous black and white sketchy artwork combined with a water color style that provides a setting that is at both times eery and haunting. Add in time jumps, prophetic dreams and hallucinations and you have some great mixing of the real and fantastical. You won’t even miss Rod Serling.
The story follows Jack, the titular character who likes welding under water more than most things. Living with his very pregnant wife, this local boy who can’t seem to leave his hometown is tortured by the open ended and mysterious death of his father. Jack reveals to have increasingly strained yet surprisingly realistic relationships with his worried wife, nagging mother and the ghost of his absentee/alcoholic father- which seem to be acerbated by the impending birth of his first child. Not a great time to have to solve mysteries with missing pocket watches and disembodied underwater voices.
Underneath the mysteries, the jumps throughout time, and the science-fiction element is a heavy theme of loss. Around Halloween Jack gets understandably sad because it was the time his father disappeared. This is especially difficult because he’s still bothered by his supposed drowning. To him it didn’t made sense as his (often drunk) father dove all the time in an attempt to make his fortune. Despite happening twenty years in the past, the mystery still haunts Jack, distancing him from his own family who thinks he should just move on. His pain manifests in lost time while his consciousness literally jumps back to his childhood. It’s difficult to grow up and move on from tragic loss, but this is exactly the problem Jack must get around to continue his own growth. There is so much going on in this novel- I can’t even!
You’ll have to bear with me while I get a tad maudlin here, but as a member of the Dead Father’s Club I found myself relating heavily to Lemire’s Dad heavy plot. Especially the section where Jack is explaining that he often cannot remember what his father looks like, saying that his Dad is no longer a man but a series of memories and details. “But that’s all he is to me now… Details. Details that don’t add up to a man anymore.” I might have cried here, where Lemire captures loss and death and the way your mind heals so perfectly. The longer someone is gone the harder it is to grasp them, hold onto their essence and this comes across in the text. End slightly sad musings.
Being a book that takes place in a seaside town with a seaside trade, the idea that the graphic novel is about the things we hide way down deep is particularly poignant. Jack is hiding a lot of his pain below the surface, so much so that he cannot even control his subconscious. Particularly worries that he will become his father for his child. However, this is where he chooses to dwell. He even imagines himself and his wife adrift at sea when they are home in their bed, with a touching poem his father used to tell him at the forefront of his mind…
The waves are high and the sunset’s red,
So now it’s time to go to bed.
The tide is up and the wind does rip,
But this old ship’ll never tip.
We’re far at sea , days from land,
But if you’re scared just take my hand.
Just hold on tight boy-o-mine,
In my arms you’ll be just fine.
So heart-warming, it’s easy to see why Jack feels comfortable in the sea. Not that it is healthy to suppress what he chooses to. Much as he focuses on the past, he chooses to spend the majority of his time diving and working underwater. It’s where he prefers to be. In the depths, real and metaphorical. Thankfully, this novel has the buoyant message of moving forward, to the surface if you will. Metaphors: they will blow your mind!
The artwork, besides being hauntingly pretty is at all times creative. With gorgeous double page spreads that defy any sort of coherent explanation to text bubbles that flow up out of stereos and swirl around in water, following the air and water currents. See: haunting. As we follow our narrator out of unconsciousness the sketches come more and more into focus, as if we were looking through his eyes. Of course, this sketchy artwork style of Lemire’s has a tendency to be distracting because his characters border on asymmetrical (ex. two different sized eyes!?!) but that is my one tiny complaint amid the perfection of this graphic novel. This work is sad, poignant, and uplifting all at the same time. I might be in love.
-So many feelings, not enough tear ducts
-Amazingly inventive double spread panels, creative use of word bubbles
-Realistic, yet touchingly flawed relationships
-Tiny touches of sci-fi elements amid a heart-breaking storyline
-The thinking man’s “Twilight Zone” but with happy/hopeful ending
-Artwork can be occasionally distracting due to asymmetry
This was my first work by Jeff Lemire, but most certainly not my last. Next up: Essex County, which follows the members of the community of Essex in Canada. I’m told will make me cry even harder than Underwater Welder, but how this is possible is beyond me. Then it’s onto Sweet Tooth, the comic series that follows a boy with deer ears and antlers, a penchant for candy and a dead father. Stop writing awesome books about people with dead fathers Mr. Lemire, you’re killing my heart!