Comix Month, Take III : Jeff Lemire’s “The Underwater Welder”

Posted: August 19, 2012 in comics
Tags: , , ,

Remember back in the late ’90s/early 2000s when it seemed that every self-respecting “underground” cartoonist had figured out that the best way to pay the bills between doing the creator-owned stuff they actually cared about was to write monthly series for Marvel or DC? It was all the rage there for awhile, with talents as diverse as Jon Lewis, Dylan Horrocks, Terry LaBan, etc. churning out superhero garbage while still managing to have just enough spare time to devote to the kind of work they really wanted to be doing all the time.

Well, apparently that well has more or less dried up now, as the only guy still operating that was is Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire, best known for the superb Essex County , who’s writing Animal Man and a couple other books for DC on the side when he’s not working on his creator-owned Vertigo series Sweet Tooth  and his “major projects” such as his new 224-page graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions, The Underwater Welder. Apparently this book was a couple years in the making and a definite labor of love, and while it’s far from a flawless work by any means, Lemire’s devotion to it clearly shows.

Our story here revolves around one Jack Joseph, a thirty-something deep-sea welder attached to an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s an unusual way to make a living, that’s for sure, but it sort of runs in the Joseph family blood, apparently, as his father was a freelance scuba diver, as well as being a raging alcoholic and general fuck-up. Jack still worships his memory, though (he disappeared under the murky depths some years ago), and even seems to have inherited some of his less admirable traits — which is not to say that he’s a hard-core booze hound or anything like that, but he seems to have picked up the old man’s intrinsic fear of commitment. Jack’s wife, you see, is pregnant with their first child, and for reasons known only to him, our ostensible “hero” seems to be pulling further and further away from the Mrs. and his soon-to-be-born son or daughter the closer she gets to the big day.

Then, one day while welding ‘neath the waves, Jack notices a shiny object glinting at him from the ocean floor (is it really called a floor? And if so, why?), goes down to have a closer look — and is catapulted into a Twilight Zone-type world of memories both real and false, and a future that may or may not be. It’s part Rod Serling, part Charles Dickens, all served up with a healthy dose of contemporary family angst, and while it all unfolds rather predictably, and never achieves the weighty sense of gravitas that Lemire is actually, and quite obviously,  hoping for (Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate tread on somewhat similar thematic matter in the criminally underrated A Small Killing, for example, and did a much better job of it), there’s still no denying that this is, in its best moments, a powerfully understated book that explores issues of childhood pain and loss and the desperate desires of new and prospective parents not to repeat their own folks’ mistakes all wrapped up in a pleasantly-enough-executed, quasi- surrealist package.

Lemire has a well-established “scratchy linework” style that suits the material here quite nicely, and his underwater scenes, achieved (I’m assuming) by employing an old-school inkwash technique of some sort, are a particular standout element in what is, on the whole, a really well-drawn book. His script is pretty economical in terms of word count but might be stretched a bit thin at 224 pages, although it does maintain a fairly organic flow throughout that tightening things up may have compromised a bit, so I won’t complain much as far as that goes. And yeah, there’s no doubt that we’re firmly and fully in “labor of love” territory here from the outset, as it’s obvious our guy Jeff has paid attention to pretty much every detail along the way as his little melodrama unfolds. Atmosphere is key here, of course, and Lemire delivers that in spades, and his time-period transitions feel quite natural and almost rhythmic, even if he occasionally resorts to some of the more hackneyed elements of the “Serling style” in order to frame them. All in all, my complaints about this book are few, far between, and pretty small, given the overall scope of the work.

Still, while The Underwater Welder has an undeniably satisfying conclusion, and one that feels entirely appropriate to the story itself, I can’t say that this is absolute “rush out and buy it” material. Maybe it’s because you can pretty much only see one possible ending the whole way through, maybe it’s because the whole “fantasy” element is frankly completely unnecessary to the type of story that Lemire is telling here, maybe it’s because the book’s principal female characters, namely Jack’s wife and his mother, feel less like actual people and more like ciphers for drawing out and/or expounding upon the the protagonist’s various unresolved neuroses, or maybe it’s just because, as I mentioned before, others have mined similar ground more successfully, but all in all this feels like a book that would have been absolutely revolutionary 20 years ago, but is just — and maybe the use of the word “just” if unfair here, but bear with me, if you would, please — a really solid, nicely-done graphic novel in this day and age. I was glad I read it. I’m pleased to have it on my shelf, available for re-exploration anytime I choose. But it doesn’t feel like one of the really important comics works of the past several years, and Lemire seems to be talented enough to have a book like that in him. This isn’t quite it — but it’s close enough to make for a very impressive read in and of itself, and honestly, that probably should be enough. You get the sense that Jeff Lemire is knocking on the door of genuine greatness, and I’m hopeful that his next project will be the one that throws that door wide open, in which case The Underwater Welder will be remembered as the book where he got the last few things he needed to worked out before stepping up to the final rung on the creative ladder; a necessary precursor to something more, something larger, something undeniable, that seems to be right within his grasp — he just needs to seize it , trust in his abilities, and not let go. While this isn’t a book that shows Jeff Lemire making a quantum leap forward creatively, it does show that he’s probably ready to do so, and that alone certainly makes it worth a look, as well as your time.

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