Sometimes the things we bury deep within ourselves refuse to stay buried.
Such is the case with Jack Joseph, the title character of Jeff Lemire’s new graphic novel, THE UNDERWATER WELDER.
Lemire most recently garnered attention with his work on DC’s reboot of ANIMAL MAN during their much-vaunted New 52 initiative. His impressive writing there, constrained as it was by editorial directives, made me want to seek out more of his self-directed books. He’s written a slew, from SWEET TOOTH and THE NOBODY for Vertigo to ESSEX COUNTY for Top Shelf. THE UNDERWATER WELDER was a book several years in the making, and it does not disappoint.
In his introduction, LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof describes THE UNDERWATER WELDER as “the most spectacular episode of The Twilight Zone that was never produced.” The way the book is constructed is similar to an episode of that perennial American program. As Lindelof points out, the story is strange and creepy, features flawed and believable characters, and exhibits a broader theme that cuts right to the heart of the reader.
THE UNDERWATER WELDER is about many things, but for me it was about the things we try to bury within ourselves, the things that won’t let you move on. It was also about the love we have for family, and the things we’re willing to do to accommodate and understand those we love. And lastly it was about self forgiveness and self understanding, something that lots of people in my age bracket must grapple with.
Jack Joseph is an underwater welder. He lives in a small town on the coast of Nova Scotia and works on oil rigs in the coastal waters. His wife, Susie, is very pregnant. Halloween is approaching, a time of year that only reminds Jack of his father’s disappearance 23 years earlier. On Jack’s first dive of what was supposed to be a two-week job, something happens to him at the bottom of the ocean. When he is pulled to the surface, he becomes obsessed with what he saw down there, and putting all other concerns aside, is determined to return the ocean floor to find out what it is.
The book is braid of three story strands: Jack’s reality, Jack’s dreams/visions, and flashbacks to young Jackie’s halcyon days with his salvage diver father, who may or may not have been somewhat of a deadbeat. Jacks’ recollections of his father are through the eyes of his younger self, a person that adult Jack doesn’t always seem to understand or agree with, illustrated best by a conversation the pair have during one unreal sequence.
When Jack’s father isn’t pulling trinkets out of Tigg’s Bay, he’s holding down a bar stool and telling anyone who’ll listen about his plan to move south and find a sunken Spanish galleon full of gold that will set him up for life, something that everyone but him seems to know will never happen. And while he’s drinking, he easily forgets to be there when Jackie needs him.
But there are moments of genuine tenderness and admiration between Jackie and his father that remind us that family relationships can be complicated. When Jackie’s father disappears, it leaves a deep gash in young Jackie’s life, one that manifests itself in Jack becoming a diver like his father. And that gash of abandonment never fully heals until Jack discovers an important fact about his father’s disappearance.
Lemire chose underwater welding for a reason. He never directly addresses how physically demanding and understandably dangerous the job can be; it often tops lists of world’s riskiest careers. But the setting is perfect for the story. Something about the combination of deep isolation and the vastness of the ocean floor is unsettling, emphasizing the enormous absence in Jack’s life. Ghosts are sometimes most frightening when they refuse to reveal themselves.
Lemire’s art is easy on the eyes. His brushwork can seem unrehearsed, even rough, but upon closer inspection it’s clear that Lemire has a firm grasp on the light and shadow of his created world. The scenes set in waking life are rendered in sharp black and white, while dreams and flashbacks are lent a softer, ink-washed style that reveals the grain of Lemire’s paper on occasion. Interestingly, many of the underwater scenes are rendered in the same ink-washed style used for dreams and flashbacks, perhaps because Lemire doesn’t want us to know for sure whether the bottom of the ocean is a dream or reality. Perhaps it’s both.
THE UNDERWATER WELDER is easily one of the must-read graphic novels of 2012.