Author: Jeff Lemire
Illustrator: Jeff Lemire
Publisher: Top Shelf
Jeff Lemire’s creator-owned graphic novel, The Underwater Welder, was a pleasure to read. On one level, it is a horror story as thirty-three year-old Jack Joseph confronts the ghost that haunts his past. Even more so, it’s a psychological drama, telling the process of an english major-turned-underwater welder coming to grips with becoming a father. The horrors of Jack’s past interplay with his present fears that will ultimately end in triumph or tragedy for the young man.
The novel begins with Jack having breakfast with his pregnant wife. She is due in a month and Jack has one last diving expedition before he will take time to stay at home with their new baby. While on his dive, Jack thinks he sees another diver and then spies a pocket watch on the ocean floor. This experience becomes even more strange as he loses contact with the ship. He is eventually saved, but is sent home after a doctor shows concern for his health.
Jack cannot let sleeping dogs lie and despite his wife’s protests, he ventures back out into the ocean to confront this mystery. His father, a neglectful drunk who died in a diving accident twenty years prior, haunts Jack’s memories as he plunges beneath the depths. Jack sees himself in his father and he now fears the man he once idolized as a child is the man he is becoming. On his journey to discover the secrets that lurk deep beneath the water’s surface, Jack must confront his past before he is destined to repeat it.
Lemire is successful on many levels in this comic. It is an entirely new take on a story of a young man struggling to break from his small town upbringing. But unlike most stories, such as those when a young farmer longs to break free from his rural shackles, Underwater Welder tells the story of a man growing up in a town where others expect him to leave. This theme parallels with Jack being unable to break from his emotional connection to his deceased deadbeat of a father. His wife, mother, and diving crew encourage Jack to move forward in life, but his self-imposed constraints bind him to the past.
Jack becomes hallucinatory in his quest, at times a ten-year-old boy, at others in the place of his father. It’s as if the ghost of his father is trying to bind himself to Jack’s soul. The surreal journey brings problems as Jack begins to have long periods of blackout. The baby’s crib remains unbuilt, meetings with the midwife are missed, and when his wife’s water breaks, Jack is MIA.
As a thirty-something father myself, I can empathize with Jack. His escapism from the responsibilities of life are reminiscent of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. And like Rabbit Angstrom, escapism comes with potentially lethal consequences. What makes Jack different from Rabbit is that he never fully deserts his responsibilities and there is a constant internal struggle as he fights to determine what kind of man he wants to be.
Lemire’s art is minimalistic, but the penned lines are effective in conveying emotion and add to the abstract telling of Jack’s quarter-life crisis. At first, much of the art seemed raw and unfinished, like I was looking at sketches of a story board, but as the novel progressed, I saw them as effective. In fact, the murky depths is where we see clarity and colored pictures, but above ground, where Jack should see clearly, is where we sense this incompleteness. The art very much complements the narrative. One example I particularly liked was the way Lemire transitioned the panels from vague to clear when Jack awoke from a blackout.
The Underwater Welder is an intelligent and emotional novel that hit the right spot for me. For anyone looking for a cerebral story with a psychological or supernatural element to it, The Underwater Welder will not disappoint.