I’ve already gushed at length many a time about my love for the work of Jeff Lemire in the past, so I don’t need to take up another whole opening paragraph telling you all how great the Canadian cartoonist is. You’re fellows of good taste, I’m sure, so you already know this. But it’s because of my appreciation of Jeff Lemire – particularly when he’s both writing and drawing his own creator-owned work – that had me ranking The Underwater Welder as one of my most anticipated comics of 2012 from as soon as I heard about it. This is Lemire’s first work for Top Shelf since the completion of his masterpiece, the seminal Essex County. So, my expectations were high going into this latest original graphic novel. But those lofty expectations were met, perhaps even exceeded, by a comic that most definitely ranks among the year’s best.
In his introduction to The Underwater Welder, Damon Lindelof describes the book as “the most spectacular episode of The Twilight Zone that was never produced.” He hits the nail right on the head with that summary, but I almost wish he hadn’t written it, because it does leave you expecting things to go in a Twilight Zone direction. Without the context of that introduction, we’re presented with a slice of small-town human drama, not unlike Essex County, where the weirdness starts to creep in by degrees.
But let’s not get into that weirdness, I’ll let you discover it for yourself. What lies at the core of this immersive tale and gets us emotionally invested is the empathy generated for our protagonist, Jack Joseph. As you might have guessed from the title, Jack is an underwater welder. His wife is heavily pregnant, with the birth of his first child rapidly approaching, but he’s still haunted by the disappearance at sea of his father back when he was a child. These massive events of past and future impact on his present, where Jack has to make one last deep-sea expedition before he takes his paternity leave. And that’s where things start to take a turn for the strange. Lemire plays it well, maintaining a degree of ambiguity to leave us questioning whether what Jack is experiencing is a product of his own strained mental state, or something more. He also skillfully walks a fine line between making Jack a deeply flawed character, but still a highly sympathetic figure who we care about.
But as quietly gripping as the writing is, it’s Lemire’s art that really elevates The Underwater Welder. Lemire’s unusual character designs might not immediately appeal to everyone, but once your eye is tuned you’ll be able to appreciate the beauty of Lemire’s increasingly ambitious layouts. From the well-realised landscapes of a small Nova Scotia fishing commuity, to the eerie serenity of the deep waters below the oil rig, to the subtle character dynamics exchanged between Jack and his wife Susan, this is a tale where what is seen has just as much (if not more) impact than what is said. Indeed, Lemire has enough confidence in his visual storytelling to go for extended periods with no dialogue at all, letting his powerfully crafted images do the talking.
With its black-and-white Lemire art, and with the themes of life in a small community and the relationships between fathers and sons, The Underwater Welder is very much a spiritual successor to Essex County. In some ways, it feels like a progression from that book, demonstrating how Jeff Lemire has grown a creator in the intervening time: the artwork is tighter, more refined, and the inclusion of greyscale in the underwater sequences adds an increased sense of texture. But still, Essex County has the edge. While this is also an emotionally engaging story, it doesn’t quite match the devastating, emotionally exhausting power of Essex County. However, one could make a compelling argument that it’s Lemire’s best work since Essex County.
I loved this book. As soon as I finished reading it, I immediately wanted to read it again. I fear that my review hasn’t really done it justice, as I’ve just gushed rather than really going into detail, but I think the specifics of the graphic novel are something you need to discover for yourself. Hopefully my recommendation is enough to convince you to give it a try. The Underwater Welder instantly shoots to the top of my “best of the year” considerations, and once it’s had a little more time to percolate in my mind, it might end up making a dent in my “best of all time” rankings as well. A must read.
The Underwater Welder is available from all good comic stores.