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The Underwater Welder is the latest graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, who’s carved out a nice career at DC but still finds time to create nice independent stuff for Top Shelf (who published this and charges $19.95 for it, in case you need to know). Of course, this apparently took him four years to put together, but so what, right? As long as he’s not completely sucked into the vortex of corporate comics!!!
Lemire first came to my attention with Essex County, which is a masterpiece. Considering that it came so early in his career, it’s perhaps not surprising that he hasn’t quite reached those heights with anything else he’s done, whether it’s a graphic novel or series for Vertigo or his various writing gigs in the DCU (pre- and post-reboot). He’s certainly a good creator, but he’s never quite been able to put together something as good as Essex County (and, to be fair, I didn’t last too long on Sweet Tooth, so maybe it became a masterpiece). Is The Underwater Welder more of the same – good but falling short – or can it stand with Essex County?
For me, unfortunately, it’s the former. I’ll get the plot out of the way quickly, because it’s easy to do. Jack Joseph works as an underwater welder on an oil rig in Nova Scotia. He’s married and his wife, Suse, is expecting their first child, a son (she doesn’t take advantage of modern technology to confirm this; she just knows). He lives in Tigg’s Bay, the same place he grew up (although he did leave to go to college, but returned), and we find out during the book that 20 years earlier, his father disappeared on Halloween and is presumed dead (he is, don’t worry). Jack is obsessed with work, which makes Suse a bit grumpy. Then, one day when he’s underwater … welding, he sees something that freaks him out. It eventually leads to a Twilight Zone-ish episode in the middle of the book, where Jack finds his world turned completely upside down. How will he return to his life? Will he return to his life?!?!?!?
There’s plenty of good stuff in The Underwater Welder. Lemire’s artwork is as Lemire-esque as ever (whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you!), but he does some very nice stuff with full-page spreads, page layouts (especially when Jack’s world shatters), and shading. Yes, the book is in black and white, but Lemire does a marvelous job with using different shades to indicate different time periods and moods. If you don’t like Lemire’s art (and who am I to say you shouldn’t?), you can still appreciate the way he constructs the pages of this book. It’s a marvelous comic to look at.
Lemire has a pretty good ear for dialogue, too. Lemire the writer tends to stay out of Lemire the artist’s way, and he uses dialogue sparingly but effectively. His Jack has a fairly bleak outlook on life, but he hides it well until it starts coming out, and while Suse is somewhat of a plot device, Lemire still manages to give her some good lines. It’s not wonderful dialogue, but it gets the job done and at least sounds like different people are speaking. In a comics landscape where everyone speaks the same, it’s nice that Lemire knows that people have different voices. Lemire takes his time, too, with both the writing and the art, so that when the strangeness begins, it doesn’t come completely out of nowhere. Lemire wisely lays a lot of groundwork, so the odd twist doesn’t feel too out-of-left-field.
The problem is the subject matter. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the book is largely about Jack’s relationship with his father. That wouldn’t be a problem but for the fact that it’s a pretty bland relationship, not in terms of emotional devastation on Jack (or his father), but in terms of what we’ve seen before. Jack’s dad, Peter, is divorced from his mother. Why? Because Peter is a mess – he drinks too much, and he always dreams about treasure at the bottom of the ocean. Of course, Jack thinks his father is a real hero, living life on his own terms, but of course Peter even lets Jack down several times in the book. The event that causes the strange twist in the middle of the book is linked back to their relationship, of course, and really, the entire book is about Jack trying to figure out his relationship with his father … which informs his relationship with his own son (it’s interesting that the kid is born, but we don’t actually find out if it’s a boy or not). It’s very dull – once we learn about a certain object, it becomes obvious what happened to Jack’s dad, and therefore the “mystery” (if Lemire intended for it to be a mystery) at the center of the book becomes clichéd. Furthermore, the idea of a person growing up without a good father and therefore worrying about his own parenting skills is a cliché as well. There’s certainly nothing wrong with creating a book about it, but the writer has to be aware that this is very familiar ground, so he must tread carefully. Lemire bludgeons us with the themes of this book, and it’s unfortunate because so much of the book is well done. Jack as “man-child” is a dull idea, because it’s been done so many times and in better ways. I don’t know if comic book writers in general have father issues, but male ones go to this well a lot, and it’s rarely done with any subtlety. There’s nothing in this plot that’s surprising or even clever, and it drags down the pretty decent character work Lemire does and the really wonderful artwork in the book.
I wanted to love The Underwater Welder, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t. I can certainly Mildly Recommend it, because Lemire’s art is very nice and he does try to make the bland plot a bit more interesting. Lemire is a good creator who can do great work, and I keep hoping he will once again reach the heights he already has!
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