Jeff Lemire (Animal Man, Essex County) returns to his indie roots with a haunting graphic novel about a man so trapped in the past he ignores his own future. With sparse, raw art and a close focus on protagonist Jack Joseph, Lemire crafts a moving, mysterious tribute to fathers and sons.
To say that the last few months have been something of a breakout year for Jeff Lemire may be something of an understatement. The talented writer of books like underappreciated gems Essex County and Sweet Tooth found new recognition in the monthly market with his New 52 reboot of Animal Man. But Lemire’s biggest achievement of 2012 won’t be Animal Man, Frankenstein or Justice League Dark – no, it will almost certainly be his new graphic novel, The Underwater Welder.
In the book’s introduction, written by LOST and Star Trek scribe Damon Lindelof, he compares the book to a particularly good episode of The Twilight Zone – an apt comparison, it turns out, as the book reminds me of nothing more than one of the show’s most iconic episodes, “Walking Distance”, about a man dissatisfied with his present who nearly loses himself in his own past.
The Underwater Welder follows Jack Joseph, whose work diving beneath an oil rig to mend the metal provides him with the isolation he so craves. His life takes a weird turn on one dive when he believe he sees an old pocket watch sitting on the ocean floor – a pocket watch that looks suspiciously like the one his father gave him only days before he died many years back. As he approaches it, visions of his last days with his dad become sharper, and he finds himself disconnecting from his present. Is there truly something supernatural going on here? Has Jack found a portal to his own past? Or is the stress provided by the impending birth of his own son (his wife is nine months pregnant as the book begins) merely making him reflect on his own father’s tragic death?
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Lemire is less interested in the mystery of Jack Joseph’s discovery as he is in the emotional fallout, the character-driven drama. There’s a melancholy to Jack Joseph that I think everyone can identify with, though I’d imagine it will hit recent parents and those who lost a parent at a young age the hardest, and it’s easy to sympathize with him as he tries to understand what’s happening to him even as he drives his wife away with his distance. But Lemire mines these ideas for everything they’re worth, making literal Jack’s fears and desires, while leaving just enough mystery to have us craving more. The book is a masterclass in atmosphere, as the books pacing, characters, and imagery all work together to let you sink into Jack’s world.
Lemire’s art takes a few pages to get used to, but once you do, its expressive charms are sure to win you over. By the time you reach the book’s climactic moments and witness past and present collide in an explosively emotional underwater confrontation, you’ll wish Lemire was doing his own art over at DC. Every aspect of the book’s design is geared towards getting you in the head of Jack Joseph, and while the sense of loneliness and nostalgia that permeates the book grows ever more oppressive as the book nears its conclusion, it never overwhelms you.
The Underwater Welder reads fairly quick, but it leaves you with a lot to think about. Anyone who has read and enjoyed his work before – particularly on Animal Man, which uses a similar theme of the fears of parenthood to much different purpose – owes it to themselves to see what he does here. Jeff Lemire has crafted a compelling, mysterious family drama, a work of subtle beauty and remarkable elegance.
– Cal C.