I started collecting comics in the late 1980s. I was a huge fan and took weekly walks to the comic book store to get my favorite books. By the mid 1990s, however, there were too many X-Titles, too many crossovers, and too much Rob Liefeld. I still keep up a little. I will look stuff up or listen to the guys here argue about Cyclops vs Wolverine, but my comic collecting days have passed.
Every once in while however, I will read something. Recently, a friend got me the first issue of The Snagglepuss Chronicles for my birthday and when he told me the comic book club he was in was going to read Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder, I immediately joined.
The Underwater Welder is about Jack Joseph, a soon-to-be first time father who is juggling ghosts of the past and responsibilities of the future. The distant past and near future seem to be converging and Jack’s only escape seems to be underwater. But can he get away from his escape?
The most noticeable part of The Underwater Welder is Lemire’s amazing art. Every page is deceptively captivating. At the quickest of glances, the characters and buildings almost look like absent minded doodles. Anything more than a perfunctory look, however, will draw the reader in. Lines in Jack’s face show the hesitation and doubt that his character cannot give voice to while Susie’s eyes convey the worry and frustration she has been dealing with. The book does not have many characters, but each one is masterfully drawn to show maximum emotion.
Panel placement is also an important part of the storytelling. At its core, The Underwater Welder is a mystery. Many times, Lemire will utilize a nine panel page, with many of the panels being a separate part of a bigger picture. Readers are not just trying to solve the mystery in their heads — they are literally trying to piece together a puzzle visually.
Along with multiple panel pages, Lemire adds in stunning full page scenes. These normally dialogue free splash pages showcase the use of ink washed blacks and greys. White is also used effectively throughout the story. The darker colors are used during underwater scenes while white is used in dry land scenes. The use of basic colors along with great detail is engaging.
The art of The Underwater Welder would not be as effective if not for the great story it tells. This is a tale that is relatable on many different levels. Most obviously, it deals with relationships between fathers and sons and spouses. The themes explored go much deeper, however. Along with familial connections, the book deals with impending parenthood, memories and how we view the past, and being honest with ourselves and others.
The characters in The Underwater Welder do a great job of pushing the story’s ideas. Jack fondly reminisces on childhood moments with his dad who scavenges the ocean for treasures and tells anyone who will listen about a hidden treasure. HIs attachment is so strong that Jack, an English major, has returned to the small town he grew up in to work as an underwater welder. Jack’s halcyon memories are told through flashbacks that show the strong relationship between father and son. When the story comes back to the present, the reader can see that Jack is becoming his father.
The flashbacks also show why Jack acting like his father may not be a good thing. Though Jack’s memories are pleasant, the reader sees them with an objective eye. While it is clear that he loves his son, it is also apparent that Jack’s father has serious problems. This is also shown in present day conversations Jack has with his mother. It is great writing that manages to be subtle and in your face at the same time.
Susie is well written and is almost the antithesis to Jack’s father. Much like his father, Susie deeply loves Jack. The seemingly playful banter between the two reveals the difference, however. Where Jack’s father is willing to sugarcoat bad news and wow his son with tales of grandeur, Susie constantly tries to keep her husband grounded in reality. This dichotomy is also seen in Jack’s attitude towards the two. Jack lovingly remembers his father and almost seems to resent Susie.
The Underwater Welder tells a strong story, however it is very routine. Lemire does nothing new, which may be why the art overpowers the story. The themes explored are deep, but the actual plot is a familiar one. It is clear that the finale is supposed to deliver an emotional gut punch, but for some the predictability of the story may lessen the blow. This is definitely a case where the journey is is more interesting than the destination.
The Underwater Welder is a well written graphic novel that will engage readers. The art is cinematic and the book is almost like a storyboard. Some may find the story a tad generic, but the interesting and fleshed out characters make it an incredibly enjoyable read.