Sometimes, you log in to Amazon for the one moment a graphic novel on your wish list has dropped 75% in price. And in that moment, you buy The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire. Though Lemire dwells often in the superhero realm, Welder is the story of an ordinary man facing his past in order to face his future. It is an exploration of pressure crystallized on the black and white page.
The Underwater Welder is a story in ink mixed with grayscale watercolor. Damon Lindelof compares the story to an episode of the Twilight Zone in his introduction. The gray palette certainly helps, and enables some of the artistic effects, many of which are designed to nearly freeze a moment in time and allow the reader to think:
There are instances in the book where Lemire breaks a still shot into six panels. As a reader, I loved this effect as it forced me to survey the scene with particular interest. Creative application of such simple concepts add depth to a moment.
There are recurring liquid moments – perhaps a necessity in an underwater novel. Among these, there are plip panels which feature a drop falling into a puddle. They are distributed throughout, but they unify the storytelling voice and highlight moments within the broader context.
What often moves a story from quaint to profound, and what is perhaps my favorite overall feature of the art, is the author’s apparent trust in the moment he created. Beautiful visual stories let the human intellect do a little bit of the work. Storytellers who leave nothing to the imagination often steal from their own work because they remove their readers/viewers from the process. Lemire lets seconds linger in simplicity in such a way that invite engagement. He brings numerous moments to a standstill without telling the reader what to think.
The Underwater Welder tells the story of Jack Joseph, a father-to-be who works beneath an offshore oil rig as a welder. His father Pete, also a diver, died on Halloween when Jack was only 10. Jack is wrestling with generational chains, working to reconcile the past as he faces his own future.
The story, like the art, is simple enough as to be broadly appealing and applicable. Jack Joseph is utterly ordinary, which makes him accessible. But in the details, Lemire establishes a reason to care for his characters, to invest in their circumstance, and to anticipate the resolution.
Early on, Jack has something of a supernatural underwater encounter that stuns and confuses him at first, nearly killing him. With each passing hour, the encounter entrances him and compels him to return to the water.
Where the story goes all Twilight Zone is in the third and fourth episodes. Jack lives out an eerie extended moment derived especially as a revelation for his life. The noise is removed and he is alone with himself. Without spoiling too much, Jack is trapped by the gift of exploring the his father’s death and his present pain. It is marvelously drawn and presented. It was worth the full price of admission… which makes the 75% off even more celebratory!
In the back half, as Jack fights the generational pull to become his perception of his father, the story and artwork move seamlessly in circuit from young Jack to old Jack to old Pete. Lives are intertwined and in the knotted mess, Jack is figuring out what went wrong, what is still yet right, and where his future lies.
The second half of the story rolls downhill at a lively pace. I loved the conclusion, not because it was unforeseeable, but because it had heart. It had gravity and lent itself to contemplation. Jack Joseph’s life was colored by the complicated life and death of his father. Jack Joseph’s life was about to become the brush that would color his own child’s beginning. This is the tapestry of humanity, and it is worth exploring in all its ordinary glory.
Ultimately, The Underwater Welder is a story about the revelatory power of pressure. Pressure can crush things, leaving only pieces. Pressure can also chip away the brokenness to reveal integrity. Jack’s story, and the destiny of his family, lie in the human response to immense pressure.
A Worthwhile Read
Even as a graphic novel, The Underwater Welder is a welcome moment apart from the noise of life to explore and ponder the complexities of the human soul, a chance to consider the effect of sin that lingers from one generation to the next, an opportunity to weigh the significance of the father/son relationship, and an entertaining and visually engaging read to boot.
Jeff Lemire has set the table for a number of interesting conversations. Grab a cup of coffee and jump in.