The Underwater Welder, by Jeff Lemire

Review published on August 23, 2012. Reviewed by Erin Britton

Jack Joseph and his pregnant wife Susie have moved to Tigg’s Bay, Jack’s home town. Jack says that they moved back so that he could find work but Susie isn’t so sure. A stranger in a strange small town, Susie is less than a month away from her due date and wants Jack to spend time with her and to help baby-proof the house. Jack, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to get away from town, for a while at least, and continue his work as an underwater welder. He works on [or should that be under?] an oil rig that is about a thirty minute boat ride from Tigg’s Bay.

Jack likes the quiet of working alone, deep underwater but, during this last shift before he reluctantly begins his paternity leave, something peculiar is going on. Jack starts to have visions when underwater, maybe even déjà vu, and he’s not convinced that the situation is due to a fault with his oxygen mix. Something’s been playing on his mind lately and the impending arrival of his first child is making things worse. Halloween’s drawing near and Jack’s thoughts keep turning to his missing father.

The Underwater Welder is Jeff Lemire’s excellent follow-up [outside of his monthly comics for DC] to his award-winning Essex County graphic novel. The same melancholy tone and palpable sense of menace hangs over Jack’s life as permeated the seemingly ordinary lives captured in Essex County. Jack’s life in The Underwater Welder is in many ways extremely average – recent college graduate, baby on the way, returning to his home town to secure work – but there is something very otherworldly about the way his life is progressing in Tigg’s Bay. While Susie, Jack’s mother and his colleagues all encourage him to try to move on with his life, Jack seems stuck almost outside of time as events from his past increasingly intrude on his present.

Jeff Lemire always manages to create great character studies – his “everyman” characters always manage to have a touch of the extraordinary about them – with the storylines he crafts serving to highlight the fallibilities of the ordinary person. The Underwater Welder is almost the perfect tale of becoming a “proper grown-up”. In some ways Jack has made the sensible choices that will allow him to provide for his family while in other ways he will take every opportunity to avoid Susie at the time she needs him the most. While Jack meditates on his past and his relationship with his father, he may well be avoiding facing up to his own fatherly responsibilities.

As well as being a sublime story, The Underwater Welder also serves to demonstrate just how good Lemire’s art is. The book is drawn entirely in black and white and Lemire’s style is extremely well-suited to the almost ghostly tone of Jack’s story. His varies the number and spacing of the panels per page regularly to help reflect the flow of the story. All of the art is great, with the underwater stuff being particularly noteworthy, but the double page spreads are truly amazing. Lemire’s surreal style somehow manages to make everything – people and places – somehow fuzzy around the edges, sort of unclear or at least uncertain, in a way that really complements the almost science fiction-like elements of the story.

The Underwater Welder is a hauntingly beautiful story and a real contender for being the best graphic novel of 2012. Jeff Lemire is a serious talent and, after reading The Underwater Welder, you’re bound to want to track down more of his books.

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