Beneath the surface: a review of The Underwater Welder

The waves are high and the sunset’s red. So now it’s time to go to bed.

The tide is up and the wind does rip. But worry not, ’cause we’ll never tip.

We’fe far at sea, days from land. But if you’re scared just take my hand.

Just hold on tight, boy-o-mine. In my arms you’ll be just fine.

The moon is full, the sea is deep.

We rock and rock and rock to sleep.

The Underwater Welder by Jeff LemireJeff Lemire has become one of the most popular comics creators in recent years, working with DC Comics to write and illustrate titles like SWEET TOOTH and the new ANIMAL MAN. This year’s The Underwater Welder (from Top Shelf Productions) is a graphic novel entirely of his own invention, and Lemire’s keen moral sense of character and thorough understanding of happiness and sorrow, and of success and failure, translate wonderfully into this standalone tale.

Lemire has a knack for balancing simplicity and complexity with equal grace. Divided into four parts, The Underwater Welder is about a man named Jack who’s about to start a family with his wife Susan, but before he can move forward, he must come to terms with the past. He dives deep into the cold, dark sea every day not in search of riches or sunken treasure but answers. Years ago, when Jack was still a child, his father jumped into the ocean and never returned, leaving him and his mother alone.

Now, as he’s on the verge of becoming a father to a baby boy, Jack’s fears and doubts bubble to the surface. Was his dad really the hero that he idolizes, or has he been ignoring his loved ones’ advice and forgetting about countless disappointments? Susan is worried that Jack will turn into his no-good father at a time when she needs him most, and he almost disappears altogether — just like his dad did. To shoulder the responsibility of parenthood, Jack must understand his father not as a child does, but as an adult can. Fathers are human beings, with real moments of strength and weakness, and Jack must figure out what kind of man his was. But there’s a possibility that he’s searching for a truth he’ll never find.

Lemire introduces pieces and layers of the mystery behind Jack’s father’s disappearance, but he keeps readers engaged by feeding them crumbs of answers one at a time. You never feel like he’s proposing too many questions without giving some semblance of understanding and resolution in return. And Lemire never goes overboard with his story or characters. Their depth lies in their common, everyday familiarity.

Lemire also makes great visual and thematic parallels between diving and self-discovery, water pressure and the stressful demands of life (and the sudden release of a pregnant woman’s “water breaking”), the confusion of swimming up and down underwater and moving backward and forward as people, and so on. For example, Jack is a welder who mends broken constructions for a living but has trouble fixing his own problems. These subtle but effective connections work so well with the black-and-white imagery and inspire such curiosity that once you’re a few pages in, you won’t miss the fullness of color. In a way, the bleakness of the illustrations is fitting. Jack’s world is one without brightness and hope — one that has been standing still for years. Something’s been missing from his life, and he can’t rest until he recovers what was lost.

Bottom line: A comic that’s solid throughout and a great match for anyone who’s new to the medium.

What I liked: Everything!

What I wasn’t expecting: The powerful imagery.

Grade: A

Have you read this or any of Lemire’s other works? What did you think of it/them?

Also, can you make any other comparisons between pregnancy/parenthood and deep-sea diving — or any other occupation? Be creative!

2 thoughts on “Beneath the surface: a review of The Underwater Welder

  1. Edmund Charles Davis-Quinn

    I liked it ***, but just loving his “Sweet Tooth” series. And “Essex County” is easily the best book I have read so far this year (read 25 already). Interesting to me that is personal work is far sparer than his work for DC and Vertigo.

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