Comicscape: Underwater Welder (Mania.com)

By:Joel Rickenbach
Date: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Source: Mania.com

Freedom. That’s what you get when you don’t have to adhere to the rules of mainstream comic books. Forget the 24-page structure, forget what a character’s bible says, forget what sells- The shackles have been removed, go tell your story the way it was meant to be told. Make it personal, make it count. This can be dangerous, however, some creators slip deep onto their own minds, and when they emerge, they bring stories that are untamed, and never really get the ideas across they intend to. Critics will call it “Quirky” or “Artsy”, something that was really written for an audience of one, yet there it sits on the shelf, available to the public. It takes a truly talented writer/creator to craft a personal tale which can also engross a reader with its relatable take on life, and keep them hooked with its style and storytelling. Jeff Lemire is such a writer, and proves it in his latest independent work- Underwater Welder (Top Shelf Productions)
 
Underwater Welder has been out for a little while, but I decided to wait on writing about it, because the story lends itself to this time of year. It’s a somber, sometimes dark, tale that takes place on and around Halloween. The holiday is not the focus of the story per se, but I can imagine sitting down to read this on a crisp fall day, instead of in the hot summer sun… even though it does take place in a seaside town… See, that last sentence proves it- Underwater Welder has such a rich mix of atmosphere, setting and mood, it brings all sorts of things to mind. This wouldn’t be possible in a standard book. A page of seagulls eating followed by a splash page of them flying away? Never, but the mood those pages create are essential to this story. Without a sense of place, stories can lose their identity, and without room to breathe, stories can be crushed. Don’t get me wrong- there is something to be said for the writers and artists that make the challenge of traditional page counts look easy. It’s a skill to be sure, but when you are entering the ocean of someone’s mind, would you rather dive in, or slowly lower yourself into the depths, feeling every sting to your nerve endings?
 
 
n the seaside town of Trigg’s Bay, Nova Scotia, a man named Jack whiles away the hours underwater, welding. Down there, under the waves, things are easy for Jack to fix. Fusing two pieces of pipe together, repairing a tear in another- making things whole is his job. On land, Jack should be a happy man as well- His wife, Suse, is 9 months pregnant, with what she is sure will be a boy. Jack and Suse have an easy, loving relationship, but she hates it when he has to leave and work on the offshore rig for weeks at a time. It may technically only be a few miles out to sea, but it might as well be a world away. Her concerns are valid- Jack throws himself into his work, preferring to spend time in the depths of the ocean than the arms of his wife. It’s not that he doesn’t love her, but something pulls him to the sea, which is curious behavior for an English major. Jack hates Halloween, and makes sure every October 31st he’s out working on the rig. It’s not that he doesn’t like Jack-O-Lanterns or black cats, it’s that his dad, a man who spent his life as a salvage diver, dreaming of one day finding buried treasure in Mexico, disappeared 20 years ago on Halloween Night. Jack’s father was an imperfect man- he drank too much, and had trouble keeping his promises, but on the days he got to be with his son, he made an effort, and it came from a place of love. These are clearly painful memories for Jack, and spending this Halloween under the sea, welding the hours away, is just fine by him. Although it being Halloween might explain the odd chatter coming over his radio, or the glimpse of another diver in the water. What about that pocket watch on the ocean floor? It looks exactly like the one his dad gave him… 
 
 
What Jack goes through next is a menagerie of the eerie and the emotional. It’s no accident that Damon Lindelof, who penned the introduction, likens the story to an episode of the Twilight Zone. There is so much at play here- the anxiety of becoming a father, the burden of ones bloodline, the cyclical nature and inevitability of who we are, and who we may become, and the simple, yet defining pain of losing someone, and never having the chance to say goodbye. All these themes are wrapped in a stark, eerie series of events that has our protagonist, Jack staring into the void. The fact that all of this actually pays off is a masterstroke; the structure of the flashbacks and odd bits of time are superb. We learn exactly what we need to know at the exact right time; it gives reading the book such a sense of reward, it’s palpable. Speaking of, the very natural feel of Lemire’s art is a perfect compliment to his story. It has a very free flowing lines style, with gorgeous ink washes to fill in the mood. You can see the texture of the paper through the ink, giving the book an organic quality that enhances the heartfelt story. Make no mistake- Underwater Welder is a complete work.

 

 

All of this praise goes back to the idea of freedom. Not every book, and not every creator, can have the luxury of bringing their story to the masses unchained. So, when a true talent has that opportunity, it’s time for us to prick up our ears and pay attention. I can’t think of any other single issue, storyline or graphic novel in recent memory as satisfying as Underwater Welder. The conclusion is truly profound, and much like Jack, the underwater welder, will leave you whole.

 

Jeff Lemire’s talents can be read monthly in Sweet Tooth (Vertigo), Animal Man, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. and Justice League: Dark (DC Comics), and his creator owned epic- Essex County (Top Shelf Productions), is highly recommended to those who enjoyed Underwater Welder.

Joel Rickenbach is a curator of cult cinema at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA, and can be heard every week talking film, TV and other geekery on the You’ve got GEEK podcast. Follow him on Twitter and hilarity will no doubt ensue.

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