Underwater Welder Leaves Readers Happily Adrift
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Underwater Welder Leaves Readers Happily Adrift

A new graphic novel from the creator of Essex County explores father-and-son relationships by way of deep-water labour.

Image courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

Toronto artist Jeff Lemire is a bit of an anomaly. His earlier work, Essex County, is considered by many comics fans to be an example of a contemporary graphic novel done right: witty, emotional, and poignant, it captures life in small-town Ontario in a sizable, multi-volume tome. Lemire’s Underwater Welder, just released by Top Shelf Productions, evokes that same feeling, only with a healthy dose of surreal, supernatural fiction.

This, coming from a guy who writes superhero books for DC Comics.

Lemire’s graphic novels don’t deal so much with comic-book-style horror and action. Instead, they tend toward primal emotions: fear, pain, and insecurity. Underwater Welder tells the story of Jack, a man of the titular profession who feels something calling to him in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

While the setting is Nova Scotia, Lemire keeps the backdrop minimal enough that the story could easily be set in any seaside town. Even so, knowing where the story takes place adds to the reading experience. There’s something distinctly Canadian about being tied to a place because of family and work. It’s Underwater Welder’s Nova Scotian backdrop that allows us to appreciate the weird events of the plot, as the mists, murky waters, and general isolation create a sense of foreboding.

Lemire’s use of silent panels allows readers to absorb what’s going on, and also leaves certain things open to interpretation. As with any good story with a dose of the weird, the reader will come up with explanations far better than what the author actually intended.

When there is dialogue, it’s to the point, and it doesn’t clutter the page. This makes it possible to dive deep into the book’s 200-plus pages without effort. The occasional lack of dialogue or expository captioning keeps Jack at a distance.

But why would an author not want his audience to know much about the protagonist?

Underwater Welder’s lack of concrete detail about its narrator (besides a suggestion that he may have had a traumatic childhood) leaves readers to fill in as many details as they want. This enables them to make the story theirs, instead of something that’s being relayed to them. For all we know, the book’s entire thematic focus on relationships between fathers and children could be nothing but a product of Jack’s warped mind. Jack’s narration comes only when the narrative is in the “present,” and this creates an air of uncertainty about what actually happened in the past.

These transitions between adulthood and childhood create abrupt shifts in tone. One minute, we’re learning concrete details about why Jack may be feeling the way he does. Flashbacks allow us to see where those feelings originated.

The shifts can be abrupt, almost like being slapped in the face with a wet trout. While that may not sound appealing, it suits the narrative. Lemire has found a way to convey the feeling of snapping back to reality, not through drawings alone, but also by pacing the story properly.

Lemire’s sudden transitions also serve to highlight the downright eeriness of the book’s latter half: we’re not any more certain that it actually happened than the protagonist is.

The book’s introduction (written by Lost‘s Damon Lindelof) compares Underwater Welder to a Twilight Zone episode, which is apt: it’s a plot that’s too fantastic to be real, but too creepily specific to not resonate. It’s emotional, and it feels genuine as it explores the growth of a jilted son into a father-to-be.

While you could call the ending optimistic, it leaves a haunting rot in the pit of the reader’s stomach. Jack’s personal journey seems to end as he emerges from the waves, but we remain in the void a little longer.

CORRECTION: August 8, 2012, 12:45 PM This post originally implied that Jeff Lemire no longer writes for DC Comics. This is incorrect. We apologize for this error.

Matt Demers writes about comics for Torontoist and other news web sites. You can follow/contact him on Twitter.