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Monday, July 29, 2013

Kyle reads Indie comics sometimes: The Underwater Welder

Jeff Lemire has become one of the highlights of a fairly rough past year for DC Comics. Jumping from a terribly unappreciated run on Superboy pre-DC relaunch, to riding a critically acclaimed run on Animal Man that many called the highlight of the "New 52". I've enjoyed some of his mainstream work, particularly his fabulous Green Arrow run that I've highlighted before on this very site, which is quickly becoming his answer to Scott Snyder's acclaimed Batman tenure. I can be a little hot and cold on Lemire overall though, but I've come to understand that the comics that he also provides the art for are always amongst the best of his work. With that said, in 2012, Lemire released a book years in the making with Top Shelf publishing entitled The Underwater Welder. I had been interested in digging a little deeper into Lemire's more stylized end of things for quite some time, and with a pitch that compares this story to a great episode of The Twilight Zone, how could I refuse? Granted, said pitch was by Damon Lindelof, which is not a positive endorsement necessarily, but I digress.

The Underwater Welder looks at the life of Jack. Jack works in the occupation of the title of the book at an oil rig in Nova Scotia, and he has a child on the way with his stay at home wife Suse. They live in Tigg's Bay, a place that Jack grew up in and brought Suse back to in order to work a menial labor job despite having a college education. The reason being, Jack is haunted by the memory of his father, who disappeared on Halloween night when Jack was a little boy. Jack's father, who has indeed departed the mortal coil, was also an underwater welder.  This relationship has haunted Jack his entire life and set the course for his fairly withdrawn adulthood. Jack is really only happy when he's alone and at work. One day he sees an item underwater that throws his world out of balance and eventually leads him to the somewhat otherworldly scenario that reads much like something Rod Serling would have penned. Jack becomes alone, will he find peace here or will he realize the mistakes of his past and come back home?

If there's a silver lining that trails throughout The Underwater Welder, its the idea of breaking apart cycles that have been set up for us our entire lives. Jack's father, Peter, was a worthless old drunk. Any reader can easily see that. But to Jack, he wears slightly rose-tinted glasses when it comes to his pater familius. To him, Peter was a man who lived by his own rules and answered to no one. He was "truly free", and often had a child-like sensibility that appealed to ten year old Jack. In truth, Peter let Jack down far too often, valuing his freedom and dreams of "finding treasure" over actually raising his son. It cost him his marriage, and it eventually cost him his life. Jack was forever scarred though by his dad's disappearance. Such much so, that he decided to go into the same line of work. 

There are multiple ways to look at Jack's reaction to this trauma. Did he take on a career that allows him complete solitude because he's become distrusting of others? Is it because solitude is all that he truly knows? More to the point, is he outwardly becoming more and more like his father in an attempt to find his father, or possibly fill the gap that his father left in the world? As the central character, Jack is one part cypher and two parts fascinating human being. When Jack forgets to come home at the hour he promised his wife due to basically day dreaming the afternoon away, it's a feeling that felt familiar to me. At some point on my life, I've made that kind of mistake too, and so that particular sequence resonated with me. While I've never outwardly sought solitude as my go-to status for happiness (far from the case really), when Jack expresses disappointment in others and pushes everyone away emotionally, these are real feelings and perhaps notate the book at its most pleasurable and visceral.

While Lemire acquits himself well with the individual voices of each character, allowing everyone to sound distinct (which is a talent in of itself), the actual characterizations, on the surface, leave a bit to be desired. The main area in which this burden is laid has to be towards Lemire's depiction of the fairer sex. Both Suse and Jack's mother feel more like plot devices more than anything else, but while this level of criticism would be quite warranted normally, I think in this case there's some leeway that can be given to dodge it a bit. Jack's perception of the people around him is what shades the narrative, we don't get a chance to really know either Suse or his mother because Jack barely spends any time with them. It doesn't make either character more satisfying, but I can be forgiving of this shortcoming. More problematic though is the straightforwardness of the central mystery. Jack cannot let go of the past surrounding his father's death, therefore his cannot look towards his future with his wife and soon to be born baby. That's basically the tenant of the entire story, and I feel like we as readers get nailed with it again and again.

Perhaps where the story is at its most "preachy" is during the catharsis moments when Jack awakes in a Nova Scotia where there is no one left but himself and he begins to resemble his own father as he loses track of time. This is where I felt like my disappointment in the book began to gain more momentum, as in theory I should find the idea of Jack physically living in the metaphorical world he's built for himself to be much more intriguing than it actually is. Instead it leads to a realization that feels all too pat and instant as Jack suddenly remembers the role he himself played in his father's disappearance, and this sudden memory jog borders a little on the ridiculous as well as hinging on a big mystery that really wasn't much of a mystery at all. Suddenly, Jack wants to be a good father, and wants to embrace his mother as the parent that actually loved him, etc. Perhaps this would have worked a little more satisfyingly if we had gotten just a bit more character development from either areas of Jack's realized regret.

The one saving grace may be that a deeper reading of the panel structure leads one to suspect that perhaps Jack's ending isn't so happy after all. Lemire's art, which is as scratchily lovely as ever, divides his panel shading into two distinct types. Black and White for Jack's real-world interactions, where he feels like the most disconnected and Gray for when he's remembering his father, diving under water, and within the ghost town, the places where he is most comfortable. When Jack realizes his own foibles and finally surfaces from under the water, everything becomes grey and the two finally mesh. This shift can either be read as Jack now accepts his future and finally has put the memory of his father past him, or that Jack never escaped his prison to begin with and this is an afterlife vision. If it's the latter, it echoes the Twilight Zone-esque themes a little broader and enrichens my initial read of the material a bit more so than the somewhat unsatisfying "easy" ending. If I get the option of picking one or the other, this is where I'm going, particularly in that it makes Lemire's underlying themes, about how destructive regret can be to an individual, far stronger.

Again, the art is gorgeous throughout, with some particularly beautiful cinematic page structures when Jack is deep in the water. Lemire allows his own storytelling to be sparse enough that it never quite gets in the way of the art, and as such many of the pages speak for themselves without the need for written word. Lemire realizes that comic book storytelling is primarily a visual medium and this is one of the areas where he succeeds. If nothing else, The Underwater Welder is recommendable for this aspect alone.

The Underwater Welder has a concept that speaks to universal themes, how hanging onto the past can lead to unintended consequences, and its title character is very well defined. I just had a difficult time caring about anything else surrounding him other than the more fantastical aspects of his journey. It's not a bad book by any means, I enjoyed my time with it, it's just a little by the numbers in places a little too noticeable and doesn't come close to reaching Lemire's better work like Essex County. Here's hoping his next foray corrects some of the hollowness that seeped into this particular work. On the other hand, go buy Green Arrow! It's a great run so far!

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