The Underwater Welder
Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder is one of the best books that I have ever read. In a way it would be somewhat suitable to simply leave my review at that, because it is also very much a book that breathes in broad strokes and simple statements; I, however, am not and so I will instead continue to ramble on about its qualities for quite some time, time that would be better spent buying the actual book online or placing an order for its upcoming physical release ( or, like me, doing both!). So go do that, then come back and read the rest of this review ( which will still be Spoiler-free).
See? How right was I? How amazing is this book? You did read it right? Maybe though that straightforward statement of praise wasn’t potent enough on its own; I guess it’s easy to simply say something like that, and that it is the critical justifications that actually convince. When done right though that blunt presentation has a power unlike any other and it is this that sets The Underwater Welder apart from all other works in its field ( which, honestly, isn’t many). This is a very small book, a story of one man told by only one man and it fits less story into its over two-hundred pages then most others do in twenty but it is because of this that it has such a big impact.
Comics are known for their continuity, for their complexity and for the confusion these can cause an incoming reader; in Welder though it is the protagonist who is placed in a battle with the past, as haunted by his story, his history, as we are. Ghosts, both physical and figurative flitter before his eyes, literal skeletons lie in his closet; it’s Halloween and those memories that he thought he had mastered, had repressed are resurrected. They race through his mind in place of those he should be having about his wife and approaching son; they swallow him whole, his only escape from their oppression the pressure of the ocean, where he is but a plip
Eyes, Ghosts, a plip of Water and an Old-Watch, these are the motifs Lemire masterfully builds his book around. Like one would a literal piece of art, a painting, Lemire builds up this simple story of sons, fathers and the Tree of Life layer by layer: adding more paint by playing out scenes, images and ideas again and again , each repetition adding depth, taking us deeper. Plip. This is true both of Lemire’s script and trademark sketchy art style, the latter of which many would frown upon first seeing on an iPad screen; luckily though Lemire is no Luddite, his alternations between tight panels and big full page art playing perfectly through the app.
I’ve said this before, perhaps in reference to his interiors for The Butler Did It but Lemire’s art is an amazing anachronism; it shouldn’t work and yet it is simply wonderful, an integral and irreplaceable element of all his best works. It’s rough, it looks rushed, the characters are often ragged and their features irregularly proportioned and positioned and even if that weren’t the case, even if it were cleaned up, it would still be a very cartoony style. Somehow though it is also the most empathetic, evocative and eerily human that I have ever witnessed; anything else would be detrimental to this tale. It possibly works because the people he is drawing are themselves very rough, ragged and undefined and that the urgency of his lines lends them a certain kind of gut impact, as of they were carved out while crying by a sobbing, shaking hand.
Whatever the reason there is something in his art that gets to me, in this case more than any other, and combined with the clever emotional hook it made this book utterly compelling to me. I opened it up to see if the file had fully downloaded and didn’t put it down till after Lemire’s last words had fully resonated. No, that’s actually not true because those words and the book as a whole is still stuck with me now; I am as haunted by it as Jack Is his past. I won’t lie, it made me cry* while I was reading it – and still gets me feeling a bit sappy when I think on it – but I’m not really sure why. Yes there are plenty of powerful emotional moments in there, but it got me before them, i was gone before I had any good reason to be; simply swept away by the emotional undercurrent that Lemire has left this book with.
That said it’s possibly not perfect, there are perhaps some elements that hit a little lighter than others. For example I found it to be at its most meaningful when it didn’t mean to be, that it crafted its most interesting world before the Welder wakes up in the strange new place, having dived too deep and come out the other side. I’m normally all for such a sci-fi twist and so this talk of The Twilight Zone had me excited but once I started reading the book it was the in-house drama that had me hooked. So even though this section is all a metaphorical mirror of that stuff I’m not entirely sure that it was necessary, that it maybe should have stuck with simple since that was going so spectacularly well.
That though is not much of a criticism, it’s barely even a flaw, just an imperfection, which isn’t always a bad thing to have. Now that I have spent all this time thinking about it I realize that perhaps my opening statement wasn’t strong enough, that The Underwater Welder isn’t simply one of the best books that I have ever read, it’s why I read. Jack isn’t just a character to me, he’s a person and his struggle with the fear of fatherhood and falling into a cycle, of repeating his fathers mistakes (Plip) is stronger to me than problems many real people have; this isn’t just representative of life, this is how we live. So maybe it’s not perfect, but like our parents and partners these imperfections are inherent in the attraction.This? This is love.z
* For the first time in at least five years.