Jack Joseph can’t let go of his past and embrace his future. In writer/artist Jeff Lemire’s masterful graphic novel “The Underwater Welder”, detachment and desolation are themes prevalent in the story and expertly expressed through the singular artistic voice of Lemire. Life and death, past and present obsessively occupy the mind of the character Jack Joseph. Because of what he’s experienced with his father, Jack believes he won’t be a good father to his son. Guilt racks every nook of his brain, leading Jack on a journey, which includes ghosts and other unexplained phenomena that could possibly be a figment of his imagination. Time is a motif that permeates this book, with past and present being depicted fluidly back and forth throughout. As Damon Lindelof explains so succinctly in his forward to the book, this graphic novel could have been made into a script for an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Jack is about to be a father. Like his father before him, Jack has become an underwater welder on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. He has moved back to his home town with his wife, Susie, who is close to giving birth to their first child. Halloween, the anniversary of his father’s death, is fast approaching and Lemire shows, simply through facial expressions, how this day especially haunts him. One day, while working underwater, Jack believes he sees someone swim past him. After experiencing oxygen loss and being rescued, the doctor says he must stay home to recuperate just in case he has damage to his brain. Jack, however, will not listen to reason and proceeds to go against his wife’s pleadings. He embarks on a search of some supernatural mystery that may lurk beneath the sea and enlighten him.
Expert use of black and white is used in Lemire’s artistic palette. Present day scenes are in pure black and white, while the past is depicted in a fading gray and white. Lemire’s choice to use black and white contributes to the book’s haunting quality. The starkness and simplicity implied by black and white make the reader feel more intensely and puts the main focus on the characters and the raw emotions that are expressed in the story and art. The simplicity of the black and white contributes to those raw emotions and seem to give the book a more heart-wrenching feel than if it had been done in color.
Splash pages are powerfully utilized in the book. In one heartbreaking scene, the futility of Jack’s search for his father and meaning in his life is expressed to the reader. The first splash page of the scene has Jack swimming down below the ocean, while the next page has him swimming up. He is continually stuck going around in circles. As a kid, Jack says he would daydream about going down below the ocean further than anyone had ever gone in order to find his father. Jack never would find him and his father never came back to Jack.
Blood and water represent life throughout the book, and they are a few of the motifs placed in the book. When a flashback of Jack’s father shaving is depicted, Jack himself is also shown shaving. Both nick themselves and a droplet of blood falls and plops into the water. Through this evocative scene, we know this book will be about the bond of blood and the effect it has on Jack’s life. This juxtaposition of past and present is only the beginning, with scenes of past, present, and future blended effortlessly by Lemire through his art.
Jack’s deceased father plays a large role in Jack’s life. Lemire, like many times throughout the book, uses images instead of words to show the effect his father had on Jack. In one scene, Jack is shown from behind staring outside a window at the oil rig that both men have had as careers. Lightning flashes and he sees the reflection of his father in the window.
Death and rebirth are prevalent motifs throughout the book. Once Jack enters the ocean and resurfaces in the town, which is now strangely desolate, he goes back to his home. In a full page splash, Jack sits on the floor near a puddle of amniotic fluid. Susie’s water had broken a few pages earlier after he had embarked on his journey. Jack thinks to himself that he has gotten his wish: he is “finally alone.” Those words are in a panel attached to the amniotic fluid on the floor of the house. Jack has become detached from his family and cut off from any remnant of life. In order to get his life back, he must be reborn.
Jack attempts to escape the city in one tortuous scene and drives past a sign saying “Now Leaving Tigg’s Bay”, his hometown. In multiple pages and panels, Jack drives and keeps returning to the same sign. He’s driving in circles, trapped in a past that he so desperately needs to escape from. He thinks to himself, “I ran away. And now I’m all alone.” Like his futile search for his father in his childhood daydreams, Lemire has Jack stuck in the past and in a search for answers to that past instead of embracing the unknown of the future.
Towards the end of the book, Lemire draws a breathtaking splash page of acceptance and reconciliation that must not be spoiled in this review. The faces of the two characters involved, although simply drawn, are extremely emotive and express the lifting of a lifetime of guilt. In the full page spread, the tears and expressions on the faces say more in that image than any words could express. Tears from the reader will be difficult to keep from splashing on the pages of this book.
Jeff Lemire, in his creator-owned oeuvre, creates highly personal works that are simultaneously epic. In “The Underwater Welder”, Lemire may have created his masterpiece. The utilization of the comic book medium’s tools and the epic made personal make this book perfection. This work proves, like his other books, that he is a master artist.
“The Underwater Welder”
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Jeff Lemire
Published by Top Shelf Productions