Each week Graphic Detail reviews a new graphic novel or trade paperback release.
Anyone who stopped by the Top Shelf booth during the San Diego Comic-Con was treated to a nice surprise: advance copies of Jeff Lemire's graphic novel The Underwater Welder, due to be released in stores in a few weeks. Only 400 copies of the book were available at the show, each signed by Lemire himself. The MindHut was fortunate enough to snag one of these copies, so here's an advance review!
The Underwater Welder is the story of Jack Joseph, a 33-year-old English major who's returned to his home in rural Nova Scotia to work on an offshore rig performing underwater maintenance. He's married to a woman named Susie and expecting his first child, though things aren't all that great on the home front. Jack has an obsession with work; he wants to be out on the rig as much as possible, despite his wife's wishes that he'd stay home more and help prepare for the baby. The truth is that Jack never got over the death of his father, an underwater scavenger who drowned on Halloween night 20 years ago. Susie suspects the whole reason they've come back to Jack's hometown is that he's still hoping to find his father under the water, somewhere, even though he couldn't still be alive. But one day on a dive Jack comes across something that might have belonged to his old man, and it triggers a series of strange events that seemingly send Jack into another world.
In the introduction to this book, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof refers to the comic as "the most spectacular episode of The Twilight Zone that was never produced." That's a pretty fair assessment, since what starts as a family drama turns into something of a ghost story. Minor spoiler: at about halfway through the book, after a calamitous dive, Jack surfaces to find that his entire town is deserted... and, moreover, that he can't leave its borders, no matter how hard he tries. Additionally, the ghost of his father and younger self seem to be following him around, talking to him and exacerbating the pain he feels for having lost his dad at such a young age. Is this really happening, or has Jack retreated so far into himself that this is how he deals with stressful situations?
We're obviously not going to spoil the answer here, but believe it when we say that Lemire's book is a terrific examination of grief, stress, and moving forward. Jack is a protagonist who becomes almost literally trapped in his past, something many of us can probably relate to. The family dynamics are pitch-perfect here, as anyone who's read Lemire's Essex County Trilogy or Animal Man might expect. A new father himself, Lemire has some really powerful things to say about parenthood and familial bonds, and if you don't find yourself moved by this story you might want to make sure you're not a robot.
As is typical with Lemire's creator-owned work, he also provides art for this volume. As is also typical, it's excellent. The book's totally in black-and-white, which leads to some amazing visual motifs, particularly in the different between the above-water scenes (which are set against a white background) and the underwater scenes (which are cast mostly in black). As always, Lemire can make you care about his characters with only a few pencil strokes. You will love Susie and have deep sympathy for Jack by 20 pages in.
In the end, Underwater Welder is a must-read for fans of Jeff Lemire, and anyone looking for a really moving story of family tragedy and struggle with just a bit of a fantastic twist should check it out as well. Next year, this book will almost certainly be lauded by the Eisner Awards... might as well see what it's all about now. A