By Alec Berry
If all goes to plan, each and every month a certain column of comic book recommendations will appear in West Virginia University’s student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum. The point of this c
olumn is to make note of a few interesting and new releases and, well, maybe actually encourage someone to step outside and buy a book.
For this month’s column, look here: What’s new: Comic book releases for August
Here on Tricycle Offense, I’d like to take the column a step further and actually own up to my recommendations by picking up, reading and asking the necessary question: was ___ really worth a read? This provides a detailed review for you, the reader, and if a book really is worth checking out, there will now only be more reason to do so.
Simple enough, so let’s begin. This month …
‘The Underwater Welder’ | Jeff Lemire | Top Shelf Productions | 224 pages
Plot: The solicitation text says, “as an underwater welder on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia, Jack Joseph is used to the immense pressures of deep-sea work. Nothing, however, could prepare him for the pressures of impending fatherhood. As Jack dives deeper and deeper, he seems to pull further and further away from his young wife and their unborn son. Then one night, deep in the icy solitude of the ocean floor, something unexplainable happens. Jack has a mysterious and supernatural encounter that will change the course of his life forever.”
Context: In comics, there’s been a trend over the past decade in which many writers and artists have started their careers by producing and sometimes self-publishing smaller, more personal works before going on to do work-for-hire for larger publishers such as Marvel and DC Comics. Jeff Lemire belongs to this type of trajectory. In 2005, Lemire won a Xeric Grant to self-publish “Lost Dogs,” his first major comics work; from there, he went on to produce “The Essex County Trilogy” for the Georgia based publisher Top Shelf Productions. Both works established Lemire’s humanistic and sensitive voice, and through word of mouth and support through websites and comic book podcasts, Lemire steadily became a star talent in a matter of a few, short years. Today, Lemire is one of the leading voices at DC Comics where he currently writes “Animal Man” and “Justice League Dark.”
Lemire began “The Underwater Welder” in 2008, but due to numerous opportunities and career shifts, the book lost some of the artist’s attention. Nonetheless though, four years later, the book exists, marking Lemire’s return to his primary format and publisher, reminding readers of the cartoonist’s roots.
I tend to go back and forth on Jeff Lemire’s work due to its occasional reliance on strong emotion and somewhat predictable plots. Lemire’s a good cartoonist, realized with a style fit to his storytelling goals, but at times the style he’s patented overpowers the narrative(s), leaving works a little empty past the emotional surface. It’s just that at times his stories depend too much on whatever scene supposedly makes a reader cry, and this belittles his work, in a sense, as it offers up this opinion that nothing more resides here than cheap parlor tricks. But I go back and forth. Other times, Lemire breaks away or even fuses his trademark voice with other tones and influences, and these examples, “Lost Dogs,” “Sweet Tooth #1-12,” portray the artist as a much more skilled storyteller. That’s the Lemire I enjoy; “The Underwater Welder” is the Jeff Lemire I enjoy.
Though, it does commence in typical Lemire fashion, introducing characters who sport dialog drenched in his regular themes, yet while consistent to Lemire’s own voice, very little of the cast presents more than the role they’re meant to perform. Damon Lindelof offers an introduction to this volume, and amidst his praise, he makes a point to publicly cherish Lemire’s characters by noting, “I really, really care about the people in this story. A lot.” That sticks with a reader, but the comment runs hollow as you dig your way through the text. Lemire’s characters tend to fall flat in areas and sound ubiquitous in their speech consistently throughout. It’s poor direction on Lemire’s part as his “actors” provide rough performances and fail to escape the types they’ve been cast as, but he does make up for character development through some sense of action. That’s where the concern to characterize arises, leaving depth to how lead Jack Joseph handles the situation he’s been dealt. While actions speak louder than words, words may have aided the effort to fully realize the characters Lemire’s story surrounds. Their roles in the narrative are clear, but the personalities slip, leaving these figures to haunt the two dimensional plane.
Luckily, though, the plot of “The Underwater Welder” falls into a smooth, logical line and every scene feels necessary to the final result. There’s little surplus here. An achievement, I feel, as a majority of graphic novels usually run wild with their length and direct readers toward needless sequences. Lemire shows his understanding of the format by his sense of pacing. Reading this, you know ‘Welder’ isn’t his first mission. It’s a confident work in that way, especially as Lemire transcends his usual bag of tricks once the plot hits its supernatural twist. Here, the artist channels a few other influences, most notably Jack Kirby, as he emphasizes the story’s larger, fantastical moments.
These pages show Lemire laying down a more dynamic line to chase a desired tone of terror, yet though the line art helps, it’s more the general portrayal of these moments that evoke Kirby. Lemire shows power through body language and surrounding elements such as tension lines or air bubbles in these scenes. The physical struggle becomes apparent by these attributes, but also the choice to illustrate them on splash pages, or as single images rather than breaking the sequence down, bit-by-bit, through a grid. A grid would just slow the impact; one image tosses all of the emotion in your face instantly.
There’s just a immensity here unlike much of Lemire’s other work, and he nails it.
A few pages do support heavy grids, though, and to good use. Lemire seems to like twelve panels a page, and in the case of face-to-face character interaction, the choice feels appropriate, pushing the dialog all into one, concise package as to not throw off the pacing or drag out certain moments. But Lemire doesn’t always keep things so tight. At times, he allows his visuals to create an atmosphere or define the setting, and its these quiet panels that introduce a wallowing, some what sordid tone. It’s a trick Lemire recalls from “Essex County,” and the maneuver works, reminding a reader just how good Lemire can be at setting as well as how place plays a vital part in the stories he tells.
A mix of grey and black ink tones intermingle in ‘Welder.’ Lemire uses the differences in ink as a device to separate Jack’s real life and his “supernatural experience,” and while the device comes across as obvious, the technique works in an effective manner. Even his line varies at times. In the example above, of course, but also in smaller scenes where Lemire wishes to communicate a sense of softness he’ll loosen up the line art – or to capture a sense of haze above a situation. The artwork’s really just in this interesting state of flux the whole time, but the fact never throws the piece off.
For the most part, the aspect of underwater welding works more toward a metaphorical end than it does a hardline study or observation of the profession, but I wouldn’t have wanted the later to begin with. Lemire’s narrative depends on other ideas, and the metaphor in place provides those ideas an interesting visualization, aiding this bit of visual entertainment. Actually, ‘Welder’ would be better off relying more so on visual ques. In the back half of the book, Jack ends up in a state of mind represented visually by a ghost town, but rather than resting the tone and weight of the situation on the images, Lemire finds himself a little carried away with stuffing words in Jack’s head. The narration starts to overpower some of the scenes as the artist really works to put the finer point on Jack’s internal conflict. It shows a little lack of confidence. Lemire could have dared a bit more and told his story by his artwork, and it’s clear, due to earlier bits of dialog, a reader would have received the same, if not more of a meaningful point, by pictures alone.
Though, problems aside, “The Underwater Welder” makes plenty of sense within Jeff Lemire’s greater career, yet neither does it play all of the old cards. The work showcases some sense of growth for the artist, and for the reader, offers a nice, sound piece about fatherhood and confrontation. A quick read, certainly, and while not challenging by any sense of the word, ‘Welder’ still remains a well crafted piece which clearly possesses a solid core.
I can honestly say I look foward to another Jeff Lemire work.
To purchase ‘The Underwater Welder,’ click here.