Stories are important. The fear many expectant fathers feel is something we don’t often talk about. The Underwater Welder, by Jeff Lemire, is an intelligent, compelling, and visually stunning take on this under-told tale. If you are an adult, and think graphic novels are just for kids, this engaging, haunting, and piercingly human work can change your mind.
This is the story of Jack Joseph, an underwater welder working on an offshore oil rig. He and his wife, Susie, are expecting their first child. Jack father’s, also a diver, was lost during a dive when he was 10. Haunted by his disappearance, Jack prefers the solitude he finds on the ocean floor.
The style of the writing and artwork is realistic. The dialogue is to the point and adult, and the black and white visuals show people with wrinkles, stubble, and bags under their eyes. I’ll mention the art again in a moment; here is a short example of the men talking shop:
Hell, when I was your age, I’d have given anything to move outta this shit-hole. Go away to university like you. You were free, kid. Why’d you ever come back here?
I came back for work. It’s kinda hard to raise a family off an English degree.
Yeah, well, you need a hobby or some shit like that. Your dedication to the job ain’t healthy, man.
The relationship between Jack and his wife is well-written. Jack’s fears and innate ability to repeat the past coupled with his strong, understanding, but no bull-shit wife create a layered marriage that strikes a true tone. There is a wonderfully-drawn, tender scene of them floating in the ocean on their bed that illustrates the love they have for each other. In contrast, you have several scenes with emotional dialogue such as:
Ever since I got pregnant, it’s like you’ve been running away.
No…look, there was this watch my dad gave me before he disappeared, and—
Oh, of course!
Of course this comes back to him. Your whole damn life has been about a man who died twenty years ago!
Oh, really? Why do you think you dragged me back to this place with you? You say it’s for work, but I know better…you just can’t stop chasing his big mysterious disappearance. Well, I’ll tell you something, Jack, there is no mystery. He was a drunk who got pissed one night and drowned. End of story. And you know what…? I’m right here…we’re right here. But you’re too busy chasing a ghost to notice!
Its interesting how a lot of stories talk about people needing to find a way to surface again, to get out of the hole they’re in. I like how this story deals with diving and can turn those tropes upside down. At one point we find Jack in a small boat in a storm, stating:
And even though I’m alone now…I know there’s hope. So, I’m going to dive. And I’ll keep diving…until I find my way back to you.
This story will connect with many readers; it will resonate with parents, especially fathers. Adding to the depth of the writing, the honest, authentic art gives the story greater credibility. There are many powerfully-drawn scenes throughout the book. Standing out are those that juxtapose two parts of the story simultaneously, often through images with water. I hope you appreciate them as much as I have.
The Underwater Welder is one of my favorite graphic novels. I look forward to hearing what you think about it. However, if you find it too heavy and would rather read something a little lighter, more escapist, yet still capable of capturing a particular character dealing with honest emotions, you might check out Werewolves of Montpellier by Jason.