Stories are important. The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire is an often untold story.

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.

The Underwater Welder Cover Photoby  andhereads.jpg

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!
     That’s bullshit!
     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.

Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is an adult graphic novel full of Greek pathos and grit.

Click on the image to purchase from amazon or check it out from your local library

Click on the image to purchase from amazon or check it out from your local library

Astro City comics, by Kurt Busiek,  are at their best when they are telling human, not superhuman, stories.  One of the first stories to really hit home was in Volume 1, Life in the Big City.  Titled "Dreams," it featured a character named The Samaritan most would identify as a superman archetype.  He is completely self-sacrificing and never finds a moments rest while trying to stop all the world’s calamities.  However, we are given a glimpse at just how ordinary his emotions are when we find him lamenting the opportunity to have a moments peace and just enjoy flying.

Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is an even better example of a human story.  It features an ex-con, SteelJack, with plenty of muscle and bullet-proof metal skin, who has just gotten out of prison.  He is trying to go straight; all he wants is work and a simple life.  The story opens with his release, and you immediately understand how simple is going to be difficult for him.  His physical attributes make him stand out. People immediately recognize him, know his past, and are nervous around him.  In addition, he gets a visit from The Samaritan who tells SteelJack that he will be watching him.  As The Samaritan flies off, SteelJack thinks:

“An all I can do is watch him go, soaring off all graceful an’ free like he belongs in the sky, like he’s some kinda—some kinda angel. And I wonder what it would be like. Just once, to do that. To just go, like a dream, like magic, like a miracle—instead o’ being stuck here on the ground, eight hundred pounds of ugly metal nobody wants or needs.”

On top of this, he carries the weight of a mother’s disappointment and a young man’s life on his shoulders; he once shot a kid named Jose.  Out of prison, he goes to visit both of their graves, apologizing to each of them.  He always wanted to buy an angel to put atop his mother’s gravestone, but could never afford one.  He lays on the ground awhile, atop his mother’s stone which has been knocked over, but the ground is even colder for someone with metal skin.  Finally, he gets up and attempts to fix her stone:

“I prop it up, fix it as best I can, but it still looks broken—and I look around at the busted trees, and the scarred-up ground—and I think about what’s on the plate for tomorrow—and the old feelings are still there. I just want to run far and fast, and get away—but I been runnin’ all my life now—and I’m still in the same place…”

SteelJack’s desperation, his desire to escape his life, his place, everything, and start over, is a feeling everyone has had at some point. 

Eventually, SteelJack does find a job within his old neighborhood, Kiefer Square, although it means associating with known felons (a parole violation).  He is hired by the families of other felons, villains, who are being murdered.  Law enforcement really doesn’t care to help since these are known felons, but the families care. They hire SteelJack to find out who is killing them, why, and to put a stop to it. 

However, SteelJack is no Batman detective.  He fails to stop the murders, and doubts he has what it takes to ever make a difference:

“I can’t do this. I’m just muscle and bulletproof skin—there’s nothing inside. No brains, no courage, nothing. I don’t even know what questions to ask, even if people’d listen to me. I head back to Kiefer Square, planning to tell everyone I’m quitting, that I’m not up to the job they gave me. It’s not like they don’t know it already.”

SteelJack with find himself on the wrong side of the law, battling both heroes and villians, and facing more time in prison as a result of his detective job.  He’ll ask for help from both sides of the law, even appealing to the superheroes, angels as he calls them.  Finally, SteelJack comes to understand one thing about the whole situation:

“The angels failed me. Kiefer Square’s got only one chance left. And it ain’t much of one, Lord knows. But I’m all they got. And I’m hundreds of miles away, and it’s all going down tonight. So I better get moving.”

On top of a great story, the art is very well-done in this graphic novel.  SteelJack is drawn so well; the facial expressions are outstanding and weariness around his eyes speaks volumes.  The entire art staff should be proud of this one.  Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is a great read about a former villain, an aging tough, who is trying to do one thing right in a city where all he’s ever done is wrong.

Werewolves of Montpellier

I think I’ve actually come across a book that earns the title Graphic Novel. The vast majority of graphic novels I read are simply the fun, super hero types that, in my mind, are simply bound comics (I realize this distinction may make no sense to anyone else, but it works for me). However, Werewolves of Montpellier, by Jason, feels like a graphic novel. It is a story of a likable, if not exactly confident or industrious, expatriate living in a French city and trying to figure out his life, love, etc… I’ve flipped through others of this type that work to be serious, Maus comes to mind, and Persepolis, but what separates this work from the others is that it is completely charming and not so overly serious as to drown the story or emotion out of the work.

The art is simple and telling. Often the silence, the lack of a caption, says more than any words could. There are a couple scenes where the characters are either looking at each other, or sitting in such tense silence, that the panels really grab you. One scene in particular made me laugh at the reality and absurdity of it, and another, on the last page, was packed with unspoken conversation. As far as actual conversation, some of the dialogue exchanges are really, really good. I would quote them here, but I don’t want to ruin it.

In the end, however, it is the plight, sincerity, and charm of the main character that make this work. I immediately read another of Jason’s other works, The Last Musketeer, and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have that special something to make it memorable. That’s when I realized that it was the main character I identified with, and it was that same character that made this book so fun for me. I’m actually having a hard time turning it back in, but that would be a bad librarian thing to do, and I will turn it back in today, or tomorrow…  

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Amulet Volume 1: The Stonekeeper

This is an older review that I had never posted. It is funny to read, because my daughter and nephew are now a high school sophomore and senior. As they have grown, we’ve had so much fun passing time making up stories and playing in libraries and bookstores. All childhoods should include time in both. At this point, I’ve read through book 5, and believe book 8 is, or will soon be, published.

Amulet, by Kazu Kibuishi, is a graphic novel found in most children’s graphic novel collections. I really would not have read it if I hadn’t been sitting in the children’s area of a library as my daughter and nephew were playing. They were doing well without my immediate attention, so I pulled a book off the shelf, flipped through a couple pages, then turned to the beginning. The short prologue was tense and heartrending, and had me hooked.

What follows is a great adventure story, no matter your age. I admit that I am occasionally underwhelmed by a child or teen protagonist; they can seem whiny to me. There are exceptions, this book included. The book unfolds with great mystery and imagination. There is an alternate world, a magic amulet, a missing, eccentric grandfather (it’s a goal of mine, btw, being an eccentric grandpa), a kidnapped mother, and more. And besides a great heroine and her brother, there are fantastic machines. I must say, without spoiling the book too much, that the moving house at the end has me totally hooked and I have already requested the next book just to say what part it will play.

This review wouldn’t be doing the book justice if I didn’t bring up the artwork. What was really cool about the artwork is that it propels the story with as much, or more, momentum than the text. This art isn’t background; it works through the story, often being the sole vehicle for telling the story. You have to read the “pictures” as much as the text to follow this tale. Overall, this was absolutely charming, and a lot of fun. Now that I have finished it, I guess I’d better check it out for my daughter. 

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