When I was invited to participate in Comicosity’s 52 in 52 event, I couldn’t have felt more validated. Yes, I’ve been writing for Comicosity for right around a year now, but it was the original Aaron Long-John Ernenputsch 52 in 52 that made me a regular Comicosity reader before I ever joined up.
Now it’s my turn to play along. Together with John and Aaron, and our wonderful sparkplug Mexi Gremillion, we’re going to look at a bunch of new (at least to each of us) reads. Sometimes it’ll be a recommendation from one of the four of us to another one, other times it’ll be a blindfold pick, or it might even be something that, well, for whatever reason lay unread until now.
I decided to start off my run on the 52 in 52 with The Underwater Welder.
THE UNDERWATER WELDER
Creator: Jeff Lemire
Publisher: Top Shelf
Originally published: 2012
His name is Jack Joseph. He’s an underwater water welder. He’s the son of Pete and Dorrie Joseph, the husband of Susan, and, when The Underwater Welder opens, he’s expecting his first child in less than a month. He’s a man at a crossroads in his life, and the two-hundred-twenty pages of this story take us through that life.
Jeff Lemire made a conscious decision when producing this book to use washes and graytones to symbolize the daily grind, the morning shave, the dreary October skies, the measurement of time from one life event to the next. From go, the story is somber and gray, but instantly relatable and understandable. Jack’s working a job that he doesn’t have to work. Susie, his wife, thinks – no, she knows – he can do better, but she loves him and supports him. She’s the one carrying the baby, but she’s the anchor that keeps Jack from drifting away.
The story follows Jack down under the waves, but the story isn’t quite that straightforward. Lemire opens up Jack’s life and thoughts to readers, inviting us in, but seeding the trail with mystery and uncertainty. This is Jack’s story to be certain, but it’s also a story that treads the line between narrative and interactive. Jack guides us through his days, revealing everything we need to know, as though the readers were sitting in a chair, taking notes, as Jack reflects on who he is, how he came to be here, and why Halloween holds such emotional impact for him.
Lemire’s art is standard issue for the veteran comic creator – sketchy and energetic, impressionistic and visceral. Jack isn’t anyone you’ve ever seen before, but he could be anyone you’ve ever seen before. There’s an anonymity in Lemire’s characters that transcends their stories and makes The Underwater Welder a tale much more relevant than the title would make it seem.
Damon Lindelof’s introduction compares The Underwater Welder to an episode of The Twilight Zone, and, to be fair, it’s not wrong. There is no direct correlation of comic book page to minute of film, but The Underwater Welder has quite a bit more real estate to work with in order to garner reader investment in Jack, Susie, and their journey. Lemire uses that space to add depth and personality to the people who shaped Jack – his parents, his wife, the townsfolk.
Lemire may or may not have been going for a masterpiece in crafting The Underwater Welder, but like all good art, the true meaning is left to the consumer. That extends Lemire’s impressionistic work from being locked into visuals and transcends to the entire story.
“The waves are high and the sunset’s red.
So now it’s time to go to bed.
The tide is up and the wind does rip.
But this old ship’ll never tip.”
While that is just an excerpt from a poem Jack’s dad shared with Jack that Jack brings to his wife and unborn child it shows the care and consideration Lemire put in crafting The Underwater Welder. Lemire serves up a story that is emotional, resonant, and approachable. He doesn’t meander in the minutiae of welding, but uses welding as a tool to describe Jacks’ devotion, dedication, and work ethic.
This isn’t just a tale tossed off to fill a commitment or sketched out and stitched together. Lemire deliberately composed The Underwater Welder as a story of introspection. That might be his own introspection, or Jack’s or maybe he’s just encouraging us all to take a look at the world around us and recommit to our priorities.
For our devoted, eagle-eyed readers, you’ll notice that Aaron has two of our first round of 52 in 52. Aaron stepped up in a big way, because life got in the way, much like it does for Jack Joseph in this story. Thank you, Aaron.
Two weeks ago my lifelong best friend, Mark, passed away. He was 46. He had a glioblastoma, the most aggressive, largely inoperable type of brain tumor. Oddly enough, one of Mark’s favorite bands is the Tragically Hip. Their frontman, Gord Downie, also has a glioblastoma. Tying it all together, Downie collaborated with Jeff Lemire on The Secret Path. Expect that collaboration to wrap up my own participation in this year’s 52 in 52.
Stacking The Underwater Welder on top of the finality of a full life that touched many, changed the course of so many other lives, and left a legacy beyond words wound up being a rather weighty, emotional burden. It was, literally, crippling. Reading this – reading anything – was something I needed to take my time getting through. Bit by little bit, just like I got through the first rough days after his passing, I managed to get through The Underwater Welder. The filter of a life well lived, added to this tale, and it truly helped me derive my own message of Lemire’s masterpiece home: let go of the past, make peace with it, and embrace today. That’s not to say forget it all, but don’t lose sight of now. People here need you, and the best way to pay tribute to those no longer with us is to move forward, take their memories into the new ones we create. But you have to present to create those memories. That said, in the end, I rather enjoyed The Underwater Welder, and I’m certain Mark would have as well.