Thursday, September 27, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: The Underwater Welder

Prior to it's release, Jeff Lemire's The Underwater Welder was probably my most anticipated release of the year.  Shit, I've been talking about it and thinking about it for over a year now.  Then it came out, and I flipped through it, drooled a bit over the art, showed if off to my lady, and proudly displayed it on my shelf next to all my other Jeff Lemire stuff.  When the next opportunity arose for some comic reading I passed it by, and did so again and again for a few weeks.

The reason for the delay was that Lost Dogs had just recently been re-released, and I had jumped at the first opportunity to read that when it came out. With The Underwater Welder coming out hot on it's heels, and Sweet Tooth nearing it's end I thought it would be a good idea to ration out my Jeff Lemire reads as much as possible.

Well, Then this guy went it reviewed it, which I'm not gonna lie, made me all jealous.  That coincided with a time where I just needed to read something guaranteed to be awesome, and lo and behold, there was The Underwater Welder just sitting there on my shelf waiting for me.  Problem solved.

The Underwater Welder follows Jack Joseph, an underwater welder who works on an oil rig just off the coast of Nova Scotia.  Jack and his wife are about to have their first child. The looming birth and the challenges of fatherhood have put Jack into a state of numbed detachment.  Lacking the ability to work through his stress, fears and anxiety, Jack retreats to the ocean depths.  Jack's diving into the depths is analogous to his pulling away from his wife and his unborn son.  However, as Jack dives, he experiences a supernatural occurrence that brings back long-buried memories of his own father, and gives him insight into his own life's path.

I've had the pleasure of reading damn near everything Jeff Lemire has put into print. With the exception of most of his DC comics work, I've read all of his independent, creator-owned comics work.  I've been very impressed with all his stuff so far.  I mean, the guy is easily one of my favorite comic creators.  Sweet Tooth stands out as probably my favorite monthly comic right now.  The guy is high, high on my list. So I was very happy to discover that The Underwater Welder is his very best work to date.


When I chatted with Lemire at the 2011 Emerald City Comicon, he told me that Underwater Welder is the comics work he is most proud of, and after reading this, I can clearly see why.

Never before has Lemire's art looked this good. Sure, it's not for everyone, and I think Niall summed it up well when he referred to Lemire's art as an "acquired taste".  Though I like how Lemire's sometimes rough and sketchy art seems to channel raw emotion, I've talked to people who think he sucks.  Granted, "he sucks" was about the full extent of their argument, but nonetheless, it's an insight.  Anyway, I was impressed.  For my money, this is his best work with the pen and brush.

Lemire uses two distinct styles to tell his story here. There's his familiar ink line and jet-black india ink that dominated his early works such as Essex County and The Nobody.  I thought Lemire's line work when working in this style looked sharp and better than ever. It's impressive how much his skill has developed over the years.


The second style Lemire uses is ink line with ink wash, which allows for a softer look and gives the story a variety of grey tones which Lemire often used to juxtapose the straight black and white art.  Flipping back through the book now as I write this review, it is interesting to see how Lemire transitioned between the two styles.  Sometimes this transition is sneakily smooth, and other times it is jarringly noticeable and geared to make an impact.  Not that he ever seems to have any problems delivering an emotional kick, but by using these two techniques, Lemire was able to create a lot of the emotional impact of the story, simply through the style of ink on the page.

If Jeff Lemire had a superpower, it would be the ability to make people break down and cry by using only pictures and words.  As I've experienced through his other works, Lemire manages to deliver a narrative that is written in such a way that the people, their lives and the events, are incredibly easy to understand and relate to.  Lemire always amazes me with his ability to clearly depict humans working through these basic, raw emotions that we all have, but are often unable to articulate or even comprehend.  It's kinda uncanny, but beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time.

No matter how you look at it, The Underwater Welder is a powerhouse of a graphic novel.  Jeff Lemire is at the top of his game here.  His art has never looked better and his writing, plotting, and scripting is near perfect.  This is an impressive comic, and one that should be read by many.  You wont get punch-ups and tight underpants, but you will get a story about fathers and sons, death and birth, an exploration into the depths of reality.  I loved it, and I think you will too.

Grade: A+


Niall Alexander said...

Graphic novel of the year? For me, for sure - I'm struggling just to come up with another contender.

More than a month on I still think of The Underwater Welder, and Lemire's art has wormed its way into my mind as well: some of my dreams recently have clearly been cribbing from his incredible spreads.

Anyway, a fantastic review, Ryan.

Ryan said...

Thank you Niall! I held off on reading your review until I had read, and fully digested Underwater Welder. As usual, great stuff.

For stuff released this year, I'd say Flex Mentallo, and King City are the biggest contenders for graphic novel of the year. Technically, those are both re-releases though. I haven't read the new Blacksad or Locke & Key though and those could possibly contend...Still, Underwater Welder tops that stuff for me.

I've got one review in the pipeline for a graphic novel called Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Joshua W. Cotter which is equally astounding.

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