by Vik Gill
Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder makes a significant first impression–it’s an attractive book. The striking orange and blue watercolors on the cover look as though they’re pulsating; there are these flecks of white that give it a weathered quality; the anxious expression on the diver’s face is intriguing.
The back cover is much more subdued than the front; the strong red color is confined to the bottom right. The art has to accommodate a lot of text here, but it’s not any less attractive: the oranges and the blues complement each other well, and little details of the artist’s brushstrokes are visible in the scaffolding.
And there’s that praise near the top. Damon Lindelof, film and television writer, calls the work “the most spectacular story of The Twilight Zone that was never produced.” DC Comics’ Scott Snyder calls it “moving, brilliant and fiercely original… a masterpiece of visual storytelling.”
Taken together, these surface qualities make it difficult for the prospective reader to put the book down–but perhaps there are some things that should be considered.
A particular kind of bombast is latent in that praise. The discriminating prospective reader may let it color their perception of the entire book, independent of whatever attractive qualities may have appealed to them. Can this truly be a “masterpiece?” Are there deeper implications to the Twilight Zone comparison?
It’s not a disingenuous kind of bombast: “a masterpiece of written storytelling” is something that wouldn’t seem out-of-place on the back of a bestselling novel. It’s a common exaggeration, an acceptable exaggeration: this is a book that is trying to affect a broad appeal. It achieves this by having two very popular names from television and mainstream comics–spheres that tend to stand apart from independent comics–offer unbridled praise for the work.
There is substance in both blurbs: Mr. Lindelof views the “people” of the story as sympathetic, and Mr. Snyder believes that there are moments of powerful, lingering emotion in the book.
In a lot of ways, these are incidental things, but they will become important to the reader’s contemplation of the book when it’s finished.
And it’s enough for the prospective reader. They open the book, pass the credits and attribution, and they come to a splash.
It’s interesting. There’s a rough quality to it–the bubbles, the fish, the pencil marks. The focal point of the composition is the welder, and Mr. Lemire does a fantastic job in rendering the parts of his body that are shadowed from the light of his spark.
There are certain parts of the page that seem raw. For example, the welder is awkwardly placed on that pipe–it goes through his pelvis and stomach. Some of the tubes going to his head don’t seem to serve a purpose.
It’s interesting–it’s a way to ease the reader into Mr. Lemire’s art style, or give them one last chance to put the book down. Despite the raw nature of the composition, his skill as an artist is certainly reiterated here.
And Mr. Lindelof’s praise is continued on the next page. He stresses the Twilight Zone aspect of it further, and there’s more emphasis on how the characters are worth caring for. The same comments made towards the praise on the back cover apply here. Else, it’s fine–more anticipation for the story proper.
The first scene, taking place on a beach, is given in a splash and a number of wide panels. What stands out the most is Mr. Lemire’s compelling depiction of a storm front coming in from the sea.
It’s not immediately clear after the scene ends whether it’s a flashback, set in the present, or even real. On the very first page, the top of the lighthouse comes into view before the rest of it is framed in a panel. The fringes of the splash with the moving storm front are white, making the rest of the page look as though it’s fading into view.
Mr. Lemire renders a voice on the radio in an inventive way–he shows a distorted speech bubble emanate from it as soon as it’s turned on. On the next page, the bubble rises from the bottom panel to the top panel, which also depicts the radio but without its own speech bubble.
Mr. Lemire is not explicitly distorting reality, but he’s introducing little hints towards the fantastic. If not the fantastic, then something that’s not quite real.
The next scene opens in a bathroom, and the art is much more restrained, more grounded. The panels are smaller here; mostly variations on twelve panels per page, four rows of three. There are no watercolors, just bold ink. It significantly contrasts with the style of the first few pages, which indicates that there will be more unreal moments, those moments will exhibit the unrestrained style, and there will certainly be a marriage of both styles–there has to be!
In this particular scene, though, we meet Jack and Susie Joseph. The book stumbles a little in introducing them:
That font in the third panel is jarring. Jack’s bubble in the second panel has a lot of white space surrounding his line, which makes the font minimally intrusive–but his bubble in the third panel is drafted in such a constrained way that his words gain too much physical weight and become clumsy. The “I know, sorry,” almost becomes an inappropriate reply, one that could be interpreted as too loud, or too detached. It stands out, but it’s more of a hiccup than a terrible offense.
The book goes on. Mr. Lemire has divisions for chapters, but it can be regarded as two distinct halves. The first 120 pages are more grounded in reality, with a few moments of the unreal interspersed. This part of the book is focused on setting up the conflict that drives Jack in the book’s second half–in establishing his personality, his past, and his relationships with other characters.
The transition to the second half of the book is brought about by a series of intense splashes, single and double paged. A few pages into it and it’s clear what spurred Mr. Lindelof’s Twilight Zone comparison. This half of the book is a distorted reflection of the first half in terms of the way it’s drafted–it’s terrific in that regard.
The ending tends to be satisfying on most readings, but there are a few interpretations that turn it on its head. There is enough ambiguity there to give rise to more than one interpretation, which indicates nuance. It’s enough to merit a discussion post, even.
The Underwater Welder is undoubtedly beautifully drafted and paneled: it’s the work of a mature artist. Mr. Lemire is clearly comfortable in his own ability, as he uses a generous amount of wide panels and splash pages throughout. The pages and panels taken individually don’t feel gratuitous, but contribute more to the contemplative nature of the story.
When taken together, these pages and panels end up feeling sort of lavish: fatigue begins to set in after the first 100 pages. The story cannot completely support the art for such a long stretch. In general, the story is such that without a personal connection to Jack’s conflict, the son chasing after his long-dead father, the reader begins to lose the motivation to turn pages.
Beyond feeling fatigued, the reader finds that many of the story beats in the first part feel familiar. They’re things the reader has seen before. There’s a sequence on page 94 and 95 that brings all of these beats into high relief; it’s done in such an overt way that even the most undiscerning reader is struck with déjà vu.
The reader may find that Jack and Susie come off as somewhat stilted. Take, for example, a conversation between Jack and Susie in a diner.
Mr. Lemire is trying to make these characters seem real, but there’s a subtle artificial tinge over the whole exchange. The words “hashbrown particles,” the personality quirk that manifests itself in flicking food–they come off as things that are reaching at authenticity. Subsequent interactions between Jack and Susie do lean more on real than an approximation of real, but there’s still a suspicious artificiality lingering within them. It’s very slight compared to the diner exchange, but it’s there.
All of these little flaws contribute to a gradual loss of momentum in the book’s first part. Fortunately, the transition between the book’s two parts generates new momentum that is sufficient enough to carry the reader to the ending without much trouble.
When The Underwater Welder is finished, and the reader reflects on what they’ve just read, the result is positive. The work does have flaws, but they’re dwarfed by everything it does well–the art is fantastic, the book’s second part is genuinely compelling, and the ending is much more than it seems. It’s a good book.
In fact, it’s too good for the praise on its back cover. That’s not to say that the work is more than a “masterpiece,” but the reader may, in their reflection of what they’ve just read, come to the conclusion that Mr. Lindelof’s and Mr. Snyder’s praise was a poor fit for the book.
Mr. Lindelof’s comparisons highlight the familiarity that is also present in the book’s second half–it’s the kind of familiarity that arises out of its immediate similarities to The Twilight Zone. Mr. Lindelof’s comments probably do more harm than good in calling attention to it, as the best parts of the book owe little to the show. Like the ending: while a typical Twilight Zone episode’s ending will adhere to strictly to this format, the ending of this work is far more nuanced and original. Propping the book up as “the most spectacular story of The Twilight Zone that was never produced” influences the reader to regard the work in the context of the show. It’s constraining.
In Mr. Snyder’s case, to call Mr. Lemire’s work a “masterpiece” is to make the work less than what it is. It doesn’t carry itself with the airs of an easily-digestible bestseller, the sort of book that’s touted as a “masterpiece” or a “tour de force;” it’s a different kind of book. Mr. Lemire writes and draws with confidence, but there is no self-indulgence. His work is too good to be a “masterpiece” in that very particular sense.
The praise is not disingenuous, and it does contribute to the book’s attractive qualities, and there are some astute observations about the work that may be coaxed out it. It’s just something that will create some friction with the reader’s own contemplation of the work immediately after finishing it.
The reader may put The Underwater Welder back on their shelf and never feel compelled to read it again. That’s fine. There’s still no doubt that they will remember it as a good book, one that doesn’t stand out as much as the rest of Jeff Lemire’s oeuvre, but a good book nonetheless.
TL;DR: Jeff Lemire drafts The Underwater Welder with experience and confidence, and although there are times when the reader may feel that he is too comfortable in his abilities, they will largely appreciate the merits of the work, which lie more in its art than its writing.
The Underwater Welder is written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire. Published by Top Shelf Productions, ask for it at your local comic book shop or support Spandexless by purchasing through Amazon.
Vik Gill is eminently unqualified to be speaking about comics at length, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He lives in Queens, NY and is still in school.