I first encountered the work of Jeff Lemire in 2008, when I sat as one of the judges for the Eisner Awards, comicdom’s premier prize. Volumes 1 & 2 of what would become his Essex County Trilogy were under consideration and indeed ended up on the final ballot: an easy decision, as I recall, that elicited unanimity from the impressed judges. Since then, he has gone on from strength to strength, becoming one of the best writers at DC Comics for some of their core superhero titles, while also drawing and scripting his own stand-alone project for their Vertigo imprint, Sweet Tooth, a brutally tender tale about chimeric mutants in a postapocalyptic landscape. And the most amazing thing about Lemire’s career since 2008 is that he has not compromised his indie vision. He’s remained weird and off-kilter and idiosyncratic, failing to succumb to the bombast and swell-headedness that so often infects even the sharpest of the alternative creators when they enter the franchised world of “the Big Two,” Marvel and DC.
Lemire’s new work, The Underwater Welder, comes from one of the smaller yet still ambitious, punching-above-their-weight presses, Top Shelf. In it, Lemire mates his early interest in regional oddities of human behavior with his more recent forays into big-screen preternaturalism, such as he’s given us in DC’s monthly Animal Man.
Tigg’s Bay, Nova Scotia, is a poor and tiny village where the main employer is an offshore oil rig. Places like the Rusty Anchor Bar and Sea Breeze Diner eke out the commercial life. Jack Joseph is a fellow of thirty-three years who grew up in Tigg’s Bay, left for college, obtained a degree in English and a wife named Susie (now heavily pregnant), and returned to his ancestral town to assume the role of underwater welder for the rig.
But such a career choice, although fated, was probably a bad move. Because Jack has been haunted by the death of his malfeasant, ne’er-do-well diver father some twenty years ago, and now Jack seems intent on replicating the old man’s demise. One day while working, Jack sees on the seabed, all impossible, the lost pocket watch his father once gave him. His attempt to reclaim the watch is interrupted by unconsciousness. After recovering back on land, in the tense company of his needy and flummoxed wife, he goes back for the watch. And then — well, Jack finds himself on an uncanny journey of self-discovery.
Lemire’s storytelling abilities have never been sharper than in this new novel. He blends forward narrative motion with flashbacks to produce revelatory moments that play off each other. The slow pacing and steady accumulation of events contribute to a paradoxical blended sensation of stasis and time rushing forward. Susie’s evolving pregnancy hangs over the immutable life of the town like some kind of climactic sea change. Lemire’s sparse dialogue is naturalistic yet artfully shaped for subtle character reveals. The uncanny and the mundane aspects of life in Tigg’s Bay interpenetrate and flow into each other in a kind of interzone or borderland.
Brilliantly abetting this fine scripting is superior visual artistry. All in black-and-white, with infinite shadings of grey washes, Lemire’s skritchy, angular, Munchian linework, reminiscent of that of the Brazilian brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (their Daytripper occupies allied territory of memory and the multiverse), evokes a melancholy, harried and haunted existence for Jack Joseph. (But there are touches of humor too: look for the protagonist of Sweet Tooth in one panel. And is it mere coincidence that Jack in his scuba gear resembles Aquaman’s foe, Black Manta, who also had a rough childhood?)
Moreover, the book’s page composition is elaborate, varied, and always spot-on for whatever effect Lemire is seeking to convey. When Jack plays a childhood game of floating above the town, we get a two-page bird’s-eye view of Tigg’s Bay that limns its isolation and self-centeredness. But even before then we have a solid working geography of the town in our heads, thanks to Lemire’s alternation of different perspectives on such landmarks as the town lighthouse. And Jack’s underwater epiphany receives a splendid layout as well.
Lemire also plays with a suite of symbols, mainly, as you might suspect, involving water. This imagery resonates keenly at the most dramatic moments. Likewise, other visual parallels exfoliate: between Jack and his father; between Susie and Jack’s mother when younger; between past and present incidents in town history. This gives the sense of eternal forces at work beneath the mask of the quotidian.
This vividly entertaining and illuminating graphic novel by Jeff Lemire represents a synthesis of all his best past achievements, and points the way toward broad new horizons for this talented young artist.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.