Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Underwater Welder

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Underwater Welder (Top Shelf, available from August 2012).

Excuse me while I get a little nebulous for a minute. When I was a little kid, I mostly read DC Comics. Every time it seemed that I picked up a Marvel, I was coming in during the middle of a story, and I never saw anything begin or end. Whenever I did find the first part of a new adventure, it was loaded down with references to other stories. There were other, simpler, elementary school-age complaints - how Dr. Octopus or the Mole Man managed to be a concern for more than one panel, why Thor talked so funny - but the overall problem with Marvel books is that I could not understand them.

This got really bad when, around age eleven, I somehow acquired a huge stack of early '70s C-list Marvel titles, and probably some of those weird Atlas books from around the same time. Stubbornly, I insisted on reading and absorbing everything, even if I couldn't grasp what the heck was going on. These days, what I think was going on in that Bullpen was barrels of weed, but I'd try to read some story which was supposed to be about Morbius the Living Vampire and it would end up being about book burners on a college campus. I swear, I read enough iterations on this one weird plot about ordinary suburbanites gaining paranormal superpowers and losing their minds that I eventually thought every Marvel Comic was like that. Maybe Steve Gerber wrote all of them and the great man just had that many issues? I stumbled across one as a reprint in the Essentials omnibus that reprints a pile of what otherwise might have been Man-Thing episodes. I'm sure this rings a bell. The failed clown with the sudden powers of God makes all the other players sit and watch while he has an out-of-body weirdo experience and makes them all witness phantasmagorical recreations of all the crummy things that he went through with his old man*?

Did Jeff Lemire read some of these same weird comics as a kid? His new book from Top Shelf, The Underwater Welder, somehow evokes my hazy memories of those old Marvel books. Sure, we never see the Son of Satan in a tutu or Howard the Duck getting beat up by Ace Frehley, but Lemire is talented enough to get to the point without using surreal superhero imagery along the way.

I'm not familiar with Lemire's work, actually. I've certainly seen praise for his trilogy of graphic novels, Essex County, but have not read them despite the stacks of awards. They are available in a single 512-page collection from Top Shelf that I'd quite like to read now that I've seen his work here. I'm also aware that Lemire has been doing the rounds making superhero comics for DC these days. Somehow, despite writing something like four books a month, he has also found time to write and illustrate The Underwater Welder, a 200-something page story about a dad-to-be who works a dangerous job on the seabed, and who has a whole boatload of daddy issues, and who comes up against a very strange and unnatural occurrence that throws his entire life upside down.

Lemire's art style helped him throw me for a complete loop a couple of times in this story. He works in a very loose way, with a very thin and sketchy line, taking few opportunities to shade or darken the pages. Some of the undersea panels have a grey wash added to them, but these are otherwise quite bright pages, and they lulled me into a false sense of security. When blackness happens, it happens abruptly, and it works wonderfully. There are other very neat visual tricks throughout the story. I like how indistinct Jack's father appears in his memory, and how we're introduced to him as though waking from a dream.

I mentioned to somebody once, leading up to something related, that I didn't know how long it takes to get over the death of a father. Probably never, but Jack's a really, really long way from that point, if it exists. He's moved his wife Susie back to a coastal town in Nova Scotia he could have left behind forever, and taken a dangerous seabed job, killing himself over the loss of his father and obsessed over a secret mystery that only he insists is out there. When something weird happens underwater, it's left unclear whether there's something paranormal at work or whether he's finally cracking from the guilt of becoming a father himself without his own still around. Susie is supportive to a point, but there's only so much that she can give as she approaches her due date and Jack has an accident out on the oil rig...

The book is preceded by a foreword by Damon Lindelof in which he compares the story to a never-produced episode of The Twilight Zone. I can definitely get behind that. Is something genuinely weird happening to two likeable people who don't deserve this kind of torment, or is Jack's psychological upheaval long overdue? Can we sympathize with Jack's actions to exorcise his past, or is he being selfish? I like the way that Lemire kept me guessing, and certainly recommend this to my readers. It's available in stores in August; tell your thrill-merchant to reserve your copy today!

An advance PDF of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.

*It's in Man-Thing issue # 6, true believers! Excelsior!

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