The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about a man named Jack Joseph caught first metaphorically and then literally between his past and future. When I say beautifully drawn I mean it—the art has a sketch-like quality, an impressionistic rendering that has a surprising fullness in the details. It’s rough and encompassing, much like the story itself. Lemire is a gifted visual storyteller (something I admire as I myself am so dependent on words); he makes great use of changes in the level of detail to signal disturbance. He uses the traditional panel structure of a comic to great effect and plays with it, too, stretching one scene across twelve panels on one page and using the crossbars of a window to mimic the boundaries of the panel in the next.
To understand Jack is to understand his father: a man named Pete who made his living by diving for odds and ends he sold at a pawn shop. A man who drove his wife away by drinking too much. Like a lot of alcoholics who find themselves embedded in families, Pete Joseph is desperately sad, desperately out of control, and makes a lot of promises to his son which he can’t keep. He goes diving one Halloween night when Jack is a kid and disappears; the town presumes him dead but Jack can’t shake the feeling his father is still out there somewhere.
Jack Joseph is thirty-three, the same age his father was when his father disappeared. Jack makes his way as an underwater welder on an offshore oil rig, diving just like his father used to, and he’s married to a woman named Susan. They are expecting their first child any day. Jack can handle the immense pressures and darkness of the ocean floor, but he can’t handle the looming pressure of his impending fatherhood or the dark shadow of his own father’s disappearance. One day while diving he sees something that can’t possibly be there. He fights with Susan and winds up diving again only to end up in a space that seems ripped out of time, a sort of purgatory-like holding tank of his own memories.
This book hit me very hard. I grew up with negligent, promise-breaking alcoholic parents. The imminent birth of my own kid sent me head-first into a maelstrom of Unresolved Childhood Issues, too. Like Jack, I had to make the choice between wallowing in the past and embracing the future. I, too, was haunted by the specter of turning into my parents. I didn’t go into the book blind—the back copy talks about parenthood and the ghost of a father, etc—but I didn’t expect Jack’s story to mirror my own so closely. I wonder how much of this is drawn from Jeff Lemire’s personal experiences. The book explores these feelings and themes so deftly, with such pitch-perfect resonance, that I wonder if it’s possible for someone who hasn’t lived through it to capture it so well. I can already see I will fpoist this book on people who are having difficulty navigating the tricky waters of becoming a parent. I can already see it’s a book I’ll return to over and over. I give it five stars out of five stars, but if you are not a parent who has grappled with the demons of your own unreliable parents your mileage may vary.