Jack Joseph never moved away from his seaside home. It’s where he grew up and it’s where his child will be born. It’s where his father probably died and it’s where he’ll most likely die too. We’ll say it’s “probably” where his father died only because his father simply disappeared one day years ago, believed to have drowned on one of his many dives looking for underwater junk. But no one knows what happened to his old man so Jack holds onto the slight hope that someday his father will come walking back into town and give his son a hug. Jack, now an underwater welder working on offshore drilling rigs, even looks for some sign of his father on the dark ocean floor. The hope is there in him, the hope that he hasn’t lost his father forever.
In The Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire reverse engineers Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life and shows us a man who wonders what it would be like if the entire world just disappeared. Scared of his own impending fatherhood and the lessons that he may have learned from his own part-time father, Jack finds his escape in the deep waters of his work. It’s not that he’s a workaholic, trying to find fulfillment in his work. It’s that the water that most likely claimed his father’s life is also the water that gave his father life. His father was a diver and he is a diver. The work is almost secondary to that.
In Capra’s movie, he shows us what life would be like without George Bailey, the man that the whole town loved and was affected by. Lemire takes the opposite approach, placing Jack into a ghost image of his town where he’s the only person. His home is empty of his wife and unborn child. The people he’s known for his entire life aren’t manning the usual bars or shops that they always do. And there’s still no father to hold him and show him how to be a man. Jack, who finds some solace in being alone underwater finds out what it’s like to have the same sense of isolation on land as well.
As far back as Essex County, Lemire’s work has contained feelings of isolation and of people separated from the lives that they should be living but here Jack’s entire world is wrapped up in his own isolation from his father, his wife and his child. Lemire is not a happy writer and The Underwater Welder ends on a moment that is as sad as it should be heartwarming. I’ve struggled with the ending of this book because it looks like it may the moment where Jack grows up and becomes his own man. It may be the moment where he steps out from under his father’s long shadow.
But I think the way to read the ending is to see that Jack is his father’s son and that he’s more like his old man than he or anyone wants him to be. That’s the sadness of the book that as Jack is searching desperately for his father, he never looked inside himself to find the man there. Lemire writes Jack as a man searching and searching. Jack thinks he’s searching for a father but that’s only one part of Jack’s longings. When he finds the town with no other people in it, Jack finds a literal dream of the world he thinks he’s living in, where he’s all alone. Is this the world he wants or the world he expects? Lemire doesn’t quite answer this but he poses enough questions to keep the ending from devolving into “and they all lived happily ever after.”
Lemire’s characters tend to look like walking ghosts. His thin, gaunt,sickly looking characters walk through the story with a physical body that often represents a more spiritual image of the characters. Jack, with his gaunt face and wispy hair, is as much a spirit haunting the book like his father’s memory haunts him. Lemire drawings express the inner characters, showing the fragile state that everyone exists in. It’s not pretty or graceful but Lemire’s art is fascinating as it expresses much more than the physical reality of the story. His characters wear their emotional and spiritual states just as easily as they wear their clothes.
Just as he captures the spiritual images of his characters, Lemire also captures the mysteries of the deep. Using large, often single-page images to show Jack underwater, doing his work, Lemire captures the loneliness of the deep. Even without being able to draw water, he captures how the water envelops, protects and hides Jack from the world. Maybe it’s an aspect of the loneliness that pervades his work but the images of Jack underwater are almost protective of the character. They wrap him up in their secrets, guarding his dreams and desires from a world that is trying to get him to know the truth about his father.
Jack wants his father and wants to be a father and it is amazing how the dreams of the former are keeping him from being the latter. Lemire looks at how little we understand who are fathers are even as we idolize them. With drawings that capture the emotional essense of the characters, Lemire returns to the raw personal tales of Essex County while creating a more visually dynamic comic that delivers a story that reminds us that our fathers are just as human as us.