In reviewing Canadian Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel The Nobody in 2009, I praised this, that and the other — yet nonetheless concluded the Joe Shuster and Doug Wright award-winning creator of the Essex County series “might have better exploited the unique nature of his medium here.”
So, Lemire (perhaps) didn’t innovate. Today, this critic would ask himself: And? The Nobody is absorbing, moody comics storytelling. To complain that it didn’t also break new ground is unreasonable.
Critics deal in subjectivity, but can still get things straight-up, misguidedly wrong. One certainly can’t level the same misplaced criticism at Lemire’s new title, The Underwater Welder, however; not only is the book — a return to the same pulp realm as The Nobody — a compelling, even affecting work, but Lemire exploits the distinctiveness of the comics medium to striking effect.
As in his other work, Lemire’s latest is set in a forlorn burg where even the pub has few patrons. This is Tigg’s Bay, Nova Scotia, where titular figure Jack works long hours beneath an offshore oil rig, neglecting his very pregnant and increasingly alienated wife Susie.
Things only get worse for the couple when Jack, tormented by the memory of his treasure-hunter father, starts seeing unsettling spectres while diving. He’s transported to a more profoundly haunting realm upon retrieving a submerged pocket watch — a moment that precipitates the book’s most outstanding piece of invention.
What follows is a two-page spread in which Jack is confronted with a torrent of memories, each visualized by a single panel image. Rather than be presented in succession, however, as in standard comic book layout, it’s akin to streams of photo prints exploding outward, resulting in a collage-like, single larger image on the two-dimensional page. Lemire hasn’t merely created a static movie, as many artists unwittingly did over the decades by emulating cinema. Rather, he presents a dramatic, arresting montage uniquely suited to the comics form.
Another inspired example involves two successive panels depicting the harbour at night in a torrential thunderstorm — the first predominantly black, with white highlights delineating the buildings and water, and the next like a positive reverse image, with lightning vividly illuminating the tableau.
As in The Nobody, Lemire’s sombre black-and-white images and sometimes-craggy faces lend an appropriate sense of displacement and unease, yet he often subtly alters his style, making the expressions softer, more charged with delicate emotion, as when Jack and Susie exchange anger, fears and suspicions. At other times, there are just some marvellous images — like a full-page fantasy scene in which the loving couple, their bed afloat upon the sea, drifts towards the sunset.
If any critiques are to be levelled, some of Lemire’s dialogue-heavy scenes come across as mere back-and-forth between talking heads. The story’s conclusion is also more in line with a moral fable, lacking the delicious satisfaction of The Nobody.
There’s no denying the power packed into Lemire’s words and images throughout the bulk of The Underwater Welder, however. And innovation.