The Underwater Welder

Jeff Lemire (Essex County, Sweet Tooth) recently released this original graphic novel through Top Shelf to great acclaim, and while I did enjoy it, I feel like it may be a little overpraised. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof puts it well in his introduction: The Underwater Welder is like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone. It is the story of Jack Joseph, a diver who works on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. His very pregnant wife is frustrated that he seems to be pulling away from her when she needs him most. Jack is haunted by the loss of his father – also a diver – twenty years earlier. When Jack finds an object deep in the ocean that appears to belong to his father, he finds himself forced to choose between dwelling on the past and his future.

The Underwater Welder is certainly not a bad book. Lemire has a great, idiosyncratic art style that is its own class of Canadian folk art. As a writer, though, I wonder if he is just best suited to short stories. For all of its ambition, The Underwater Welder feels somewhat slight to me, as if it was once a story of Essex County that got promoted to a longer treatment. Lindelof’s comparison to The Twilight Zone is apt and complimentary, but it is also a bit of a curse, because not every episode of The Twilight Zone was solid gold; sometimes it felt like a bit of a formula. So, too, does The Underwater Welder.

That said, as a native of the area, I did enjoy Lemire’s vision of this small Nova Scotia town and would be happy to read more stories set there. Lemire’s tone and output as a writer reminds me of George Elliott (the Canadian author, not the Victorian pseudonym) and the American writer Sherwood Anderson; pretty good company to keep.

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Essex County by Jeff Lemire

I’m a year or two late to this party, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading the rest of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (I had read the first section previously). Lemire’s book became a cause celebre last year when it was in the running for the CBC’s annual “Canada Reads” competition; especially when a panelist considered it unworthy for being a comic.

I’d like to find that panelist and smack them in the head with a copy of this book in the hope that it knocks some sense into them. Lemire’s work here is everything we love about Canadian literature: the sense of place, the examination of family, the tension between city life and small town traditions, of dark secrets and coping with both human nature and mother nature. It is as brilliant and touching as anything I have read by Margaret Laurence, Stephen Leacock, or Alice Munro. Indeed, if someone had handed me the volume about the nurse and told me that it was written by Laurence, I would have believed them.

Essex County is not just just great Canadiana or great comics, it’s a great story and I found myself identifying with a lot of it. Lemire’s brush technique has a perfect weight and tension for this material; combined with a lack of gray tones and tiny hand lettering, as well as what I assume is Lemire’s own artwork from childhood, this is a well-executed passion piece for him. I plan to buy a copy for my parents; I only wish that my grandparents were around to read it too.