If you’re a newcomer to the world of comics: welcome. You might be thinking to yourself at this moment: Do I toe the edge, or jump in? There’s a lot of movement going on, many undefined shapes and characteristics to look out for. How to find what you like so your first swim isn’t also your last? Like I said, welcome. But before you get frustrated or overwhelmed, let me suggest an entry point. Let me introduce you to Jeff Lemire.
For Canadians, this is particularly relevant, as Jeff Lemire has become something of a poster boy for Canadian authors and artists in both the mainstream and independent industries. He’s a superhero himself, managing a number of gigs for Vertigo and DC full time, while also finding enough time and creative energy to produce his own independent work, all in the midst of starting a family. But in producing so much work in such a short amount of time, Lemire has developed as a writer and an artist at breakneck speed, and his mastery of the craft, as well as his own style, is evident in his latest independent release from Top Shelf Productions: The Underwater Welder.
Lemire wins your attention by starting simple: a bare concept, focused storytelling, not a lot of extraneous detail. Everything you see is meant to be seen, is meant to guide the story from a broad scope of fragments to a specific, intimate experience. His storytelling is clean, smooth and direct.
The concept driving The Underwater Welder: Jack Joseph is a work-obsessed father-to-be, a quiet man who, the story quickly reveals, is bearing the burden of his past less gracefully than he thinks he is. Seeking solace and answers in his father’s old job as an underwater welder, what he finds instead is a dreamlike (or nightmarish) change in the tides of his reality. Aptly compared to a Twilight Zone episode in the introduction by Damen Lindenhoff, the story breaks down into chapters that sink deeper and deeper into Jack’s memory and consciousness, until the gap between the present moment and memory closes completely, and the two meet face-to-face. [image: page 69]
Lemire’s art style acutely reflects many of the characteristics of his chosen subjects. On an intentional level, he uses hard white and black drawings to portray Jack’s life above the surface, both of the water and his memory, while everything that takes place under the surface is awash with watery greys and loosely defined objects, all shadow and atmosphere. Perhaps less consciously, Lemire’s fundamental style of loose, scribbly lines throwing sharp contrasts and rough edges into focus, is a direct reflection of Jack’s personality. It’s beautiful – still a whole, cohesive thing – but flawed, harsh, always with feeling, always real.
For aspiring artists or particularly fascinated readers, Lemire’s art provides a good sense of process: you can still see pencil lines, partially erased, proof that nobody starts out with a perfect idea; his panel borders often don’t match up; and it’s clear where he’s drawn something by hand and where he’s used the help of a computer to cut and paste this final product. You can learn a lot if you take the time to observe it all.
Such as, that’s what we all are. Just scraps of our experience, borrowings from friends and acquaintances, the base of knowledge our parents have passed on and the salvaged knowledge we build for ourselves. There’s no suggestion that perfection – or the clean-lined, skillfull appearance of it in art – is any better or worse than what we face every day. Flaw is character, and character is endlessly, fascinatingly beautiful.
With all this care and heart in his work, it would seem Lemire is at the top of his game and not stopping yet. But, being the critic that I am, I’m left wanting to see him take it further. To leap into curiosity towards something uncomfortable. It seems like he’s writing and drawing at the height of his skill, and don’t get me wrong, he is still producing stunning work. But from a man who has shown himself to be so capable of achieving what he sets his sights on, the question is always: where to go from here? If you achieve a goal earlier than expected, what takes its place?
So, new readers, you have a wealth of reading to catch up on to follow this author’s progress from here on out. But take your time. Enjoy what you read. Start with this book. And if you stay beneath the surface, linger a while in the waves, you’ll get more out of it than you can imagine.