{The Poor Man’s Novel} “The Underwater Welder” by Jeff Lemire (2012)

There are some individuals that are so ashamed to read comics that they’ll overly praise the “independent” spirit of any artist who strikes out on their own and tells a story that doesn’t involve any costumed ubermenschen.

They’ll praise, they’ll praise to the point of religiosity. They’ll praise because they want to help validate a medium they’re secretly embarrassed to be enjoying well into their thirties, when they should be more concerned with more practical matters like…I don’t know, home renovations or something. Video game fanatics have similar pangs of conscience. When you hear them proselytizing that games are a form of art , you know it’s their mother’s wrath they fear. There’s nothing wrong with reading comics. There’s nothing wrong with loving comics. But there’s something wrong with believing that comics should be more than comics.

No matter how loud any milquetoast gamer cries, God of War could never replace Homer’s Odyssey in the educated imagination. Games are not even close to being an authentic surrogate for the experience literature betroths. Comics, on the other hand, are literatures rambunctious little brother: he can’t use his words as well, but his gestures paint a broad, emotional picture. Comics earn high marks for trying to emulate the forms of higher culture, not retarding them like video games do. At least some try comics to. And don’t get me wrong, comics do their own thing, and they do it well, but it’s commendable for comics to retain its smarts like literature, and not mollycoddle its audience like video games do.

I say all this by preface to Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder which I’ve heard great, supercilious things about, and yet it’s no easy task finding a reason in the material itself for these uproarious reviews. It is not a poor comic, but it’s not literature either. Everything Lemire attempts to do in Welder seems commonplace. The first diagetic half was cliched ridden: I knew what the characters were going to say well before they said it. The metaphor of underwater welding was certainly novel and it yielded some interesting scenarios, but again, nothing really surprised me. Maybe he should have ran with another theme: A hard blue collar life after getting one’s college degree in English and failing to do anything constructive with it. Sounds like an interesting setup. Beats bum, vacant-stare dad who has a dangerous job and a more difficult time escaping the ghosts of the past, ghosts that are waiting beneath (shiver).

There’s was even a throwaway line in the comic about the difficulty of escaping from ones roots whilst ones dreams are being crushed. Or maybe I’m just reading into it. Anyway, it’s all been done before. There was some gravid matter being thrown around—whimsical dads misunderstood by their unromantic wives, the sins of the father visited upon the son—accentuated by Lemire’s stark charcoal palette, but the mud just didn’t stick for me. Was I moved by denouement? Yes. But only because I have a wife and a son and a father and I too have issues. We all have considerable entanglements with work and marriage and paternity, and Lemire relies on our own experiences to fill in the blanks. The material does not feel lived in. Actually, I felt like I was reading a story about a story. Everything felt distant and half-remembered. But I can’t say I didn’t like the comic. I think there is definite promise in Lemire’s work. The Underwater Welder is a good comic. But it’s a poor man’s novel.