Lemire Deepens Mystery in "The Underwater Welder"

In his introduction to Jeff Lemire's "The Underwater Welder," "Lost" co-creator and "Prometheus" writer Damon Lindelof channelled Rod Serling, setting the scene for what lies ahead -- or beneath -- in the 250-page, original graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions:

"Picture if you will, a man named Jack. Occupation: Underwater Welder. Tomorrow, it will be Halloween, and while the children in white sheets roam the streets, Jack will be haunted by a different kind of ghost entirely. Because down there, in the vastness of the ocean, deep below where even the light of a blowtorch is swallowed up in the darkness, there is a doorway. And on the other side? Memories, just as dark... and the cold, wet embrace of the Twilight Zone."

Lemire, who both wrote and illustrated his latest epic tale, told CBR News "The Underwater Welder" is the natural follow-up to his universally acclaimed opus "Essex County." The story follows Jack Joseph, an underwater welder who works on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia, fully acclimated to the immense pressures of deep-sea work. But nothing could have prepared him for the pressures of impending fatherhood. As Jack dives deeper and deeper towards the ocean floor, he seems to pull further and further away from his young wife and their unborn son. One night, deep in the icy solitude, something unexplainable happens -- and it rocks Jack's life to the core.

The Eisner-nominated creator spoke candidly about the difficulties completing "The Underwater Welder," how a landlocked Canadian became so passionate about a profession that requires water (and lots of it) and why his own son Gus played a role in the project more than a year before he was born.

CBR News: In Damon Lindelof's introduction to the book he calls "The Underwater Welder" the most spectacular episode of "The Twilight Zone" that was never produced. High praise indeed. Care to justify the comparison, because I believe it's pretty bang on?

The Underwater Welder

Jeff Lemire explores mysteries of the deep and fatherhood in "The Underwater Welder"

Jeff Lemire: I'm not going to say that he's right or anything but it is a good comparison, I think, to compare it to a "Twilight Zone" episode. It's a weird book because in a lot of ways, it's probably my most personal work and it really is the follow-up to "Essex County" in a lot of ways. It's me attempting to do something more in the literary tradition and more personal. At the same time, there is a science fiction or fantasy element to it that reflects some of my Vertigo stuff so it's kind of a hybrid of both -- or I guess, everything that I have done up to this point.

The basic concept of the book is the easiest way to explain that comparison. It's about an underwater welder, obviously, living on the coast in an imaginary small town in Nova Scotia. He and his wife are expecting their first child. There is a lot pressure on him with his job and also with his marriage and impending fatherhood. The stress of all these things is building up and one day when he is diving, something strange happens. He has a mind-bending, strange encounter and when he surfaces, he's in a different world. I think that's where "The Twilight Zone" comparison comes from -- this guy is lost in a different world. And the story is him, really mining his past, trying to figure out what he needs to do to move on and move forward in his life and to get back to his wife and son in time.

I hate slapping labels on things, but do you consider "The Underwater Welder" science-fiction, fantasy, horror, drama...?

There are genre elements to it, I guess, but it's really not a genre book. It's not a horror book or a sci-fi book at all. It's a drama and I don't know how else you classify it. It's highly personal work for me so it's hard for me to call it a sci-fi book or a horror book.

I did a little reading about the profession of underwater welding and the job is not suited for the weak. I think the average age of retirement is 36. How did you land on the profession of underwater welding as a focus for your latest story?

It's weird. I've always had this weird, strong connection to the water. Even though I grew up in Essex County where there were no lakes or oceans or anything. We would spend our summers in northern Ontario on a lake and I just always loved being on the water. Specifically, my introduction to underwater welding was maybe five years ago when I was working at a restaurant and this guy that I was working with was from the East Coast, near Halifax, and his brother was training to become an underwater welder and he was telling me about it and I hadn't really heard of it. It's such a bizarre job. It's very dangerous. And it's this mixture of this blue collar work, welding, with deep sea diving -- it's like training to be an astronaut. And visually, with the helmets and the diving suits, it's such an interesting thing to draw. With all of this stuff swirling around, just like "Sweet Tooth," I just had this image of this underwater welder and from that, you build a story.

Again, the pressures and stresses of that job just became a really strong metaphor for me to channel a lot of the stuff I was feeling at the time -- again, this is four or five years ago and my son is three now, so this is about a year before we had a kid but we had been talking about it and I was feeling stress about becoming a father and committing to having children and how that would change my life -- and all the things that normal people go through. You just channel that into the story and create this whole thing around it. But again, it all just sort of started with this cool visual, just like it was cool to draw the bandaged character or the kid with the antlers.

It was also, by far, the hardest project I have ever undertaken. It was a really difficult book to finish.

Who is Jack Joseph?

As a fan of comics and films, I have always been drawn to these flawed characters -- the lonely, isolated male character -- for whatever reason because I am not one to sit down and try to analyze my past and where all my work is coming from. If you do that, what is the point of doing the work?

Jack is the same age as I was when I started working on the book. He's 33. Before I got into comics, I worked a lot of blue collar jobs. I grew up in a family of farmers and factory workers and when I came to city and was trying to support myself, I worked as a line cook, so I have always been around those kinds of jobs. But I was always someone who wanted something else with my life too. I wanted to be an artist and a writer and I think Jack is sort of that too. He's doing this really dangerous job and his wife keeps telling him that he's not cut out for it and he should be doing something else. He should have got out of this small hometown. He went to university and met her and stuff and she envisioned a different life with him but for some reason, he's pulled back into this town and this job that he isn't really cut out for. And that thing that he can't let go of, that's exactly what he has to figure out. That's the character. And his inability to understand his past -- or really let go of his past -- is what's preventing him from moving forward and having a real life with his family and doing what it takes to become a responsible parent, embrace fatherhood and things like that.

And it's this inability that you explore in "The Underwater Welder?"

I don't want to say too much more without giving away a lot of the book but yes, it is all tied in with his own father and his relationship with his dad. And there's a central mystery about what happened to his father. His dad was someone who disappeared when he was 10 years-old in a diving accident so there are a lot of parallels between him and his dad. He's almost destined to act out his father's life and follow in his footsteps even though he probably shouldn't and he needs to figure out what it is about his father that he can't let go and what it is about that mystery that needs to be solved for him. And the answers don't lie out in the ocean -- they lie within him. And that's the ultimate mystery that runs throughout the course of the book.

While "The Underwater Welder" has countless panels, pages and sequences of overwhelming vastness, solitude, and even complete darkness, it also moves along at a frantic pace -- almost like the tick-tock of a pocket watch. Different than an ongoing series like "Sweet Tooth," how did you find your rhythm on this project and did it end like you imagined it would when you started?

The panel structure and pacing of the book was something I had in mind right from the start. What I really wanted to, and it's really a simple idea, is when he is on land, it's all 12-panel grids and really structured and strict -- it almost becomes oppressive and that reflects how he's feeling in his life, obviously. And the minute he goes underneath the water, it opens up and those 12-panel grids give way to huge double splash pages and these big, open shots. It's not like there is a big complicated thing behind it but I think it works quite well but it was also difficult to do because those 12-panel pages are almost like doing three normal pages of comics. You get these really dense sequences of dialog where there is going to be four or five, 12-panel pages in a row and then there is going to be these open, silent sequences and I think the flow between the two really starts to build the tension up towards the end.

That was a central idea I really had from the get-go and I really used it as my anchor during the whole process because there were times when I would to take three, four, five months off from the book to work on DC stuff or "Sweet Tooth" and I'd need to come back to it. You kind of need to get back into the headspace of the character and where the character is and what the story is that you want to tell and when I had that central idea behind the thing that was at least one thing I could hook myself into, which really kept me focused.

Do you think your art style has changed throughout such a long process?

The trick with doing a book like "The Underwater Welder" is that with it taking me three-and-half, four years to finish, because of all my other work, just visually, as an artist, I was so different by the time I finished the book from when I started it. When you are doing "Sweet Tooth," something that is serialized, that change or progression of style works okay because it's a serialized book and you can see progression with the characters and with your art style over time. But when you are doing a self-contained piece, having consistency in art from beginning to end, really does show because if it isn't consistent, it doesn't work. As a result, near the end of the book, I found myself having to go back and redraw a lot of the first stuff again because it just didn't match -- my style had changed so much. I am always refining my style, changing it and trying new things.

That was one of the reasons that book was hard to do. I was juggling so many different projects with DC and Vertigo, finding the time to do this was difficult. You can't just sit down and do it. You have to reinvest in it and get yourself in a place where you can get adjusted and fall in love with the story again. It's hard to do that with little chunks of time.

I really can't thank Matt Kindt enough because when he drew those three issues of "Sweet Tooth" last year, it gave me a four month break to just draw "The Underwater Welder" for four months straight. And I never would have finished the book if he hadn't done that. That was really my salvation -- it's the only way the book got done.

"The Underwater Welder" arrives in comic book stores this week and book stores on August 7th.

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Tags: jeff lemire, top shelf, sweet tooth, damon lindelof, the underwater welder

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