Just beneath the surface
Occasionally, I read something that I know is intrinsically good, but I can’t quite figure out why it resonates with me. It’s not a common occurrence, but when it happens, I’m always left feeling a bit uneasy. Suffice to say, I’ve read a lot of comic books, and I can rush to judgment as fast as the next fan-man, but in the case of The Underwater Welder, I was left to ponder why it meant so much to me without clear explanation.
Published last year by Top Shelf Productions, The Underwater Welder is the latest graphic novel from Canadian writer/artist Jeff Lemire, author of Sweet Tooth and Lost Dogs, among other creative endeavors. One part ode to Rod Serling’s masterpiece of macabre fiction and another sweet tribute to the demands of fatherhood, Welder introduces us to Jack Joseph, a young husband and unconventional laborer, who continues to lament his father’s passing years before — even as his own son is nearing his entrance to the world. Having drowned in a diving accident on Halloween as Jack waited, dressed for trick-or-treating, the old man left his son with a steady emptiness as dark and expansive as the very waters he dives into day after day. But when a whispered voice comes through his pressurized helmet, and the image of a long lost watch catches his eye in the murky depths below him, Jack’s tenuous grasp on happiness begins to unravel.
The thing is, I’m not a father, impending or otherwise. I can’t sculpt Jack’s anxiety over his future responsibilities in my head any more than I can conceptualize welding pipes on the ocean floor. Nor — thank God — have I experienced the loss of my father, a scenario I believe cannot be truly understood until one has been forced to live through it personally. My dad is a phone call or an hour’s drive away, still nestled in the house I grew up in, despite my sisters’ and my attempts to convince him and my mom to abandon it for greener pastures. It rests still on the street where he taught me to ride a bike — still casting a shadow over the questionable vegetable garden we’d attempt for some years, although now vastly overgrown like a wild man’s beard. The rooms are much the same as when I lived there a million years ago, although the television is a lot nicer and the microwave a bit more advanced than that first one, a device which he referred to for years as “the devil’s tool.” Although my bedroom has long since been converted into a den, the holes I put into the wall, with posters my dad would roll his eyes over, are still gouged out in the wood paneling. There were plenty of shouting matches reverberating through those rooms over the years — as there is little question from whom I inherited my propensity for argument — but they are still far outweighed in my memory by more pleasant father-son fellowship. By all accounts, that trauma which propels Jack, I just don’t have. And yet, his story still weighs on me.
Eerily normal upon first appearance, Lemire’s depiction of Jack’s surging mania initially takes the form of dreams, childhood memories creeping into his thoughts as he drifts in and out of consciousness. A warm bath becomes the ocean once again, pulling Jack toward his father’s memory like an oxygen tether, reinforcing how much an enveloping comfort those depths have become to him. Nothing else on earth takes up as much space and yet feels as empty as water. Nothing wraps itself around you like a comfort, but still leaves you shivering, like the ocean. It’s both reassurance and source of enigma to this man who can’t rationalize his trauma, and eventually the pressure gets to be too much. Time flips between then and now, boyhood and manhood, and when he finally goes back in search of what’s lost, his entire world disappears. Now truly alone, Jack is left to wander the empty streets of the Nova Scotia town, a literal embodiment of his father’s missing presence decades hence. It’s a bleak vision Lemire leads Jack into, an end of the world only populated by memory, that cuts to the center of what it means to relive the past like it were still a fresh cut.
My memory, however shady it gets year after year, is firmly of a dad who was around all the time — coaching the baseball team I secretly despised, attending every swimming meet I had to push hard to earn even seventh place in, asking why I was still up studying at all hours when he’d come down to the kitchen for a midnight yogurt or three. He was the first person to my side in the middle of the night when I had a seizure that (although never repeated) scared ten year-old me out of my mind, and immediately accepted my coming out like I was telling him I preferred hot dogs to hamburgers. The only camping trip he ever missed was the week he was hospitalized after blowing up a house — an occurrence, combined with my own travails with fire, which still makes my husband unwilling to let me touch our furnace. He took the hit to drive me 12 hours each way to visit the college I’d end up attending, that I loved and he could barely afford. He even suffered my inexplicable disinterest in Niagara Falls and the subsequent awe I expressed at the Uniroyal Giant Tire along I-94 on the road back. There’s not a lot of absence I can associate with my father, who, like his own father, worked hard to give me everything he could so that I could have everything that I wanted. And yet, oddly enough, his memory of all that presence, by his own admission, isn’t as sure as mine. How can his reflection of the past not overlap so neatly with mine?
Ultimately, Jack’s desperation for resolution leaves him more distanced from the world than ever, and only a desire to change — to fulfill for his life what his father couldn’t — brings him back among the living. Lemire’s lyricism of prose as Jack moves through the empty town, reliving his dad’s last day, is frankly only surpassed by the beautifully somber quality of line he gifts every panel with. Deep wrinkles scar Jack’s face as he confronts his own image, and realizes the time has come to leave the ghosts of the past behind. The expression of his sadness is matched by an exuberance of joy when his son is born and the future comes flooding forward like a wave off the sandy shore. It’s hard not to share in Jack’s tears, at both ends of his journey, as Lemire packages all of his pain and hope, heartache and fear, into an elegant presentation — all the more impressive in its simplicity and solitude. This novel, like childhood with its blend of imagined and real memories, stands as a great testament to a father’s fears and a son’s shortcomings, as much as it can the reverse. And therein lies its resonance for me.
It’s not at all that I am in search of my father, but that, to this day, he remains earnestly in search of me. I am likely the distance I don’t locate in our shared memories. I’m not the most forthcoming of his children, arguably the most removed despite my proximity, but I do remain most like him in all the ways that matter. Sure, I retain much more hair (so far) and chose a far different path toward building a family than he, but his lessons to me about responsibility, working hard, and doing what’s right for yourself no matter whether there’s money or admiration to be gained, all still lie just beneath the surface of my daily decisions. My dad continues today to dive in and seek me out, no matter how many eyebrows I raise about his repeated brushes with poison ivy or how hard I snarked when he told me he found marijuana growing on his porch. (P.S. It wasn’t marijuana. How do I know? Because I live in the world.) My dad, like Jack, hears my whispers even when I’m not actually there to utter them, and time. . . that’s the glimmer that catches his eye despite the sparks and pressure that frequently envelop us. And yet, he keeps diving.
That I should let myself be found a little more often is the least I can do in reply.
Happy Birthday, Dad!
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He is an art director for several non-profit organizations, senior editor for Comicosity.com, and still manages to find the time on dark nights and weekends to fight the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.