5 Sep 2012

Graphic Perception: LOST DOGS & THE UNDERWATER WELDER

LOST DOGS
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Art: Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf $9.95


THE UNDERWATER WELDER
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Art: Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf $19.95


"The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect, between life and death." - I. B. Singer

James R: I can clearly remember the first time I saw Jeff Lemire's work. I was sat in the Vertigo panel at the Bristol Comic Expo in May 2009, and Bob Wayne was doing his usual overview of what we could expect from DC's mature books in the upcoming months. "Next, we have Sweet Tooth... this is from writer and artist Jeff Lemire… It's a post-apocalyptic tale that's, well, it's very different, and it's one of the best first issues I've ever read." Behind Bob was the cover of Sweet Tooth #1, and the innocent face of Gus, the series' protagonist,  stared out. The eyes seem to play a key role in Lemire's work, and there was an ineffable quality to that image of Gus and his stare. Even though I couldn't say precisely why, I knew I had to get on board with this series. Jump forward to today, and I'm incredibly pleased I did - not only has Sweet Tooth been one of the best series of the new millennium, but Lemire has established himself as one of the premier writers in comics, and the creative force behind three books of DC's New 52.


The last couple of months have provided a double bonus for fans of Lemire's work, seeing the re-release of an early offering from 2005, Lost Dogs, and the publication of his new graphic novel, The Underwater Welder. The close release of the two books has offered me a fantastic chance to try and explain why Lemire is such a talent, and track how the themes in his work have evolved in the last eight years. Firstly, we turn to the dark, brutal and raw Lost Dogs. The story focuses on the Sailor, a married man with a young daughter who takes his family from a rural idyll to visit the city. Despite the Sailor's huge and imposing frame, he can't stop tragedy befalling him and his loved ones. Having been cast into the ocean, the story then becomes one of survival and revenge, as the Sailor confronts some of the darkest facets of human behaviour. It's a short work, but in just 90 pages Lemire displays all the themes that define him as an artist. The book conveys a huge emotional punch and this for me is why Lemire is a great talent - he makes you care and feel for his characters. It's hard to become emotionally invested in comics, as the medium itself places limits on both time and empathy, but Lemire manages to involve the reader in an incredibly short space - just seven pages in the case of Lost Dogs. Then there is the idea of fatherhood; Lemire places it at the centre of many of his works - Essex County, Sweet Tooth, and once again in The Underwater Welder. The responsibility of a father and what it means to be a paternal figure carries an in-built narrative drive and emotional resonance that powers Lost Dogs, and here it is twinned with a sense of desperation and rage that stays with the reader long after the final page. The third reoccurring theme in Lost Dogs is the world of dreams. Lemire's art lends itself beautifully to rendering the unconscious and it's great to see a device that's used so well in Sweet Tooth make its first appearance here. These elements combined show an artist whose work moves effortlessly between the themes of life and death, engaging the emotion and the intellect in the process.

I began reading Lost Dogs with no idea where the story would take me, and I have to say it was comparable to the work of the great Chris Ware for emotional impact. I felt bereft at the end of the Sailor's story, and even though it's a misanthropic tale, it conveys a truth that's hard to ignore - pain, loss and horror are all part of our lives, but equally so is forgiveness and redemption. It also looks remarkable - despite Lemire's claim that his work looks bad in the preface, it's certainly not true. The use of black, white, grey and red gives an amazing sense of time and place which pays off in a crescendo of emotion in the final pages. However, if Lost Dogs is a tale rich in malevolence, his latest work, The Underwater Welder, shows that the depths do not always triumph.

This book is a majestic two hundred and thirteen pages long and has Lemire at the top of his game. As with Lost Dogs, the theme of the work is fatherhood - the eponymous welder Jack Joseph is about to become a father, and this forces him to examine his relationship with his own father Peter, also a diver, but one who met a mysterious end two decades previously. Damon Lindelof hits the nail on the head with his introduction, saying that it is "The most spectacular episode of The Twilight Zone that was never produced." The story moves between dream and reality with consummate skill that both unsettles and draws you in.  Jack Joseph isn't involved in a life-or-death struggle like the Sailor was, but his journey is equally as important - his is not to the underworld, but to a netherworld, an echo of his hometown of Tigg's Bay where he has to confront himself and his past. The Underwater Welder demonstrates that Lemire is continuing to mature as an artist; there are some beautiful moments in this tome, and Lemire's depiction of the undersea depths are incredible, even in black and white. He also plays with the form and structure of sequential art, as certain pages fracture into smaller frames giving a unique flavour of memory and distance.

The Underwater Welder is an incredible achievement on a number of levels, but it's a double whammy in that you could give it to that strangest of person - the non-comics reader - and they would be drawn into Jack Joseph's world as easily as we fanboys. For us, there is the reward of seeing an artist continuing do develop his themes with remarkable skill. When Lemire announced Sweet Tooth would be coming to a natural end, I was heartbroken as (unsurprisingly) I had grown to love and care for the cast of Lemire's post-apocalyptic world, but in reading The Underwater Welder I'm now enthused that there is so much more to come from him. Wherever his writing take us - the past, the future, the depths of the ocean or distant space - we know that it will be a location that is just a backdrop to the immense drama of the human heart. I can't recommend  The Underwater Welder  highly enough, and if like me you've become a fan of Jeff Lemire, Lost Dogs is an essential addition to your collection too.

Lost Dogs 8/10
The Underwater Welder 10/10

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