Desolation stares back at you from the pages of Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder.

The water looks unwelcoming and grey, as if it is hiding secrets it won’t easily give up—and it also serves as a gateway through time and space that gives the book an almost other-dimensional feel, although The Underwater Welder isn’t a work of either science fiction or fantasy.

Then, there is also the impending sense of doom that pervades the graphic novel that doesn’t lift till the very end.

Lemire, the author of minor but relatively unknown classics such as Lost Dogs and Essex County, is, as I have previously written in this column, the Thomas Hardy of our times. And much like in Hardy’s books, the fight between man and the elements is often a metaphor for deeper, more painful, internal battles in the mind of the protagonist. The DC reboot, where Lemire is the man in charge of the fortunes of Animal Man, has pushed Lemire into the mainstream and this columnist hopes that enough people will be impressed with his masterful retelling of the Animal Man story to revisit his older works.

In black and white, like many of Lemire’s other works (barring Animal Man, of course), The Underwater Welder is also about fathers and sons and fatherhood itself. Jack is a college educated man who chooses to come back to the small town where he grew up and become an underwater welder on an offshore rig. His wife, Susan, is expecting their first child. Jack seems unable to put behind him the mysterious death of his father, in a diving accident, many years ago. And one day, in the course of a dive, something happens that changes him, and his life. Jack’s underwater experience is as much about closure as it is a rite of passage into fatherhood. He survives the adventure, and the book ends with the birth of his son.

Several listings have named The Underwater Welder as the graphic novel of the year and it is easy to see why. Few graphic novelists portray extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people as efficiently as Lemire does—with quotidian dialogues and simple illustrations—and despite the eerie tone of the book, The Underwater Welder does end with a note of hope that will likely stay with the reader long after the book is read and done.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

Write to Sukumar at cultfiction@livemint.com

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