Jeff answers several questions about his famous creation, The Underwater Welder. We also have a special giveaway that allows you the chance to receive a free signed copy of this graphic novel! See details at the end of this interview to enter.
When did you first become interested in graphic novels, and how old were you when you began working on them?
I started reading comics at a very young age, probably four or five, and have loved them ever since. I’ve been drawing and writing stories for as long as I can remember but have been working in comics professionally for about 10 years now.
Is the protagonist’s characteristics of The Underwater Welder, Jack, directly taken from someone you know?
Not really. Most of my characters end up be amalgamations of different people I know, or outright fictions. Certainly there is more than a little of myself in Jack. Like the character, I was expecting my first child when I started working on the book and it became about that journey of becoming a parent, all the fear, apprehension and excitement that comes with that.
Some of your comic novels are known for their powerfully imaginative environments and characters – what made you decide on such a real and gritty topic like underwater welding? What were some of your influences?
I’ve always been drawn to really “blue-collar” characters. And I don’t say that in any kind of derogatory way. My dad was a farmer and a tool & die maker, as were most of the men in my family. I spent six or seven years working in his tool & die factory during the summers, so being in a work environment like that really influenced the kinds of characters I write.
Underwater welding, specifically, became an interest when I was working as a line cook in a restaurant here in Toronto. The brother of another cook I was working with was going to school to learn underwater welding, and when he told me about it, I was immediately struck by both the visual and thematic potential of it.
Jack Joseph welds offshore on an oil rig. What types of research did you do to learn about the work life of offshore commercial divers?
I wish I had done more, to be honest. At the time, my wife was expecting, so going off and doing intensive hands-on research wasn’t an option. So what I learned was mostly from online research, and what I didn’t know I had to fictionalize. Looking back now, I would do things much differently. If I were doing the book today I’d certainly do much more hands-on research. Real welders will probably laugh at the way I depict things because they are so inaccurate. But I do think it works on an emotional level for the story I wanted to tell.
Jack Joseph can fix just about anything underwater. Have you ever witnessed a diver working on underwater construction or seen video footage?
Video footage yes, I looked at a lot as visual reference and was fascinated by it. But I never saw an underwater welder in person.
The diving suit that Jack Joseph wears has an “old school” appeal to many underwater welders. Did you want the design to reflect the time period of the plot, or mirror other aspects of your story?
The book plays around with time a lot. Time and memory. So I wanted the diving suit to have sort of a retro feel. And those old diving helmets are a lot of fun to draw.
Many of your scenes underwater have lots of gray shades mixed in with the blacks and whites. How does this change the emotional mood?
I deliberately used “washes” of gray tones whenever the character is underwater, and kept the artwork black and white only when he was on the surface.This helped give the underwater stuff a “wetter” look and a more dream-like look, which suited the story and themes. I also used a lot of big open panels underwater as opposed to tighter grid-like layouts on the surface. This was to give the ocean a feel of enormity.
Then, as the character’s life unravels, the “dream-like” feel of the underwater scenes starts to melt into the surface scenes.
Jack Joseph is haunted by the death of his father, who was also a diver. Do you feel that diving can “get in your blood” from one generation to another?
I definitely think it’s the kind of profession that can. In fact, I think a lot of jobs can be like that. We emulate our fathers a lot of times and follow in their footsteps.
After researching this field, what do you feel is the most difficult part of being an underwater welder?
It does seem like there is a lot of time away from family which must be hard, and there is a certain amount of physical danger involved as well.
Award-winning Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire is the creator of the acclaimed monthly comic book series Sweet Tooth published by DC/Vertigo and the award-winning graphic novel Essex County published by Top Shelf. He published The Underwater Welder in 2012.