Reviews of THE UNDERWATER WELDER and THE PUNISHER VOL. 1
A dose of the indie and mainstream awaits us today as we look at two opposite ends of the comics spectrum. First, a journey into the moody atmospherics of Jeff Lemire’s latest Top Shelf release, a rather low key story about, well, what else? An underwater welder. And second, Marvel’s foremost vigilante anti-hero, on the rampage once again after a brief hiatus, now helmed by the pen of veteran comics writer Greg Rucka.
The Underwater Welder
Jeff Lemire is one of the best writers working at DC currently, penning both Animal Man and Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E., two of the more exceptional titles born out of the DC reboot. A Canadian artist emerging out of the indie comics scene with his early works The Nobody and Essex County, and gaining prominence with his on-going Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, Lemire got his start on mainstream DC comics in 2010, making him one of DC’s youngest writers. And his quick rise to prominence is no mystery: Lemire brings a fresh spin to every book he writes, utilizing his predilections toward moody, atmospheric imagery and concise dialogue to create arresting, emotionally involving stories.
In his introduction to the book, Damon Lindelof compares The Underwater Welder to classic, Rod Serling-era Twilight Zone, a realm where the mundane slowly unravels to the bizarre and supernatural, where the ordinary joe becomes the subject of macabre machinations of beings and powers beyond his reckoning. A good comparison, as The Underwater Welder begins ordinarily enough with an ordinary joe about to embark on a…not so ordinary job:
Jack Joseph is our titular underwater welder, working on an oil rig in weeks-long shifts that consequently separate him from his pregnant wife fast approaching her due date. Jack wants to put in one last week at sea before the big day arrives despite his wife’s protests. Jack persists nonetheless; with another mouth on the way, they’re in need of money. But when Jack experiences a hallucinatory freakout while diving, bringing back haunted memories of his father in the image of a busted pocket watch, Jack gets booted back to shore for medical reasons. A great relief to his wife but nightmarish for Jack, who can’t help but think something dark and hidden lies at the bottom of the ocean, waiting for him, calling to him.
Fundamentally, this is a story about fathers and sons, specifically of Jack and his father, the man his father was and the man Jack is slowly becoming. You can almost hear “Cat’s in the Cradle” tuning up in the background of certain scenes — though the line “We’ll be together then, son” takes on a more ominous meaning. Jack’s father, as one may expect, isn’t the best of fathers, divorced from Jack’s mother, often drunk or otherwise getting there, making a living at a job with few prospects, little profit, and high risks: a diver, a collector of junk lost on the sea bed, with aspirations for treasure hunting. Often Jack’s father speaks of lost galleons and sunken gold, of one day venturing to Mexico to search the seas for lost Spanish ships, yet he never seems to go very far beyond the local tavern. The story here is not of a father and son at odds, but of a son admiring his father, taking him as role model, venturing in his footsteps, inevitably repeating the same mistakes. That this relationship rings so true is Lemire’s greatest triumph here, wringing every bit of pathos out of the reader without resorting to any level of schmaltz or forced emotion. Jack’s father is a drunk, but not a mean drunk, more an understated drunk — he doesn’t yell or scream or rave, but he forgets things, loses sight of what’s important. These are characters you can imagine actually exist, making their situations all the more identifiable and sympathetic despite their personal flaws.
“Cinematic” is one of those words that I personally balk at when describing comic art, yet with Lemire’s art “cinematic” is the apt word as panels zoom in or out of certain scenes, flowing together like tracking shots, shifting between wide and focused scopes. The simplistic, sketchy style of Lemire’s characters helps deliver that emotional resonance with aplomb and the monochrome color palette never lacks for detail or nuance.
The problem is that the Twilight Zone comparison proves perhaps too apt to the point that referencing specific episodes which this story resembles would broach spoiler territory. And if you know how this particular brand of supernatural fiction typically unfolds — or have a keen eye for irony — the ending can be seen coming from miles off. While themes of fatherhood, of natures and predilections passed from one generation to the next, are well explored, they are, in fact, overemphasized as the supernatural elements ultimately serve as a contrivance for delivering Jack’s personal revelations about his past rather than a driving force behind the narrative. As such, any sense of threat or tension diminishes. Yet given Lemire’s focus on mood and atmosphere, losing that tension comes at no high cost; after all, this is no horror title despite the Halloween backdrop but more a mood piece played more for pathos than thrills.
Regardless, The Underwater Welder is a well drawn, entertaining book about the travails of growing up in both the figurative and literal sense. Paul McCartney once asked “Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs/What’s wrong with that?” and the same can be said of father-son reconciliatory narratives. We all yearn for reconciliation for one thing or another, and The Underwater Welder plays so well off that desire that its excellent execution well outweighs its narrative shortcomings.
The Punisher Vol. 1
Know the quickest way to get me interested in a book I otherwise wouldn’t give two flying fingles about? Put Greg Rucka on as writer. Yes, while I’m a consummate Grant Morrison fanboy, I wouldn’t immediately assume any book he touches will sparkle like gold — sometimes his eye for the bizarre and convoluted backfires in a bad way. Rucka, on the other hand, has proven time and again he can polish the most rancid of turds into a shimmering gem, meaning any title he puts his name to is well worth at least a good look. His body of fantastic comics work includes the superb crime drama Gotham Central, a thrilling run on Wonder Woman, the must-read Batwoman: Elegy, and various Batman yarns all well worth seeking out. With a keen voice for crime and war drama, Rucka also brings a strong sense of character and emotion to every book he writes, immersing the reader in an intriguing amount of technical knowledge while maintaining our investment with well rounded and interesting characters.
So, after cutting ties with DC and moving to Marvel, it seemed a smart fit to put him on a revitalized Punisher title. After all, Rucka knows cops and Rucka knows the military and restless ex-marine Frank Castle waging an underground war against New York’s crime syndicates while police and media rush to keep up feels like the perfect setup for a great Rucka yarn. And volume 1 of this new series does not disappoint.
Though, oddly enough, the book doesn’t begin with Frank Castle. No, instead we begin with a wedding. A wedding gone horribly, horribly awry as dozens are gunned down in a botched robbery, exposing a brewing gang war roiling up through the New York underworld. From here, the book follows the stories of four players: the newly appointed detective Walter Bolt, his partner and mentor Detective Ozzy Clemons, intrepid journalist for the Daily Bugle Norah Winters, and one of the few survivors of the wedding massacre, the bride herself, Marine Sergeant Rachel Alves (née Cole), all hot on the heels of the shooters responsible for the massacre. But a mysterious beast keeps beating them to the punch, leaving only corpses behind — a well armed behemoth known as the Punisher.
One of the clever twists Rucka concocts here involves turning the Punisher’s legacy into a character in itself. Frank Castle remains in the background through the majority of the book, like a vengeful, bloodthirsty monster more than an ordinary man with guns, the very threat of his intervention looming like a sword of Damocles over everyone’s heads. While inklings of his character begin to enter the book in the second half — in a simple yet affective scene with a neighborhood kid whose parents are serving tours of duty overseas while Castle lays low from the police and mob — Rucka mainly chronicles the reactions of those around Castle and his rampage. As such, the Punisher appears more in spirit than in character and much of the drama effectively comes from the supporting cast and their efforts. The double-edged sword here being that long time readers of former Punisher books may be put off by the lack of the title character’s presence (no doubt a problem solved in later issues) as well as the absence of the majority of his previous supporting cast, yet Castle’s single-minded agenda renders him a rather unsympathetic character, a problem plaguing many anti-hero-centric titles, bordering on the one-dimensional, so the addition of this new supporting cast establishes a solid emotional core for the book.
We’re given a brief recap of Castle’s origin story as he slowly moves to the fore, but Frank lets his actions speak for themselves and, indeed, much of his character emerges from Marco Checchetto’s art who draws the Punisher with unmitigated, stark menace, perfectly capturing Rucka’s intent for the character. Every appearance is singular and nightmarish, reflected in the redesign of the signature Punisher skull which is much more ghostly. Checchetto’s rendition of New York falls heavy into grim and gritty territory, evoking the crime ridden cesspool of many ‘70s action films. Colorist Hollingsworth suffuses the world in heavy blacks, a color greatly overused in modern comics yet utterly appropriate here given the Punisher’s strategic use of shadows as well as the book’s stark black mood.
Personally, prior to this book, I couldn’t muster much interest in the Punisher. I like my heroes…well, heroic. Anti-heroes as main characters just aren’t that interesting; despite their dark-and-edgy demeanor, they often descend into abject violence, forgetting all the intrigue to be found in those moral ambiguities they supposedly explore so deftly. It’s the problem that infected much of ‘90s comics and the Punisher is very much the progenitor for it. The fact remains that he’s a character best utilized as a foil against other characters; the reactions of those around him tend to be more interesting and emotionally involving than Frankie’s own personal narrative. And Rucka seems to acknowledge this, building the story on a strong foundation, a tragedy anyone and everyone can easily identify with, investigated by characters with whom we can also easily identify. As such, there’s really only one thing I can fault this book for.
Much in the same way that X-Men doesn’t make sense in a universe that accepts, nay lauds, the likes of the Avengers yet inexplicably shuns mutants, the Punisher doesn’t quite make sense in a universe where Spider-Man can save the day without taking a single life. Can a universe that allows for that level of heroism also allow for Castle’s level of depraved vengeance? Well, I accept the existence of the Suicide Squad in the DC universe, so why not the Punisher in Marvel? Well, that’s the heart of the only real problem I can hold against this book and, really, it’s no fault of Rucka’s writing, I think, but more a problem with the Marvel universe as it’s written and its dedication to New York City. There are moments throughout this book where I can’t help but ask “Where’s Spider-Man?”, “Where’s Daredevil?”, “Where’s the Fantastic Four?”, certainly they’d have some sort of lead here, bursting onto the scene as soon as the first shots are fired. See, Rucka writes a New York suffused in realism with realistic police reaction times, realistic approaches to problems, tactics and strategy really on plausible means to achieving seemingly implausible ends. With posters and newspaper headlines constantly reminding the reader that these super-heroes do indeed exist in this universe, it’s hard to reconcile Rucka’s more realistic approach to procedural drama with the broader Marvel universe. Although, to be fair, action scenes well and often push the borders of plausibility — though following one particularly high flying fight, it’s nearly impossible to not wince at the Punisher’s level of injury — so the Punisher roots in comic book lore remain well evident.
The Punisher has everything you could want out of a Greg Rucka comic book. Thrilling action, likable, intelligent characters, seeds of epic plots and machinations yet to come, and that fine layer of grit that will make you believe such comic book antics could really happen. Where once I couldn’t muster a single care, I am now firmly hooked.
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