Using Graphic Novels in Education: The Underwater Welder

October 9, 2015
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Welcome to Using Graphic Novels in Education, an ongoing feature from CBLDF that is designed to allay confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and teachers raise readers. In this column, we examine graphic novels, including those that have been targeted by censors, and provide teaching and discussion suggestions for the use of such books in classrooms.

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This week we take a look at The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire. It explores themes of loss, parent-child relationships, the struggle of balancing emotion and reality, and ramifications of decision-making. The Underwater Welder was Amazon’s Top Ten Graphic Novels of 2012, Amazon Canada’s #1 Best Graphic Novel of 2012, and A.V. Club’s Top Ten Graphic Novels for 2012. It received a Publishers Weekly starred review and the Comics Alliance’s Charles Xavier Memorial Award Best Comics of 2012 for “Best Melancholic Welding Drama.”

OVERVIEW

page1In its introduction, Damon Lindelof rightly compares Lemire’s The Underwater Welder to The Twilight Zone. The Underwater Welder is about Jack, an underwater welder who has chosen to return to Tigg’s Bay Nova Scotia after receiving an English degree. He is a sad-eyed workaholic who is torn between his need to dive (while working out his father’s untimely death) and his wife’s urgings for him to be more present in her life and the life of their soon-to-be-born son. It is a powerful, eerie story about life, love, loss, and hope. On a dive (which coincides with the anniversary of his father’s death), Jack encounters an “experience” at the bottom of the sea that triggers strong memories of his father and keeps pulling him back to the scene.

The Underwater Welder’s art is as powerful as its prose. They work brilliantly together, delicately weaving the troubles and traumas of Jack’s needs, moods, and flashbacks. Lemire draws Jack with haunting, thinly drawn “nervous” lines and sharp angles, in ink-washed blacks and grays. The panel designs add to the sharp, staccato feel of the story as we seemingly effortlessly transition from present to past memories, traumas, and guilt. In some instances, the panels themselves add to the metaphor as we are drawn to the mystery while piecing together the puzzle-like panels and arrange Jack’s memories while putting the story together. This arrangement only pulls readers deeper into the story and Jack’s psyche. While a story focused on adults story, the prose, art, and content cry for it to be analyzed and discussed in high school and college classrooms as a critical work in its own right or when paired with other works of prose.

Themes embraced and tackled in The Underwater Welder include:

  • The pains and torments of depression felt by individuals and their families;
  • The challenges of dealing with untimely and traumatic loss;
  • The dilemmas one often faces when emotion and logic pull us in different directions;
  • The power of the father-son relationship; and
  • The stresses and responsibilities of growing up.

SUMMARY

page2The Underwater Welder is about Jack Joseph, a 30-year-old undersea welder who is wrestling with past memories relating to his father and his father’s death, just as he is about to become a father himself. It is Halloween, and Jack is haunted by the anniversary of his father’s death. His father died at the age Jack is now. On a dive, Jack believes he’s seen someone swim by him, and he notices a stopwatch, much like (if not he same) watch his father gave him shortly before he died. While not sure what he saw and having to be rescued because of a possible oxygen loss, Jack is torn between staying at home to help his wife prepare for the birth of their son and his need to go dive again to find answers about his father’s haunting death.

Jack finally decides to dive again, but when he returns from the dive, he finds himself alone in the town. All his life, Jack has loved diving because it was the one place he could be alone. However, once he is truly alone, all he wants to do is find a way back to his world with his wife and newborn son. The remainder of the book focuses on Jack’s journey back to the world.

Throughout the story, Lemire weaves past and present effortlessly and brilliantly. We fully identify with Jack mostly because the flashbacks are so real and life-like. The Underwater Diver is a powerful story about life, death, love, and loss that is both personal and epic. The art, design, prose, and poetry (particularly a bedtime poem/song Jack’s father told him at bedtime as a boy) are woven to perfection as Lemire manipulates the graphic novel medium to weld image, design, and prose.

This story is about struggling with past traumas, about making good and bad decisions, and about finding the strength to let go of painful memories while embracing and following others. It is a story that offers opportunities to analyze and discuss relationships, the pressures of the past and promises of the future, and the power and ramifications of decision making.

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DISCUSSION SUGGESTIONS

Plot, Theme, and Character Development

  • Plot and or discuss Jack’s relationship with his wife, with his father, and with his mother. Evaluate and discuss what we learn about Jack through each of these relationships.
  • Compare and contrast Jack’s relationship with his father to other father-son relationships in classic prose literature, movies, and/or song.
  • Plot and analyze Jack’s signs of depression. Evaluate how he deals with this. Brainstorm alternative means deal with it.
  • Discuss Lemire’s use of flashbacks to tell his story and to help us better understand Jack.
  • Chart where and when Jack’s flashbacks occur, and what is revealed in each flashback. Discuss how Lemire discretely places these flashbacks and how they help propel and/or stall the story.

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Critical Reading and Making Inferences

  • Evaluate and discuss how Jack deals with his conflicting emotions. How might others deal more effectively with these conflicting emotions?
  • Discuss Jack’s parents’ roles in this story. Would you consider them good parents? Loving parents? Why or why not, based on evidence from the story?
  • Throughout the story, the reader will need to make inferences. Find and discuss how Lemire uses this technique to show us who Jack is and what it is that haunts him. For example:
    • On page 46, while being driven home by his wife after his underwater accident, she tells Jack, “You always say that when you don’t really mean it… [You say] I promise. It’s your cure-all. But you can’t always promise… some things are out of your control, Jack.” Have students discuss things one can promise and things one cannot promise. Discuss why we so often say we promise, when we can’t or shouldn’t. Discuss how to more accurately determine when we can and cannot promise things.
    • On page 100 Jack admits that, “The only time I ever really feel myself is down below.” Discuss and evaluate what he means by this. Have students chart different ways people can find time and ways to “feel themselves.” Discuss why this is so important to Jack and to each of us.
    • On page 174, Jack realizes a number of powerful truths. Discuss and evaluate each one:
      • “It’s amazing how your brains can create all kinds of ways of avoiding the truth.”
      • “Especially when there’s something you just don’t want to face about yourself or someone you love.”
      • “We never get tired of running from ourselves.”

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Language, Literature and Language Usage

  • Evaluate and discuss Lemire’s use of prose and poetry (in this case, the use of a bedtime song).
  • Search and discuss Lemire’s wordplay. One example can be found on page 143 as Jack reflects on the empty town he finds himself in: “It’s like they all picked up and left everything behind, untouched… like a ghost town or a museum. Museum? Museum… Mausoleum. Heh…”
  • Compare and contrast Lemire’s choice of words and language when describing this father-son relationship to how others have done so in song and in classic prose.

page6Cultural Diversity, Civic Responsibilities, and Social Issues

  • This story takes place at Kitt’s Bay, Nova Scotia. Research and discuss its location, community, economic status, and culture. Discuss how this small village might influence and affect the story.
  • Research and discuss what life on an oil rig is like.

Modes of Storytelling and Visual Literacy

  • Discuss and evaluate Lemire’s use of large and small panels to relay Jack’s emotions and inner thoughts and to intimate actions.
  • Discuss and evaluate Lemire’s use of big panels for dramatic actions and epic reveals.
  • While the art in this series is in black, greys, and white, it has a rich, engaging feel to it. Discuss Lemire’s use of texture and detail.
  • Lemire incorporates non-traditional as well as traditional panel design. For example, on page 41 (and in other places as well), Lemire creates panels as discrete puzzle-like pieces. Discuss how effective this technique is and why.
  • Evaluate and discuss how Lemire deftly goes from present to past to present. Notice his use of panel design, font, borders, and language.
  • Chart, analyze, and discuss when text is presented only in upper case letters versus when it is presented in a mixture of upper and lower case letters. Why does Lemire change the font in this manner?

page8Paired Reading Suggestions

  • Essex County by Jeff Lemire — an award winning graphic novel trilogy about two brothers, broken families, grief, secrets, and reconciliation. Lemire, in an interview said that The Underwater Welder “[is] probably my most personal work and it really is the follow-up to Essex County in a lot of ways.
  • Big Fish by Daniel Wallace — about a son who struggles to have a serious conversation with his dying father.
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo — about a son who, after refusing to accept his father’s ways, finally comes to terms with the reality, the family business, and his relationship with his father.
  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman — featuring an incarnation of the West African trickster god, Anansi. In Gaiman’s twist, when “Mr. Nancy” dies, his two sons discover each other and together they explore their common heritage while learning about their colorful father.
  • Letters to Father by Franz Kafka — where the young Franz Kafka tears his father apart in a 60-page letter. Kafka is as self-critical as he is damning.
  • “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost — a poem about decisions
  • “Cat’s in the Cradle”a song by Harry Chapin — about a father and son relationship.

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Common Core State Standards Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

As the content of these books is recommended for mature teens, grades 10+, its classroom use becomes more challenging. As noted in the introduction, however, there are no doubt, classrooms that will be well-served with the content, language and structure of this story, as well as Lemire’s skillful integration of visual and verbal storytelling. In discussing how this book meets CCSS, I will be using the Common Core Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness for Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening to help guide interested educators:

  • Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials; demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning; acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking and listening at the college and career readiness level.
  • Key ideas and details: Reading closely to determine what the texts says explicitly and making logical inferences from it; citing specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text; determining central ideas or themes and analyzing their development; summarizing the key supporting details and ideas; analyzing how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of the text.
  • Craft and structure: Interpreting words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings and analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone; analyzing the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole; Assessing how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of knowledge and ideas: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually…as well as in words; delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take
  • Range of reading and level of text complexity: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based of focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation; gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of teach source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism; draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • Comprehension and collaboration: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively; integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally; evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of knowledge and ideas: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization; adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Links and Resources:

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Meryl Jaffe, PhD teaches visual literacy and critical reading at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth Online Division and is the author of Raising a Reader! and Using Content-Area Graphic Texts for Learning. She used to encourage the “classics” to the exclusion comics, but with her kids’ intervention, Meryl has become an avid graphic novel fan. She now incorporates them in her work, believing that the educational process must reflect the imagination and intellectual flexibility it hopes to nurture. In this monthly feature, Meryl and CBLDF hope to empower educators and encourage an ongoing dialogue promoting kids’ right to read while utilizing the rich educational opportunities graphic novels have to offer. Please continue the dialogue with your own comments, teaching, reading, or discussion ideas at meryl.jaffe@cbldf.org and please visit Dr. Jaffe at http://www.departingthe text.blogspot.com.

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All images (c) Jeff Lemire.

 

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