Adam Rapp & George O’Connor, Ball Peen Hammer (First Second, 2009). $17.99, paperback.
By Jared Gardner
First things first: if you’ve gotten in the habit of picking up the latest First Second trade for the literate young comics fan in your life, stop right now! This one is adults-only. Rapp’s dystopian urban wasteland drama is ugly, brutal and deeply sad. It is also very, very good. But as a dad who regularly lets his kids read all kinds of things that makes my local comic book retailer blanche and contemplate calling social services on me pretty much every time I’m in the store, I will not be passing this one on their way. True: they have read more violent post-apocalyptic books (Walking Dead, Wasteland, DMZ, Y: The Last Man... actually, that’s pretty much all they read). But all those titles are centered around a kernel, however sugary and translucent, of hope--in the future of the characters, in human nature, in an ultimate turning of the tides. Not Ball Penn Hammer. This is a sad one-act graphic drama that ultimately feels like far too convincing a portrait of what our lives would be like if all the things likely to go horribly wrong really do go horribly wrong. It’s enough to make me look for something new to recycle or a tree to hug.
For those who don’t know Rapp’s work, he is a leading figure in the New York theatre scene, and the author of several young adult novels which, like this his first graphic novel, tend to push the form into (to say the least) new topics (like one focusing on a child pornography actor). At least one of his young adult novels I know of, The Copper Elephant, dealt with a bleak dystopian landscape of acid rain and child enslavement. This is basically the same world we enter into here in Ball Peen Hammer, except instead of being enslaved, kids (almost all African American) are being systematically murdered by the Syndicate and bagged and tagged in a series of safe houses, including the one where we find one of our two protagonists.
Despite Rapp’s extensive novelistic experience, this script draws much more on his skillset as a playwright, and pretty much the whole play takes place in two enclosed spaces which turn out, at the end, to be intimately connected. One is the warehouse where the murdered children are stored, and the other is an abandoned clock tower where a dying boy sews the sacks. Like much of Rapp’s drama, it takes place primarily in claustrophobic, highly-charged spaces. And the few times we get a look at the world outside, we are eager to return to those spaces—all of them filled with the stench of rotting corpses—as quickly as we can.
Although Rapp garners the neon on the book’s cover and in the early reviews, its success owes a great deal to George O’Connor’s work. O’Connor’s previous First Second project had been the splendid historical graphic novel, Journey into Mohawk Country, where his expressive pencil worked to very different effect. Here you cannot help but smell the bodies, feel the burn of the acid rain, and of the fatal infection it leaves behind. This is an oppressive, deeply textured world O’Connor has created, and it makes all the more credible (and tragic) the impossible relationships Rapp describes in the story.
The book has something to say about art and the fate of artists in the modern world, but I am not sure I entirely got it. Or, I should say, I am kind of hoping I didn’t entirely get it, because if I did it is a bit limp. All our main protagonists are artists: a musician, a novelist and an actress. The first two have decided to take the Syndicate’s “sponsorship”--grants from the Collector (get it?) that provide the artists with safe haven in exchange for their services as part of the whole kid-killing operation. As the musician explains it to his new roommate, the novelist: “the guy before you thought it was some rich, wackjob artist who is into human taxidermy. Others in the Undertunnel thought it was the Syndicate exercising some weird ideology. Get the vermin artist to contribute to the genocide.” Yeah, now that I type it up, I think I do get it: art in the modern world requires that you accept grants from Collectors and Syndicates that involve you in crimes against humanity. Given the number of grants Rapp has no doubt received, I find my sympathies stretched a bit thin at this moment.
Fortunately, it is the weakest moment in the book, and by far the most self-indulgent. And fortunately we have at least one artist, our actress, who has not accepted a grant from the Collector, so when she kills a kid she does so for humanitarian reasons that make of it a very different thing than the crimes of her fellow artistes. Seriously. But that I can even write about such an act as one of the more moving and hopeful moments in the story gives you an idea of how grim things are in our little tale of five-minutes-from-now. It was one of those books I was almost relieved to finish, only to find myself starting it all over again five minutes later.