Written by Adam Rapp
Art by George O’Connor
144 pages, color
Published by First Second Books
I have to hand it to Adam Rapp. When I first picked up Ball Peen Hammer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never seen anything by him before (even though he’s written novels, plays, and directed films), so I was going into the story blindly. And with hindsight, the book’s cover did warn me somewhat of the experience to come, with its stark black cover and single, slightly disturbing image. But by the time I was done with Ball Peen Hammer, I felt somewhat stunned, as if I’d gotten on a familiar bus route and somehow ended up in Hell.
Ball Peen Hammer is set in the near future, at a time when plague is running amok and most people are staying inside for safety. Rapp and artist George O’Connor have created a setting that evokes images of the Black Plague, with death littering the streets and near anarchy straining to break out. It’s there that we meet our main characters, although Rapp for the most part carefully keeps them apart in two seperate-but-close locations. As the characters struggle to survive, Rapp slowly tells their stories—and as a reader, you quickly begin to learn that this is not just a bad situation, it’s a deadly one that not everyone will be able to continue through.
It wasn’t until after I read Ball Peen Hammer that I noticed in Rapp’s biographical sketch that he’s also a playwright, but as soon as I saw that part of Ball Peen Hammer really clicked into place for me. It’s actually set up somewhat like a play, with almost all of the book taking place in two different, sparse locations. It’s easy to imagine a stage divided in two, one half or the other being lit while those characters interact with each other. It’s a technique that actually works well for a comic, too, because its narrow focus of location keeps the story claustrophobic and tense. The outside world, for the most part, simply doesn’t exist. There’s just the basement and the clock tower, while danger rules the streets and keeps everyone inside. It also helps Rapp’s story become that much more frantic as we start learning how deadly the plague is. One of the characters, Aaron, knows where there’s a fresh supply of antitoxin is located, but located across the city is just as far away as Mars. The characters are locked in their locations, unable to break free or even into each other’s spaces.
O’Connor’s art matches Rapp’s story, grim and dark. The people are drawn with long, wiry faces that twist up in emotion at the drop of a hat. Despite Rapp’s love of monologues, a lot of the storytelling is left in O’Connor’s hands, to let the audience know how characters are reacting to different events and ideas. For the most part, O’Connor nails it. He keeps the story flowing well, and the most chilling moments are just that thanks to O’Connor’s staging of the scenes. When the Collector enters and exits the basement through the sewer, for instance, it’s almost like watching smoke billow and pour out of a grate. His large frame somehow, impossibly fits through the small hole, and in a good way. It makes the Collector that much more sinister and hellish, like the devil himself rising up from the underworld to give a new assignment. Or later, when Exley has to make a horrible decision, it’s staged in a way that doesn’t show the worst moment but still lets the reader feel and almost hear the impact as it occurs. My only complaint with O’Connor’s art is that for a book that when a book’s grand total of characters is seven, two of them (Welton and Dennis) shouldn’t look so familiar that I started to think that Dennis was Welton, instead of a brand-new person on the scene.
Ball Peen Hammer is a bleak, grim book. It doesn’t tie its ends up neatly, and the characters who survive are not necessarily in a better place when everything is all said and done. That said, I’m highly impressed with the book. Rapp clearly understands how to write a comic book, and he and O’Connor work well together. This isn’t a book to jump into lightly, and you’ll feel a little grimy and sick by the time you’re done. For those willing to take the plunge, though, Ball Peen Hammer has its rewards. I’m glad I read it, and Rapp is definitely someone I’ll be keeping my eye out for in the future.