Ball Peen Hammer (First Second)

ballpeen-header.jpgThis graphic novel from playwright/film director Adam Rapp (Winter Passing) and artist George O’Connor is grim, grim stuff.




140 pgs. FC; $17.99 softcover

(W: Adam Rapp; A: George O’Connor)


Adam Rapp’s Ball Peen Hammer is grim, grim stuff. Imagine an urban dystopia, crumbling to waste after some great war, where people are dying of a horrible wasting disease heralded by a ghastly, itching rash and stammering, of all things. The citizens are in hiding from an overbearing totalitarian government, water and food are scarce, wild dogs roam the streets in packs, there’s acid rain, children have begun to mysteriously disappear, and people have to rip pages out books for toilet paper. If this is where society is headed, I’d like to get off the bus, please.

Rapp may be pouring it on a little thick, but he’s a skilled storyteller, and the plot here—a tale of survival and love—reels in the reader gradually. The main characters are a former musician holed-up in a dank boiler room, where he is tasked with an unspeakable job (hint: see the title), and a kind, brave woman who, in a touching series of episodes, takes a hardened street urchin under her wing. To say more would be to reveal key surprises.

At its strongest, Ball Peen Hammer achieves an elegiac tone that finds pathos in a world of pain, and avoids cheap sentiment, mostly. Rapp, known as a playwright and film director, knows how to plant seeds of plot that blossom later into unexpected connections. However, he’s plying his skills in an invented landscape so unrelentingly dark that finishing the book was more an escape, ultimately, than a satisfaction.

In his defense, the book is no more troubling than real life—genocide, child soldiers, gang rapes, and so on were not invented by writers. But the grimness here is lugubrious and stark, so much so that the work transcends entertainment and becomes a horrific dirge that refuses to rise from an ever-more jarring passage of bass notes. You don’t expect this graphic novel to have a happy ending, but a bit more closure might have been appreciated.

George O’Connor’s art is stellar. His stylized figures look appropriately decrepit, and "shaky" in a way that called to mind the work of Joann Sfar. He has a knack for rendering expression, emotion, movement, you name it. He works extremely well with Rapp—their collaboration is tight as can be. The palette of earth tones and bilious yellows establishes a queasy mood, too.

This book is a perfect-bound paperback with edges done in a glossy black. It would be a sharp look for just about any book, but it truly enhances the sickness of this little volume.

First Second’s literary bent is very much appreciated. Their stable of creators includes Eddie Campbell, Gipi, Jessica Abel, Emmanuel Guibert, and horror stylist Benjamin Percy, among others. Long may they run. | Byron Kerman


Click here for more information and a 13-page excerpt, courtesy of First Second.


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