Ball Peen Hammer:Â Adam Rapp, writer & George O’Connor, artist;Â First Second;Â 142 pp., $17.99;Â Color, Softcover;Â ISBN: 9781596433007
âAt first I thought he was writing scary stories, but Curl looked in the book and she said it was just a bunch of drawings.â â 33 snowfish
Adam Rapp has long been an agitator of conservative librarians. Several of the authorâs young-adult books have been banned from schools around the U.S. and itâs easy to see why. His characteristic topics include pedophilia, snuff movies, pre-pubescent drug addiction and apocalyptic nightmares, which come illuminated with images like âhe grinds up my legs in a hamburger maker and feeds me to this little girl who lives under the kitchen sinkâ â you know: kidsâ stuff.
So, itâs little wonder that his debut graphic novel, with artist George OâConnor, is a bleak, violent drama that draws on many tropes established in his earlier work, particularly the uncomfortable subject matter. Â In fact, Ball Peen Hammer is set against the same post-apocalyptic backdrop as Rappâs 1999 novel, The Copper Elephant. Despite devoting two works to it, readers know little about this world save that the permanently darkened skies teem with acid rain and a genocidal Syndicate operates behind the scenes, forcing civilians into slavery. The whys and wherefores remain a mystery. This lack of exposition serves the story well, though, simply hinting at the greater forces at work, of which the characters themselves appear to be equally ignorant.
The guide into this desolate future is Aaron Underjohn, a novelist who is chronicling a deadly pandemic. He finds himself sheltering with Welton, a disease-afflicted âdraggerâ who stores bagged corpses â all children, mostly black, the authoritiesâ main target â in exchange for food and his quarters. Although unaffected by the disease, Underjohn soon finds himself marked as a âsacker,â charged to carry out the state-sponsored infanticide with the eponymous tool. Elsewhere, in a bell tower, an actress named Exley finds companionship with Horlick, a young boy who sews body-bags for the Syndicate. The two groupsâ stories are initially linked by the Collector, a mute enforcer who keeps the system of ethnic cleansing in operation.
The fact that the characters fall into line so easily is one of the foremost sources of horror and speaks to Rappâs criticism of the downward cycle of civil obedience. In Exley, we see his favor for ardent individualism, as she emerges the storyâs hero. Railing against the authorities, it is her motherly care for her companion â not violence â that she uses to rebel. Indeed, Rappâs obvious fondness for children shines through in the figure of spitting, wanking, thieving Horlick whose spunky naivetÃ© offsets the prevailing darkness. In his dialogue, he is awarded the few flashes of Rappian wordplay (good things are âcrispâ, not cool; phlegm is âlungpuddleâ) that is so sorely missing from the rest of the text.
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