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Ball Peen Hammer Paperback – September 29, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
In an eerie postapocalyptic urban world, humanity is turning on itself. This graphic novel revolves around a trio who were likely downtown hipsters before the crisis began. Welton, a musician, and Aaron, an author, still have the energy to discuss the purpose of art, but find themselves committing unpardonable acts to save themselves. Exley, an actress, unexpectedly ends up caring for Horlick, a young boy who is teetering between playing childish pranks and becoming a menacing criminal like his older brother. All three adults reminisce about previous loves, and one tries to seek out a passionate one-night stand from the past. Rapp, best known as a novelist and playwright, reflects on the ways we cling to art and passion in the face of destruction and the horror we feel as those things slip away. His story can be thought provoking, although at times his plotting and metaphors—and the unrelenting grimness of the story—feel heavy-handed. O'Connor's sinister, stunning artwork, with rich coloring by Hilary Sycamore, helps propel the story and, in the end, is the most haunting aspect of the book. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Review in 8/10 Publishers Weekly
In an eerie postapocalyptic urban world, humanity is turning on itself. This graphic novel revolves around a trio who were likely downtown hipsters before the crisis began. Welton, a musician, and Aaron, an author, still have the energy to discuss the purpose of art, but find themselves committing unpardonable acts to save themselves. Exley, an actress, unexpectedly ends up caring for Horlick, a young boy who is teetering between playing childish pranks and becoming a menacing criminal like his older brother. All three adults reminisce about previous loves, and one tries to seek out a passionate one-night stand from the past. Rapp, best known as a novelist and playwright, reflects on the ways we cling to art and passion in the face of destruction and the horror we feel as those things slip away.
Review in 11/09 SLJ
Gr 10 Up–Rapp and O’Connor tell the story of four people trying to survive in a society suffering from environmental, biological, and political disease. Aaron, an idealistic novelist trying to capture in words the reason for his society’s collapse, holes up in a basement with Welton, who is slowly dying of a strange plague. Meanwhile Exley, a young woman who once had a brief encounter with Welton, befriends a boy named Horlick. All four characters are ensnared by the government to work in a gruesome program involving the eponymous hammer, while Exley and Welton desperately search for one another, never realizing that they are on different floors of the same building. The authors have clearly come to the graphic form with an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. Rather than trying to tell a novel’s worth of story with excess narration and dialogue, they allow large passages to unfold entirely in images. The unresolved ending is Rapp’s hallmark, and this book reads as a statement about the uncertain future, allowing the novel to hit home with the taut force of a good short story.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Top customer reviews
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According to the jacket, "Ball Peen Hammer" author Adam Rapp is a playwright, and I could see that because this comic feels a lot like a one- or two-act play. From the first page you are thrust into a grim future world without explanation or exposition. We are introduced to a stark underground room and its inhabitant, a man named Welton who lives surrounded by mysterious sacks and his guitar which is missing two strings. Welton gets a new roommate when Aaron Underjohn appears, a journalist who has come to participate and write about the world in the infected zone. As the two wax nostalgic about their lost loves, Welton explains the routine to Aaron and what they will be doing together. Welton is a "dragger" meaning that he drags around the mysterious sacks that wait for the coming of the "collector." Aaron's new job is to be the "sacker," meaning he will head to the surface world to kill children with a ball peen hammer, then put the bodies in the sacks. No one knows why they do this, or what the collector does with the children's bodies. It is just their life and they keep living it.
The setting for "Ball Peen Hammer" is a classic dystopia. More than anything it reminds me of Delicatessen, being a similarly character-based story set amongst meaningless death and amorality. The details are vague; some sort of plague infects the world, and access to anti-toxin is carefully controlled. The details don't really matter, as all you need to know is that the world has fallen apart and the future isn't bright.
As a character study, "Ball Peen Hammer" is about the impossibility of innocence to survive in the miasma of modernity. All of the main characters are artists of some sort. Welton was a musician whose voice and song could bring out love. A young woman, Exley, is an actress who was seduced by Welton's song one night and is now seeking him out again. Aaron, the writer, watched the man he loved die from the plague, but is himself immune to the disease. Horlick is a thirteen-year old boy who tries to be tough and cruel like his older brother Dennis, but inside still just desires to be cared for. All of them will be tainted by the world which will destroy any art and love in their souls. The only ones who thrive in this bleak environment are already soulless, like the mysterious collector who gathers up freshly-killed children's bodies to possibly make art out of, or Dennis, the carrion wolf who cares for nothing and thrives in an environment where "pretty much anything is OK."
Whether or not you are going to enjoy "Ball Peen Hammer" depends a lot on how bleak your world view is. This is a comic that is not going to leave you feeling good. There is no light at the end of the tunnel here. There is only hopelessness and despair and the feeling that ultimately it doesn't matter what you do, that art and beauty will lose to suffering and cruelty, and that those who try to carve out some happiness are going to be smacked down by a world that just doesn't care.
I personally felt that, although exceptionally well done, I just don't have the right amount of cynicism necessary to truly appreciate this comic. It almost seems to be a little bit out of date to me. I might have taken to something like this a few decades ago, when comic book literature needed someone to show the dark corners and contrast the senseless optimism with a little fatalism. But recently comics seem to be nothing but dark, and the bleakness of "Ball Peen Hammer" is something I could live without.
Ball Peen Hammer is about three art forms: music, writing, and acting. Welton is a musician, Underjohn is a writer, Exley is an actress. All three are part of a commune of artists who have seen been scattered from the Undertunnels by the Syndicate, an oppressive regime of gas-mask wearing soldiers. Adam Rapp, a novelist and playwright himself, is merciless in his critique of these three pathetic creatures. Welton is a shiftless guitarist, never leaving the basement and playing the same song over and over about a woman he loved - but is too frightened to try to find her or save himself. Underjohn is immune to the plague but returns to Welton's basement to write about his experience, cataloguing the slow death of the bleak world around him. Exley insists on wearing her little black dress and up-do hairstyle even in the middle of a city besieged by acid rain and wild dogs.
Ball Peen Hammer is about love lost. Welton, who fell in love with Exley, is paralyzed by the experience, stuck in a perpetual state of yearning for a moment he can never reclaim. Underjohn was in love with a man who died from the plague, but never expressed his affection for him before he passed. Exley carries Welton's child and in her journey to find him regresses to acting - as a mother, as a teacher - to Horlick, a thirteen-year-old street kid who lives in the clock tower with his older brother, Dennis.
Ball Peen Hammer is about filling holes. There are emotional holes in all of the characters, but there are also physical holes: the Collector, who slides in and out of manhole covers to ring bells, repair lights, and tattoo numbers; Horlick, who reenacts American Pie with a melon; Welton, who can never get his toilet to flush; Underjohn, who fled the underground commune after it was filled with concrete by the Syndicate.
Ball Peen Hammer is about the loss of innocence. There are sacks in the basement. Underjohn discovers later that he's a Sacker, whose job is to use a ball peen hammer to fill those sacks. Welton, a Dragger, is haunted by the ghosts of those he helped drag into the basement. Exley inserts herself into a family that doesn't want her. And Horlick pretends he is much tougher than he lets on.
Ball Peen Hammer is not a glimpse into a larger world, part of a running series, the beginning of a comic book franchise, a happy story, a quick read, or meant to be understood literally. It is Rapp's No Exit, banished to comic form because nobody's going to want to see a play that revolves around killing kids with a hammer.
George O'Connor is more than up to the task of illustrating this dark fare. His multipaneled pages are saturated with heavy ink but light on color, creating an atmosphere of little hope amidst the foreboding of evil. We meet Welton first, then Aaron, two men thrown together in a rat-infested building where they await instructions from an oafish big man who assigns them their grisly tasks. You may be wondering what those tasks are...I won't ruin the surprise here, but suffice to say, the title gives you a clue.
Ball Peen Hammer is simple and straightforward in most respects. The hows and whys matter somewhat, but not much. The real point of the story, it seems, is the devastating effect man's inhumanity to man causes in all of us and how far we will all go to survive.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope to be found, and Rapp and O'Connor seize on it and give the story a small bit of light despite the heavy subject matter. What you walk away with in this tale may be disturbing, but it's thought-provoking as well and will stick with you. So while it's not for the queasy or the easily upset, it does have the ability to resonate with dark effect.
-- John Hogan
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