First Second Books’ hallmark has been the wide diversity of titles in their catalog. From children’s titles such as Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme’s Tiny Tyrant to human dramas like Danica Novgorodoff’s Slow Storm, from the instructional Adventures in Cartooning to the media-blending The Photographer, nothing has been off-limits.
With the arrival of writer Adam Rapp and artist George O’Connor’s new book, Ball Peen Hammer, however, First Second drives down a much, much darker street than ever before.
Rapp, a playwright, novelist and filmmaker, conceived of a post-apocalyptic world where two artists struggle to simply get through the day, and deciding that it was too ambitious to work on the stage, he hooked up with First Second and George O’Connor (author of an earlier :01 title, Journey Into Mohawk Country).
We spoke with both Rapp and O’Connor about their collaboration and the necessity of delving into the darkest corners of humanity.
“In really broad terms it’s about how love and the pursuit of making art try and survive under the bleakest, most profane conditions,” writer Adam Rapp explained of his thinking about Ball Peen Hammer initially. “I was interested in exploring how far an artist would go in order to have a space to do his or her craft, and at what moral and spiritual cost. When I started writing it I was also really confused by the lack of arts funding in our country.”
The exact nature of the plague that’s decimated humanity is left to the readers’ imaginations, as Rapp chose to focus on the plight of the survivors. “Because I was writing form the point of view of the few remaining survivors,” Rapp said, “I was more interested in being exact with the conditions: the acid rain; the effects of the plague; the lack of fresh water; the prevalence of bacteria; the deficits of sanitation and functioning plumbing. I created a whole history as to how it all came to be but I boiled a lot of that out because it’s the hour-to-hour burn of survival that feels most visceral to these characters. I looked at a lot of war photography; a lot of blasted-out buildings and the faces of lost children. I was interested in putting that in an American context because that scared me and I’m at my best when I’m scaring myself.”
One of the book’s biggest moments comes when the character Welton asks his unexpected roommate Aaron Underjohn if “art as a vaccine” is too lofty a goal, to which Underjohn replied: “What wrong with being lofty?” While entertainment is wonderful, the ambition to say more is sometimes frowned upon. Rapp said that he hopes readers “will think about someone they miss. I hope they will appreciate the luxuries of our current society – the freedoms we take for granted like good plumbing and bus shelters. I hope they will put on that rock record they haven’t listened to in five years, or re-read that novel that inspired them to take a long walk. I hope it provokes some small action.”
While Welton and Underjohn deal with their own horrors, the second tandem in Ball Peen Hammer, young artist Exley and street-smart kid Horlick, wind up creating a twisted family, something Rapp says he wasn’t even initially aware of. “I wasn’t consciously setting out to explore mother-child stuff, but I guess it’s pretty obvious with her being pregnant and him acting childish,” he admitted. “I wanted to counterbalance the seriousness of Welton and Underjohn’s discourse with some levity. Horlick is a bit of a sad clown, and despite the tragic end, what he and Exley are negotiating during their brief time together was fun to write.
“I originally was thinking of Ball Peen Hammer as a play,” offered Rapp, who has written plays and novels and even directed two films, “but I knew no one would ever produce it, in part because of the relentless darkness of the subject matter, and in part because it would take an enormous budget of the physical production. When the opportunity arose to have it be drawn it made perfect sense because anything can be drawn. There seemed to be very few limitations, if any at all. So that really excited me.”
On his relationship with artist George O’Connor, Rapp explained, “We never spoke. Creative notes were disseminated to us from our editor, Mark Siegel. I had no idea what to expect and I was scared. I’m used to having so much control over my material. But then I saw what George had done and I couldn’t have been more pleased. He nailed it.”
Wrapping things up, Rapp wanted readers to know, “I have a play called The Metal Children that starts rehearsals after the New Year. I’m currently writing a new novel. My most recent novel, Punkzilla pubbed in May with Candlewick Press.”
George O’Connor, Rapp’s partner in crime, expounded on the working relationship: “I’m sure Adam already addressed this in his answer, but, believe it or not, we never even met until we did a signing at BEA (BookExpo America) a few weeks ago. That being said, his script was so strong that, as soon as I read it, I started forming mental images of what the characters looked like, and how I would frame the action.
“Some of the things that most impressed me about Ball Peen Hammer were the rhythm of the language, and the definition of the characters. Even though it’s an extremely dark story, there’s still this real beauty to each of the main characters (some of whom do some really terrible things),” O’Connor continued, explaining what drew him to the story. “I also like that the story veers into the surreal: the Mysterious Man, this hulking giant who appears from the sewer in a few scenes, is a good example of that. He was probably my favorite character to draw.
“Finally, the fact that the story is so dark (my editor calls it the darkest book he’ll ever publish) was a huge reason I agreed to do Ball Peen Hammer. I come out of children’s picture books, and my previous graphic novel, Journey into Mohawk Country, skewed pretty young. I wanted to do something that would help me break out a little, so that I wouldn’t just be considered a kid’s artist. People who are familiar with my previously published work are going to be surprised at what Ball Peen Hammer looks like.”
As if designing the world and characters, and handling the graphic storytelling didn’t provide sufficient challenges, O’Connor says that the biggest surprise came in the story’s format. “I’m not sure if this qualifies as a challenge, but the script for Ball Peen was written like a play. One of the things that most drew me to it, in fact, was the opportunity to do some real hardcore acting through my pencil; essentially, the bulk of the story takes place between two sets of two characters in two rooms. That made for a lot of subtle personality traits and mood shifts that I could reveal through my drawings,” he said.
“The biggest challenge, really, I suppose, was the immersion of myself in the dark mindset of that world for the months that it took me to finish the artwork for Ball Peen Hammer,” he admitted, before adding with a laugh. “I fell asleep with the script on my chest more than a few times—those weren’t fun dreams, let me tell you.”
O’Connor concluded, saying, “I’m hard at work on a new series called Olympians, also for First Second. Each book in the series is a comics retelling of the classic Greek myths, one book for each of the Olympian gods. The series launches in January with Zeus: King of the Gods, and goes on from there with Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, The Glory of Hera, and Hades: The Wealthy One. This series is really a dream come true project for me, and people who want to sneak some peaks at what it’s going to look like should check out my blog at geooco.blogspot.com.”
Ball Peen Hammer ships in September from First Second. George O’Connor is online at his blog above.