BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Shows the personal side of a nefarious scheme by a mysterious organization in a dystopian future.
PROS: Intriguing world; sympathetic characters; artwork and colors nicely reflect the dystopian setting.
CONS: Too many unanswered questions; story left unresolved.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a great setting for a story, but the reader needs a few more handles on it than have been provided.
I’m not sure if the setting or the characterization is the star of Adam Rapp’s first graphic novel, Ball Pen Hammer. Set in some post-apocalyptic near-future, it takes place in an apartment building in a slum part of town that is drowning under acid rain, where the people are desperate, starving, and victims of a deadly plague. There is some sort of ruling organization (or government?) called The Syndicate which apparently runs an operation that is both shocking and mysterious. Enter shut-in Welton, a plague infected “dragger” who lives (barely) in the basement as a cog in that mysterious wheel. Welton tells newcomer Aaron about his lost love, Exley. Meanwhile, Exley becomes a volunteer caretaker for young Horlick, the orphan who also plays a part in The Syndicate’s shady dealings.
It’s hard to tell how post-apocalyptic this future is. There seems to be a better way of life available, though out of reach for these well-drawn characters. Each of the characters in Ball Pen Hammer (except for Horlick’s abusive brother, Dennis) is successfully sympathetic in some way, however the underpinnings of those characterizations are on a shaky foundation. It is never quite explained why these people have to live that way when it is said repeatedly that help (in the form of food and vaccines) exists “beyond the viaduct”. Nor is it stated why Aaron agreed to be part of The Syndicate’s diabolical schemes – much less the purpose of the Syndicate’s said diabolical schemes which, incidentally, involves the titular ball peen hammer and the back of people’s heads. Nor is the true nature of The Syndicate clearly revealed. These unanswered questions undermine not only the characterizations, but the otherwise intriguing plot.
It’s worth noting that George O’Connor’s illustrations and Hilary Sycamore’s gloomy colors perfectly reflect the dystopian setting. (A few pieces of O’Connor’s awesome pencil sketches are also provided as an addendum to the story.) The book’s pages are thick and it has a nice heft. The overall presentation is in line with other First Second titles I’ve read (Laika, Little Vampire, and Three Shadows), which is to say that the publisher has proven to be creators of graphic novels with consistently high production value.