According to Booklist, Ball Peen Hammer is "not for gentle readers." Personally, I doubt the temperament of the reader makes much difference--gentle people read horror, too--but it's true this graphic novel by Adam Rapp and George O'Connor isn't for kids and never opts for morally simplistic answers. Rapp, who wrote Ball Peen Hammer, has imagined a frightening future in a decaying, nameless city infected by a kind of plague. Civil control has disintegrated, allowing thugs and mobs to run rampant. People are starving, hounded by soldiers, and often survive by performing terrible acts. The ball peen hammer of the title refers to a particularly heinous series of crimes against children. None of the main characters, from a man wasting away from disease to the writer who wants to document the lawlessness--or even a woman just trying to find her next meal and the street urchin she settles into an uneasy friendship with--are blameless. However, neither are most of them evil. When your environment is extreme, you take extreme measures to survive, or you die. (There's a running theme about art, but to my mind it's overwhelmed by more fundamental issues.)
What makes this bleak landscape palatable--besides the gritty, evocative artwork--are small acts of kindness, either in deed or in speech. In a sense, Rapp seems to be saying that such acts are a kind of defiance against the reality of the situation, and that in desperate times we are defined not so much by the monstrous things we must do but by the ability to still be caring toward other people despite doing monstrous things. Why? In part because acknowledging our humanity under extreme circumstances comes at a cost--it reminds us of what we've lost and are still losing. It also may weaken our resolve to do the necessary monstrous things. (At least, I hope Rapp's telling us this--it could be my brain just wants to rationalize being exposed to so much suffering and death.)
Ball Peen Hammer acknowledges this simple either-or, and provides a bracing, often pitiless antidote to more saccharine visions of the future, in which bleakness is used as window dressing or set design rather than as the core of the story. The book also serves as more evidence--did we need more?--that graphic novels are a potent vehicle for exploration of adult subject matter. You have to give First Second credit for putting out such a dark book. A romantic comedy this ain't.