New York graphic novel publisher First Second Books has left quite an impression on the comics world in its three years of existence. Beyond publishing new works from long-celebrated cartoonists like Eddie Campbell and Lewis Trondheim and award-winning kids comics like Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese," the imprint overseen by editor Mark Siegel has seen plenty of historical graphic novels, young adult tales and satirical adventure stories hit the shops.
But of late, the publisher has been bringing out comics with a more genre-specific bent including two drawn by artist George O'Connor: the recently released post-apocalyptic drama "Ball Peen Hammer" as scripted by Adam Rapp and in January, the first of a god-by-god examination of Greek Mythology's most powerful pantheon in "Olympians: Zeus: King of the Gods."
"Mark has called 'Ball Peen Hammer' the darkest book First Second will ever publish," explained O'Connor, who after finding success with his own First Second volume "Journey Into Mohawk Country" teamed with acclaimed playwright Rapp to bring "Ball Peen" to life. "I knew immediately after reading it that I wanted to draw it, but just to be sure I had my girlfriend read it too. She said, 'It made me sick, but it’s great. You should do it.'"
The graphic novel tells a parallel set of stories revolving around survivors of a plague that has ravaged the world and made New York City into a kill-or-be-killed wasteland where the possibly healthy and potential sick take on gruesome jobs to get through. With the thought of government proving a frightening specter for many and moral gray areas quickly sliding far into the black, the story may remind readers in its setup of classic post-apocalyptic tales. But as the book's author explained, "Ball Peen Hammer" doesn't resemble anything readers have seen before.
"I've honestly never read that much sci-fi, but I keep finding myself returning to alternate futures and dystopias and 'what if?' scenarios. I'm not sure why," Rapp told CBR. "I think it's fun to try and feel like a survivor as I'm writing characters who are trying to continue will themselves on the page. And it's also fun to make up rules and try and figure out how things like love and mercy exist in a world where very little goodness is left."
As the project started on the road to a different medium than comics, though Rapp revealed that plan faltered thanks to the works nature. " I first thought of this story as a play and I got it down on paper a few times but it was met with such overwhelming fear and hostility form the few people who read it that it seemed to naturally fall out of the social artform of the theatre. The irony is that now that George has so beautifully drawn it, I am excited about the possibility of finding a way to do it as a play."
"Ball Peen Hammer" focuses on two separate sets of characters each facing down their own desperate set of choices. On one side are the basement dwelling men known as Welton – a singer infected by the world ravaging plague – and Underjohn – a journalist taking his first steps into an ugly world. "WIth Welton being infected and about to enter into the final phase of the sickness I thought the last person in the world he'd want to see walk in the room is one of the few who are immune. It certainly brought an immediate conflict to the story and I liked how uncomfortable it made both of them," Rapp said. The writer noted that his other pair of leads held a few more light-hearted moments though danger laid in wait for street-tough child Horlick and his unexpected protector/actress Exley. "Although it is ultimately tragic, I wanted the Exley/Horlick relationship to add buoyancy to the story. Foul-mouthed, slightly depraved little kids who have nothing to lose have always tugged at my heart. Horlick hasn't gotten a very good lot in life and I was rooting for him as I was writing the story."
In order to bring the cast to life properly, O'Connor had to work through several stylistic mutations to make the characters and stage script work on a comics page. "I drew a lot of pictures in preparation for 'Ball Peen,' but I think my general idea of the characters was in place almost from the beginning, guided by Adam’s brief descriptions," the artist explained. "From then on it was mostly just a refining process. Some of the early sketches are included in the back of the book. I think I especially liked drawing Exley, because she was, like, the only beautiful character in the book, and Horlick, because he was so cartoony. Welton was probably the easiest to draw- I could draw him in my sleep. Thinking now, though, my absolute favorite to draw was the Mysterious Man, this hulking dude who comes and goes through the manhole in Welton’s basement. He was so surreal."
That hulking and silent character ties together the cast of the book and in his own way unveils the true purpose of the titular hammer, though without spoiling the story it's safe to say the object isn't used for nails. "I've always been drawn to theatrical objects: shovels, hammers, baseball bats, etc. Objects that carry a certain amount of dread by their presence alone," Rapp said. "It takes a certain kind of awful courage to turn a hammer on someone. It takes will and muscular force. You must be within arm's reach. It is intimate. And therefore makes the choice harder. And the world of this story is very very hard to survive in."
What apparently wasn't hard for Siegel and the first second editorial team was signing both Rapp and O'Connor up for more work. While the playwright is already at work on the graphic novel "Decelerate Blue" for artist Sonny Liew, O'Connor steps out the gate next with January's first volume of a planned 12-book series "Olympians." Starting with "Zeus: King of the Gods," the writer/artist pitched the series with an eye towards attracting more traditional comics readers than literary comics usually draw in. "My whole line was that the Greek gods were the original superheroes," he explained. "'Olympians' will have the best of what you loved from superhero comics, but stripped down to its mythological precedent. I went back to all original, ancient sources for the stories, no modern retellings, save the spin I myself put on them."
With luck, the ongoing series will find a wide audience as "'Olympians' is all ages in the best sense of the word, like the way many superhero comics used to be. It’s written on two levels, with lots of cool stuff for kids, and with some real meat on its bones for adult readers too. I’m pretty happy with the way I’ve dealt with the more risqué elements of the myths too. I just finished the second volume of the series, 'Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess,' and I deal with Zeus’s general infidelity in that story. It’s presented in a way that will not even register with kids, but adults will understand."
O'Connor also adapted his illustration sense, finding a balance between the more cartoony style he's employed on previous children's book projects and the hard-edged realism at work with "Ball Peen Hammer." "I’ve said in the past that 'Ball Peen Hammer' was a perfect palette cleanser for Olympians. One, it shows that I’m not just for kids, and showed people another whole way in which I could create," the artist noted. "The second way in which 'Ball Peen' prepared me was that I spent months drawing some of the ugliest stuff you can imagine. Now, with 'Olympians,' I’m drawing some of the most beautiful. I guess you could say, after shedding so much of the 'cheerful' quality of my earlier work for 'BPH,' I’ve let a little bit of that creep back in for 'Olympians.'"
"Ball Peen Hammer" is in stores now. "Olympians" Vol 1 "Zeus: King of the Gods" hits this January followed by "Athena" in March and "The Glory of Hera" and "Hades: the Wealthy One" later in the year. For more info on O'Connor's ongoing creation of the series, visit the artist's special "Olympians" website.