Review: Ball Peen Hammer and House
Posted Friday, April 08, 2011

Comics of Dread: 

House by Josh Simmons
Published: 2007
Publisher: Fantagraphics

and

Ball Peen Hammer by George O'Connor and Adam Rapp
Published: 2009
Publisher: First Second

Review by Jason Azzopardi

We all have a genre that we know isn’t good for us. One that our friends keep telling us to leave, but one we continually make excuses for. One that takes our trust and our love, and then stays out all night without even so much as a courtesy call. Romance. Science fiction. Superheroes. All occasionally wonderful, but mostly fucking appalling. For me, that genre is horror. It is woven into my DNA, and it forces me to sit through reeking dung heaps of film, television, books and comics just to find one diamond in the rough(age) that still manages to elicit a sense of dread from my jaded bones.

Defined as “having a great fear or apprehension of something in the future”, I would argue that works of true dread, at least in terms of popular entertainment, are able to strike that dissonant chord despite their audience’s anticipation of the inevitable outcome. And even though modern audiences are so familiar with genre convention that they could probably draw a roadmap to that ending, blindfolded, every so often a work pops out of nowhere that connects on a personal or an archetypal level. Two recent graphic novels achieve the rare feat of doing both for me.

These are haunted house stories.

Ball Peen Hammer, by novelist/playwright/filmmaker/Renaissance man Adam Rapp and artist George O’Connor is, at once, a complex character study, a dystopian/end-of-the-world horror show, a wrenching loss of innocence fable and a tragic love story. It all takes place within two locations, and it is absolutely riveting. An ominous sense of doom builds to excruciating levels as four characters struggle with choices that will either allow them to survive or perish holding on to their humanity. It is only one or the other. O’Connor’s jagged art is filled with nervous energy, perfectly complementing the foreboding atmosphere. Rapp never explores or explains the world outside the claustrophobic safe houses that the characters inhabit – we know only that things are very, very bad and they are only getting worse - but it is in this ambiguity that much of the book’s dread stems. We are attached to these people because we get to know them as people. We don’t want bad things to happen to them, and yet we know deep down that it can’t possibly end well.

And while House, by cartoonist Josh Simmons, is an even simpler story, it somehow manages to be even more oppressive. Three young people explore an abandoned mansion. Things go badly. The entire comic is done in pantomime; not a word of dialogue; not a single sound effect. And yet the deafening silences are claustrophobic and the encroaching shadows, suffocating. Reading Simmons’ story is a palpable assault on the senses because of its hushed thick hush. We smell the rot, taste the mildew, feel the flesh scraping on stone and hear the bones cracking. We suffer through every ounce of pain and every second of anguish until, like the characters, we welcome madness and death.

Ball Peen Hammer and House are works that refuse to be tied up into digestible little packages. They challenge and they haunt. They are messy and uncomfortable. And like the best works of dread, it is not so much their endings that matter, but the journey getting there. That, and the vain hope that maybe things won’t end like we know they will.

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You can find Ball Peen Hammer and House in store at The Beguiling, or you can buy them online at beguiling.com.

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