Adam Rapp is a creator of all trades. He’s made a name for himself writing books for kids (such as Missing the Piano and The Buffalo Tree), he’s written a novel for adults (The Year of Endless Sorrows), he’s written and directed for TV and film, he’s written more than a dozen plays (including Members Only, Kindness, and The Metal Children), and he’s played in a couple different bands. But now he’s releasing his first graphic novel, the riveting and quite disturbing Ball Peen Hammer. The tool in the title might seem innocuous at first, but as used in the story—set in a postapocalyptic world where humans hide wherever they can and try to stave off disease and starvation—it takes on a whole new, disturbing meaning. Here’s what Rapp had to say about his work.
Ball Peen Hammer is really desolate—even the pages are trimmed in black. Where did this story come from?
I was at a playwrights conference a little over 10 years ago and on the bulletin board was posted a report that the NEA had had their budget cut by something like $90 million. I started to think in extremes, specifically what artists would be willing to do, and at what cost, to have space and time to do their art. I was pretty angry about our country’s lack of interest in the arts and I started to grow a titanic chip on my shoulder. Ball Peen Hammer came out of a response to that.
Your background is in playwriting, and this book definitely has a playlike feel to it. Could you see this story being translated to the stage?
At first I was thinking of it as a play, but I realized very early on that it would be virtually impossible to produce, but the story kept haunting me. I had taken a trip down to New Orleans after Katrina and something about seeing that city after the devastation, the people rebuilding their lives, the physical destruction, etc., brought me back to the story. I had developed a relationship with Mark Siegel at First Second by this time and on a whim I called him from New Orleans and spent three days working on Ball Peen Hammer and finally finished the thing and sent it to him and he responded pretty quickly.
This is your first graphic novel. What made you decide to write one now?
I was actually approached by Mark Siegel. I think he saw something in my work that spoke to the genre—I’m not sure what. But I looked at it as an opportunity to tell a story in a new way.
How different was it to write a graphic novel instead of a play or a novel?
Well, I think it’s more like writing a screenplay, which was very hard for me to learn how to do. The wonderful thing about graphic novels is anything can be drawn. You’re not limited by a theater’s budget or a limited number of extras or the amount of time you have to shoot because of the way the sun is behaving. There’s this unlimited possibility that an artist brings to the page that I find very exciting.
When did you start reading graphic novels?
I read some as a kid. Mostly comics. My little brother collected comic books, and I was reading Wolverine and Thor. I was mostly looking at the pictures, though, because I wasn’t much of a reader. I didn’t read many graphic novels as an adult until a friend of mine gave me Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which is beautiful. I mostly read fiction.
Who are some of your graphic novel influences?
Craig Thompson, Danica Novgorodof. and R. Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz’s Kafka.
How did you team up with artist George O’Connor for Ball Peen Hammer?
Mark Siegel teamed us up. I saw some of his stuff and was really impressed. He’s pretty amazing.
Does writing a story like this take you to a dark place? Does the story stick with you?
It does take me to a dark place and I get mad at the characters and want them to be better people, less selfish, etc. But I also love them. I care a great deal for Horlick and I resisted his fate in the story. But I feel I’m at my best when my characters are pulling me in complicated directions.
What’s your next graphic novel, Decelerate Blue, about?
It’s about a future where the world has sped up and a faction of rebels are trying to lower their heart rate and adopt a new way of living. There is a young heroine who immerses herself in this world and there are consequences.
Do you plan to continue working in the graphic novel format? If so, what other projects will you be working on (that you can tell us about at this point)?
I’d like to write more graphic novels, yes. The only thing that’s planned at the moment is Decelerate Blue, which is underway. The collaboration definitely takes me out of my comfort zone, as I am a huge control freak. But if I’m lucky enough to work with the likes of George O’Connor again, I’ll be happy.