Ball Peen Hammer writer Adam Rapp must have one hell of a busy-looking business card at this point. He’s a playwright, filmmaker, young adult novelist and adult novelist, adding graphic novelist to his resume with this, his debut work in the medium. He’s working with artist George O’Connor, a picture book artist now on his second graphic novel (His first, Journey into Mohawk Country, was also published by First Second).
Their book, named for the tool used in a procedure best not spoiled here, betrays Rapp’s background in theater, as it’s an extremely talky one, mostly occurring in two pretty claustrophobic settings. A cast of six or seven and minimal set design is all it would take to move this from the page to the stage, which points to a problem with the work: It’s a comic that doesn’t have to be a comic, and while that doesn’t make it a bad comic, I think it keeps it from ever being a truly great one.
I said it was talky, but it’s not at all poorly assembled. All that conversation is well-divided into different panels, so that the whole endeavor retains the form of a comic book and the experience remains one of reading a comic book—there are no walls of text, or panels overwhelmed by dialogue bubbles. It doesn’t read like a novel or screenplay or play being stuffed into a graphic novel for cynical reasons. Given how much of the story is told through the conversations—there’s no text prologue or narration to serve as shortcuts—it’s really quite remarkably assembled.
O’Connor’s lines are thin, and many when they’re needed—on brick walls, cross-hatched gloom, rotting diseased bodies, exterior long shots, a few rain storms—but his character designs are smooth, expressive, open and highly variant. The cast is a small one, but it looks great, and if you’re familiar with O’Connor’s children’s books, you may be surprised to see how he’s adapted his style to this form and this particular work.
To talk much at all about the story is to risk ruining it. I suppose it’s safe to say that the bulk of the action takes place within a few rooms of a single building sometime after a sort of apocalyptic event involving a terrible, rotting disease and a bombing. Two sets of characters interact as two distinct pairs, and only occasionally have anything at all to do with members of the other pair, although they are linked in a couple of different ways.
There are at least two other characters though, the one with the most influence over the characters’ lives being a huge, silent person driving the dark, dark actions most of them take, for one reason or another.
A few drawings of terrible skin rashes aside, there’s little actually visually there on the page that’s icky or shocking, but that’s not to say the book is anything but uncomfortable—terrible things happen almost constantly, but Rapp and O’Connor tend to keep them off the page, where your imagination can make them even more upsetting.
It’s a pretty difficult book to recommend, more so because of the content than the craft, but if you can take it, you probably should read it. Especially if you’re a comics professional and/or fan who continues to equate dark, edgy and mature with on-panel gore and TV-style nudity. You want grim and gritty? Rapp and O’Connor will give it to you, and make you wonder why you might have wanted it in the first place.