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The Art of Ball Peen Hammer: Talking with George O'Connor

One of the most buzzed about books of the fall, Ball Peen Hammer, also contains some of the most stylized artwork. The graphic novel, a postapocalyptic tale of people forced to do nightmarish things in order to survive, is written by playwright Adam Rapp (see an interview with Rapp here) and is as mesmerizing as it is disturbing. We talked to George about how he came to work on this powerful new book.

How did you come to work on this project?

I had been talking with my editor, Mark Siegel, about how I wanted to expand my audience a bit. Journey into Mohawk Country, my previous graphic novel with First Second, had been pigeonholed in some quarters as a children’s book, possibly due to my prior work in picture books. I wanted to tackle something a little more adult, to let people know I wasn’t exclusively a children’s cartoonist. Mark gave me the script to Ball-Peen saying this might be just what I was looking for. I went home and read it and was immediately grabbed by the rhythm of the dialogue and the darkness of it. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do some hardcore acting with my pencil.
How did you and Adam work together? Was the script detailed on what this postapocalyptic world would look like exactly?
Believe it or not, Adam and I had almost no interaction while I was working on Ball Peen. In fact, we never even met until after the book was finished. Ball Peen was written like a play, with wonderful, copious stage notes of the characters’ actions, and with very precise descriptions of the two primary settings. The postapocalyptic world that the characters are hiding from, however, was only detailed in a few incidental pieces of dialogue. The actual design and look of the urban decay was left pretty much up to me, building off the clues and hints in Adam’s text. I really enjoy that sort of storytelling, where less is more. A lot of people seem to like to have everything spelled out for them, but I feel a little mystery can really make things much more scary.
Tell us a little about the process you used to do the art for Ball Peen Hammer. How did you create the look of the artwork in the book?
People who are familiar with my previous work will notice that Ball Peen Hammer is drawn in a completely different style than what they’ve seen from me before. I wanted something more, for lack of a better term, edgy, more unsettling. The drawings in Ball Peen are actually much closer to my “natural” drawing style than what folks have seen before. I also decided to draw everything in Ball Peen with cro-quill pens, which gave it a scratchy, slightly wonky look, at least partially because prior to this I inked everything with a brush and was not used to drawing with a pen. Now, I love the pen, and am using it on my new series Olympians as well.
What was the most difficult scene to illustrate in the book?
Good question. Honestly, nothing jumps to mind in particular. Probably the scene in which Exley (the girl on the cover) has a showdown with the feral child Horlick, whom she’s tied to a chair, was the most difficult. She’s trying to help his injured shoulder, but he keeps spitting at her every time she approaches. It was a little tricky to block the action of this scene because one of the characters was tied to a chair, but not overly so. That being said, this confrontation, and Exley’s resolution of it, was one of the main reasons I wanted to illustrate this book.
Who were your artistic influences?
Too many to list, but here’s some: Jaime Hernandez, Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell, Bill Watterson, Maurice Sendak. One of my studio mates has told me he sees a lot of Will Eisner in Ball Peen, which is so nice that it practically makes me blush.
How did you get interested in illustrating comics and graphic novels?
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to draw comics and kids books. I was lucky to grow up in a very comics-friendly household, with very supportive parents who read a lot. It was just always assumed that I would be an illustrator some day.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the second volume, Athena: Grey–Eyed Goddess, of my new series from First Second called Olympians. It’s definitely my dream-come-true project. Each 80-page book is a graphic novel retelling of the classic Greek myths, one per god. The first volume, Zeus: King of the Gods, comes out in January. Readers should check out my blog at for tons of previews and sketches.

-- John Hogan