Two Bleak Futures: David Ratte’s ‘Toxic Planet’ and ‘Ball Peen Hammer’ by Adam Rapp and George O’Connor
Everything is going to hell. Everything is always going to hell, and always has been, of course, but
it’s going to hell even more now than it ever has been, and quicker, too. And
so we get ever more stories about those hells – like these two very different
books that I have to talk about today. They even both have people with gas
masks on the cover!
Yen Press, August 2009, $12.99
Sometime in the future, the world is so crowded and polluted
that everyone wears gas masks all of the time, and the natural world is
essentially forgotten. Toxic Planet is a
satire – and a broad, obvious one at that – so there’s no point to asking what
kind of food these people eat; it’s not designed to show how this world
actually works, but to make obvious points about our own world.
Our hero is a factory worker named Sam; his blonde wife and
aged grandmother are never named, but that’s OK; they’re all such broad
characters that real names are superfluous anyway. Other characters include an
unnamed owner of the plant and his young son, the President of the United
Global States, who is an odd combination of Bush and Sarkozy, and the union rep
Tran, who gets to be the voice of reason (reason here being very much a
relative concept). Later on, Sam’s long-lost parents – they’re ecologists,
which is about as popular and mainstream in this society as a combination of
Muslim, Communist, and child molester would be in darkest Alabama – return from
the countryside (yes, the world is completely polluted everywhere, and yet
there’s still an unspoiled “countryside,” but don’t ask), with his younger
sister Orchidea, and they get to be the even more obvious voices of reason.
Toxic Planet is funny
here and there, and dull and axe-grinding equally as often. And it’s really
much, much too long for the message – yes, we all agree that polluting the
entire planet, declaring war on defenseless countries, and similar things are
Really Bad, but we don’t need to keep seeing heavy-handed double-reverse
sermons on the subject over and over for more than a hundred pages. Ratte’s
world isn’t clever or interesting; he just wants to make it dirty and
unpleasant, and he succeeds. The one interesting part of watching the axes
grind are the times when Ratte’s French ideas of what’s obvious and true – so much
so that he doesn’t have to say them, just have his characters parroting whatever
he considers the opposite – aren’t at all clear to a North American audience,
and so the reader can’t quite tell what he’s so worked up about.
Ratte’s art almost makes up for that, even
laboring under the constraints his writing has given it – no faces, only gas
masks, and characters who have to be differentiated mostly by hairstyle and typical
clothing – with an appealing lightness and energy. But Toxic Planet is the kind of book that can make a reader want to
drive a SUV to McDonald’s for lunch and then go prospect for oil in a
wilderness, just out of spite.
Written by Adam Rapp; Art by
First Second, October 2009,
If you weren’t told that Adam Rapp is a playwright, it
wouldn’t be hard to figure out from Ball Peen Hammer, which is possibly the stagiest original graphic
novel ever created. It takes place primarily on two sets – which could easily
be staged, via blackouts and some careful scenery, on opposite sides of the
same stage – with a small cast that spends most of the
novel declaiming speeches to each other about their past lives, feelings, and
Ball Peen Hammer is
set in a carefully unspecified place – presumably the low-rent district of
wherever-this-is, since the people stuck in the hellhole are mostly artsy types
– where civilization has broken down on this side of the Clancy Street Viaduct,
so that the Syndicate is now in control and everyone’s afraid of the Collector.
Those are mostly just names, though – the characters are too obsessed with
their own personal problems to try to do anything larger or more useful. On one
set, dying musician Welton squats in the hide-out of gay novelist Aaron
Underjohn, who came down “here” to chronicle what’s happening, and then the two
of them speechify at each other while they wait for the huge, beefy “Collector”
to show up and collect the bodies of dead children that he forces “Draggers”
and “Sackers” to kill, collect, and gather. (Again, everyone is too busy
wallowing in their own misery to make any plans, or even try to get away.
Besides, nihilism is terribly avant-garde,
Meanwhile, on the other set, minor actress Exley – also slumming
in this part of town, like Aaron, and wearing a ridiculously inappropriate
minidress for the purpose – has chased street urchin Horlick to his hide-out
behind a giant stopped clock, and is getting back the melons he stole from her.
The part of large threatening manifestation of chaos in these scenes – the equivalent
of the silent Collector in the Aaron/Welton scenes – is played by Dennis,
Horlick’s nasty older brother, who is unfortunately talkative. Exley is the
healthy outsider to Horlick’s diseased, scabby, lower-class, dying local,
precisely as Aaron is to Welton, and Rapp makes sure we notice all of his carefully
Characters cross between the two sets briefly, and even have
some very brief excursions elsewhere, but mostly stay to their own sides of the
stage. There have been chamber dramas in comics before, but very rarely has
there been so much going on outside while a few characters talk about life to
each other inside. Only at the very end, in the last half-dozen pages or so,
does Ball Peen Hammer finally leap
beyond being storyboards for a play and actually take strong advantage of the
comics form. But, by that point, it’s far too late.
Rapp writes strong dialogue – one would hope he would, and
he does – but he’s chosen a form here that doesn’t serve his purposes well at
all. Ball Peen Hammer wouldn’t be a bad
play (for a nihilistic and depressing bit of contemporary wrist-slashing), but
it’s a very dull and stagy graphic novel, and Rapp’s story gives O’Connor very
little scope to use the tools of comics to tell this story well.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for
nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science
Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been
reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal,
mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to
be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or
email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.