Silver Age comics artist Wally Wood famously developed a 24-panel guide for himself and fellow artists subtitled: “some interesting ways to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page!” But even with Wood’s “Panels That Always Work!!“, Adam Rapp and George O’Connor‘s graphic novel Ball Peen Hammer shouldn’t work, because Rapp never meant it to be a graphic novel. He wrote it to be performed on stage as a play (which, to my knowledge, was never produced) —a form that is pretty much the definition of a bunch of characters sitting around and talking for page after page.
Rapp’s characters include a guitarist, a writer, an actress, a street kid, and a nameless giant of a man who represents the new power structure that allows a handful of plague survivors to continue to survive but at a horrific moral cost. Though even legendary playwright Tennessee Williams wrote a post-apocalyptic play, the genre is not a standard on most stages. But future worlds are a familiar subject for graphic fiction—though most aren’t as bleak as Rapp’s. In addition to sitting around and talking, his characters have to kill and bag children to earn their keep.
Theater differs radically from comics. Aside from relying primarily on text rather than image, theater doesn’t shape space in the same ways. While spotlights can direct attention to areas, the stage as a whole remains constant. The most literal comics adaption of any play would be a sequence of full-page panels that allow the reader’s eye to wander in identically framed iterations of the same space page after page after page. But that would be both impractical and boring, since action tends to occur in one select area at a time, leaving the rest of a set unused but still visible. O’Connor offers only one nearly full page-panel of what is essentially a set design at the opening, before reverting to tightly framed segments of the same space.
Theater and comics both allow more freedom than film, where the viewer’s eye is always curtailed by a constant frame and its constantly changing content. Some comics writers work in a lose script form that resembles a screenplay because it provides dialogue and image descriptions but not page-by-page and panel-by-panel breakdowns. Silver Age artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko developed all their own breakdowns and much of their own story content while following Stan Lee’s so-called “Marvel Method“. Wood tried the approach too, but left Marvel because it required him to write without compensating him as a paid and credited co-writer. Based on Ball Peen Hammer, O’Connor would have fared better at Marvel.
Rather than rewriting his play into a comics script, Rapp presented it unaltered to O’Conner, allowing the artist to make all of the adaption choices. So it’s O’Connor who decided on the number of panels per page (usually between seven and nine, though five and eleven aren’t unusual) and the number of rows (a near constant three, with a rare two or four), as well as panel shapes (always rectangular) and sizes (grids tend to be uneven and full-widths rare) and the constant white and never broken gutters.
These are all common choices, but O’Connor was also free to insert panel content. They occur most often as cutaway exteriors to smooth scene changes, as well as introductory images of barking dogs, fleeing figures, and rifle-wielding guards on barb-wired roofs interspersed with the early interior action. Presumably the four-page outdoor action sequence of the actress kicking and escaping attack dogs was only verbally implied in the play. O’Connor also inserts 24 flashback panels to depict the content of the musician’s recollection of having sex with the actress years earlier. Since the two would never appear on stage simultaneously, their shared panels both depict their younger, still healthy selves and realize the story’s only positive moment of unqualified human connection.
O’Connor also decides the appearance of characters. Rapp’s stage direction likely included age requirements for casting actors as well as general elements for costume design, but O’Connor’s freedom is far greater as his version of the characters vacillate between naturalism and cartoon. While the three adult main characters are roughly realistic—down to widow’s peak and plague-ravaged skin—the kid’s head is disproportionately large in a style typical of many cartoons. But the giant man’s proportions are more extreme, requiring even a suspension of physical laws. Aside from possessing shoulders nearly equal to his height, O’Connor draw him passing through a significantly smaller sewer hole. Or rather, O’Connor first draws his head poking through the opening, and then his body to his waist having emerged, leaving the impossible transition in the gutter.
The effect, while a norm of cartoon worlds, establishes a different baseline reality than the play Ball Peen Hammer. A live staging of the same script would likely be far darker in tone, the realism unavoidable and unmitigated by O’Connor’s playful stylistic variations. In a story that includes the murdered bodies of children rotting inside stacked burlap bags as characters sit around and talk and talk and talk, the difference is significant. In the graphic novel, all of this is far less real. Even when the actress, after nursing the kid for much of the story, kills him with a blow to the back of the head, O’Connor substitutes the moment of impact with a metaphorically red panel and then crops the kid’s head out of frame in the next panel. A director might find other means to lessen the violence in a stage performance, but only O’Connor can control where and when our eyes must and must not look.