The Five Fists of Science
Writer – Matt Fraction
Art – Steven Sanders
One of the most endearing bromances in history was that between comedic charlatan and writer Mark Twain and quirk-prone inventor Nikola Tesla. One was born under Haley’s comet; the other a lightning storm. Both were destined to be great friends. Neither Twain nor Tesla are depicted often in comics, even less so together. That’s why when I heard about The Five Fists of Science (2006), a steampunk graphic novel starring the two monumental men, I had to purchase the book immediately and find the nearest, quietest alcove. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for long, as the book clocks out at 116 pages.
The Five Fists revolves around the duo’s endeavors to sell world peace, which is great, because it almost happened. The real-life Mark Twain wrote about peace by compulsion, and in a telegram to Tesla expressed interest in gathering “the great inventors to contrive something against which fleets and armies would be helpless, and thus make war thenceforth impossible.” Naturally, Twain wanted to sell that war-ending “destructive force” for a bundle of profits, but he was ambiguous as to what exactly the invention would be (Hunt).
That uncertainty is creatively exploited by another sharp-witted duo, that of Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders. In The Five Fists, Twain and Tesla’s answer to world peace is an enormous automaton. Facing an escalating arms race at the turn of the century, the two eccentrics hope to replace human soldiers with machines, greatly reducing the loss of life during war. Meanwhile, a cabal of capitalists including Thomas Edison and J. P. Morgan prepare something sinister in the flagrantly-named Innsmouth Tower.
Fraction pleasurably reproduces the historical pair, and it’s tremendous fun to watch Twain’s hyperbolic gesticulations and Tesla’s reticent yet odd habits, especially in riposte to dark summoning circles, mecha battles, political intrigue and end-of-the-world scenarios. Sanders, as obsessive as Tesla himself, integrates highly detailed focus with lavishly dark illustrations. True to the time period, the acknowledgments, introductions, and customary end-of-the-book concept sketches replicate the yellow, brittle parchment and the vintage typeface of 19th-century print. All together, it’s very nostalgic and masterful.
It’s hard not to love this graphic novel, so understand my hardship when I say that I did not love it. I liked it. Perhaps I was enamored by it before critical thinking kicked in. After all, the protagonists are meaty and compelling and the artwork superb. My problem was the magic. Or, more specifically, how magic was handled.
When I began The Five Fists, I had a notion that the book would be akin to Otomo’s Steamboy (2004) in that it would be set in an alternate history with an accelerated 19th-century industrial revolution. When Nikola Tesla was shown to have invented an enormous robot controlled by motion-capture, I assumed historical rival Thomas Edison would create his own alternate automaton (perhaps ripped from Tesla’s ideas). This would lead to the mass-production of the automatons, initiating an early Great War.
Unfortunately, the story forgets the ambitions of its protagonists, diverting their attentions to stop an epic summoning ritual in an obvious homage to Ghostbusters (1984). Afterwards, the book never returns to Twain or Tesla’s motives for world peace, and we can only assume they failed. Furthermore, the actions of J.P. Morgan and his villainous cohorts are impressive but never really given purpose. Why are they unleashing monstrous horrors? Why’re they dabbling in ‘infernal frequencies?’ Their ambitions are never fully explained.
I believe that Twain and Tesla rushing to stop a steampunk mecha war would have made for a more interesting storyline than J.P Morgan summoning eldritch abominations in New York City. And it’s a plot more in line to the first act’s set-up. Why have magic at all? The only possible reason I can think of is to allow for an awesome fistfight between Tesla and the Abominable Snowman.
Overall, the addition of magic changed the book’s inquiry from “what if” to “what the hell?” I believe if Fraction and Sanders had pursued a magicless story, or given magic a better purpose, The Five Fists would have been a far more successful read. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to see more of The Five Fists in a sequential form, such as as a webcomic series like Genius Girl. I would love to see other historical figures re-imagined as villains within this context. What if Henry Ford began mass-producing automatons for an early world war? What if Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels launched a parasitic collectivist crusade against automaton oppressors? In a series format, exploring other facets of the world through Twain and Tesla’s vigilantism would be fantastic. But as a standalone, with the plot as is, The Five Fists fizzles.
One parting thought (and I found this immensely amusing). The very sexy love interest Baronness Von Suttner? This is what she looked like in 1906, in a picture taken seven years after the events of The Five Fists:
Hunt, Samantha. The Invention of Everything Else. Boston: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.