I am the type of person who cannot resist the implications of the above phrase, like when I see my favorite beer being sold at half-price. Speculating about alternate history usually falls into two categories: the realistic kind, like Harry Turtledove’s efforts to write a reasonably thought-out prediction of what the Confederate States of America would look like if they’d survived into the 20th century, and the fun kind, where we just kind of take a historical event or person and play around with it, no matter how crazy it gets.
Five Fists of Science falls into the second category
FFS is the brainchild of writer Matt Fraction and artist Steven Sanders. It takes a simple question, “What if Mark Twain, Bertha von Suttner and Nikola Tesla tried to save the world?” and creates a fascinating and funny spectacle that makes you really wish it were true (Though Twain and Tesla were friends in reality, which is already pretty cool).
The story goes something like this: Twain, while scoffing at the half-hearted attempts of the major world powers to end war, decides to take matters into his own hands by collaborating with his old friend Tesla, and his assistant Tim, in making a special weapon that could make battle so destructive a prospect that nobody would ever want to make war again. It might be a little psychotic of the three when you think about the Cold War's own experiments with that idea, but Andrew Carnegie, Gugliermo Marconi, Thomas Edison and JP Morgan have even worse plans that involve eliminating Twain and Tesla, so it’s probably not all that bad. Bertha von Suttner is unwittingly caught up in it all, and wacky hijinks ensue.
You'll notice right off the bat that despite the seemingly heavy subject matter, the tone is actually quite humorous. Twain is written as a hotheaded, boisterous-type, always wanting to get things done quick and get in the thick of things. There is almost never a moment when he isn’t yelling. Tesla, of course, is the polar opposite, calm and calculating, terribly awkward at public speaking and full of hang-ups and neuroses. Suttner is the down-to-earth middle ground, always kind of dismissed by the other two but nevertheless still more reasonable and realistic than either of the two men. But she can be plenty brash if in the right mood. Tesla’s assistant Tim is a fictional character with a prosthetic hand built by Tesla, and he acts as a guide for the reader, giving us vital information about characters and objects so that we might better understand the world Fraction has concocted, as well as helping us understand some of the period jokes.
The best part about these characters is not just their interactions or traits, but how they’ve been modified for the world Sanders builds. Tesla is the perfect proto-Batman, with his advanced technology giving him lightning guns and his hair phobia providing a weird kind of weakness. Twain is pretty much Twain, but the way he acts in extraordinary situations makes him an enjoyable character as he tries to take the abnormal and wring some normal out of it. Suttner is someone I’ve never studied, so I wouldn’t know exactly how to compare the real and fictional versions.
Edison, Morgan, Marconi and Carnegie are written as classic villain types who are primarily defined by their motives and bitter sentiments. This is not to say that they lack the humor present in the rest of the book. Marconi is actually pretty funny; they’ve written the ‘inventor’ of the radio (Tesla famously quipped that Marconi was using a ton of his patents when he made it) as a compulsive eater, so even in desperate moments he’s scarfing down cookies, an action at odds with the high stakes. Carnegie went through the most radical character changes. In real life he wrote a book about how it was the duty of the rich to selflessly help the poor, but here his alliance with Morgan is all about money and power—though to be honest he doesn’t talk much anyway.
The art style is realistic but is still simple enough, particularly with faces, to help create a lighthearted style and atmosphere. Facial details get cranked up in clarity during frequent close-ups, and it really helps during the action scenes. The aesthetic is pure 1900s, and with the technology on display it would be easy to write this off as steampunk. Don’t let all the brass coloring fool you though; those aren’t brass pipes, they’re copper. There’s no steam in them, but there are electromagnets. The valves have been replaced with switchboards.
The palette jumps all over the color wheel to provide very solid, bright hues. Shadowing and darkness are very prominent as well, but even in the dark and suspenseful action of the second half of the novel, comedy shines through. Everything here reflects the later stages of the Industrial Revolution, when coal was still big but gasoline and electricity were starting to change society in big ways. Night is incredibly dark and streetlights pierce it like mini-suns. It’s dramatic and it gives a neat style that I don’t see too often.
My only real criticism is that thee scenes, especially the action scenes, can be occasionally confusing. I had to read through some pages a couple of times just to figure out exactly what was going on since some of the transitions can be jarring and abrupt. You can usually tell who’s speaking to whom, but sometimes it’s up to you to decide who owns which speech bubbles. These flaws are noticeably distracting, but it’s not an epidemic. Still, it can throw you off, so be prepared.
This graphic novel, unfortunately, is the only volume. I would probably pump my fist in the air for a straight month if Fraction and Sanders made more stories based on this concept, especially since they left room at the end for a sequel. Still, I haven’t heard any word about future plans for it, so I may have to get some friends together and start a hunger strike until they make more.
Just kidding, I’m not mean enough to starve my friends against their will.
TL;DR: Despite some minor structural problems, this graphic novel is highly enjoyable and amusing. You might not be howling with laughter all the time but you will be grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Five Fists of Science is a graphic novel written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Steven Sanders, published under Image Comics in 2006. Pick it up at your local comic book store or visit Amazon.